The Right Plans For Arid Climates



Record high temperatures and the Webber Fire, coupled with the worst allergy season in history, make gardeners wonder whether it is time to find another hobby.

Since man started standing upright on two feet, however, he has cultivated plants for his use, and there's no sign that will stop anytime soon.


Carole Snyder pauses while spring weeding a bed of naturalized iris, "Autumn Joy" sedum, and native yucca.

The challenge in the high country is to find plants that require little water, will not burn, and that can withstand high temperatures in summer, and cold winter nights.

There are places in the world where these conditions prevail under normal circumstances and plants do actually flourish there. The challenge is to find those plants, acquire them, and adapt them to meet the needs of the home landscape.

Each continent has areas of high elevation, limited rainfall, drying winds and wide swings in temperature between the day and night, and from season to season.

Introduction to the world of hardy succulents may meet the challenge for many gardeners. A succulent is a plant that has developed an efficient moisture storage system over time.

Many succulents originated in warm climates, but there are a few groups of these plants that sport many members from the Alps, high deserts and plains around the globe. In each group there are many species available commercially, some easily obtained, others requiring a hunt. Sedum, sempervivum and yucca, are distinctly different types of plants, but all will thrive in hot sun and dry conditions, and will even bloom at some stage in their life.

Carole and Alan Snyder have a hilly property with lots of rocks. They have been stabilizing the hillside with rock terracing, and incorporating cultivated planting beds with the native plants already established on their property. Their fast draining soils lend themselves well to succulents, and Carole has begun experimenting with some members of the sedum family.

Sedum, also known as stonecrop, is a huge family of plants with a wide variety of shapes and sizes. All have fleshy leaves and bloom sometime each year between late spring and early autumn. One of the longest lived and most showy species of sedum is "Autumn Joy." It can grow to 15 inches high, and has a deep peach to red umbel of blooms in the early autumn. The bloom stalk will darken, but remain on the plant all winter, and as it dries, little birds will sometimes eat the seeds. Other types of sedum available include fast-growing ground covers which bloom with little yellow stalks off and on all summer, and little miniature varieties from Japan with pink, ball-shaped blossoms.

Sempervivum or houseleek, includes a large family of "hens and chicks." They originated in the mountains of Turkey and Northern Europe. Semps form large clusters of rosettes, the mother plant sending off stolons of "chicks" that will root themselves, or can be removed and propagated in another spot. The colors of the plant, though basically green, will have stripes of burgundy, rust or yellow, and some are covered with fine hairs, resembling cobwebs. After about three years the mother plant will send up a bloom stalk, a stem about 10 inches long with exotic, bell-shaped flowers in a variety of colors ranging from white to yellow to pink.

There are many types of yucca available here that also occur naturally in the piñon-juniper life zone. Yucca plants store water in huge, tuberous, fleshy roots, which have long been used by Native Americans for fiber, food, medicine and soap. Yucca baccata, or banana yucca, has large fruits which resemble bananas after it has bloomed, and soap-weed yucca, or Yucca glauca, sends up tall stems of creamy white flowers each summer. Many others are available at garden centers.

Garden tasks for April include:

Prune: As soon as buds begin to swell on roses and leaves appear on clematis, prune for spring growth. Remove protective wraps on young trees, and prune off any die back.

Feed: Blood meal will add needed nutrients to perennial plants and also discourage invasion by neighborhood cats and rabbits.

Repair: Check drip-systems. Replace misters and sprinklers with drip emitters or lengths of laser-drilled soaker. Install a rain gauge and buy a moisture meter. When using a drip system, watering for a long period less frequently is far more cost efficient and better for the plants than watering frequently for just a few minutes. When rainfall occurs, turn off the drip system, if it is on an automatic clock. Check the amount of precipitation with the rain gauge. Check soil moisture with the moisture meter and do not water until the top three inches of soil is dry. Three to four inches of mulch will drastically reduce the amount of moisture lost by the soil after deep, slow watering sessions.

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