Has this happened to you?  You walk through the nursery, and you spot “the perfect plant.”   You can envision it in your yard and know precisely where you will put it.  


After coming home and planting it, you pat yourself on the back for finding such a great plant.  Time passes, and your beautiful plant starts to grow, and grow and grow.

Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) 1-gallon
Approximately 1 ft. Wide and tall. 
 
 
Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ pruned like ‘cupcakes.’
 
Fast forward a year or two now it looks bad unless you constantly prune making it high maintenance.  Now your beautiful plant no longer looks so lovely (above and below).  It now looks more like a ‘cupcake’ because you have had to prune it back to keep it small enough for your space.  


No more flowers, no nice foliage…

More ‘cupcakes.’

Unfortunately, there is an epidemic in our area of homeowners and landscapers who prune flowering shrubs so that they end up looking like ‘cupcakes’ or ‘poodles’ just so that they fit into their allotted space.  More about that in another post…
Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ in its natural shape.
They can grow up to 8 ft. high and wide but can be easily maintained at a more moderate 4′ x 4′.
Texas Sage Flower 
Also with flowers this beautiful, why plant it somewhere where you will have to prune them off so that it can fit?  
 
So our lesson is…. be sure to READ THE LABEL of plants before you buy them, which should list how large they will grow, along with the correct sun exposure.  If it’s not listed, ask the nursery salesperson for this information, or use your smartphone to get the information.  


Then you can go home and place your new “perfect plant” where they will have plenty of room to ‘stretch out’ and dazzle you with their beauty. 


**Allowing enough room for plants is just part of what it takes to grow attractive shrubs.  Pruning is the next part of the equation.  Click here for guidelines on how to properly prune your flowering shrubs.

Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica) is a must-have for the desert garden.  There is so much to love about this shrub.  

 
My favorite attribute is that it flowers off and on all year.  Its red flowers are shaped like miniature feather dusters.  Also, this plant attracts hummingbirds, is low-maintenance, drought tolerant and great by swimming pools because of its low litter.
 
Baja fairy duster has a vibrant red flower, which is often a color missing in the desert plant palette.  The majority of flowering occurs spring through fall, but some flowering can occur in areas that experience mild winters.  
 
It is native to Baja California, Mexico and is also called red fairy duster by some.  It is evergreen to 20 degrees F.  During some unusually cold winters when temperatures dropped into the high teens, I have had some killed to the ground, but they quickly grew back from their roots. 
 

USES: This shrub grows to approximately 4 – 5 ft. High and wide, depending on how much you prune it, so allow plenty of room for it to develop.  

 
It makes a lovely screening shrub, either in front of a wall or blocking pool equipment, etc.  It also serves as a colorful background shrub for smaller perennials such as damianita, blackfoot daisy, Parry’s penstemon, gold or purple lantana and desert marigold.  
 
Baja fairy duster can take full sun and reflected heat but can also grow in light shade.  It is not particular about soil as long as it is well-drained.
  
 Baja fairy duster in the middle of a desert landscape, flanked by desert spoon to the left and ‘Torch Glow’ bougainvillea to the right.  Red yucca is in the foreground.
 
MAINTENANCE:  As I mentioned before, this is a very low-maintenance shrub.  Some people shear this shrub, which I DO NOT recommend.  This removes most of the flowers and takes away from the natural shape of this shrub.  However, it’s size can be controlled with proper pruning.  Pruning should be done in late spring and should be performed with hand-pruners, NOT hedge clippers.
 
Baja fairy duster does require regular irrigation until established but then is relatively drought-tolerant.  However, proper watering is needed for it to look its best and flower regularly, which is what I do.  


Other than adding compost to the planting hole, no other amendments or fertilizer is needed.  Most native desert plants have been adapted to growing in our nutrient deficient soils and do best when left alone in terms of fertilizing.  I tell my clients to fertilize only if the plant shows symptoms of a nutrient deficiency.
 
So, go to your local plant nursery and get some of these beautiful shrubs for your garden.  Then, while you sit and enjoy its beauty, you can debate what you love most about it….the beautiful year-round flowers, the hummingbirds it attracts, it’s low-maintenance, or come up with your reasons.

Do you ever wonder what plants look good together?  Below are pictures of some of my favorite plant combinations along with some general guidelines that I follow when designing a garden.

Sometimes red and pink colors always compliment each other.  Introducing yellow flowering plants provide a high color contrast that brings out the red and pink colors.  Above is a golf course landscape that I planted with Valentine shrub (Eremophila ‘Valentine’), Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) and desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) against the backdrop of foothill palo verde trees.

 

Parry’s agave (Agave parryi) with purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis)

Also, succulents paired with perennials almost always compliment each other with their contrasting shades of green and textures.  Other recommended succulent and perennial pairings include desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) alongside black dalea (Dalea frutescens), prickly pear species with penstemon or try octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) with purple or white trailing lantana.

Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii ‘Red’)
   
Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)

I use plants with white flowers as a backdrop for plants with red, pink and purple flowers; I like the way the white flowers emphasize the other colors.

