Western Gardening for Eastern Transplants


Planting in the west. Dramatic low-care plantings are the reward for using regionally suitable plants that thrive in drier Western climates.

After thirty years spent in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the retail garden center and greenhouse business, I've come to appreciate the plight of the Eastern Transplant (people that is, not plants). You could always spot folks from Chicago or Connecticut or Pennsylvania. We would find them wandering around the nursery yard or greenhouse with this bewildered "help me" look on their faces as they looked around, overwhelmed by the plant choices, few of which they even recognized.

Here are some of the essential elements for gardening success when all you know is gardening in the Eastern or Mid-Western US.

Mulch: It's dry here in the West! In a good year, Santa Fe gets about a foot of precipitation (rain and snow melt). So it is essential to protect the moisture in the soil from the wind and intense sunshine, which quickly steal moisture from the ground.

Prepare the Soil: When I say "soil" I'm being very generous in describing that alkaline "concrete" we have to dig in. Even for native plants, it is essential to dig into the soil organic fertilizers like Yum Yum Mix and high quality compost to loosen it adequately for roots to grow into. These natural soil builders also inoculate the soil with life giving micro-organisms that are essential for plant health. And don't forget to add earthworms. They are especially helpful in loosening tight clay soils to facilitate root growth and good drainage.

Inoculate with Mycorrhizal Fungus: Many water-wise (xeric) plants are able to grow in seemingly impossible conditions because their roots are growing with mycorrhizal fungi attached to them. These beneficial fungi help the roots to extract water and nutrients from the soil that roots alone can't utilize. The use of mycorrhizal root inoculants is especially important when you're planting into soils that have been damage and compacted by home or subdivision construction!

Learn How to Harvest Rain Water onto your Landscape: We need to be sure to capture and use rainwater and snow melt as a supplemental source of water for our water-wise landscapes. Water harvesting can be a simple as taking the water from a rain gutter and using gravity to direct it to a tree or shrub planted near the house. Rain barrels should become a way of life for the western Gardener.

Water Deeply and Less Frequently: Once established, many water-wise plants do best when watered deeply and less frequently (once every 5 to 10 days) . Roots follow the water down into the depths of the soil. Shallow, frequent water grows plants with shallow roots. You will train your plants to be less thirsty when practicing deep watering.

Choose Regionally Suitable Plants: There are many annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that actually thrive in difficult western growing conditions. that's why it is so important to learn about these plants and not just try and recreate what is familiar using plants that grew well where you used to live. Making regionally suitable plants available through a catalog was one of my primary objectives when I started High Country Gardens more than 20 years ago. Western gardens have a dizzying array of native and Old World plants that do well out West.

These are some gardening basics that will greatly improve gardening success in the West. Take the time to learn these new plants and understand these techniques to create a garden that is more self-sufficient, beautiful and low maintenance.

Text and Photos By David Salman

© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republication is prohibited without permission.

6 thoughts on “Western Gardening for Eastern Transplants”

  • Larry Sohren
    Larry Sohren 07/09/14 at 5:15 am

    We can really relate to this article ; we moved from Washiington state to
    Pennsylvania 3 years ago. One of the things we noticed is when trees are
    planted here, they're planted above ground level resulting in exposed tree roots as they age ; maybe because majority of the soil is iron clay.
    Would this be the correct way here ?
    Thanks, an Eastern Transplant

    • Wendy

      This is a great article from our friends at Gardeners Supply on planting trees: http://www.gardeners.com/how-to/tree-planting/8741.html You really want to make sure the flare of the tree is exposed, as soil or much that abuts the tree bark above this area can cause the bark to rot.

  • Virginia Thompson
    Virginia Thompson 07/09/14 at 7:52 am

    I wish I had read this 40 years ago when we moved here from Ohio as I tried to grow peonies, bleeding hearts, etc. It wasn't until I took the Master Gardeners class at the Extension Office, that I learned the types of plants for El Paso. It annoys me when I see the stores around here offering bleeding hearts, blueberry bushes, etc. I am very grateful to High Country Gardens for providing me with plants that will survive, at least most do. Thanks.

  • Katherine

    When you say water deeply and less often - how long should I run my drip system on established perennials? ( they have the std water emitters)

  • Meg Fox

    I have been ordering from HCG since 2011 when I moved from a shady location to an all sun location here in Arkansas, zone 7b. I have been successful with your hummingbird mints and just love them and the hummingbirds they attract. I did lose one Agastache, Acapulco salmon and pink, this past brutally cold winter. I prune them back in early spring. I know you recommend Yum Yum for the plants in the fall and was wondering if that is necessary only for your western soils or would my Agastache benefit from it too? Thanks for your help. Meg

    • Wendy

      It would depend on your soil. The Yum Yum mix is really great for western alkaline soils. If you have the same soil conditions in Arkansas, then yes, we would recommend it.

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