4 Great Shrubs for the High Desert Garden

I’ve put a few new plants into the Hellstrip this week.  I’d like to say I showed some restraint but that would be lying to all of you.  What can I say?  Plants of the Southwest had a sale and it would have been foolish to let such an opportunity pass me by.

But my purchases weren’t entirely frivolous.  I picked up 4 shrubs that fit well into our plan.  They are either edible or medicinal, require very little water and fill in a part of the wildlife habitat that we are developing.  Our plants are still pretty small compared to what they will be in a few years.

  1. Creosote Bush:  One of the oldest living organisms on the planet is an 11,000-year-old Creosote Bush in the Mojave desert.  It can live for up to 2 years without water but when it does rain, the resins in the leaves give off the fragrance of the desert during monsoon season.  The creosote bush is antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal and its constituents are being studied as a treatment for cancer.  The roots secrete a substance that keeps its own seeds from germinating but it’s an important “nurse plant” for other native species.20626145_469784536724136_6038609878967296277_o
  2. Ephedra viridis:  A beautiful, nearly leafless shrub that is a native to the Southwest, it is traditionally used for bronchitis, as a stimulant tea, and for discomfort due to a bladder infection (BTW: this is not meant to be medical advice).  It loves sandy soil that’s not too rich and prefers to stay on the dry side.  The flowers and cones aren’t flashy but the birds like them.20729132_469784543390802_2621974716829113112_o
  3. Four Winged Salt Bush:  I was a bit ambivalent about adding this to the garden.  It gets messy looking, doesn’t have nice flowers or a lot of obvious advantages other than being extremely drought tolerant.  But it turns out that this rangy looking shrub is incredibly valuable.  The seeds, which are high in niacin, can be boiled up like oatmeal and the leaves can be used to season soups and meats.  The dried leaves are also used by the Zuni people as a soap.20643528_469784540057469_3326413689700785772_o
  4. Fernbush:  Also known as Desert Sweet and loaded down with creamy white flowers in the summer, this shrub is hugely popular with pollinators.  It’s also a great refuge for birds and other small animals.  The leaves can be made into a tea to relieve an upset stomach.20645499_469784510057472_7791826574679091434_o

These are fairly slow growing plants but when mature, will take up quite a lot of real estate, so I’ll have to be conscious of that as I consider what to plant next.  They will eventually give us a lot of privacy from the street traffic while also providing food, medicine, shelter and beauty for us and the other living things in the neighborhood.

Check out the links below for more information on these amazing plants:

The ethonoherbalist talks about creosote bush and Four Winged Salt Bush

New Mexico State University talks about ephedra

The Awkward Botanist talks about fernbush/

What useful plants have you considered putting into your difficult locations?  Let me know in the comments.

DIY Olla

I’m experimenting with different types of ollas.  For those of you who didn’t read part one of this article, you can read about it here Ollas and 3 Reasons to Put Them in Your Garden

Here are instructions for a quick and inexpensive set of ollas

Supply list:

6” terra cotta pot

The corgi tries to hide behind the flower pot to no avail.

6” terra cotta saucer

silicone caulk or other plumbing caulkIMG_0835

Tin Caps for roofing ($3.50 for 1000 – that’s a lot of ollas)IMG_0836


  1. Remove any burrs or rough edges with sandpaper from around the hole in the bottom of the pot to make sure the tin caps will lie flat.
  2. Give it a quick wipe with a rag to make sure there’s no dust or dirt.
  3. Apply a ring of silicone caulk around the holeIMG_0837
  4. Press the tin cap into the siliconeIMG_0838
  5. Apply a ring of silicone around the edge of the tin Ccap.  This will make certain the seal is tight and that the pot won’t leak.
  6. Let the silicone harden for a minimum of 30 minutes
  7. Bury the pot up to the rim and fill with waterIMG_0843
  8. Top the pot with the saucer to keep out the dirt and prevent mosquitos from breeding in them.IMG_0842

It’s best to set up your ollas in the spring when your plants are still small but if your late getting started like we were, don’t hesitate to put them in.  Just be careful not to damage the roots.

Rainwater Harvesting Part 1

Rosemary threatening to consume rainbarrel

This weekend we’re beginning the process of setting up our rainwater harvesting system.  We’re upgrading from our two little 50 gallon decorative barrels to four 320 gallon IBC totes.

Corgi approved

The city gives a rebate for water saving measures like installing rain barrels and low water landscapes.  When I bought the house, I immediately ran out and bought a couple of little rain barrels, stuck them under the downspouts and waited for the next rain.  It’s Albuquerque so we had to wait a little while. But when it finally did rain both barrels overflowed.  Which was cool but didn’t really help catch all that precious, free water.

How much water can you really catch in the desert?

