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This has been a strange year for gardening. The weather has been so finicky that plants are not acting themselves. At least June provided some cloudy reprieve, though I wish more rain would have come from it. This spring has certainly given me pause as to how to move forward as a gardener, and I’d like to dedicate this month’s column to thinking about low-water, native plants.

A common misconception with xeriscaping is that it only has one look—mulch, cacti, mini hills, and rocks. This style is certainly classy and effective for the non-gardener. But, for someone who loves to garden, I don’t find much inspiration in that aesthetic. And that look often makes us gardeners forget how many native plants exist that fall in the xeriscape category. Over time, with certain perennials, you can create a luscious yard that doesn’t require tons of water.

Xeriscaping is a practice that espouses seven principles: water-wise planning and design, low-water using plants, limiting grass areas, water-harvesting techniques, efficient irrigation system and design, mulch, and proper maintenance. That list leaves some room for creativity!

Using native plants in gardens (or even bare areas of a yard) ultimately builds soil while helping create a space that fits in with the native environment. And it starts with the root-to-shoot ratio. Generally speaking, the roots underground mirror the plant growth above ground, so if you take a look at an established Plains Yucca, for example, you have an idea of just how far the roots reach below the earth. Creating these root systems are critical for rehabilitating urban spaces. When billowing root systems reach far below the surface, everything surrounding that plant benefits. Longer roots prevent erosion, build healthy soil, and reduce water usage.

In a few of the garden groups I follow on social media, there has been a chart floating around showing just how massive the root systems of native plants are. If you do a Google image search, you can find a variety of charts provided by different state farming initiatives that illustrate the significance of prairie grasses and native plants.

Over time, our farming practices have slowly eroded away critical topsoil. There are many projections as to just how many harvests we have left due to the stripping of our soil. When the soil is lifeless, food does not grow. And while this may seem like only a farming issue, it’s important to remember how much of our urban practices contribute. Planting bushes, grasses, and flowers that help rebuild our soil in our cities is one piece of the rehabilitation puzzle.

If you have open areas that you would like to fill with something easy to maintain, and that would grow large over time, then I highly suggest looking specifically for those low-water, native plants. The following plants have proven successful for me in the Springs — and they’re beautiful to boot: Bee Balm, Bishop’s Weed, Yarrow, Wine Cups, Blue Flax, Desert Four O’Clocks, Milkweed, and Rocky Mountain Penstemon. We can even do this with some foods: Mustard Greens, Rhubarb, Lemongrass, Sage, and Mint. Of course, there are many more, but this is a colorful start.

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Sarah McMahon

Remember these plants will get large and take over spaces. They’re great for open areas you’d like to mildly ignore. If you don’t mind endlessly battling these plants, you can keep them under some control. Whatever you choose, you will be able to enjoy these plants for years while doing the soil some good in the process.

July = Hot-Weather Crops

If you try to plant any cold-weather crops this month, like lettuce or radishes or carrots, they will quickly crisp in the heat. Honestly, if you plant anything this month, don’t be shocked if it’s not successful. We’ll get another chance for planting before the fall, so July is a good time to take a break and watch your garden grow. You can still sow a few veggies directly in the ground, but make sure they are bonafide heat-lovers. If you have the space, now is a good time to plant cucumbers, beans, and squash.

July = Learn your yard’s zone and mini-climate

Each yard provides different challenges and environmental factors that affect the garden. In Colorado Springs, we are considered Zone 5 and 6. Within our city, the zones range, so there are sub-zones—5a, 5b, etc. These zones can make a difference as to what works in your yard, so pay attention. The Southeast is in zone 6a (which means more might grow here than on the west or north side of the city). Also, watch the sun span around the house during the year as it changes throughout the seasons.

July = Early-morning watering

When to water throughout the day is a debated issue. Many people water in the evening, and there are plenty of arguments as to why this is good practice. There are good reasons not to water at night too — like reducing fungal growth and plant disease. So, in the heat of our summers, I’ve always watered in the early morning, and my garden seems to do better. I hand-water with a water wand attached to the end of a hose, directly placing the wand at the base of my plants — it’s both effective and efficient. The plants stand a little taller on those hot days. 

Sarah McMahon is the lead journalism professor at Pikes Peak State College and an avid backyard gardener who believes in building community and resiliency through gardening.