A fellow hiker asked me how to keep flowering plants from dying in our hot, dry climate. He also protested the high cost of water to keep them lush.
After he answered a few questions, we determined he wants plants that grow on their own, with little water or help from him. Going native, with plants that like to grow in our summer heat, winter cold and alkaline soils, can simplify our landscape gardening tasks.
We often hear "nothing grows in the desert." However, our area of the world is lush with variety. It was difficult for me to choose just four native plants for this article, with nary a sticker in the bunch.
Rhus trilobata is a lush green arching shrub that defies the sticker-bush vision of desert plants. The plant belongs to the sumac family; however, it is not related to the poisonous varieties. Its common name came from both the red seed casings used by natives and pioneers to make a lemonade-type beverage, and from its wand-like arching stems used for basketry.
Quail and other birds find sanctuary within its branches, as well as food from the ripe berries. With irrigation, this bush will grow quickly to 5-by-5 feet. A 20-year-old bush near an irrigated tree in my yard is 10 feet in diameter and just as tall.
Penstemon eatonia will be well worth the wait. This one is red, hence its common name. Penstemons in general are two-year plants. They sprout and develop roots and a small rosette of leaves the first summer. The next year they literally spring into action. The base leaves grow large quickly, and multiple flower spikes shoot up to 2 or 3 feet. If you remove flowers as they fade, the plant will keep blooming for a month or two. Later in the summer, allow a few spikes to develop for reseeding and growing before cold weather. Hummingbirds are attracted to these flowers.
Psilostrophea cooperi is a perennial, rounded, 1-foot-high herb with conspicuous yellow flowers. It blooms from mid-March until the first autumn frost. Each flower fades to a straw yellow and turns papery, persisting for weeks, as additional flowers bloom. Unless you choose to do so, this is one plant that does not need deadheading.
Melampodium leucanthum is another perennial with an astonishing non-desert looking flower, reminiscent of English cottage gardens. Even though it is a small plant, it is a determined bloomer, flowering from early spring through September. Its white flowers contrast well against anything green, colored flowers, or even just the desert rocks.
To be acceptable landscape plants once these four plants are established, you will want to irrigate them twice a month during the hotter months. Then water once a month in March, April and mid November, and once in December or January if your area doesn't receive an inch or more of winter rains.
Placing the plants in climate conditions to which they are adapted makes sense. Our native plants have proven they like living here. That said, even native plants appreciate prepared soils. Do not add fertilizers or heavy composts, as these natives expect a nutrient-poor but high-mineral soil. Just what our desert has underground.
Basically, you should loosen a 4-foot planting area with a spading fork down about a foot. If your yard has a heavy caliche layer, dig or drill a "chimney" down through it to allow water drainage. You can also rake soil sulfur onto the caliche layer to help break it down.
Using a gravel mulch, similar to the native desert, will encourage reseeding of these desert flora for next summer's blossoms. Hint: The seeds fall between the small rocks where the chipmunks and birds cannot find all of them. However, if you use a landscape cloth beneath the gravel, you will need to do Mother Nature's job by gathering and planting the seeds.
Do not expect a wildflower garden to be neat and precise. These plants grow and bloom best where nature plants them. Some gardeners call them weeds and quickly pluck them out; others leave them alone and are rewarded with their somewhat wild drift and intermingling.