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Prairie coneflowers thriving in Santa Fe

Roger Swain, author of Groundwork: A Gardener’s Ecology (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), claims, “Nature writes, gardeners edit.” I’m finding this to be remarkably true this year. I’ve spent considerable time in recent weeks eradicating weeds, removing tree root suckers, pruning excess growth, and “editing” seedlings.

Calling something a “seedling” as opposed to a “weed” implies that it is desirable. Since my garden is a slow work in progress, begun four years ago, I’m quite happy to have reached the point where plants I like are beginning to reseed. Mother Nature seems to have a superior skill for propagation. So why not let her do the work? But while a few additions may be welcome, 50 might not be. I look at where the seedlings are located and decide whether I want another plant in that spot. Then I thin or completely remove them. When they are small, this is an easy task. I know I’m not alone when I say that I’ve broadcast seed but nothing came up. The ideal circumstances seem to be so specific and so fleeting that to replicate them can feel elusive at best. And yet Rocky Mountain penstemon proliferates in my garden, exuberantly popping up out of the gravel, along stones, or next to a container.

The same goes for our native Palmer’s penstemon, or pink wild snapdragon. I planted one in my front yard. It got too much water and became rangy and unhealthy looking, so I removed it. This year I am pulling out more than I can count. But I’m leaving some in place, away from where they might get too much water, not too close to the walkway, in a random pattern that will look natural when they bloom next year. Time spent was perhaps 30 minutes, and the small plants are growing where they will likely thrive.

I also have seedlings of other xeric or native perennials that I planted: blackfoot daisy, Jupiter’s beard, red-flowering salvia, Maximilian sunflower, thyme, and lavender. I’m curious to find out which lavender variety these tiny plants are when they mature, since I have five different varieties planted. I might assume they will be the same as the one nearby. But that is not always the case.

Sometimes plants emerge in locations far flung from their parent. Seeds can be cast about by wind, moving water, birds, or even the treads in our shoes. Last year yellow prairie coneflowers appeared in my back yard. I have no idea where they came from. They bloomed prolifically and are quite beautiful again this year. They also make a nice cut flower, some-thing not always true of wild or native plants.

So far this year I have come across a “new” chamisa, a little-leaf mountain mahogany, an Apache plume, a blanket flower (Gaillardia) hidden under a juniper, and, oddly, a tiny cilantro. I wasn’t sure at first what it was so I left it. It’s gone to seed and I can only hope that next year there will be more and that they will thrive.

Successful plants come from seeds that germinate at the right time in the right place. I planted a golden currant a few years ago. It did not grow well and was excruciatingly susceptible to pests, so I removed it. But now I have a new one I did not plant, in a different part of my yard, and it is thriving. Gardener friends have told me similar stories of planting a shrub or perennial that suffered some unfortunate fate but left a new generation of healthier offspring elsewhere. So as you go about weeding your garden, take some time to learn what you are about to dispatch. It’s OK to wait a bit until you can determine from leaf shape or even flower what it is and whether you’d like to keep it. A good source is Weeds of the West (Diane, 2006). It’s expensive, but you can access a free version online from the University of Wyoming Extension at

Mother Nature may know best when it comes to location and timing. But you know best what you’d like to see flourishing in your garden. After all, you are the editor.

Laurie McGrath has been a certified Master Gardener in Santa Fe County for 19 years and is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP). She was a co-host of “The Garden Journal” on KSFR radio. Before moving to Santa Fe she helped design a Hummingbird Garden at the Jeanne and Charles Schultz campus of Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California.

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