Garden Photo of the Day

Ben & Joanne’s garden in rural New Mexico

What do you do with a bare wall? Put in climbing roses, of course! An eastern exposure works fairly well here for roses. Limiting sunlight to a half-day of morning sun only ensures they won’t bake too much. (We’ve learned that 4 hours of sunlight at this altitude is equivalent to 8 hours sunlight at or near sea level, so when a plant tag says, “full sun,” we now know we must provide some shade, especially in the afternoon.) The stucco wall radiates heat for the remainder of the day so they’re warm but not too hot. We have bulbs and annuals in this bed for seasonal color. Petunias are so cheerful and bright!

Today’s photos are from Ben and Joanne Harris. Ben says, “I love the garden photo of the day series. I’ve often thought of sending photos, but the gardening we do in this place, this environment, is very different than the many beautiful gardens in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic states, the upper Mid-West, and the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know if this’ll be of interest to everyone, but here are some pics anyway. You might like to see what it’s like to (try to) garden in a generally non-cooperative environment.

This planter at the southeast end of the rose bed has a miscanthus grass for a “thriller,” with petunias. In the upper left is an Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. The ground cover is a yellow variant of ice plant, Delosperma.

My wife and I live near Pecos, New Mexico, in the Pecos River Valley that lies between two arms of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the north and west, and Rowe Mesa on the southeast. We’re at 7,000 feet altitude in the Pinon-Juniper transition zone between high desert to the south and the Ponderosa Pine-Spruce-Fir forests in the higher mountains that surround us. USDA says we’re Zone 5, but we had a Zone 4 winter a few years ago when we had a week of nighttime lows at -30F. That spring, I went around the property pulling up dead Zone 5 plants. So now we only work with Zone 4-rated (or better) plants unless we can find a warm microclimate around the house, such as our south-facing wall.

We call this the “xeric bed.” The south-facing wall is hot and dry with poor soil, perfect for Artemisia, butterfly bush (Buddleia), goldenrod (Solidago ‘Wichita Mountains’), ice plant (Delosperma cooperi and others), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). That’s a wild verbena coming up through the gravel; I’ve decided that “landscape cloth” is useless, except perhaps in constructing stone walls and such. The planter at the back contains a wisteria that actually had one bloom this spring; we were thrilled! The red annual is Amaranthus ‘Hopi Red Dye’ and there’s a young ‘Blue Mist’ spirea hidden in there behind the amaranth.

The average annual rainfall is 14 inches. We envy all you folks who get 40 inches or more: You are blessed! The soil is red adobe clay, dry and hard, with no microbial life that I can discern: Debris doesn’t decay here, it mummifies. However, we have managed to encourage the presence of earthworms in some locations, and we take the best care of them we can. They’re so important! They help me make compost, too.

We had a hail storm on June 7 with the largest hail being golf ball size. Many things were devastated, but many are also recovering now that rainy season (“monsoon season”) is here (July and August). We rarely get a steady, gentle rain; mountain rain storms tend to be intense, even violent. We’re making progress with rainwater catchment systems, but that’s a story for another time.

Further along the south side, here’s a healthy Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). They like the intense sun and high heat. To the right is a Euphorbia myrcinites, myrtle spurge; they grow wild and seem to enjoy growing in gravel with the dryness, high heat, and poor soil.

When we moved to this property 8 years ago, we both had the desire to create the classic cottage garden look, but we’ve given that up. That approach doesn’t work here, in our experience. We have tried and lost many species of plants that we thought would work here but didn’t, both native species and seemingly adapted exotics. The good news is that we are refining our understanding of what plants can survive here and what approach to gardening can succeed. We sometimes joke that we want to hear what other people consider to be invasive plants because they just might survive here! At least one or two specimens!

Beyond the Russian sage is an artemisia, and next to that is a juniper (Juniperus ‘Blue Arrow’) and an Austrian copper rose. And more euphorbia by the rock.

We find that gardening WITH Nature is a good way to go, rather than trying to have neat, tidy beds with crisp edges, containing lush, water-hungry plants. Another factor is that we have a little trouble keeping up with Nature’s plantings, being in our late 60’s and me with arthritis, because the wild plants (“weeds”) grow faster than we can keep up with. So why not make friends with some of them, right? The Nature spirits do rather well sometimes, too, with a proneness to combinations of yellow and purple that can be quite attractive.

