garden in the desert with small tree and plants

Let’s face it. Hot summers are not surprising to desert dwellers. In fact, a typical garden with native and desert-adapted plants will weather intense heat with little fuss.

However, this summer has been one for the books and I’ve seen signs of heat-stress that I’ve never seen before. And yes, within my own garden.

Heat-stressed Rock Penstemon and Golden Barrel Cactus

I must admit that it’s been hard to see certain plants struggling in my garden and I know you may have similar feelings. So, why has this summer been so much more difficult than others?

Pink Trumpet Vine partially defoliated due to the heat

While it is normal to have several days above 110 degrees F., the summer of 2020 is one for the record books. We have experienced not just a couple of stretches of above-normal temps but, several long spans of infernal heat. Damage to plants is often cumulative. This means that the more days of above-average (or below-average) temperatures – the higher incidence of reaction from plants.

Take a walk outside in your garden. You will likely notice some plants that are yellowing, wilting, or have given up and died. However, you may also note that there are some that are doing well.

Why is that? Let me show you some examples from my own garden – the good AND the ugly.

Let’s start with the ugly:

New Mexican Fence Post cactus transplants

In March, much of my backyard was renovated. This included the addition of two separate plantings of Mexican Fence Post cacti. They are located along my back wall and as you can see, one is doing very well while the other makes me cringe when I see the yellowing.

Does the yellowing cactus need more or less water? No. Many succulents yellow in response to summer heat. Of course, this very hot summer has made it more severe. So, why the difference between the two?

The one on the left gets filtered shade in the afternoon from a nearby Palo Verde tree. You can tell that the one on the right doesn’t get any shade but full afternoon sun. In a normal summer, it would be normal to see some yellowing that will return to green once temperatures cool. I am hopeful that will happen. As plants age, they tend to handle heat stress better and as these are young, the stress was especially severe.

Signs of heat stress

In another area of my garden, I have Green Desert Spoon and Hardy Spineless Prickly Pear, which are very heat-adapted. Yet, they do show signs of mild heat-stress that I haven’t seen before. But, they will green back up in fall. Other plants that are struggling include Artichoke Agave, Gopher Plant, and Shrubby Germander.

I am thrilled that my young Desert Willow tree in this photo is thriving despite the heat. I have four others scattered throughout my landscape and all are doing just as well.

Here are some of the good:

Young Baja Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis) doing very well. The neighbor’s Dwarf Myrtle isn’t.

‘Sparky’ Tecoma shrub (Tecoma ‘Sparky’)
Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Will soon burst forth in burgundy plumes in fall.
Gold Lantana in full sun all day

Feathery Cassia, Purple Trailing Lantana, and Yellow Bell shrubs are also doing well.

Here are a couple of exceptional performers that get full, reflected sun:

‘Rio Bravo’ Texas Sage
Bougainvillea

There are still six weeks of summer heat ahead of us. So, what should we do for now?

  1. Be sure plants are receiving enough water. You may need to increase the frequency when temps are above 110 degrees.
  2. Don’t fertilize. Feeding plants simply makes them work harder to produce new growth when all they are trying to do is deal with the heat.
  3. Don’t prune away heat-damaged growth until September. While brown leaves are ugly, they are protecting the interior of the plant. Some pruning is recommended in mid-September, which I teach in my Shrub Pruning Workshop.

We don’t know if this summer will be an anomaly or the beginning of a new normal. But, instead of throwing in the towel, I invite you to do the following instead:

Take a stroll through your garden and take note of which plants are doing well and those that aren’t. If this is to be the new norm, it would be a good idea to add more of those that handle the heat well.

b

I am not going to make any major changes in my own garden. Most of my plants have done just fine in past summers. I’ll replace the few plants that died but am hopeful that next summer will be one with average temperatures. If not, then I know what plants have withstood the heat best.

Before we know it, fall will be here, and I for one, can’t wait!

Did you know that you can have plants blooming in your landscape every month of the year? In the desert garden, this is definitely true!

One of the most popular programs that I teach at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is ‘Flowering All Year’. During the presentation, I teach students how to incorporate plants in their gardens so they can enjoy colorful blooms all year long.

Sadly, many desert dwellers miss this opportunity. Drive down a typical neighborhood street in winter, and you will have a hard time finding plants in bloom except for colorful annual flowers. As you’ll note, the focus in our gardens is typically on plants that flower through the warm season.

