Steps Towards Curing the Garden Blahs….Part 1


I must admit, that I have been looking forward to this topic and have been pouring over past photos of my landscape consults.  I didn’t realize how many photos that I had accrued over the years of boring gardens so it has taken me a while to put this post together.

My last post asked the question, “Does Your Garden Have the Blahs?”  Is it boring, overgrown, sparse, or just lacks interest?  Well, don’t worry; we will go over some simple steps that you can do to chase the ‘blahs’ away.

Part 1 has to do with deciding what to take out of the garden and what to keep.  Your homework assignment was to take a picture of your garden and then print it out.  Now, get out your red pen and get ready…..

boring gardens

Now at first glance, you may be wondering what is wrong with this front garden.  Well, the homeowners felt their garden was boring and lacked color.   This garden had some attractive plants, but some were too large for their allotted space and had to be pruned continuously.  Other shrubs were not placed correctly and blocked the view of those behind them.

So, I got out my red pen and got started…..

boring gardens

Shrubs that blocked the view into the garden and were too large for their allotted space and so were circled in red and removed.  Those circled in blue were pruned back.

boring gardens

Shortly afterward, you can see the difference removing a few plants and some pruning makes.  The client also added some new plants (not blooming in this picture) that would provide color in the winter when they were in residence.

Here is an example of a gardener who got a little carried away……

boring gardens

This garden is not what I would call ‘blah’, but the homeowner tried to fit all of her favorite plants into a very small area.  All they succeeded in doing was to create a messy planting area, which is not pleasing to the eye.

boring gardens

I counted at least 6 shrubs in this small area.  Because they were so crowded, they had been pruned often to keep them from overtaking each other and removing many of the flowers in the process.  By removing 3 of the plants, the rest would have room to grow into their natural shapes and provide a beautiful focal point to this garden.

boring gardens

This front garden has a grove of beautiful trees.  However, there are four trees crowded into too small a space.  Each individual tree had to be pruned to keep them from running into each other and therefore, you could not enjoy their full size and beauty.  

By removing the circled trees the two remaining trees would be better appreciated since they could then reach their full potential.

boring gardens

This entry area was well designed and only suffered from some old perennials (Angelita Daisies).  Many flowering perennials are short-lived and need to be replaced every few years.  They are relatively inexpensive and add so much interest to the garden.

boring gardens

Unfortunately, many gardeners make the mistake of not replacing their plants and as a result, their garden becomes more and more bare with each passing year, like the one below…..

boring gardens

If your garden looks like this one, you probably do not need to remove anything, since there is hardly anything left.  You can see a drip irrigation line sticking up by the boulder where there used to be a plant.  This is a perfect example of a garden where short-lived plants were removed and never replaced.

Sometimes, the wrong plant is planted the wrong place…..

boring gardens

These are Ficus trees that were planted in a raised planter around a pool.  When they were initially planted, they were small and fit well into this limited space, but no longer.  

boring gardens

This Red Bird-of-Paradise shrubs naturally grows more then 4 – 5 ft. wide and should be removed from this area.

boring gardens

Gold Lantana is beautiful and is usually covered with yellow flowers, but not his one.  It has been pruned, using hedge trimmers, to keep it from encroaching on the water meter, but it had never been severely pruned, which if done each spring, would eliminate this problem.  

There are two different solutions  – the first is to simply prune the Lantana back severely to about 1′ and let it grow out until it is approximately 3′ x 3′.   The other solution is simply to remove it and plant a replacement further away from the water meter.

Many situations simply require occasional severe pruning, which can rejuvenate plants, reduce maintenance and greatly improve their appearance.  So if any of these pictures remind you of your garden – a severe pruning, may be all you need to do.

boring gardens
boring gardens

Severely pruning this Chihuahuan Sage (Leucophyllum laevigatum), will remove the dead interior growth which will be replaced with new, attractive growth that will flower.  By pruning back to approximately 2′ x 2′, you will have an ugly bunch of sticks for a few weeks, but in most cases, they will begin to leaf out again.  **This is best done in the spring time.  Some plants will not recover from this type of pruning, which indicates that they were declining and would not have survived for long even without being pruned.

boring gardens

In some cases, when there is little green growth (above), it is best to just remove the plants and start over.  But, you can always try to cut them back severely to about 2′ in size and see if they come back… don’t have anything to lose, so try it and you may be surprised when it comes back.

boring gardens

 There is nothing that needs to be removed in this garden.  But a good pruning would improve the appearance.  All three shrubs should be pruned severely every 2 – 3 years in spring and then allowed to grow into their natural shape.  The Cat’s Claw Vine, (I don’t recommend planting this vine), should also be pruned down to the ground every few years to remove old, woody growth and keep it in check.

boring gardens

Again, I would not remove anything from this garden, but it does need improvement.  It looks like a bunch of round blobs dotted haphazardly around the landscape.  At first you may fault a bad design, but if you take a second look, it is more a problem of incorrect pruning.  Each type of shrub in this landscape grows to varying heights and shapes, when not pruned into round ball shapes.  By decreasing the amount of pruning and banishing the hedge trimmers, the shrubs would grow into their natural shapes would greatly improve the appearance of this landscape.  A little texture would be welcome in the shape of large boulders, accent plants and some mounding perhaps.

**You can read more about recommended pruning for shrubs in an earlier post, “Shrubs Aren’t Made To Be Cupcakes, Frisbees or Pill Boxes.

As you can see, we covered a lot of different boring gardens.  I hope the examples that I have shown help you as you evaluate your own garden and use your red pen.

I will start working on Part 2, which will cover more of the design aspect – specifically, where to place plants in the landscape.  


On  personal note, life is crazy and busy, but there are two things that I would like to share with you.

