Although spring and summer seem a long way off in early January, garden planning is a good way to spend cold winter evenings. Many of our native perennials need cold stratification before they will grow and produce their beautiful blooms, so now is the time to plan ahead.
Penstemons, showy perennials that are members of the snapdragon family, do very well in this climate zone.
Colors range in this tough group of plants from white to yellow to orange, pink, red, blue and purple.
Some plants are so small they barely peek out from under a boulder in a rock garden while other varieties can reach 6 feet in height.
Most of the native varieties are attractive to hummingbirds, are not eaten by deer and rabbits, and require little or no water.
There are hundreds of species of penstemon, so it's important to choose varieties that will tolerate our hot dry summers and fickle winter weather.
The name derives from the Latin meaning five stamens, a good way to identify penstemons in the wild. Most plants have tubular flowers with three lobes, and are commonly referred to as beardtongue.
They thrive in gravelly soils and will reseed readily once established. Although not particularly long lived, penstemons will grow for three to five years and die, but in the meantime have left plenty of plants to replace themselves.
For possible bloom this summer, buy penstemon seed now, and plant in pots out-of-doors. This will allow enough exposure to cold, and heaping snow on the pots will keep soil moist.
When plants have two sets of true leaves, they can carefully be planted into the garden. In nature, penstemons use rocks as shelter from sun, as a moisture source and a place to run roots underneath for cooling.
Sources for seeds to plant are our local nurseries; The Chulo Canyon Seed Company (P.O. Box 27, Bisbee, AZ 85603, (928) 432-4345, e-mail: chulo@theriver. com; High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, (www.highcountrygardens.com) and Plants of the Southwest, (www.plantsofthesouthwest.com).
There are dozens of penstemon varieties that are native to this area and will do very well in the low water use garden. A few that are readily available commercially are: P. barbatus Scarlet Bugler, usually red to orange; P. palmeri Wild Pink Snapdragon; P. pinifolius Pine leaf Penstemon, colors from yellow to red; and P. strictus, Rocky Mountain Penstemon, blue.
If searching for seed and planting now seems like too much trouble, watch for gallon size plants available in April, or by mail order about the same time. The key to successful gardening with these native, low-water-use plants is to buy the right varieties, so diligence is the byword.
Garden Chores for January
MULCH: Mix some manure with straw or oak leaves and pine needles or wood chips and spread around the base of trees, shrubs and perennials. Winter rain and snow will break down these materials and feed the soil, while the bulk will protect roots from freezing and will hold in moisture.
WATER: Keep a garden journal and when Mother Nature has not given us rain or snow for 3 weeks, start checking soil moisture. When top three or four inches of soil are dry, use a soaker hose at mid-day to water trees and shrubs. Buy a moisture meter and rain gauge to gain accuracy as to how much water you really need to use.
PLANT: Bare root roses. Look for old-fashioned varieties and natives. Place near downspouts for maximum benefit from rainfall, or plant in pots near the house for water control.
Visit a nursery and look at low water use plants with good ‘bones' to provide winter interest. If now is not the time to plant those selected, enter their names in a garden journal, for later reference.
Barb Bourscheidt is a longtime resident of Payson, a member of the Rim Area Gardeners and a participant in the Gila County Master Gardener program. She serves on the board of directors of the High Country Xeriscape Council of Arizona, and she researches and writes articles on the subject of water conservation through creative landscaping and climate-appropriate gardening techniques.