So, how can we change that? It’s quite simple – add plants that will flower in winter. Believe it or not, there are quite a few plants that fit the bill. 

I invite you to come along with me on a virtual tour of the plants I showed to the students in the class as we walked through the garden in mid-February.

*Before we embark on our walk, I have a confession to make. Usually, I arrive early before my classes to see what’s in bloom so I can plan our route. But, my daughter’s bus arrived late that morning, so I was running a bit late. As a result, I didn’t know what we would see. Thankfully, there was plenty to see.

Plants for Cool-Season Color:

 

Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violaceae)

The vibrant, blooms of Purple Lilac Vine never disappoint. Blooms appear in mid-winter, adding a welcome relief to colorless winter landscapes. Here it is planted in a tall raised bed and allowed to trail downward. In my garden, it grows up against a wall with a trellis for support.

Whale’s Tongue Agave and Mexican Honeysuckle underneath an Ironwood tree

 

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

Several perennials and small shrubs do best in the desert garden when planted in filtered sunlight. Desert trees like Ironwood, Mesquite, and Palo Verde are excellent choices for producing filtered sunlight. Mexican Honeysuckle doesn’t do well in full sun. As a result, it thrives under the shade of this Ironwood tree. I love the texture contrast in this bed next to the Whale’s Tongue Agave.

Weber’s Agave (Agave weberi) and Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

Desert Marigold is a short-lived perennial that resembles a wildflower. Yellow flowers appear throughout the year on this short-lived perennial. I like to use them in wildflower gardens or natural desert landscapes because this yellow bloomer will self-seed.

Firesticks (Euphorbia ‘Sticks on Fire’) and Elephants Food (Portulacaria afra)

Shrubs, vines, and perennials aren’t the only plants that add winter color in the landscape. Colorful stems of the succulent Firesticks add a splash of orange all year. I am a fan of the use of blue pots in the garden, and here, it adds a powerful color contrast with the orange.

‘Winter Blaze’ (Eremophila glabra)

 

Lush green foliage decorated with orange/red blooms is on display all year long with this Australian native. Several types of Eremophilas add cool-season color to the landscape, and this one deserves more attention. There must be a blank space in my garden for one… 

Blue Bells Eremophila and Mexican Fence Post Cactus

 

Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana)

Blue Bells is arguably one of my most favorite plants. It resembles a compact Texas Sage (Leucophyllum spp.) but doesn’t grow as large AND blooms throughout the year. For best results, plant in full sun, but well-drained soil is a must.

Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)

My favorite choice for winter color is Valentine Bush. Red/fuschia blooms begin to appear in January and last into April. For maximum color impact, use them in groups of 3 – 5. They are low maintenance – prune back to 1/2 their size in mid-April after flowering. No other pruning is required.

Aloe ferox

Winter into spring is a busy time for Aloes, and many species do well in the desert garden. Most require filtered sunlight to do their best, but ‘Blue Elf’ Aloe does well in both full sun and bright shade.

Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

People from colder climates are often surprised to note that rosemary flowers. In the desert, we are fortunate that we get to enjoy their blue flowers from winter through spring – the bees like them too!

Shrubby Germander (Teucrium fruiticans ‘Azurea’)

Toward the entrance to the garden, I was delighted to see Shrubby Germander. A star in my own garden, this shrub has flowered all winter long and will continue to do so into spring. The blooms are a lovely periwinkle color.

Chuparosa (Justicia californica)

As our walk was wrapping up, the bright red blooms of a Chuparosa shrub caught our eye. A hummingbird was busily drinking as much nectar as he could. I like to use this shrub in landscapes with a natural theme as it has a sprawling growth habit. It flowers through winter into spring and an important nectar source for hummingbirds.

Of course, blooming plants aren’t the only way to add color to the garden. Garden art can play a vital part in adding interest. The Desert Botanical Garden is host to a traveling art exhibit with various animals made from recycled plastic. This group of meerkats greets visitors to the garden.

I hope that you enjoy this virtual tour of winter color in the garden and will add some to your own.

What plants do you have that flower in winter?

I have a confession to make.  

I don’t have any containers filled with flowering annuals. Shocking isn’t it?

There are a few reasons for this, the most important one is that I prefer using relatively fuss-free plants that look great all year in my pots.  

