plant suggestions in sunny and dry area

I live in the sunny desert of Idaho, zone 6. There's a little garden section next to my house on the south side. The ground is sandy in this place.
I've tried planting several things there.The first year, peas (which did well unil late spring, and I was able to harvest) and carrots (which were kind of woody tasting). What I really wanted was roses. It's a tiny space (2'x8') and I could fit three roses there, with strawberries as a ground cover. Well, the leaves didn't even bud on the first roses I planted. Almost all of the strawberries dried up right away. I thought I wasn't watering enough, (and planting too late in the season) so I tried it again this year. I planted much earlier. I watered more. One of the bareroot roses put forth leaves. The strawberries looked like they were going to do well. I left for the weekend, thinking they'd be all right. Three days later I returned to find only a few strawberries left (of the ~50 I planted) and the leaves on the rose shriveled up and crunchy.
I'm thinking my problem is two-fold. The sandy soil doesn't lock in any moisture. The house reflects the heat from the sun.
Only two things seem to grow well here- prickly lettuce and purslane. The previous owners had it filled with lava rock.
This is my new idea. I could get some sagebrush (a very natural plant around here) and use purslane as a ground cover. I'm also thinking of using prickly pear cactus down further along the side of the house. I also have one lone cotoneaster at the corner of the house that doesn't mind the dry.
I'm looking for any other suggestions. I also have a much bigger section I'd like things to grow in along the house (where I'm thinking of using the prickly pear)..
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Sagebrush and similar shrubs are pretty flammable - are wildfires a concern where you are? If so, they should not be located anywhere near the house or any other structures.

Look around to see how prickly pear grows in your area. If it gets weedy, it could be real torture to get rid of it or even to keep it under control. Possibly a liability issue too. Or - consider buying a completely thornless variety. For a bonus - get a thornless variety that makes really good fruit!
cheers,
Marj
--
Marj Tiefert: http://www.mindspring.com/~mtiefert /
Mediterranean Garden Advice and Shop: http://stores.tiefert.com/garden /
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Sempervivum, hardy Sedum, hardy Mesembs, hardy Cactus. There are now many to choose from.

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Why not do some SERIOUS amendment to your soil there. It sounds like the area isn't that large. Perhaps 10 big bags of compost/ aged manure/ well-soaked peat moss, etc etc. This will seem like a lot at first, but your sandy soil will "eat" it all up. Roses should do well in your climate - they tend to do better and act healthier in deserty climates than they are in humid climates. (Fewer problems with black spot and mildew). And they like lots of sun, as long as their roots are able to get moisture. Hence, the amendments, which will keep moist after the sand has dried out.

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So I would go for the peas again. They worked. They are good and they fix nitrogen in your sandy soil.

I think one of the keys for this site will be to add mulch, mulch and some more mulch around everything you plant. This will help to create a microclimate around your plants and will help (somewhat) to limit some of your water loss to evaporation.
I saw the post about soil amendments and you could go that route...but I rather like to start with what conditions I have and then find all the cool variety of things that will grow there. It sounds like you have some more room so you might consider some container/raised bed gardening if you want all the veggies, etc.

Here's a site of Front Range Plants (http://www.ci.boulder.co.us/openspace/nature/gardens/native-plant-list-410.pdf ). Colorado's Front Range has dry/clay soil generally but the dry/sunny/rocky plants might also succeed where you are.
Not sure how high/dry you are but there are varieties of lupine that thrive on dry, sandy river banks. Great plant with lovely color. Penstemon - bearded tongue -(http://www.prairiefrontier.com/pages/natvpics/nativea1.html ) is pretty and we've found it to be so successful that it's almost invasive in the rocky beds that run immediately beside our house (sunny/dry).
I hate to advocate any mint as it's just so annoying...but if you want to fill in space - Dotted mint is pretty and should thrive in your conditions (http://www.prairiefrontier.com/pages/natvpics/nativea4.html ).
Indian rice grass may provide you with some height and "structure". Not sure how big bluestem will do, but it's such a fun plant I have to recommend it.
Antelope bitterbrush (http://tinyurl.com/2uj5t ) and snowberry (any variety) are 2 larger shrubs that might help you fill up space around the house...
Also, except for the shrubs, I would consider planting from seed. Personally, I would overseed the area and then wait for stuff to sprout. The most successful can stay and then pull the rest.

I like to go to local nurseries and pick their brain over what might grow in the space. They'll know your area and they might be able to come up with more fun, local natives. Don't buy anything when you go the first time. Just create a plant list and mark down their seed prices. Visit a couple. Choose the one that you felt gave you the most help and have prices that seem the most reasonable. Take your list and buy from them.
Good luck! ~b
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Thanks for all the replies. Last year I added a five gallon bucket of aged manure (minus the bucket) to the area. It didn't seem to help. It never occurred to me to add TEN bags of stuff. So, I'll try one more time by amending the soil and mulching.
Oh, and the peas, they're fine for spring, but it's too hot for them by the end of May. Besides, I'd like something a little more permanent.
Again, thanks!
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plant an herb garden perfect conditions great cooking good luck
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