Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Darwinian Gardening

I LOVE to garden. Well, let me qualify that. I love my vegetable garden. As far as the ornamental stuff goes... well... let's just say that I prefer to pretend I don't have a front yard.

It's not that I don't appreciate a beautiful yard or flower garden when I see one, it's just that it's hard for me to get invested enough to spend the kind of time and energy necessary when there's really nothing in it for me. OK, OK... not NOTHING... it does make the neighbors happy, and keeps the city from sending me weed notices - this has never actually happened, but there have been times that I've worried that it might. Plus I suppose it does do something for the "value of the property".

But somehow all of that just pales in comparison to the big F... you know, food!

Anyhow, over the years I have developed a few strategies for dealing with my front yard. In truth, the whole idea of me offering advice on yard care is somewhat laughable, but when has that sort of thing ever stopped me before?

My basic principle, when it comes to taking care of the yard is that I want to do as little work as possible. I also refuse to use chemical pesticides, weed killers or fertilizers. I have an electric mower which I resort to when things get really bad, but in general I vastly prefer my hand push reel mower... it is just SO. MUCH. EASIER. I refuse to install a sprinkler system, and in general I HATE hauling the sprinkler around.

So, given all of the above, and the fact that Denver is not a place where enough water falls from the sky to cultivate anything that might be called a lawn without the assistance of regular watering, my strategy has been to slowly replace chunks of grass with areas of xeriscape or low water garden.

Even so, I've managed to kill off a fair number of low water plants because alas, they are only "low water," not "no water!" But... there are a few survivors, and this is where the Darwinian part comes in - if it lives, I plant more! 

And I generally don't go out and buy more of the same plants, I just dig up a bit of the thriving plant and move it around.

So the current winners are...

Sweet Alyssum (or maybe it's Candytuft?)
See discussion in comments below... maybe some of you have better plant identification skills than I do!
This stuff blooms beautifully in the spring and is hardy enough to thrive in our hot dry summers. It is a low sprawling ground cover with woody branches... here are a few more photos:

Alyssum? Candytuft? Something else? Any thoughts are welcome!

These poor little guys are getting totally swamped by the alyssum so I need to do some work there. I'll probably dig out some of the alyssum and spread it around a bit and also move a few chunks of lavender to other spots in the garden. This is a nice one because it has color throughout the hottest part of the summer.

Hens & chicks
The quintessential drought tolerant succulent. These guys fill in quite nicely and do well with almost no water.

Purple Iris
These actually need to be thinned - it amazes me that something is thriving enough to require thinning in my yard. Got them from a friend when she was thinning hers and they add such a beautiful splash of purple in the springtime.

I have these in both red and pink varieties. They're a perennial, but they also spread via seeds, so if you help them along a bit by spreading the seeds they fill in nicely.

Sedum Angelina
This isn't the best sedum I've found, meaning that it takes a while to establish and doesn't fill in readily, but it's pretty and adds some nice color. Plus I haven't killed it yet!

Marigolds are an annual, but they re-seed nicely each year, and if you harvest some seeds in the fall and spread them around in the spring they seem to do quite well.

Creeping Phlox
These guys have little spiney evergreen like branches with pretty flowers in the springtime. They've survived over 10 years, which is sort of a miracle, but they don't really spread as much as I would like. I think the name is a tad bit optimistic.

And last but most certainly not least...

Silver Stone Sedum! 
All I have to say is this stuff totally rocks! A few sprigs of it arrived with the iris that I got from my friend and with a bit of help from me, it's now spread throughout the garden. It requires almost no water, and if you break off a sprig, you just stick it in the ground and it roots & takes off. Woo Hoo!!!!

Anyhow, that's about it for the quick tour of my Darwinian garden. Got any other suggestions for plants that need scant water and are hard to kill? 


  1. These are good things to know, in case I ever have a lawn I can ignore. NO MORE LAWN MOWERS!

    1. I think you've got a significant advantage in the lawn (or lack thereof) department!

  2. Replies
    1. Your multiple personalities are confusing me...

  3. We have vegie patch out the front and back, I'm very proud of my corn and sunflowers and like to show them off, plus theres more sun out the front. Nod my head to most of your tough plants. Lots of different varieties of succulents you could add and I love self seeding love in the mist and honesty. Australian correas are also awesome. Oh and petunias are very reliable for hanging on through the toughest of summers.

    1. Wow... I'm thinking that flowers must differ a great deal in various parts of the world. I've never heard of anything you mentioned except petunias... and they require WAY too much water to survive in my yard.

      I'd love to find more succulents that would work. I've tried a bunch and managed to kill them all... especially ice plant. It's so pretty and it's supposed to be drought tolerant, but I've tried and failed 6 times so I've officially given up on that one!