I don’t have much patience for high-maintenance containers. In particular, ones with flowering annuals that need frequent irrigation. Not to mention deadheading of spent flowers and having to change them out seasonally. But, I do love the way they look.

container-red-geraniums

Red Geraniums and White Bacopa

My inclination to avoid flowering annuals in my own garden has to do with my past and no, it’s nothing scandalous.

It does have to do with my work in the past. For five years, I was in charge of 45 pots. Each container was always be filled with colorful flowers.

Believe me, keeping all of those pots looking beautiful was a lot of work! Countless trips to the nursery, fertilizing, watering and replacing them twice a year got tiresome. Not to mention that I broke my foot when I tripping on a curb, while loading flats of flowers. 

So, it may not come as a surprise that I prefer using succulents in my pots.

Victoria Agave ‘Compacta’
 
Much of my inspiration for using succulents in containers come from those at the Desert Botanical Garden as shown in the photo above and below.
Agaves are some of my favorite succulent plants and the smaller species do very well in containers.

In an article I wrote for Houzz, I list my ten favorite small agaves for Houzz that are suitable for growing in pots.

I hope you enjoy it and find one that is perfect for you!
 
 

Valentine bush and feathery cassia

One of the things that I enjoy about living in the Southwest are the beautiful outdoor spaces. In particular, I am struck by the color and beauty in the winter landscape.

Now, for those of you who follow, know that I often take photos of ‘problem’ landscapes I drive by.

Well, not this time!  I was so distracted by the beauty around me that I didn’t notice any landscape mistakes.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and are inspired to create your own!

 
Valentine bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’) is hands down, my favorite shrub.  I love its bright red color, which decorates the landscape from January through April.  Even when not in bloom, the foliage looks lovely.
 
Golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) with their sunny yellow color are a great choice. I use them often in my landscape designs due to their drought tolerance, low maintenance (they need none) and the yellow color they add throughout the year.
 
Large desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) add great contrast with their spiky texture and gray-blue coloring.
 
This is a great pairing of plants that I plan on using in future designs.
 
 
The yellow, fragrant flowers of feathery cassia (Senna artemisioides) are famous for their winter color. Nothing else brightens a dreary winter’s day as much as the color yellow. The silvery foliage of this cassia adds great color contrast and give off a silvery glow on a breezy day.

In the background, you see the pink blooms of pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla). Their uniquely shaped blooms look like a feather duster and hummingbirds find them irresistible. 

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) is a native groundcover that needs little water and provides nice color contrast.

 
This combination was well done but planted too closely together.
 
Against the backdrop of yellow-flowering feathery cassia, a pair of boulders are decorated with blue bells (Eremophila hygrophana). These shrubs have lovely gray foliage and produce purple/blue flowers all year long.  This is a newer plant introduction getting a lot of attention. 
 
A golden barrel cactus offers great contrast along with a pair of agave.
 
 
Here is one of my favorite landscapes in this particular community.  I like the combination of cacti, flowering shrubs, and perennials that create a pleasing landscape.
 
A trio of flowering firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni) easily catches your eye. They are one of my favorite perennials in my own garden and flower January through April in the low desert.
 
 
In another landscape, firecracker penstemon is used as part of a wildflower planting, backed by desert spoon and purple trailing lantana.
 
 
Ornamental grasses add great interest to the winter landscape and pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is one of my favorites. Their burgundy plumes, which appear in fall fade to an attractive wheat color in winter. Soon, they will be pruned back to 3 inches in preparation for a new growth cycle.
 
 
Some landscapes look attractive using a minimum amount of plants.  The key is to use a variety of different plants – not just shrubs or cacti.  In this one, a blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) overlooks a planting of purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) and desert spoon.  While the lantana is frost tender, the canopy of the tree provides it some protection from frost.
 
 
It’s important to anchor the corners in your landscape – particularly those next to the driveway. Here is an example of how to combine plants that look great throughout the year. When warmer temps arrive  ‘New Gold’ lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold’), bursts forth with colorful blooms that last until the first frost. In winter, golden barrel cacti attract the attention and keep you from noticing the frost damaged lantana. 
 
 
This street planting also attracted my attention with the row of little leaf (foothill) palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla) trees, Valentine shrubs and purple trailing lantana. I should note that lantana doesn’t usually flower much in winter, but in mild winters, they do.

An almost leafless mesquite tree stands sentinel over a planting of red-flowering chuparosa (Justicia californica). This shrub has lovely green foliage and tubular flowers that drive hummingbirds crazy with delight.

