Nasturtiums are always present in my cool-season vegetable garden.

I enjoy taking a stroll in my back garden in the morning before getting to work. It helps me to start the day with a feeling of peace as I stop to admire a new flower or the vibrant greens creating lovely contrasts of color with the more gray/greens of my flowering shrubs.

Today’s post is all about you. There are two things that I have been asked to do by several of you.

First and foremost, I receive a lot of gardening questions via my inbox and my Facebook page, which I do my best to answer.

Several of you have asked me to do a Q & A session where I take questions and provide answers. So, I am asking you if any of you would be interested in this. It would be done through Facebook Live, where you can view it ‘live’ at a preset day and time and I’ll answer your answers in real time. If you can’t watch it live, you can watch it when it suits you. *If you cannot watch it live, you can send me your questions ahead of time and I’ll answer them during the session.

Would any of you be interested in this? If so, please let me know in the comments section and if enough people express interest, I will schedule a live Q & A session.

Salvia splendens with ‘Meerlo’ lavender/

The second item that I’d like to address are the requests to see more of my garden. I’ve hesitated to do this in the past, other than glimpses here and there, as my garden isn’t perfect. But, then I realized that ‘perfect’ gardens can inspire stress in those that view them as they feel pressure to emulate that perfection, which in all reality, probably takes a lot of work from landscape professionals.

So, I have decided to create a video of my entire garden, which is a work in progress but should be posted later this week.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on both of these things.  I hope your week is off to a great start!

Petoskey, Michigan Lighthouse

While spring break is a time where masses of people escape the cold for warmer climates (like Arizona), we decided to do the exact opposite.  We flew out of warm, sunny Phoenix and headed to cold and snowy Michigan.

Now before you start to question my sanity, I have an excellent reason for bundling up and bracing myself for the cold, windy weather.  My daughter and her family call Michigan their home now, and since then, we try to make it out at least twice a year, and spring break just happened to be the best time to do it.

I always look forward to visits to their town of Petoskey, which sits on the shore of Little Traverse Bay.  It is a popular summer destination, and I spent several weeks here last year helping my daughter move into her new house and add new plants to her garden.

It is always fun pulling out my warm weather gear, which seldom gets used at home.  I knit these fingerless mittens a few years ago and rarely have a chance to wear them.

As a Southern California native and Arizona resident, I must admit that I have relatively little experience with cold weather so, it has been fun exploring the landscape and seeing the effects of winter.  Seeing the bay frozen in time where we waded in with our feet last June was exciting.

At the beginning of our week, the temperatures were in the mid 20’s with a brisk wind, and we were excited to see an unexpected snow shower.

I realize that many of you who have lived in areas with cold winters may be rolling your eyes at this point, but for someone who has always lived where winters are mild, the weather has been a novelty.

However, the novelty quickly wore off this morning when I stepped outside, and it was a frigid 16 degrees, and I learned why people start their cars a few minutes before they get in to let them heat up inside.  But, I braved the few steps from the house to the car, and we were off to my granddaughter Lily’s preschool class where I was to give a presentation on the desert and Arizona.

I brought photographs of the animals, cactuses, and flowers of the desert.  The kids were a great audience and seemed especially impressed with the following pictures:

  • The height of a saguaro cactus with people standing at its base 
  • A bird poking its head out of a hole in the saguaro
  • Cactus flowers
  • Aesop – our desert tortoise

I was struck by how different the desert is from the Michigan landscape and felt honored to expand their horizons.

On the way back from pre-school, we were tasked with bringing the classroom pet, ‘Snowball’ the guinea pig home where he will stay with Lily for spring break.  Doing little tasks such as this bring back happy memories of when our kids were little.

We will be home soon, and spring is a busy time for me.  I have new plants coming in the mail (straight from the grower) for me to test in my Arizona garden, I’ll be showcasing two new plants from the folks at Monrovia, and in a couple of weeks, I’ll be traveling again – this time to Savannah, Georgia for a fun project that I’m excited to share with you soon.

*What are you doing for spring break?

I have a problem in my garden.  The suspects who wreak havoc on my vegetable gardens are furry, have tails and whiskers.  On the surface, they are very cute, but wild on the inside and shy away from contact with humans, except for the neighbor who feeds them.

 

Now before we go further, I must tell you that I like cats – a lot.  I don’t mind them in my backyard and enjoy watching them stretch out in the sun on a winter’s day or enjoying the filtered shade from my trees in summer.  What I don’t like is that they use my raised vegetable beds as a litter box.