This bed is opposite the wall in the last photo. There are 3 young Russina sage interspersed with a yellow yarrow (Achillea millefolium), ice plants (Delosperma spp.), and a small spreading juniper planted this spring. The trees (someday!) are New Mexico privet (Forestierra neomexicana) and a corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’). The willow will require more water than we usually like to use, but it’s such an interesting tree that we’re making an exception.

Hope you enjoy this look at a high-altitude, dryland garden in rural northern New Mexico. I apologize for the photo quality; the camera is old, and light is intense here (high UV), tending to wash out detail in photos. But have a look, just the same!”

An example of Nature’s plantings: This spot has a southwestern exposure, but it’s somewhat sheltered in the afternoon by a Ponderosa pine. On the left is a globe mallow (Sphaeralcea sp., possibly S. fendleri), and on the right is a wild artemisia, either A. frigida or A. ludoviciana. I think A. frigida is more likely. A handsome combo, very xeric, and requiring no work on our part!

Ben, what fun to see a garden in New Mexico, and a really nice one at that! I can’t even imagine your challenges in that climate. I sometimes feel embarrassed by the amount of water we take for granted here in the Northeast. I was especially struck by the fact that you have to correct the pH of your well water before applying it to the garden. Fascinating! (tons more great info in the captions, BTW) Amazing job–thanks so much for sharing!

This is the wildflower surprise of the season. We don’t know what it is, except that it’s in the Leguminosae family, judging by the numerous small seed pods it has produced. It has a distinct leaf pattern: 3 obovate leaves arising from a single point, with almost no petiole. Smells a bit like lavender, and the pollinators love it. I’ve seen bumblebees, honey bees, mason bees, and the moth that we call a “hummingbird” moth (Hemaris sp., a “sphinx” moth) – all sampling the nectar of the small light-purple flowers. I’m glad we didn’t weed this one out at an early stage in its growth!

Keep sending in photos of your gardens, everyone!

Here’s a container grouping near our patio. Last year, we had the concrete patio covered in sandstone and a roof put over it. Now we can be outside even in the middle of the day when formerly, the intense sun would drive us away. Definitely a good choice in the Southwest! This spring, we planted ‘Pink Chintz’ thyme between the flag stones that we laid last fall.
Here are some ‘Iceberg’ roses that have recovered from the hail storm rather well. We’re building water features for the birds – and because we love the sound of trickling water. We have a high concentration of birds here because we provide the basics – food, water, and shelter – in an environment that wouldn’t otherwise offer so much support. Of the three basics, water is perhaps the most critical resource because there’s so little of it. Thankfully, we have a good well, even if the pH of the water is over 9. (When using it in the garden – when we’re out of rainwater – we correct the pH with muriatic acid.)
This is one of a few bluebeards (Caryopteris clandonensis) that we have scattered about. It’s one of the Zone 5 plants that seems hardy enough to survive the occasional Zone 4 winter. They’re just coming into bloom now; August is their peak month.
Another contribution from Nature: In the shade of a Jeffrey pine, cranesbill geranium has sprouted up. The flowers are fading a bit now, but they’ve been blooming for two months already, so we can’t complain. They can pop up wherever they want, as far as we’re concerned.
A wild mullein in our north garden, just beginning to flower. Some mulleins seem to have only one tall flower spike. This plant was heavily damaged by hail, but has recovered well in the past six weeks or so. Maybe that has something to do with having 7 small flower spikes rather than one large one? The mulleins are very prolific here; we end up weeding many out but always leave a few for their contribution to the garden aesthetic. On a few occasions, we’ve seen a downy woodpecker clinging to the flower stalk, presumably to eat seeds when they mature.
In the shade of the new patio roof, we have Salvia azurea which was there before construction, in full sun, but which seems to be tolerating the shade quite well, along with Lamium maculatum, both ‘Purple Dragon’ and ‘White Nancy’ which we planted this spring. Lamium is our go-to plant for shade. We’re experimenting with a hosta this year in one shady location, but the grasshoppers are not being kind to it. We’ll see….
Here’s an overview of the north-facing garden. There’s a lot going on here! Some of the highlights: On the left is a container with a hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) that I nurtured indoors through the winter and now enjoy outside. From left to right, you may be able to spot the bluebeard; next to that is a New Mexico privet; a birdbath appears in front of the platform bird feeder (there’s a path out of view there); then the 7-spike mullein. The splash of rose-red is a hollyhock, and the burgundy-red behind is a trio of Amaranthus ‘Hopi Red Dye’. There are also assorted Greek yarrow, Shasta daisy, Artemisia frigida, a young aspen (Populus tremuloides) planted this spring, more mullein, some California poppies, another bluebeard (the grandmother of the others), another young New Mexico privet. Behind that is a sand cherry (Prunus), with a golden currant (Ribes aureum) on the other side of the fence. On the far right is a European white birch (Betula pendula) with wild sunflowers, blue flax (now in seed), Vinca major, and a Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii), New Mexico’s only native wild rose. In the foreground is a mugo pine, and the previously mentioned small shade bed with Salvia azurea and Lamium maculatum. And a few containers as well. It’s all a work in progress, guided by our desires, the constraints of the climate, and the serendipitous contribution of the Nature spirits. And it’s fun!