    2. Totally. Even what to do varies greatly. Like all those gardening books from the north that say to play your trees and other perennials in the spring so they can have time to get established before the tough winter? That's very bad advice in the south (of the northern hemisphere) where you should plant these in the fall so they can get established before the hellish summer.

  4. I will have to try some of these plants! I must admit I have tended to concentrate on edibles but have educated myself about the benefits of flowers for the bees and the life cycle that is nourished by having more bees around.

    1. I can't say if any of them will work in your neck of the woods, but they sure thrive here in the high desert! We're finally seeing some honey bees returning to our area... for years it was only wasps and hornets. It's a very welcome change!

  5. I love flowers, and I don't spend a whole lot more time on them other than planting them. I generally only water them when they are first getting established. My coneflowers are one of the few things still blooming around these parts. I have some typical pink/purple ones and some white. They are perennial and spread too (thanks birds!) I have some rudbeckia that come back each year, and they're so pretty, but they usually shrivel up by the end of June.

    I love, love lavender. I cut and dry a decent bit each year.

    Sounds like you have better luck with dianthus than I do. Mine hasn't spread much and it dries out pretty easily.

    1. Coneflower is an interesting idea... blackeyed susans grow pretty well around here, though most are irrigated. I looked it up and while Columbus averages 38 inches of rain per year, we only get around 15. Still, it's worth a shot, maybe there are some varieties that need less water than others.

      And I should clarify about the dianthus... it's spread a little... mostly it's just remarkable that I haven't killed it off and it's been 5 years!

  6. Alyssum is an annual, so yours must be self-seeding.

    Lavander is edible, both flowers and leaves. Herbs de Provence is an herb blend very popular in French cooking. You can infuse the freshly opened flowers in white vinegar and then use the scented vinegar for cleaning.

    If lavender grows well then other Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and sage should also. Water while the plants are establishing themselves, then let them grow on their own.

    There are bulbs from South Africa that are summer dormant, and want it dry at that time of year. Start growing with autumn rain, flower, green in winter, go dormant when it gets hot & dry.

    Happy gardening.

    1. Hmmm... well now I'm starting to wonder if those little white flowers aren't alyssum after all, because these are most definitely a perennial. I wonder what it could be?

      Mediterranean herbs are a very interesting idea... I'll have to look into it and see if any can tolerate this climate. I'm skeptical about South African bulbs though. I've managed to kill off most of the tulips and daffodils because we just haven't had enough moisture. The grape hyacinth has survived though. I wonder if they'd survive our harsh winters.

    2. I've read that technically white alyssum is a perennial but is looked upon as an annual in colder areas because it can't survive the weather. Maybe yours has the right conditions to come back every year. (Yellow alyssum is considered a perennial and it survives cold winters.) I see so many familiar flowers in your list here; they are the ones I tend to plant and I'm a maritime Canadian, with cold winters and hot summers.

    3. Well... I'm not sure. Now I'm wondering if maybe it's white candytuft. It's low to the ground, maybe 8-12 inches max. It has woody branches. It gets really cold in the winter here (like 20 below zero Fahrenheit) so I really doubt that it's wintering over if it's generally an annual - but maybe...

      But here's my confusion. I've got some purple stuff in the back yard that I always thought was candytuft and it's totally different, though the flowers look sorta similar. The purple stuff that I thought was candytuft is about 2 feet tall with long shoots that each get one tuft at the top, and this stuff is more of a sprawling ground cover. I'm gonna post some more pictures of it and maybe it will help sort out the mystery...

  7. Well, I have absolutely no gardening tidbits to offer. In fact, we are in the process of getting our dirt pit flat so we can put in a gigantic lawn in order to attract buyers. So not what I was planning on doing with the space.

    I'm really just commenting because I felt the need to share that I am not a lawn ornament person, but I totally want a zombie gnome in my yard now.

    1. Ha! I wish the zombie gnome was mine... I only found him on the interwebs. You probably guessed that because that grass is WAY greener than anything I've ever grown!

      Have you read the Harry Potter books? CatMan and I read them all in Spanish and there's this part where they were talking about the garden and using a verb that looked like "desnomizar." We looked through dictionary after dictionary trying to find any Spanish verb that was even close. Finally we got an English copy of the book and discovered that they were "de-gnoming" the garden, because in Harry Potter land the garden gnomes are living creatures that invade your landscaping! We had a good laugh over that one!

  8. I love flowers and gardens (and have been involved in growing vegetables both in small patches and acres worth), so it was interesting to hear about what does well where you are. Many of those plants are spring only plants that don't last through the summers here in the mid-Atlantic. We have about three times the amount of rain that you do, but it seems to come in spurts--no rain for a couple of weeks and then too much. I do not water and it is survival of the fittest, also.

