Shrubs, Small Trees and Grasses that Provide Habitat and Year-Round Interest
by High Country Gardens
In colder climates, much of the garden disappears in the winter. Annuals are killed by fall frosts, and many perennial flowers go dormant, shedding their above ground stems to retreat below ground. It's the trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses that anchor the garden, providing year-round interest, as well as shelter for songbirds and other small animals.
Native Shrubs and Small Trees
For the western states, many of our native shrubs and small trees are our very best plants for low water use, as their deep root systems pull moisture from the soil that is out of reach of smaller growing perennials.
Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a native tree that deserves wider use. Its small size allows it to fit easily into smaller yards and under power lines. And the showy, nectar-rich flowers delight humans and hummingbirds alike. Once established these two selections (below) are cold hardy into zone 5, such as the Front Range of Colorado and interior western cities, such as Salt Lake City, Reno, Boise, and Spokane.
'Conchas Dam Pink' Desert Willow has outstanding cold hardiness coming from the northern-most known population near Conchas Lake on the high plains of northeastern NM. Its showy, pure pink, fragrant flowers are sure to please.
'Lucretia Hamilton', with lovely burgundy flowers is equally cold hardy and a compact grower for patios and tight spaces.
Tips for Planting Chilopsis.
Excellent for rain gardens, the plants are equally comfortable standing in water for a few days or sitting bone dry for weeks on end.
In zone 5 climates (edge of their cold hardiness): plant them in a wide, shallow depression that will fill in with soil after a few seasons. This increases their cold hardiness by gradually sinking the crown more deeply into the soil.
Our western native shrubs are the Rodney Dangerfields of the plant world, because they "get no respect." This is unfortunate because their tough, xeric constitutions allow them to thrive in challenging climates where they reward us with their beautiful shapes and colorful flowers. Native bees depend on them for nectar, and songbirds utilize them for shelter, food, and nesting sites.
Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia), which actually grows well in most any dry soil, provides a wonderful backdrop for colorful perennials. Its fine-textured silver foliage has a nice sage fragrance.
New Mexico Privet (Forestiera neomexicana) is very versatile. Shear it into a hedge or limb it up to form a graceful multi-stemmed, white barked small tree. Plant both male ('Happy Boy') and female plants ('Berry Girl') to ensure berry-set to feed fruit-eating songbirds like Robins.
Ornamental grasses often perplex gardeners who are not familiar with their usefulness as flowering perennial companions. Mixing ornamental grasses into the perennial border and combining them into drifts of several different grass species mimics the look of natural meadows and prairies. Leave them stand over the winter so that their ornamental seed heads can brighten the winter landscape.
Little Bluestem (Schizachryrium scoparium) is a widespread native species extending across the mid section of the country into the western U.S. Little Bluestem has wonderful reddish fall and winter color, and it is conspicuous when snow is on the ground. The leaves are caterpillar food for various butterfly species. Song and ground birds eat the seeds in the fall and winter, and many beneficial insects and butterflies use the stems as shelter over the winter months.
'Los Lunas Blues' is an HCG introduction grown for its attractive blue leaves and strong upright growth habit. Best in drier climates, it has superior use in western gardens.
'Blaze' is renowned for the bright reddish fall and winter color of its leaves and seed stalks. Combine it with tall Sedum 'Autumn Fire' for a winning duo.
Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis) is another widespread native species extending from Texas into southern Canada. Deep rooted and drought tolerant, its unusual horizontal seed heads appear in mid summer and hold through winter, providing many months of subtle beauty.
'Blonde Ambition' is another HCG introduction, unique among all the ornamental grasses for its chartreuse flowers that mature to blonde. Twice the size of regular blue grama, it makes any planting area more eye-catching with its cloud of blonde horizontal seed heads.