Spring Planting Q&A with Red Butte Garden

Are you ready to get your hands in the earth and do some planting? We know we are. Today, Jason Baker, who is a curator for Red Butte Garden and Arboretum, has kindly joined us to answer questions about gardening in the state of Utah. 

Q. What is your favorite thing to plant in your personal garden and why?

I’m a big fan of desert plants. Things that love hot and dry conditions as well as things that are pokey, stabby, and sharp. In my yard I have a combination of cacti and succulents, along with native and waterwise shrubs, perennials, and annuals.

Q. What do you recommend people do right now to help prepare them to plan their gardens? With unstable weather, is there anything you can plant in April?

Right now is a great time to start warm-season vegetables indoors; plants such as eggplant, cucumber, squash, and melons. Outdoors you can sow cool-season vegetables like peas, radishes, lettuce, and spinach. It is also a great time to cut back last year’s grasses and perennials, as well as prune out winter-damaged branches and twigs from ornamental shrubs and trees. If you have early spring-blooming bulbs, you can deadhead spent flowers. Just be sure not to cut back the leaves until they start to yellow. Right now is also a perfect time to plant hardened off (plants that are adjusted to being outdoors, not brought directly from a greenhouse) perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines.

Q. What plants do you recommend for Utah gardening? How do you care for those plants?

Since we live in a desert, I highly recommend planting anything that is adapted to our climate. I really like native plants, so I always advocate planting those first, but there are countless varieties of non-native waterwise plants available at nurseries that are both beautiful and adapted to grow here. In terms of care, many plants require certain amounts of water and light, so it’s really important to be aware of those before purchasing so you can group plants with similar requirements together.

Q. Too much water, or too little, seems to be a big problem for amateur gardeners. Do you have any tips that will make knowing how much moisture is needed easier?

Most plants depend on even moisture in the soil, but depending on the type of plant, the required amount of moisture will vary, so it is important to learn about your specific plant’s requirements. When you’re considering a plant to purchase, it’s a good idea to check the plant tag for the moisture requirements and to also hang on to the tag after planting so you can look up more specific information online.

Once a plant is established, letting the soil to dry out in between watering promotes deeper root growth, allowing the plant to access moisture deeper in the soil. Alternately, daily waterings promote shallow root growth, causing plants to be more susceptible to our hot, dry, summer conditions. 

Don’t water during the heat of the day. Instead it is best to water first thing in the morning or after it’s cooled in the evening so less water evaporates into the air, which is called evapotranspiratio

Q. What would you recommend people plant in a beginner’s garden?

I love to hear about people ripping out their water-wasting lawn and replacing it with low-water options like buffalo grass or creeping thyme, or better yet, a landscape of waterwise plants that benefit backyard wildlife like birds and pollinators.

Q. What tools and equipment are needed by a beginning gardener?

Although there are a lot of tools to choose from, you can get a lot done with a handful of essentials:

  • Every gardener should have a soil knife, also known as a hori-hori. They can be used for everything from digging out weeds and cutting through stubborn roots to planting your flowering perennials or vegetables.
  • Sometimes it’s nice to get our hands dirty, but it is still a good idea to use a pair of gloves when using hand tools to avoid unwanted blisters and cuts.
  • A good pair of bypass pruning shears are also essential. You’ll need them to prune your shrubs into shape, thinning out dead or dying branches, and cutting back your perennials and ornamental grasses in the spring to allow for new growth.
  • Leaf rakes are an important tool to help keep your garden tidy and are mostly used to clean up fallen leaves and garden trimmings.
  • A rigid garden rake is also invaluable, both its flat side and rigid teeth are great for breaking up soil and spreading out mulch, topsoil, and gravel.
  • Round point shovels are great for planting larger plants, such as trees and shrubs.
  • A pruning saw, for pruning branches and limbs, is also great cutting back grasses in the spring. Interestingly a soil knife works for cutting back grasses as well.
  • A watering can.
  • A hand-tool caddy or a five-gallon bucket to help keep track of your tools is essential.

Q. We hear a lot about how we live in a desert, and xeriscaping is ideal. What is the best way to make this work?

I recommend starting small by selecting a portion of your yard to convert from traditional high water-use gardening to a waterwise and xeriscape landscape. By starting small you can get a better feel for the types of plants that you like and work well for you. Then, as you slowly expand the area you’re working with, you can incorporate other waterwise plants that you have learned about in your trips to the garden center or botanical garden. If the thought of this intimidates you, Red Butte offers a variety of classes throughout the year to assist you in making good choices for your home landscape.

There is a lot of misinformation on what xeriscape means. The term was developed by the Denver Water Board in the 1980s and does not mean rocks and cacti, or that the entire landscape is xeric. See this link for information on the seven principals of xeriscape and more.

Q. What plants take the least amount of water but still make your garden look amazing?

Personally, I enjoy desert succulents like cacti and yucca, but I understand that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There are plenty of native and waterwise plant options out there, so it shouldn’t be difficult finding planting options for everyone.

  • Quite a few ornamental sages (salvia) are very waterwise and produce flowers in varying shades of purple, pink, and blue.
  • Utah is home to a unique desert shrub known as Apache plume (fallugia paradoxa) that produces quarter-sized white flowers, and fuzzy pink fruits. It remains showy for most of the growing season.
  • Buckwheats (eriogonum) are another really good option for a waterwise garden. They often produce slightly fuzzy green or gray leaves with flowers ranging in color from white or pink, to yellow, with fall foliage in varying shades of red and purple. And they are an important pollinator plant for native bees.
  • Stonecrops (sedum) are a good, easy-to-grow option. They come in different shapes and sizes from low-growing groundcovers, to mounding varieties, to tall clumping forms.
  • Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) is quite waterwise once established and produces flowers ranging in color from white, to pink, to varying shades of purple.

Q. As far as ground cover, what do you recommend?

Groundcovers come in all shapes and sizes and, as long as it spreads, can include plants as tall as two feet. Before picking your plants, first determine what you are looking for in a groundcover. Are you looking for something that can be walked on, or are you wanting to fill an area with colorful waterwise plants?  If the first, a waterwise grass such as our native buffalo grass (bouteloua dactyloides) is a good option—it can be interplanted with spring flowering bulbs for early spring color. For the latter, creeping thyme (thymus) and ice plants (delosperma) are my favorites but there are so many other great groundcovers to choose from like creeping phlox (phlox), pussy-toes (antennaria), Speedwell (Veronica), leadwort (ceratostigma plumbaginoides), creeping gold buttons (cotula Tiffindell gold), and stonecrops (sedum).

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about planting a garden?

Plant whatever brings you joy, and it never hurts to experiment and try new things.

Jason Baker is the curator for Red Butte Gardens and Aboretum since the fall of 2006. He majored in botany with an emphasis in plant identification. Shortly after graduation he was told about the open curator position, and began what he considers a great and very fulfilling career. Jason loves plants and photography, both of which fit very well in his job.