    Can't really advise on plants for your area, but I will say that the coneflowers, blanket flowers, and autumn joy sedum are known for tolerating hot, dry summers here. I have had good luck with all of them.

    1. Very interesting. The phlox, iris and alyssum/candytuft were done blooming months ago. The silver stone sends up tall yellow shoots which have just died off in the past week or two, but the dianthus still has a bit of color and the marigolds are just starting to bloom.

      I actually have a tiny bit of autumn joy out there. It hasn't spread much, but I haven't killed it either! I think I'm gonna have to try some coneflowers and/or blanket flowers. I had some shasta daisies, but the creeping bellflowers overtook them and alas, they died. Made me sad because they were planted over the grave of one of my cats whose name was Daisy.

  9. It's a candytuft not allysum and it's very pretty ours usually only blooms in the spring.
    Have you tried prickly pear cactus it loooves hot dry conditions and has beautiful yellow blossoms and then you can eat the fruit.
    I live near Detroit(only in Canada)and it grows like a weed here.

    1. Hi Marie! Thanks so much for the plant ID help! Those photos were taken in the spring, it's long past the blooming stage. I guess I didn't make that clear in my description... when I said it makes it through the summer I just meant that the plant stays alive (which is sorta miraculous for me.)

      I have shied away from cactus in general, although they do great here. I had a terrible experience as a kid when my best friend's dog got into some, and the poor little fellow had cactus spines in his feet and nose and even around his eyes. I'd just hate to be the cause of some poor pooch's misery. Plus, knowing my own absent mindedness, I'd probably walk right into it and end up in the emergency room!

      There are similar issues with yucca, which also does really well here. I know people who have seriously lacerated their hands trying to remove bindweed from around yucca plants because those things are razor sharp. Soooo... I'm sticking with plants that aren't capable of harming me! :-)

    2. I also thank you for the ID. I looked up candytuft and it's native to my state! In coniferous forests, though (I live on land that is naturally prairie). Still, I think I just might try some in the shade. Although my one pine tree died (after surviving over a decade!), I do have other trees, and my state does have coniferous forests in my zone, so it just might work.

    3. Good luck with it. Mine was here when I bought the house 17 years ago and I've given it absolutely NO attention... as you can see, it's doing just fine!

  10. I use the Darwin principle for plants both inside and out. Inside plants get watered once a week. Outside plants get planted the same day I get them, I promise but fail to water them once a week for the first year, and I try to keep the weeds away.

    Oh, except no Darwin principle for invasives--I try to eliminate those. Which is why I most hate gardening. For example, I know what the beautiful white flowers in my yard are--beggar's lice. They get covered in tiny burs. So sad.

    Like you, I've had awesome good luck with purple iris and having to thin them (and some of them turned white!). Now I want to try some more things on your list. I love marigolds. And whatever your white flower is. Plus dianthus and creeping phlox are native to my area and come in some good colors.

    Here are other things that do well in my yard. I'm in central Texas, zone 8 (inching toward 9), with extremely dry conditions except during floods.

    Plumbago - not native to my area, but very drought resistant. They get to be bushes a couple/three feet high with bright green leaves and pale purplish-blue flowers almost always in bloom.

    Lantana - multicolor long-blooming flowers in a low spreading bush. My favorite is the red, orange, and bright yellow ones. I also love the all-white ones. And there are all-yellow ones. And the most common ones have purple and pale yellow. I think the berries are poisonous (the scientific name is Lantana horrida.)

    Rosemary - not native, but drought tolerant. I had read that these get to be six feet wide and so I planted them three feet from the house and sidewalk. Wrong answer. Mine is 8 or 9 feet wide and almost five feet tall. Some people in my town have trouble with these dying in winter sometimes, so I suspect that planting it close to the house is protective (I've had mine for over a decade). It's evergreen and usually has tiny pale blue flowers. It smells so good when your leg brushes it while walking on the now-too-narrow sidewalk. And it is always available for gift wrapping. (I wrap my presents in brown paper bags, pick things from my "garden" to decorate them with, and tie them on with a piece of cloth ribbon.)

    Pink scullcap - this is a small rounded plant (about 1 foot in diameter) with small dark leaves and small hot pink flowers. This is probably the most successful plant in my yard, and I found out accidentally that it can be split. (I tried to move it, but apparently there was a piece I left behind.)

    Various yuccas. My favorites are red yucca (which has dark salmon-colored flowers rather than red) and twisted-leaf yucca. They do get pointy, so be careful. I think they (and prickly pear) look especially great when surrounded by blackfoot daisy, but although that did great in my yard for three years, I once read that although it's supposedly perennial, the life expectancy is three years. So sad. But maybe if I plant a bunch of them, they'll re-seed.