‘Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae) & Red Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)

Most of the time the pairing of purple flowering plants with those that have orange flowers always looks great.  When deciding what colors look good when paired together, it helps to look at a color wheel.  In general, the colors that are opposite each other look great when paired together because their colors contrast so well.  Other orange, purple plant combinations to try are cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) with (Leucophyllum species), or  Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) with purple lantana. 

Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) and parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi)
 

Also, I believe that any garden looks better with some yellow flowering plants.  As I mentioned earlier, the color yellow makes the other plants look better, (think of the color wheel).   I have had clients that have said they do not like yellow until I show them how much better their other plants look when we introduce just a few yellow flowering plants to their landscape and they quickly change their mind.

 
Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans stans)
Bougainvillea ‘Barbara Karst’
 

I often recommend the following for those who are looking for large shrub combinations.  Okay, I realize that many people either love or hate bougainvillea. Personally, I love them.  I have two bougainvilleas and since I don’t have a swimming pool, so I am not bothered by their litter. Their beautiful and vibrant colors are amazing.

I pair my bougainvillea with yellow bell shrubs.  Their colors contrast nicely, and they screen out the back wall of my garden.  I give them plenty of room to grow, and they produce beautiful flowers spring through fall.  If you do have a swimming pool and don’t like bougainvillea, how about trying orange jubilee (Tecoma hybrid ‘Orange Jubilee’) and Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) together?
 
Weber’s agave (Agave weberi) and purple trailing lantana
 
I have just one more tip –  if you want to pair flowering plants together to enjoy the contrasting colors, make sure that they bloom at the same time of year.  It is so easy to visit the plant nursery and see the pretty photos of flowers on the different plants and pick what ones you think will look great together only to discover later that one flower in the fall while the other blooms in spring and so you never see their flowers at the same time.
 
So, visit your local nursery and try some of the suggested plant combinations or see what beautiful plant pairings you come up with for your garden.
Young saguaro cactus were peeking out from its bursage nurse plant.

As you walk through the desert, there are many opportunities to view some of the striking cacti and their unique shapes.  What is not initially apparent, are the many examples of plants helping young cacti survive.  However, if you look closely, it is all around you – desert shrubs and trees sheltering growing cacti from the harsh desert climate. 

Young barrel cactus underneath a bursage nurse plant
Despite their tough, prickly appearance, cactus are quite vulnerable.  Of the thousands of seeds that are released by each cactus, only a tiny fraction grow into new cactus plants.  Most would not survive if it were not for “nurse plants.”   These plants provide much-needed protection from the sun, cold temperatures and predators (including humans).  Nurse plants also provide much needed additional moisture for the new cacti.

Mammillaria microcarpa 

It is easy to walk by and not even notice the presence of the small cacti growing underneath nurse plants.  Most of the year, the fishhook cactus (Mammillaria microcarpa), pictured above, are almost impossible to see.  It is only in the spring when they are blooming that you can spot them.

Hedgehog cactus outgrowing it’s bursage nurse plant.

For the smaller cacti species, bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) most often serves as the nurse plant.  It also often serves as the first nurse plant for saguaro cacti.

 
Two young saguaro cacti outgrowing their creosote and bursage nurse plants
 
Creosote (Larrea tridentata), palo verde, mesquite or ironwood trees often serve as the nurse plants for larger species of cacti.  As it grows larger, it requires more water and nutrients from the soil, which leaves little for the nurse plant.  So frequently, the nurse plant will decline and die as you can see from the photo above.

Young buckhorn cholla emerging from its bursage nurse plant.    

So next time you have the opportunity to take a walk in the desert, look around….you will most likely see examples of this unique relationship of plants helping young cactus survive.

 
 There are some signs that summer is beginning to fade and that fall is around the corner.  The stress that the high temperatures of summer bring has caused many plants to slow down their growth.  
 
However, the slightly lower temperatures in September bring on a flush of new growth for many trees, shrubs, and succulents in the garden.  I enjoy being out in my garden this time of year and seeing many of my plants rejuvenated.
 

With the somewhat cooler temperatures, I am now seeing many gardeners venturing outside and taking stock of the condition of their landscape.  Fall is a busy time in the desert garden because it is the ideal time to install many types of plants, which will be discussed in a separate post in early October.

  
SHRUBS: I just finished lightly pruning my ‘Rio Bravo’ sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae).  Summer flowering shrubs that are cold-hardy look their best when lightly pruned at this time to help reign in rangy, sprawling growth. This should be only done with hand pruners only.  Do not use a hedge trimmer and shear your shrubs.  They should have a pleasing natural shape when you are finished.  Do not prune back frost-sensitive plants at this time.
 
 ANNUALS:  Although the local nurseries are abundant with winter annuals, I don’t recommend planting them now.  The temperatures are still quite hot, and there is a good chance that they will not make it.  
 

In the past when mid-September came, I would load up the truck with 100+ flats of annuals to plant around the community where I worked as the horticulturist.   I would then spent the next four weeks making repeated trips to the nursery to replace dead plants that just could not handle the heat of early fall.  From then on I would wait until October to change out summer annuals and replace with winter annuals.  As a result, we suffered very little plant loss.