To help deter them, I added a motion control sensor that is attached to my hose, which sprays anything that gets too close to the garden (including me if I forget to turn it off before working in the garden).  This has helped, but there is still half of the garden that the cats continue to use as a toilet.  Not a place I want to grow vegetables.  

I had done research on plants that may repel cats, and the herb ‘rue’ (Ruta graveolens) kept coming up.  The problem was, I had a hard time finding it as it’s an old-fashioned herb, and isn’t used much anymore.  

Nursery visits have become more frequent for me lately as I am preparing for a visit from a magazine and a wedding that will be held in out backyard.  So, I’ve been giving my garden a little more attention, and that means plant shopping!

While I was browsing through the aisles at the nursery, I spotted a tray filled with rue plants.  I must admit that I could hardly contain my delight and bought seven without a second thought.  Of course, I also came home with several other plants for the garden too.

I was so thrilled to have found some rue and have a chance to see if it would keep the cats out of the garden.  The dried leaves from rue are also purported to keep cats away, so I can harvest the leaves and use them in other areas if I need to.

The plant itself is attractive with lacy foliage, and the leaves smell just fine to me – cats just don’t like it – hopefully.

I am somewhat hopeful that this will do the trick, but I am also a bit cautious as not all surefire solutions work.  I’ll be sure to let you know if it works to keep the cats out of the vegetable garden.

**Have you ever had a problem with cats in your garden?  What did you do to get rid of them?

 

The vibrant flowers of firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni) add a welcome splash of color during winter and into spring.

People often ask me to post more photographs of my garden on my blog.  I must confess that I am sometimes reluctant to do so as I wonder if they expect a ‘perfect’ garden – one that is meticulously maintained and expertly designed.  

However, I decided that would show you my garden, even if it bursts a few bubbles of what people expect it to look like.  

The yellow flowers of angelita daisy contrast with the cool colors of purple and white trailing lantana. Gopher plants (Euphorbia rigida) are getting ready to produce chartreuse-colored flowers.

The landscape that surrounds my home reflects my love for plants that add beauty without needing much attention from me.  I don’t tend to rake or blow my leaves and the plants are allowed to grow into their natural shapes without much interference from me. 

The fragrant blossoms of feathery cassia (Senna artemisiodes) add visual warmth to the winter landscape.

That is important because I am usually so busy helping others with their landscapes, that I often don’t have enough time to fuss over mine.  Pruning once, or at most, twice a year is my standard of a fuss-free plant.

I love color  throughout all seasons.  So, you are just as likely to find as much color in my winter garden as in the summer.

Green desert spoon (Dasylirion texanum) add spiky texture contrast to the landscape.

As for the design of my garden, horticulturists are by nature, collectors of plants.  This means that we likely to include many different kinds of plants – often more than you would see in a well-designed garden.  

I do enjoy designing landscapes and have done my best in designing my own garden, while incorporating a large variety of plants.  

The leafless canes of an ocotillo will soon leaf out with the arrival of spring.

I’ve always felt that a garden should reflect the owner’s personality while also enhancing the exterior of their home.  Mine shows my love for color and low-maintenance beauty.

What does your garden reveal about you?

February is what I like to call a ‘bridge’ month.  In regards to work, it is a transition month for me.  It is the month between January, when work slows down as it’s cold with not much is growing and March, when the weather is delightfully warm and everybody seemingly wants to redo their landscape.  If I could choose the perfect month in terms of work load, it would be February.

Last week, I was visiting one of my favorite clients whose landscape has been a work in progress.  The backyard was finished last year and now, it was time to pay attention to the front.  Of course, I took a few minutes to see how things were doing in the back and my attention was immediately drawn to this colorful container filled with colorful succulents.  The orange stems of ‘Sticks on Fire’ Euphorbia adds welcome color to the garden throughout the year while elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) trails down the side of the pot.  

I am a strong proponent of using colorful pots filled with low-maintenance succulents in the garden.  Why mess with flowering annuals if you can enjoy vibrant color without the high maintenance?  

Full disclosure: I do have a couple of pots filled with petunias, but the vast majority are filled with succulents 😉

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is assisting my clients with their landscape dilemmas.  Often, the solution is much simpler than the client imagined.  Last fall, I visited this home which had a large, shallow depression that wass filled with dying agave.  The interesting thing was that there was no obvious reason for its presence as no water drained into it.  It definitely wasn’t what the client wanted in this high-profile area.