As you can see, the Southwestern landscape is filled with beauty and color, even in winter.  Unfortunately, many homeowners only use plants that bloom spring through summer. This leaves them with a boring landscape through the winter months for several months. So, celebrate the winter season by adding a few of these cool-season beauties to your garden!

Have you ever renovated the interior of your house? Seeing the old, outdated elements peeled away and replaced with new paint, flooring, etc. can leave you feeling refreshed and even excited. Well, I get to do that with outdoor spaces, assisting clients with already established landscapes, create an updated look. The key to this is NOT to tear everything out and begin from scratch – instead, it’s a delightful puzzle deciding what should remain and what is best removed and replaced.

I get so much satisfaction helping people create an attractive landscape, and even more when I get to see them several months later once the plants have a chance to begin to grow. Last week, I was invited to re-visit a new landscape that I designed, exactly one year after it was completed and was very pleased with the results.

I’d love to show you photos of the finished product, but first, let’s look at what I had to work with.

As you can see, the interior of the house was also undergoing renovation when I first visited. The front yard consisted of two palm tree stumps, a few agave, overgrown gold lantana, and boulders.

The landscape rock was thinning and mixed in with the river rock while the asphalt from the street was crumbling away.

The parts of the landscape that I felt could be reused were the boulders and the gold lantana. Also, the river rock could be re-purposed. All of the rest was removed.

To create the structure for the new landscape elements, additional boulders were added, and the existing contouring was enhanced by elevating the height of the mound and a swale in the front center. The circular collection of rip-rap rock serves to mask the opening of the end of a french drain which helps to channel water from the patio.

A saguaro cactus and totem pole ‘Monstrose’ (Lophocereus schottii ‘Monstrose’) were placed for vertical interest and the gold lantana that were already present were pruned back severely to rejuvenate them and others were added to create visual continuity. Along with the cactuses, other succulents like artichoke agave (Agave parrying var. truncata) and gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa) were incorporated to add texture with their unique shapes.

The existing river rock was removed, washed off and replaced along with the crumbling edge of the street, helping it to blend with the natural curves of the landscape.

Anchoring the corners with a grouping of plants is a very simple way to enhance the curb appeal of a home. This collection of volunteer agave and old palm tree stumps weren’t doing this area any favors.

This corner was built up slightly, creating a gentle rise in elevation. A large boulder joined the existing one, and a beautiful, specimen artichoke agave was transplanted here from the owner’s previous residence. Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) will add year-round color as they fill in. ‘Blue Elf’ aloe were planted to add a welcome splash of color in winter and spring when they flower.

Moving into the front courtyard, the corner was filled with an overgrown rosemary shrub. The dwarf oleander shrubs were also taken out as they were too large for the smaller scale of this area.

Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus) helps to anchor the corner and will grow at a moderate rate, adding more height as it grows.

Year-round color is assured with angelita daisies and ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, which won’t outgrow this area.

Moving toward the front entry, this area is somewhat underwhelming. The natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) adds a pleasant green backdrop and is thriving in the shade, so should stay. However, the Dasylirion succulent should never have been planted here as it needs full sun to look its best.

The solution in this area is quite simple. Pruning back the natal plum to a more attractive shape makes them an asset. A lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) adds height and texture contrast and will grow in the bright shade. We kept the trailing purple lantana (Lantana montevidensis), for the color that it provides. Rip rap rock was placed to add some interest at the ground level.

Moving toward the backyard, another old rosemary shrub was removed from the corner in the background and replaced with ‘Blue Elf’ aloe and angelita daisy, repeating the same planting from the corner area in the courtyard, helping to tie these separate areas together.

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) were added along the shady side of the house where their spiky shape creates interesting shapes. The key to keeping them attractive is to remove new growth around the base as it occurs.

The corner of the backyard is a very high-profile spot and faces the golf course. The homeowner’s wanted to get rid of the dwarf oleander hedge to improve their view. Clumps of agave look slightly unkempt as volunteer agave were allowed to remain and grow. The gold lantana does add ornamental value as does the small ‘Firesticks’ (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’) and can be reused.

One of the clumps of agave was removed, which opened up this area and allowed us to add two aloe vera, which will decorate this corner with yellow blooms in winter and spring. The existing gold lantana provides beautiful color spring through fall. The centerpiece of this group of plants is the water feature.