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View Comments


  1. grannieannie1 08/02/2014

    I love your rocks and the warm colors they have and the tones which they contribute to your garden. (Here we have to buy rocks.)

    The mullein looks very architectural and stately in the background of one of your pictures. The blue of the caryopteris must be wonderful when it comes out. That is one I haven't been able to coax into existence. The roses look amazing on the wall with the trellises. We also have one hot morning wall but have never tried a rose on it. Thank you for the idea.

    You've done wonders with a difficult environment! Hats off to you two and your determination!

  2. User avater
    meander_michaele 08/04/2014

    Hi, Ben and Joanne, congrats on figuring things out in creating an appealing garden even though it took some trial and error. I think all of your fellow gpod-ers identify to some extent with your learning curve although your area does sound like it presents some particularly challenging conditions.
    I'm a big fan of the euphorbia myrsinites. I have it in my east TN garden and it's a prolific reseeder here as well. I love to be surprised at where it puts down roots and shows up .I got an attack of 'Powis Castle' sure as heck seems to love your climate way better than it likes mine.!
    I enjoyed your photos and your wise words of "gardening with Nature".

  3. perenniallycrazy 08/04/2014

    I so love the story of your garden Ben and Joanne! Reality bites but I think you have both come out on top with the design, colors and textures in your garden. My hats off to you both.

    I'm especially attracted to the contrast of the muted orange clay colors of the rocks, earth and home against the soft blue, silver and green foliage. The fine and feathery foliage which I imagine is more adaptive to your garden environment (less dessication) is an extra bonus by further softening and adding movement.

  4. User avater
    Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 08/04/2014

    Your garden looks great! I love seeing successful gardens in harsh climates. There are always plants that love the harsh climates and hate milder climates. Do you order seeds? There are so many types of penstemon and mullein that I bet would thrive where you are. Thanks for showing the fruit of your labor!

  5. greengenes 08/04/2014

    Wow! Thanks so much for sharing with all of us. I admire you both for the labor and strong desire to garden! Well done, I must say! Is there a lot of cactus there or is it too cold in the winter? The color of your house and the blue trim is beautiful and I love how the Russian sage accents it all. Your article is very interesting and I really appreciate you sharing about it all. I have never heard about well water being so PH high! We are spoiled here in the northwest Washington area. You have both done a wonderful job! I really enjoyed seeing all of it this morning! Thanks

  6. NCYarden 08/04/2014

    Despite the conditions you somewhat decry, you obviously have a successful and good looking garden. Way to cooperate with Mother Nature! You are very much in tune with what you will be "allowed" to grow, even if took some trial and error. Heck we all still deal with that in our gardens despite our location, climate conditions, and expertise. The stones are a fantastic accent too, especially since I assume they are naturally abundant. Your garden is pleasing in such a harsh environ. Thank you for sharing.

  7. MNGardenGirl 08/04/2014

    Wow! Ben, you're way to modest. I love the retreat you've created. My favorite are all the rocks and boulders. Thank you for sharing!

  8. GrannyMay 08/04/2014

    Ben, thanks for sharing your story and your photos. You have a beautiful garden! It is very interesting to hear about the challenges faced in various areas, and how you learn from and adapt to whatever Nature throws your way. You and Joanne are perfect examples of true garden spirit. Never give up!