Brad Lancaster, the Water Guru at Tuscon’s Desert Harvesters , shared this formula for rain harvesting yields in his book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond :

Ft2 of roof x inches of rain x 0.62

Average precipitation in Albuquerque is about 9 inches per year.  Our roof is about 1000 square feet, so we can collect 5580 gallons a year.  It’s definitely not enough to meet our household needs but is enough to manage the garden.  Tucson gets about 15 inches of rain per year, so Brad Lancaster gets about 9300.

We live in a smallish house in the high desert.  A bigger house in a place with more precipitation will collect even more FREE water!  When we were living in MA, it was a dry year and there was not a rain barrel or cistern to be seen.  Can you imagine how much rainwater could be collected in damper climates?

IBC totes are BPA-free plastic cubes wrapped in a metal cage.  We found ours on Craigslist and had them delivered.  Always check to be sure the totes that you buy were used for food. Ours held enzymes.  Companies that used these for storage used to give them away but now they are starting to recognize a potential market and it’s harder find freebies.

Installing these babies is going to be a little more complex to set them up than just sticking barrels under the downspout.  Fortunately we’re still a few weeks out from the start of our monsoon season which is when we get the majority of our precipitation for the year.  We’ve got plenty of time to get it all set up.19620539_10211898743416714_8212150166863831068_o

This weekend we’ll start with the gutters. Our current gutters are vinyl and have not held up to the strong UV radiation that we get at this altitude.  They were installed about 3 years ago and are already sagging.  They’re also angled in the wrong direction.IMG_0877

Frank, who is an engineer by training, has been watching youtube videos for months on the best ways to set up our collection system.  While it’s frustratingly slow for me (the name of this blog was almost going to be “The Impatient Gardener”), everything he does is well-conceived and meticulous.

For more details on harvesting rainwater for your home, check out Brad Lancaster’s book.  This is a link to my Amazon Affiliates account and I will receive a commission if you decide to purchase it.

Ollas and 3 Reasons to Put Them in Your Garden

cropped-dscn0668.jpgAlbuquerque gets about 9 inches of rain per year.  That’s less than Tucson, Arizona.  City ordinances restrict the watering of lawns and gardens to 3 days per week in the summer months.  That is not nearly enough to keep tomatoes and cucumbers happy and producing.  Consequently, we’re always looking for ways to get water to our plants cheaply and efficiently.

When I bought our house it had sprinklers and an attempt at drip irrigation which promptly fell apart during the first spring irrigation.  We’ve been watering by hand every legal day during the long growing season.  Thick layers of mulch keep the moisture from evaporating in our dry heat but during high temps we need a little extra help to keep our veggies happy.

Last winter I read a book called Gardening With Less Water  by David Bainbridge and was introduced to the miracle of ollas (oi-yas).  Ollas are unglazed clay jars which are buried in the ground and filled with water.  Since the clay is porous, the water gradually seeps out into the soil irrigating plants directly at the roots.  This style of irrigation has been used all over the world from China to Mexico for thousands of years to allow increased farm yields during dry years.

So far, we have 16 ollas in our garden.  I bought a fancy one (read $$$) at Plants of the Southwest and made three in my pottery class.  I made a few more on the potters wheel but they are waiting patiently to be fired.  Since we had a week of 100+ degree heat, I decide that our poor little garden couldn’t wait for a full kiln load to get water to their roots.  We purchased a bunch of 6 and 8 inch terra cotta pots at the big box store along with some silicone caulk and tin caps that used for roofing.  I put them together in about an hour and buried them in the garden this morning.IMG_0752

For the first couple of weeks after the ollas are installed, we still need to hand water with the hose.  This gives the roots time to find their new, on demand water sourceIMG_0833.jpg

We’re in USDA zone 7b which means we’ll have the occasional freeze, with lows averaging 5-10 degrees in the winter.  We will need to dig up our ollas in the winter so that they aren’t damaged.  If you live somewhere like Phoenix or Southern New Mexico where you don’t really get a hard freeze, then the ollas can live in your garden year round.

Why should you bury clay pots in your garden?

  1. It is 50-75% more effective than surface watering, even drip irrigation, since the water is going directly to the roots of the plants..

2.  After the plants are established around the ollas the soil surface isn’t getting wet.              Therefore, the weed seeds – and in my case, the millions of elm seeds that end up everywhere – won’t germinate.  Your days of bending over to pull the weeds is over.

3. You can’t overwater!  The water moves out of the pot by means of capillary action, so if the soil is damp the water stays inside the olla. When the soil is dry, the water moves through the walls of the olla into the soil, only giving your plants what they need.

Instead of hand watering 3 days a week, we check our established ollas once or twice a week and top off the water.IMG_0843