It’s been over 20 years that I’ve been doing this, and I never get tired of seeing the transformation. I love being a part of it and combining the old with the new for a seamless design.

Thank you for allowing me to share this particular project with you!

My favorite type of succulent are agave and while there are many different species, I’ll never forget the first one I ever grew. It was an octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) that planted years ago while in college studying for my horticulture degree. Even though that was long ago, I have a daily reminder of that first agave plant in the form of one of its descendants growing in my garden today.

This agave is the ‘grandbaby’ of the first one that I grew all those years ago and it was with a feeling of sadness when I noticed it sending up its flowering stalk late in winter, signalling that it was nearing the end of its life. At the same time, there was also a sense of excitement about new birth with the promise of a new generation of agave babies on their way.

The age that an agave is when it flowers varies between the different species, with some living for decades before they send up their towering spikes. With octopus agave, they generally live less than ten years before this wondrous process begins to take place. 

Watching the rate of growth of the flowering stalk of an agave never ceases to amaze me – they grow several inches a day.

Golden yellow flowers began to open along the length of the giant stem much to the delight of bees who happily pollinated the blooms.

Pollinated flowers soon gave way to tiny octopus agave along the stem.

And a few weeks later, they were ready to be picked ready to create a new generation of octopus agave for my garden.

There are probably over a thousand small agave growing along the stalk. However, I selected only nine to represent the next generation. I’m not likely to plant all of them in my garden once they are rooted, but it’s a good idea to select a few more than you are planning for in case some don’t make it, or if you want to give a few away.

Each baby agave are referred to as ‘bulbils’. They don’t have any roots yet, but will soon appear when planted.

I filled three pots with a planting mix specially formulated for cactus and succulents, which means that it is well-drained, which is important when growing succulents. Three agave babies went into each pot, which I placed in the backyard in an area that receives morning sun and filtered shade in the afternoon – placing them in full sun all day would be too difficult for them at this stage as they still need to grow roots.

My job now is to keep the soil moist, but not soggy until roots begin to form, which should take approximately 3-4 weeks. At that time, I can start to space out the watering to every five days or so. Eventually, I will move them out of the pot and transplant them into the garden or into a large container (2 1/2 feet tall and wide) where they can make their new home.

I’m not sure where I will plant each new octopus agave, but I will transplant one to where the parent plant used to be, continuing the cycle of life.

The baby boom isn’t over. Soon, I will be welcoming another set of baby agave into my garden as my King Ferdinand agave has also sent up its flowering stalk. This species is somewhat rare in the landscape and takes a very long time before it flowers, so I am very excited to welcome its babies next month.

 

Is your landscape style more free-form and natural or do you embrace a more modern, contemporary kind of garden with straight lines and right angles? On a recent visit to Austin, I had the opportunity to visit the home of landscape designer, B. Jane, which looks as if it came straight from the pages of a magazine with its resort-style design. If you had a garden like this, why leave home when you can vacation at home in a contemporary, low-maintenance garden?

The front of B.’s garden is graced by a large crepe myrtle, located between her two front windows, which help to frame her view from the house. The flat pads of a prickly pear cactus add rich texture contrast among the softer shapes of perennials.

An agave nestles between asparagus fern and silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea), which is a ground cover, which I saw throughout the gardens we toured in Austin. It is a type of Dichondra, and I liked it so much, that I brought some home and now have it growing in one of my large containers by the front entry. Silver ponyfoot creeps along the ground or can be used to trail over the sides of pots.

A live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) is planted in a circular section covered in decomposed granite. Asparagus fern adds softness around the outer edges, again, creating nice texture contrast.

Walking toward the backyard, I was quite taken with the square step stones and dark grey beach pebbles – this is a great look that is worth replicating.

As you can see from the potted plants on the patio table, simplicity reigns in this garden, which is filled with native or adapted plants that flourish with little fuss. Low-maintenance doesn’t mean that a garden is dull – often the truth is just the opposite as you will see as we continue on our tour.

A rectangular pool runs along the center of the backyard, and colorful balls reflect the colors used throughout the landscape, which is a brilliant way to draw attention to them. A ‘Sticks on Fire’ succulent (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’) basks in the sun, which is a plant that does beautifully in hot, arid climates.

Now, we are at the point in the tour where I became seriously envious. This is B.’s office, which is separate from her house – she simply walks by her beautiful pool on her way to work in the morning and enjoys a glorious view of her garden while she works. Have I ever mentioned that I work in my dining room – that is, until my kids leave home and I get my own office (room).