  9. sheila_schultz 08/04/2014

    Ben and Joanne, you have done a masterful job creating a bit of paradise in your harsh NM climate. All the silvers and purples do tend to 'cool' things off, don't you think? Have you tried any Agastache's? Most have the narrow leaves that do well with both the heat and hail, and they bloom from mid-July until frost. (They reseed easily.) Another of my favorite plants is Artemesia 'Sea Foam', it's texture is great fun and is quite hardy here in Denver. Also, are you familiar with a catalog, High Country Gardens? They are out of Santa Fe and have all kinds of fun plants to try ;) but I must say, you have done just fine on your own!!! Beautifully done.

  10. schatzi 08/04/2014

    What a wonderful job you have done under difficult circumstances! Living in NM you must be familiar with High Country Gardens nursery - they should have just the plants that will do well for you. I admire your Caryopteris and Russian sage. I love both, but have not found the right spot for them here in my Pacific NW garden. They tend to die of rot after a year or 2. I love blue in the garden, both in flowers and sky and cobalt blue pots. Someone suggested Penstemons for your garden - they are North American natives and cultivars, and just gorgeous. Bees and hummingbirds love them too. Many would do well in your climate. Keep up the good work and take time to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

  11. Cenepk10 08/04/2014

    Wow ! Are you kidding me, you gave up the cottage garden ? Just such a pleasure to view your garden today !!! Whats amazing to me is that we both grow the exact same plants- I'm in Georgia.. Just such a stunning garden. I know you enjoy it very much. So grateful I got to see !

  12. azulverde 08/04/2014

    During my winter rv'ing, the wildflower that caught my eye was the Desert Mallow or Sphaeralcea ambigua growing along and beautifying the roadsides of I-95 between Las Vegas, NV and Quartzsite, AZ. They grow on sandy and gravelly soil of the desert and have red-orange flowers and silver-gray fuzzy leaves which differ from the more green and less fuzzy look of the fendleri on your image. I saw it on sale at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ and even planted one in my friend's streetside island garden in South Florida where typical southeast plants fade and only succulents and markedly drought-resistant plants seem to survive, a piece of the southwest in the southeast. I'll see next autumn how it fared in its new home.

  13. GrannyCC 08/04/2014

    Love your garden,under the difficult conditions you have done a good job. The rocks are beautiful and add so much to the landscape. I think experiment is is the nature of all gardeners. We sometimes don't get it right but then we do.

  14. user-7007076 08/04/2014

    I love how you've so resourcefully created your own arbors from wood! They have tons of character! Also, I appreciate how you've been cognizant of creating a sustainable garden. No need to apologize for your tough climate. You've done a fantastic job! It look beautiful and is full of character.

  15. Torcuata 08/04/2014

    Thanks for all the photos and specially the information. I have lived in the tropics all my life and next year I will be moving to the mountains of Arizona. I now I have to change the way I garden because where I live it rains almost daily. Seeing your garden encourages me because I see more green and other colors than I was mentally preparing myself to see. I can live with a beautiful xeric garden like yours.

  16. NevadaSue 08/04/2014

    Ben and Joanne, I love your Garden. I live in the mts of Southern Nevada so understand a little of your challenges. I thought our water was bad at only 8 but you really do have a challenge. we are also considering using acid to change the ph of the water. I love the gravel and the plants you have allowed to come up in it. You have done a wonderful job of making a beautiful oasis in your challenging surroundings. Thank you so much for sharing with us. We also provide water and food for the birds and sometimes have 300+ in the winter months. Happy Gardening. :)

  17. christianesterges 08/04/2014

    Hats off for your achievement... and the humorous way you present your hard labour ...I'm even older than you ..; and I always planned to visit the States .... I didn't make it finally .. but i'm so happy to have found this page , where i can visit the great variety of your lovely gardens over there ..; thank you ( and Michelle!) so much !

  18. foxglove12 08/04/2014

    LOVE all the terra cotta and stone work!

  19. thevioletfern 08/06/2014

    So interesting! I am glad you shared with us. I love the blues and purples in contrast to the color of your house and soil. I find it beautiful!

  20. user-6236657 08/10/2014

    Ben & Joanne - What a beautiful garden! I just made my first rustic trellis & planted Cypress Vine on it. It's a prolific reseeder but I don't think it will go to zone 4. I've got some wonderful Texas natives in my garden (Dallas) but they won't do zone 4 either. Too bad! I could send you bags of seeds.

  21. user-7007140 08/12/2014

    What a wonderful accomplishment! I love how you have used your plants. And thank you so much for the informative text under each photo.
    Love artemesia and Powis Castle is my absolute favorite. Great job and as you said "great fun".

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