Issue: August 5, 2006

Shade trees and ground covers for hot, sandy environment.


Would you please tell me the best shade trees and ground cover (on the west side of our property) for the sandy soil in the Radium Springs/Ft. Seldon sand hills area? We're at a loss for what to do and thought perhaps you could offer some suggestions. We've tried planting silver maple trees and they are very pretty at the first part of the season, then the leaves scorch horribly. We've had them for several years now so we're not looking to get rid of them. If you have any suggestions, I would appreciate them.



You have a challenging location for growing shade trees, but there are some trees that should do very well under your conditions. Shade trees that should tolerate the heat and do well include the pistachio tree (Pistacia vera), and its relative the Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis which does not produce edible nuts). The pistachio does very well in Alamogordo (similar climate to yours) and makes a relatively small tree that is large enough to create shade. The male tree doesn't produce nuts but is larger than the female tree. If you want your shade tree to produce nuts, consider planting a few males for pollination where the shade is most needed. The female trees will produce nuts, but since they are smaller, they should be planted where the shade is less critical. If the production of nuts is not important, then the Chinese pistache is a good choice. It is a larger tree and will make more shade than the nut-bearing pistachio trees.

The pistachio is well adapted to arid regions but does need some irrigation. The Chinese pistache will need a little more irrigation. If irrigation is available, you can even consider pecan trees for both shade and nut production.

Maple trees are attractive trees when there is enough moisture in the air and the soil is not too alkaline. In New Mexico, these conditions are hard to find. The silver maples and the box elders are maples that are adaptable enough to grow in New Mexico, but the calcareous nature of our soil and the dry air (with wind) result in development of leaf-scorch in the summer. Irrigation is important, but the lack of moisture in the air will ultimately produce scorch symptoms. The trees may grow well, but they will develop brown leaves by mid-summer. We can't change the New Mexico air. Shade trees to the west and wind protection will help delay development of leaf-scorch. Application of acidifiers to the soil (sulfur, etc.) will temporarily help with the alkalinity of our soil but must be repeated as alkalinity reclaims the soil to a more natural state.

Ground cover plants to consider include various species of creeping sedum. On the west (hot) side of a house, succulents like sedums may be the best choice. Native verbena plants are another plant that can tolerate such difficult conditions. Ice plants may also make good groundcover plants in these locations. All of these plants do best in full sunlight or only light shade. Organic mulch (bark) around the plants will help conserve moisture and reduce weed competition.

If shade is dense in the area, consider English ivy (Hedera helix) or its relative Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis). Vinca may also do well in shadier locations. As mentioned before, an organic mulch will help the plants and conserve moisture where you are growing the groundcover plants.

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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.


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