Issue: May 21, 2001

Plants for southern NM/El Paso landscapes


My husband would like to plant plants and groundcover in our front yard that use little or no watering. Could you please suggest something and how to care for these plants? Almost everything that we have tried to plant has died. Your help would be greatly appreciated. I'm tired of having an UGLY yard!! El Paso


In your location it is difficult to have a landscape that uses no water, but one requiring little irrigation can be achieved. However, it will be necessary to irrigate for a while until the plants have become established. The length of the establishment time requiring irrigation varies from plant to plant and soil preparation factors but can be a year or more for trees. Some shrubs and perennials can establish more quickly. Use of mulch can also reduce the need for applied water. Another useful technique is the use of "harvested" water; that is, to direct roof run-off water from rains to the root zone of landscape plants.

It is important to discover why your earlier plantings have failed. Were they watered enough to allow them to establish themselves in the landscape? Were they appropriate plants? Are there weed control chemicals in the soil which are preventing their establishment?

If there are persistent weed control chemicals in the soil, the problem can be solved but it will be difficult. To test for this potential problem, put some of your landscape soil in a flower pot and plant some bean and corn seeds (or some broad-leaf plant and a grass). If there are chemicals in the soil, characteristic symptoms should develop in the plants. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office with help if this is the problem. Container-grown plants may be a solution.

If the soil does not contain harmful chemicals, then proper plant selection, irrigation for establishment, mulching, and other good management techniques should be adequate to create an attractive landscape.

Plants to consider are numerous, and I will list only a small selection here. Groundcover plants and lower-growing flowering plants to consider include iceplant, Rocky Mountain zinnia, desert marigold, evening primrose, California poppy, Calylophus (sun drops), desert four o'clock, penstemons, and many others.

Shrubs to consider are Buddleia (butterfly bush), Leucophyllum (Texas sage), creosote bush (beautiful if irrigated only slightly), evergreen sumac, Texas mountain laurel, broom dalea (purple sage), hoary rosemary mint (very fragrant foliage), cliff fendlerbush, Ephedra (Mormon tea), Apache plume, Algerita, Artemisia sagebrush species, and many others. There are many shrubs that will grow well in your hot, dry location. Some will do very will with little more than "harvested water" once they are established.

There are also trees to consider. Some become large; others are small: New Mexico Buckeye, western soapberry, fragrant ash, mesquite, palo verde, desert willow, Emory oak (evergreen), Texas madrone (very beautiful bark), junipers, and many others.

Don't fail to consider ornamental grasses. These are not grown as a lawn but as attractive clumps of grass used like we use shrubs in the landscape. Many of these will require little or no water once established.

Of course there are numerous succulent plants to consider. Succulent plants include agave, nolina, yucca, and the cacti.

The plants listed above should grow well in El Paso, West Texas, and southern New Mexico. Many of them will also grow in more northern parts of New Mexico and at higher elevation, but not all are adapted to the colder regions.

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Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

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Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!