A group of containers filled with a variety of plants including hibiscus, rosemary, and basil(yes, basil) adds interest to this corner by the pool.

Bamboo is used to help provide privacy from neighbors and shrub roses add a welcome pop of color.

Even the dog has its own space in B.’s garden with a patch of grass and his own fire hydrant!

Isn’t this a lovely seating area? I love the splash of red and the bamboo backdrop.

Just the perfect spot to sit with my friend, Teresa Odle, who blogs at “Gardening In a Drought” and also just happens to co-write with me and two other writers, for our new blog, “Southwest Gardening”.

I must admit that I am drawn more toward more naturalistic gardens, filled with curves and staggered plantings but, I love the contemporary lines of B. Jane’s garden and its resort-like vibe. You can find out more about B. Jane and her creations here.

I like quirky things that are unexpected and outside the daily ‘normalness’ in our lives. That is why I have fallen in love with the city of Austin, Texas, which prides itself on being “weird.” Another reason this Texas capital city appeals to me is their beautiful gardens and rich gardening culture, and my friend, Pam Penick’s shady, colorful garden personifies the uniqueness that is found throughout Austin.

Pam Penick (facing front wearing a hat) greeting garden visitors.

On a recent visit to Austin, I took part in the Garden Bloggers Fling, where garden bloggers from the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, gather and tour gardens within a particular city. This year’s Fling was held in Austin, and one of the gardens I was most excited to see was Pam’s.

As two long-time bloggers in the Southwest, Pam and I have been friends for several years and I was fortunate to have hosted her in Arizona four years ago, while she was researching for her latest book, “The Water-Saving Garden.” For years, I’ve wanted to visit her garden and now was my chance.

Pam’s garden flourishes underneath the filtered shade of beautiful oak trees. However, the shade does present some challenges in that there aren’t a lot of colorful plants that will flower in shady conditions. But, Pam expertly works around that obstacle, using her unique design style that she describes as mostly contemporary.

Concentrating flowering plants in the few areas that receive bright sun is one way to add needed color to a shady landscape. Here, the bright colors of this autumn sage (Salvia greggii) contrast beautifully with the blue-gray leaves of a whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia). While both of these plants flourish in full sun in this Texas garden, they do best with filtered or afternoon shade in the low desert region.

In the absence of flowering plants, texture is introduced with the use of spiky agave and yucca plants. Elements of color are added using garden art such as these blue balls.

I love blue pots, and I’ve found a kindred spirit in Pam, who has them scattered throughout her landscape.

As you walk through the garden, you need to pay attention as Pam adds lovely detail in unexpected places, like this rusted garden art.

There are garden trends that are unique to specific areas of the country, and I found several of what I call, ‘pocket planters’ hanging on walls. Right at eye-level, it is easy to explore the tiny detail of these small containers.

Walking along the driveway, toward the backyard, the soft shape of bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) adds a beautiful blue backdrop, and in front, a container filled with Dyckia and a blue heart adds interest.

A sage green garden gate led the way into the backyard.

A potting bench sits along the wall in the side garden where four “Moby Jr.” whale’s tongue agave are planted, which come from Pam’s original “Moby” agave – I have one of the babies growing in my front garden.

Masonry blocks are artfully arranged into a low wall and filled with a variety of succulents.

The garden sits on a slope, which provides a lovely view from the upper elevation where a blue painted wall adds a welcome splash of color as well as a touch of whimsy with the “Austin” sign.

The shadows from an oak tree make delightful patterns along the wall while planters add a nice color element.

Gardening in Austin isn’t for wimps. They have to deal with thin soils that lie atop rock, which is quite evident along the back of the garden.

Blue bottle trees are a popular garden ornament throughout the South as well as other areas of the U.S. Here; they serve the same purpose as a flowering vine would.

 

As I got ready to leave, I walked among the deck that overlooked the pool where I am greeted by more examples of Pam’s unique garden style. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen octopus pots anywhere in my garden travels, until now. 

I had a wonderful time exploring this shady oasis and the innovative ways that Pam has introduced colorful elements. I invite you to check out her blog, Digging, which is one of my favorites.

 

 

Plants can do some spectacular things, and the dramatic process when agave send up their flowering stalk, definitely qualifies. Yesterday, I noticed that my octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) had begun to send up its fleshy shoot. 

