At this writing, temperatures have already exceeded the normal highs for late spring or early summer, and precipitation amounts in the high country have been disappointing. Gardeners concerned about preserving their love of gardening and lowering their water bills may want to consider the wide variety of native plants now available.
Plants are arriving each week to garden centers and nurseries, but the buyer must discern which are un-thirsty, and which are water hogs. Some garden centers are beginning to group low water use plants together, with descriptive signage, but the better educated a shopper is, the greater the chance of success he will have in finding appropriate plants. Native plants often appear scrawny and unattractive in nursery pots, but flush out beautifully after planting and becoming established.
Choosing the right plant is only the beginning, as even the un-thirstiest plant must become established before it can be truly drought tolerant. In order to resist drought, a plant must have a fully developed root system, because plants resist drought by going dormant, dropping their leaves, and waiting for rain by living on the moisture and nutrients stored in their roots.
For some high desert trees, this process, to prepare for drought, can take as much as five years, although shallow rooted shrubs or flowering perennials can take much less time. Planting at the base of a mound of boulders, or heavily mulching the area around the plant will also help speed the process. Other factors that affect the amount of water a plant requires are soil conditions and climate.
Plants in windy areas or hot, western exposures, planted against walls, will require more moisture than those in shady, protected locations. Sandy, shallow, coarse soils drain quickly and require more frequent watering than loam or clay soils. Bringing a plant home that has spent the past year or so getting watered daily in a plastic pot will require gentle treatment to establish to the point that it can resist harsh Southwest climate conditions without help.
Low water-use perennials to be planted now include the large family of native penstemon. Some well adapted varieties are: coloradensis, Colorado Narrowleaf Beardtongue, which sports blue-gray leaves and lavender-blue flowers in late spring; strictus, Rocky Mountain Beardtongue, long lived with blue-purple flowers; barbatus, which sports tall spikes of pink flowers in summer; pseudospectabilis, Desert Beardtongue, deep, dark pink flowers that will bloom for several months with a deep soaking now and then in the heat of summer; palmeri, Pink Wild Snapdragon which has gray foliage and huge spikes of pink billowy flowers. Palmeri will not tolerate tight, clay soils and is the most xeric of all the varieties listed here. Finally, the little pinifolius, Pineleaf Pentsemon, a native of Southern Arizona, which blooms with orange tubular flowers in mid-summer. All of these penstemon varieties prefer full sun, but will tolerate a little shade. They attract hummingbirds, and are not eaten by rabbits.
Native shrubs available now include Cliffrose, Apache Plume, Potentilla, Chamisa, Rhus trilobata, turpentine bush and several varieties of Agave and Yucca. Small trees, such as desert willow, Arizona ash, New Mexico privet, mountain mahogany and Arizona cypress can also be planted now. Make sure when looking at plants that the variety being chosen is the most drought tolerant offered. Loosen the root ball, dig a hole twice as wide but only slightly deeper than the soil in the pot, make a mound of soil in the bottom and gently spread the roots over it. Fill the hole with native soil, adding no more than 25 percent compost, and water deeply, adding more soil if necessary. Take care not to allow soil to come up the stem or trunk any more deeply than it was in the pot. For first hand experience using these techniques, the public is invited to attend the Spring Maintenance and Planting Workshop on April 3. (see sidebar)
The High Country Xeriscape Council of Arizona meets on the first Monday of each month in room 101 at GCCC. Anyone interested in helping to educate the community in the principles of water-wise gardening is invited to participate. Call (928) 474-0373 for additional information.
What: "Hands On" Spring Maintenance and Planting
Where: GCCC Demonstration Garden
When: 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, April 3
Supplies: Bring gloves, hand-tools and buckets.
Call (928) 474-5354 for additional information.