First, my nephew (Little Farmer of Double S Farms), swallowed a penny earlier this week and then complained of pain.  It turns out it got lodged in his esophagus and he had to go the children’s hospital where they put him to sleep so they could use a scope to get it out.

my nephew

He did great 🙂

The second thing that I would like to share is that in exactly 1 week, my brother and sister-in-law will give birth to their twin boys.  I can hardly wait!

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
16 replies
  1. Brad
    Brad says:

    Ha ha. That first yard reminds me of so many yards in Phoenix. Great post. Thank you so much for writing this. Especially things like, some perennials are short-lived and easily replaced. I wish people would realize spending 20 or 30 bucks to replace a couple of old ratty shrubs is not the end of the world. So many people have tried to get me to save some woody, half-rotten thing that could so easily be replaced. And I always agree with your anti-pillbox, cupcake frisbee stance. Great work.

  2. Becca
    Becca says:

    Hi Noelle, I love how you know all this stuff! I wish you could see my back yard. I was just trimming the palms and the african sumac back the other day and commented everything just looks blah. Now that it's getting cooler, I can't wait to add some color with containers. BTW if you have time this post has a photo of this tree in my front yard. any chance you know WHAT it is? We've been here 6 years now and it STILL looks scraggly and small. My husband likes it because I call it the Charlie Brown tree. It's 90 degrees and it's leaves are starting to change colors. Weird.

  3. Becca
    Becca says:

    It's me again…I just wanted to say, it's really sad here in Vegas with so many foreclosures. Our neighborhood was so nice, now some of the homes around here where people just moved out, their water has been turned off and the front shrubs are all dying! We try so hard to keep ours nice and then to see that is sad.

  4. One
    One says:

    Noelle, Wonderful sharing. Thanks a million. Summary for me to remember:
    Prune, replant/replace and remove. 🙂

    I notice the ground are not covered with lawn in most of the photos. Is it gravel down there?

    Great to know your nephew's esophagus is now 'penniless'.

  5. FlowerLady
    FlowerLady says:

    Glad your nephew is ok.

    I'm afraid if you saw my gardens there would be red circles everywhere. 🙂 I do enjoy your posts and they always make me look more critically at what I have growing here.

    Thanks for sharing your gardening knowledge with us.


  6. rohrerbot
    rohrerbot says:

    How many suburb yards look like this?!! It's so depressing and makes you not want to garden here. Great advice for all of it….but I have to admit…I am guilty of the tree issue…too many in one spot. I love my Jacaranda tree and you had it circled in the pic and personally, if I were forced to remove a couple trees, I would remove the others:)because there is nothing more beautiful than Jac:) And I am guilty of planting all my favorite plants in one area…maybe not that tight….but they are close together:) I have an addiction and a plan. I like what's happening, but several of your points are in the back of my mind….what happens when these older trees grow larger?

  7. Kate
    Kate says:

    Uh oh. I fear that if you visited my gardens I might become a 'gardening don't.' 🙂 I tend to squish tons of perennials together to insure color all summer long. Plus, dense packs weed themselves.

    But, I did love this post because I see tons of yards like this and they never look very inviting.

    Glad to hear that little cutie is now penniless! :))

  8. leavesnbloom
    leavesnbloom says:

    You all seem to do alot of pruning in desert regions Noelle. Its lovely seeing the different types of gardens in your part of the world – they look quite Italian only in Italy it would be clipped buxus plants. I think if the clients in the last photo had left their plants to grown in their correct shapes the garden would have look stunning.

    Glad that penny is gone – and it must be so exciting awaiting the little ones arrival.

  9. Diana
    Diana says:

    yeah, I would have to say my front yard looks somewhat like these…a good prune would do some good in one are but filling the holes where plants were once would be a great idea too!

  10. Curbstone Valley Farm
    Curbstone Valley Farm says:

    I never did understand the compulsive need by some to prune all their shrubs into the same shape. I'm happy that here we just can let our plants grow more naturally. Congratulations on almost being an auntie again, and I'm glad Little Farmer is on the mend.

  11. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    That last photo just totally boggles my mind. if that is the type of "landscaping" they were after, why not just plant green plastic cubes/balls about the yard instead of torturing plants?

  12. Pam's English Garden
    Pam's English Garden says:

    Dear Noelle, You are so very knowledgeable … very impressive post. I can't wait to visit Phoenix (my son and his family just moved there) … your gardens are so very different from the Northeast. But the basics are the same.

    Congrats on the new babies and on Little Farmer's recovery.

    Love, Pam x

  13. Rose
    Rose says:

    You have reinforced one problem I have that I already knew about, Noelle. I have two overgrown yews that either need to be removed or severely pruned. It's on my to-do list:) Wonderful advice; you have such a great eye for what makes a more pleasing design!

    Glad your nephew is okay; that must have been a very scary experience for everyone.

  14. Shady Gardener
    Shady Gardener says:

    Hi Noelle, You have an interesting job and a good eye for detail! I knew my Sunny Corner Bed had gotten too crowded (thanks to a few quickly-growing, somewhat invasive plants)! However, this past month I did quite a bid of digging (weeding out) which has resulted in the need for a couple of new items! Yea! 😉

    So glad your nephew is fine. He now has a story to share! You will be posting on the twins soon, I hope.

  15. Amy
    Amy says:

    Now I'll definitely have to get out my red and blue pens! I've got some plants that started out so small and innocent, but have grown into block-the-view shrubs (self-seeded flame acanthus, I'm looking at you). And thank you for the pruning tips; as a beginner gardener, drastic pruning is one of the hardest things to do. Glad your nephew's penny-free; he looks like a brave soul.

Comments are closed.