TREES:  Mesquite and Palo Verde trees that are overgrown can be lightly easily pruned back.  Resist the temptation to heavily prune at this time.  January and February is the time for heavy pruning to occur for these trees.
 
SUCCULENTS:  Cacti, agaves and other succulent plants do best when planted when soil temperatures are warm, which makes September a great time to install them before cooler temperatures arrive.   Prickly Pear cactus can be pruned back this month if needed.  Problems with agave may show up this time of year. 
 
If your agave suddenly collapses, there is a good chance that they have gotten an infection with agave snout weevil.  There is no cure and the agave should be removed, it will be smelly due to the decay the weevil causes – and not just a little stinky.
 
One of my (least) favorite memories happened years ago when I worked as a horticulturist on a golf course.  One year, we had to remove countless agaves throughout the landscapes due to a large infestation – the smell was awful.  If this happens to your agave, do not plant another agave in the area – use another type of plant instead.
 
ROSES:  Roses should be lightly pruned and fertilized this month (see earlier post for details).
 

CITRUS:  Make sure to fertilize your citrus trees if you have not already done so (see earlier post for details).

 
NEXT MONTH – get ready for planting and wildflower garden preparation!

The blooming of my desert willow tree (Chilopsis linearis), is beginning to slow down.  The leaves will fall in December.  However, there were a few lovely pink flowers left.

Also, the recent monsoon storms have caused my ‘Rio Bravo’ sage, (Leucophyllum langmaniae), to burst out in flower.

Beautiful, magenta brachts surrounding the tiny, cream-colored flowers on my single bougainvillea shrub.

I also love the multi-colored blooms of my lantana ‘Patriot Desert Sunset.’  They will soon stop blooming for the winter.

The vibrant colors of my red bird-of-paradise, (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) add vibrant color to my garden and nectar for hummingbirds.  


In another month, many of these flowers will no longer be flowering, but until then, I’ll enjoy the view.

‘Double Delight’

In the Desert Southwest, we are blessed with two different blooming seasons – spring and again in fall.  

While two bloom seasons is generally one more than many regions experience, roses don’t enjoy the heat of summer and go into summer dormancy.  That means that they just exist and don’t grow or bloom significantly. Their leaves may show signs of sunburn.

 
‘Medallion’

However, once September arrives and the days begin to grow shorter and temperatures begin to cool, it is time to lightly prune your rose bushes, which will stimulate new growth. 

Begin by pruning back 1/4 of the top growth, removing sunburned foliage and any flowers present.  

As always, prune back to an outward facing bud at an angle of 45 degrees.  Seal any pruning cuts larger than the diameter of a pencil with Elmer’s glue to prevent borers.

Fall is also time to fertilize roses in preparation for their fall bloom season.  Apply an organic fertilizer formulated for roses.  Afterward, be sure to water in well.

 
‘Abraham Darby’

**For those that want to go the extra step, I would recommend soil amendments such as compost and manure in addition to rose fertilizer, which results in greater growth, lush foliage and blooms over the long term.  

To do this, first make 4 – 5, six-inch deep holes around each rose, placing them at least 1 ft. from the center (I use the end of a broom handle for this).  Then apply a mixture of aged steer manure and alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) and pour into each hole.  Water in well.  

The aged manure improves the soil structure and slowly releases nutrients.  The alfalfa pellets release a type of alcohol as they break down that roses just love.

By lightly pruning and fertilizing in early fall, you’ll enjoy a fall filled with beautiful roses.

 

In the past, people have asked me how long does a saguaro cactus arm take to grow back. The commonly held belief is that it takes 100 years before they will develop an arm.

However, as with much plant information, this answer is not always correct, it actually takes less time for a saguaro cactus to grow its arm back in a landscape setting than it’s native habitat.  

The most critical factor in determining the timing of when a saguaro will start to grow an arm is the availability of water. Put simply, the more water a saguaro receives, the more quickly it grows. In a landscape setting where irrigation is present, a saguaro will grow much more rapidly then they do in their natural desert habitat. Saguaro cacti that grow in southern Arizona (near Tucson) grow more quickly than those in the western areas of the Sonoran desert because there is more rainfall in southern Arizona. 

A saguaro growing in its native habitat can take 50 – 100 years to grow arms. In a landscape setting, arms often appear much earlier.

The saguaro cactus is one of the most iconic plants of Arizona, (Carnegiea gigantea), it is perhaps the most recognizable trademark of the Sonoran desert with their tall arms reaching toward the sky.

Although, saguaros are only in some regions of the Sonoran desert. The vast majority are found in Arizona and Mexico. They are often found growing on the south side of the mountains due to the warmer air temperatures.
Another iconic Sonoran desert plant is the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with its leaf covered canes topped with brightly colored flowers. Sometimes, people, mistake ocotillo as a type of cactus, but they’re actually a type of shrub.

Ocotillo produces beautiful vermillion blooms that attract hummingbirds and their canes leaf out occasionally in response to humidity and rain.