How to Choose Plants

Be a Plant Explorer-Experience the Joy

We want whatever plant we choose to not only survive, but also thrive, with a minimum of maintenance. If I’m not sure of a plant’s requirements, I will forgo the purchase until I determine it will work well. Other indications aside, I will take a chance if I suspect the published information is not complete for our area. Once you delineate the particular plant requirements for your landscape by writing out your checklist, you’ll be able to make better judgments about plants you’re not familiar with.

In month-to-month maintenance in the garden, Stepping Stones, I included a section on being a plant explorer. Average gardeners can experience a lot of the joy of discovery (without the hardship and hard work) of real plant explorers by visiting botanic gardens, garden centers, and state and national parks and noting plants new to us. Even just coming across a plant that meets your location criteria on the Internet or catalog brings the joy of discovery. Order it, or buy it and try it out. Maybe a friend or neighbor has introduced you to a new plant that thrills you. Many years I've designated my plant find of the year, if only to myself. When I buy a plant to trial, I allow three years to check its performance. Sometimes it doesn’t allow me 3 months and it falls off the list itself. The most interesting part of gardening is the anticipation.

Research Plant Characteristics

You may find it necessary to research the characteristics of the plant to see if it will fit into your garden style and design. When I mention this to gardeners, a lot of times they think they shouldn’t have to. They just want to be able to buy whatever and plant anywhere. That’s an unreasonable assumption. An informed consumer is a happier consumer.

It is unreasonable to assume that every plant sold in the Texas Panhandle will fit your purpose. There are many gardeners, with different plant needs. Likewise, the local trade may not address your particular plant needs. Don’t settle; take the time to find what you need.

We live in a flat world today. Natives and adaptables from the Texas Panhandle, the whole of Texas, the Southwest and the world can be ordered and shipped right to our doorstep with a click of the mouse. The plants are available. It’s just downright exciting, the degree of plant suitability and availability! So many plants, too little space is my problem.

When researching water and other requirements of plants, pay particular attention to the gardening location of the author. If an author notes the plant is xeric, and the writer gardens in a climate that receives 30 – 40 inches of precipitation a year, that is an entirely different matter compared to a reference of it being xeric in a climate that experiences less than 10 inches of annual precipitation. In the first case, that plant may be a high water-use plant, but not necessarily. However, cold hardiness aside, if a plant is xeric in a desert ecology, determine whether our 17 –21 inches of average precipitation is too much for that plant before choosing it. You may just have to try it yourself, if you are not able to find other information sources pertaining to it’s range of adaptability.

I feel I must add just another word of caution on choosing plants. What is your focus? If your focus is truly a low maintenance garden, forsake many of the plants that have been available for years in our nurseries and choose drought-tolerant plants. Refrain from ordering from nationally known catalogs and nurseries of the east coast, upper mid-west and Pacific Northwest (with the exception of drought-tolerant specialty nurseries and catalogs). Refrain from selecting plants that thrive in humid and moister south and southeast. It’s not that I have anything against them, or their plants. The primary market they cater to is in a climate different from ours. There, plants thrive quite beautifully, but their survival here requires a higher degree of maintenance. Your best selections will be made from suppliers that experience a climate more similar to ours.

Look to local growers, such as Neal Hinder’s Canyon Edge Plants, Plants of the Southwest, Agua Fria Nursery and others in New Mexico and in the southwest. These growers and nurseries are so much more in tune with our climate and conditions. They will talk to you and answer your questions. Many suppliers have informative and free catalogs.

Characteristics of Low Water-use Plants

Plants themselves will give you clues whether they’ll be suitable for a low water landscape. Natives and adaptive low water-use plants share survival characteristics. Taproots and extensive, deep root systems, or the presence of tubers, rhizomes and bulbs for storing moisture and nutrients are certain underground characteristics that aid in maximizing water use. Centranthus rubra, Jupiter’s beard, though displaying glaucous green leaves, is able to be low water-use due to an enormous woody tuber-like root. I transplanted a mature specimen at the end of June one summer; the root-tuber was larger than my shovel. The flowering of the plant was not interrupted even though it was transplanted at midday.

Many xerophitic plants (plants adapted to more or less permanently dry conditions) have specialized leaves. Look for these characteristics and combinations of characteristics that many low water-use plants have.

  • Light or silver colored: buffalograss, artemisias, lavenders, and sages.
  • Fuzzy or hairy: Stachys byzantina, Lamb’s ear; Cerastium tomentosum, Snow –in-summer; Salvia argentea, Silver sage.
  • Silver, wooly, with small leaves: Veronica pectinata, Woolly creeping veronica; Thymus pseudolanuginosus, Woolly thyme.
  • Thread-leaf foliage: Hymenoxys scaposa, Perky Sue; Dianthus.
  • Curling or rolling: Cercocarpus ledifolius, Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany.
  • Thick and waxy: Mirablilis multiflora, Desert four-o’clock; mahonias.
  • Tiny or small leaves: Falugia paradoxa, Apache plume; Cowenia mexicana, cliff rose; Zinnia grandiflora, Prairie zinnia.
  • Small succulent leaves: ice plants; Phemeranthus calycinum, flame flower; many sedums.
  • Large, thick, fleshy succulent leaves: Agaves, aloes, some yuccas, lithops (living stones).
  • Needle-like leaves: Rosemary, lavender, conifers and brooms; Cytisus purgens, Spanish Gold hardy broom.
  • Narrow and spiky: Hesperaloe parviflora, Texas red yucca; Dasylirion wheeleri, Sotol, many yuccas
  • No leaves: Ephredra viridis, Mormon’s Tea; cactus
  • Sheds Leaves in Drought: Fouquieria splendens, Ocotillo; Cylindropuntia, Cholla and Opuntia, Prickly-pear type cactus (some species put on ephemeral leaves in spring and quickly drop them).