I must confess that I had mixed feelings about it. My first reaction was excitement in getting to view the impressive growth of the fleshy stem and the flowers that will follow. But then, I felt sad that this signaled the beginning of the end for my octopus agave. 

You see, this agave is the ‘grandbaby’ of the first agave that I ever planted, back in the late 1990’s, making three generations of flowering agave in my Arizona garden.

Eventually, that agave flowered, and I harvested one of the babies and planted it in a pot. Several years later, that octopus agave went through the same process, and I collected two babies.

The two siblings started out growing in a pot, and when they got large enough, I transplanted them out into the garden.

One was planted in a corner but had a short-lived stint in the garden as construction near the wall meant that it had to go.

Its sibling did great in its new spot in the front garden when it was planted in 2010, and now it is getting ready for babies.

The tiny baby agave are barely visible, and the stalk will grow several inches a day.

Octopus agave don’t have a long lifespan and mine average eight years in the ground before they flower. 

In a few months, miniature octopus agave will cover the flowering stalk, which can be easily detached and replanted in the garden. It’s hard to believe that I will be planting the fourth generation of agave in my garden.

*I will keep you updated as it continues to grow and the arrival of baby agave.

The holiday season is a time where I try to balance out the preparations for Christmas with time to sit back and enjoy the particular elements that only occur this time of year. On that note, I’m happy to report that I’ve finished shopping for gifts, which are all neatly wrapped underneath the tree or on their way to recipients who live far away. I must admit that I have never finished this early before and it is a bit disconcerting as I keep feeling as if I’m forgetting something important.

 

Last weekend, my mother treated us to an outing to The Nutcracker, by Ballet Arizona and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. 

We arrived a bit early, which gave us the perfect excuse to walk through the downtown area. Years ago, I worked in a tall office building as a landscape designer, but it had been a long time since I had spent any time there.

I was delighted to discover a tall Christmas tree in the center of an ice-skating rink – yes, there is ice-skating in downtown Phoenix.

Walking further on, we saw a unique use of umbrellas as art.

My younger daughters couldn’t figure out why the umbrellas were hanging upside down, but I quite liked the artistic effect.

A row of yellow bell shrubs (Tecoma stans stans) added a welcome splash of lush green and yellow color. While you’ll see them grown as a shrub, here they are pruned into small trees. Underneath is the groundcover yellow dot (Wedelia trilobata).

Once inside the Phoenix Symphony Hall, we admired the colorful Christmas trees. It was all quite festive, and my daughters were excited to watch their first ballet performance.

My mother and daughter, Gracie.

Although Gracie has autism, and many things cause her acute anxiety, she was doing very well as she had always wanted to see The Nutcracker.

 

My sister-in-law, daughters, and me!

There is one thing about the performance that I haven’t mentioned yet. My cousin’s daughter is one of the dancers in this ballet. She is a ‘snowflake’ in Act 1, and a ‘wildflower’ in Act 2.

This is all I can show you of the stage as photos of the performance aren’t allowed.

It was marvelous, and everyone enjoyed themselves. After the performance, we met my cousin’s daughter at the stage door, (Gracie hoped that she would still have her costume on). She was so happy that we had come to see her performance and I was struck by the fact that all the dancing genes in the family went to her (as well as her mother) – I certainly didn’t get any 😉

On our way back to the car, we passed by a striking vertical garden, filled with chuparosa (Justicia californica), octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana), and yucca. Even though the chuparosa was a bit too overgrown, the overall effect was lovely.

Back home, things are rather quiet in the garden, with one exception:

 

 

My Halloween pumpkins that I filled with birdseed are still creating quite a buzz with the neighborhood birds. We have had Alber’s towhees, curved bill thrashers, finches, Inca doves, and sparrows come for a visit. It’s been a real treat watching them out the kitchen window. The pumpkins will probably have to be thrown out in another week, but it’s been nice to find a way to reuse them.

Lastly, we’ve been busy baking cookies for upcoming holiday events as well as to give to friends and neighbors. Snickerdoodles are by far our favorite, and they are so easy to make with ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry.

The recipe I use is an old one. I received it at my wedding shower, back in 1986, from a college friend. It has never failed me and cookies are delicious. I’ve had many requests to share it, so here it is:

*Please feel free to print it out and start your own annual Snickerdoodle cookie tradition.