    Dusty miller - a small silvery furry plant. (Silver ponyfoot is a silvery vine, but plenty of weeds can grow under it, so, although it's still alive after several years, I'm not calling it a success.) By "silver," I mean pale gray-green with a thin white furry coating.

    Salvia - Red sage does pretty well in my yard, even in the shade.

    Chile pequin - low bush with bright green leaves and small white flowers that grow into red berries. These berries are way too spicy hot for my taste (though apparently birds like them), but I plant this because it's pretty.

    Which leads to my next suggestions: 1) You could plant ornamental foods in your front yard (near where you can get a hose to it or whatever), thus expanding your garden and your fun. And 2) look up plants that are native to your area. "Native" means used to the treatment they are getting already from Mother Nature without any additional help.

    1. Holy Moly! Thanks for all of the suggestions! I'm gonna have to go look up most of this stuff. I fear I'm too much of a sissy for cactus or yucca (see my response to the comment above) but I did plant a few purple salvia this year... they're still alive, which is sort of a miracle. I bought them in early June figuring the hot spell would be short lived (ha ha) so I ended up having to transplant them in scorching weather. But so far they're still living!

      I bought a rosemary plant one year and totally LOVED it, but alas, it's an annual here and can't live through our zone 5 winters. You're supposed to grow them in pots and bring them inside for the winter, but since one of my cats will eat ANY plant he sees, I figured maybe it wasn't such a good idea.

      I totally LOVE the idea of ornamental foods. I actually have some oregano in the backyard that is totally taking over... it's even started sprouting up in the cracks in the driveway! This tells me it's probably strong enough to survive the punishment it will receive in the front yard, so my plan is to transplant some of it this fall once the weather cools off a bit. But I'll have to see if there are other edibles that might work in front.

      Thanks again for all of your suggestions!

    2. Zone 5 is quite different; you would have to do research. I like the LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center--they have pretty good information on plants native to the US, though since they started in southwest Austin, they have the best information from there. But their database is getting pretty big. You can also check out your neighbors' yards for ideas and ask them questions, but of course neighbors are always out weeding and watering and deadheading and fertilizing and just in general cannot be trusted. Better to check out what's growing randomly in fields or next to the highways!

      Glad you like the ornamental foods idea. I guess I only have the chile pequin and rosemary (neither of which I actually eat). I don't know if my sage is edible.

    3. I think the Colorado State University Extension is a pretty good source of information. My problem is actually finding the plants. I think I need to research locally owned plant nurseries that might specialize in this sort of thing, because the big box stores don't generally carry stuff that's specifically tailored to our area.

      There's one flower that I would LOVE to have... about 3 feet tall, thin hair-like leaves, and beautiful pink and purple flowers that bloom all through the heat of the summer. Gotta find out what it is and get me some!

    4. OK... just wasted a few hours searching, and I think I've found it: Garden Cosmos (also called Mexican Aster) ever heard of it?

  11. I laugh-cried a little bit when I saw all of your low-water gorgeous flowers. Unfortunately, we could plant those here, but they'd die the minute we hit March. I see keep up with your methods because you've got some beautiful plants kickin'! Here, about the prettiest we get in summer is lantana or sage. WOooooo. I'll just keep looking at your flowers while everything else is dying here ;)

    1. Well, most of the flowers only bloom in the spring, although the dianthus still have a few blooms and the marigolds are just starting to flower. Generally, I'm just happy if the plants stay alive!

      Sage is on my list of plants to investigate further. I think it does really well here, but somehow I have a vague memory of it showing up on the list of plants that I tested allergic to. But I think that sage the plant and sage the herb are two different things, and I'm not sure which I'm allergic to... Anyhow, if I determine that it's safe for me, I'll probably try some!

  12. I completely agree with you about lavender. I want to try phlox but around here pretty flowers almost always end up rabbit food. When I find things that survive the heat and the lack of rain AND the wild rabbits and squirrels and gophers, well... that is something to celebrate!

    1. Ha! Try the silver stone sedum... it's pretty much invincible, and the web says it's rodent, rabbit and deer resistant! Not the prettiest of the bunch, but certainly better than bindweed!

  13. How about NASTURTIUMS! I know a gardener who plants the seed and forgets 'em and yet is rewarded with lovely color. They can and do reseed themselves. They do spread and creep. And you should NOT offer fertiliser, as is your preference, cuz if u did, they get leafier instead of flower-ier. Lastly, there's tons of advice, discussion & free seed exchanging nationwide here! http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/exchind/ and of course free book exchanging here http://www.paperbackswap.com/index.php?r_by=stevsgal@gmail.com

    1. Those are great suggestions... especially the seed exchange! I'll have to go check it out!


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