So what would be a good solution for this area?   The client wanted to plant a large saguaro cactus in this area, but didn’t want to add a lot of plants.  My recommendation was to get rid of the dying agave and turn the depression into an attractive feature of the garden. 

This is what it looks like now.  Filling the area with rip-rap rock, adds both a texture and color contrasting element to the landscape.  Well-placed boulders with a century plant (Agave americana), Mexican fence post (Stenocereus marginatus), and golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) help to break up the large expanse of the shallow depression with their spiky and globular shapes.  Finally, a saguaro cactus was added, which stands sentinel over this renovated area.  

One would never imagine that this part of landcape hadn’t been planned this way when it was first planted years ago.

Lastly, February is all about Valentine’s Day.  I sent my granddaughter a care package filled with goodies for Valentine’s Day.  Dinosaur cards for her classmates, a little craft, a hanging mobile, stickers, and of course chocolates – all with a Valentine theme.  

For me, Valentine’s day comes with mostly great memories.  As a child, I looked forward to handing out Valentines to my classmates and getting them in return.  During teenage years, there was one particularly memorable one when I was 17 years old.  My boyfriend didn’t get me anything, however, another boy gave me a card and a flower, which was some consulation.  And to finish off that infamous Valentine’s Day, I came down the chicken pox that very day.  Guess who also got the chicken pox?  The boyfriend who forgot Valentine’s Day.  Now, I look forward spending the 14th with the main man in my life, who after 31 years, still makes me feel special.

*What do you do to celebrate Valentine’s Day?  

Landscape Renovation Project

Landscape Renovation Project

As a mom, grandmother, and horticulturist, the fall season is a very busy season for me.  Whether I’m busy on the work site, hosting a Halloween party, or helping out my mother as she recuperates from a broken leg – there is never a dull moment.

I thought that I would show you just a snippet of the events of the past few weeks.

noelle_johnson_az_plant_lady

My mother’s orthopedist knows how to decorate his office for Halloween.

Over a month ago, my mother suffered a very badly broken leg that required surgery.  My very active and independent mother has been working hard with physical therapy and her recovery, but still has a few weeks left in a wheelchair.  As a result, my siblings and I have stepped in to help her where we can.  One of my favorite ways to help out is to take her shopping wherever she wants to go.  Of course, it helps that she and I like the same types of stores.  We got into a lot of trouble in Target’s dollar section buying Christmas decorations and gifts last week.

My granddaughter Lily enjoyed talking to our desert tortoise, Aesop, during her visit to Arizona from Michigan.

My granddaughter Lily enjoyed talking to our desert tortoise, Aesop, during her visit to Arizona from Michigan.

Visits from my oldest daughter and her family are always a highlight for us.

My 3-month old grandson, Leo, slept through most of his first visit to Arizona.

My 3-month old grandson, Leo, slept through most of his first visit to Arizona.

Every year on October 31st, my siblings and their kids come over for a fun night of Halloween-themed food and trick-or-treating.  It is so much fun to see the little kids get all dressed up for Halloween, including my grandson, Eric.

Eric dressed up like a 'Minion'

Eric dressed up like a ‘Minion’

While my two youngest kids are almost too old for trick-or-treating, they enjoyed dressing up and going with Eric.

Gracie was a 'bag of ice'

Gracie was a ‘bag of ice’

Kai was a 'computer error code'

Kai was a ‘computer error code’

Life hasn’t slowed down in November, which is the busiest month of the year for me as a horticulturist.

Mountain States Wholesale Nursery

Mountain States Wholesale Nursery

A highlight of this month was a visit to an open house at one of the pre-eminent nurseries of the Southwest.

mountain_states_wholesale_nursery

While you may not have heard of Mountain States Wholesale Nursery, you have undoubtedly seen plants that they have developed, many which may be in your own garden.  Flowering shrubs such as ‘Valentine’ and ‘Blue Bells’ have their origins in the fields of this nursery as do many of the newest tecoma and desert willow species.

brakelights_hesperaloe

I spent a fun-filled day with friends and colleagues touring the facilities and getting a sneak peek at their newest plants in production.  The perfect way to cap off our visit was being gifted with a new plant!

Next up on my agenda was overseeing the installation of one of my landscape projects.

Before

BEFORE

My clients, who live in New York City for most of the year, spend their winters and spring in Arizona.  They recently purchased a home with overgrown, excessively pruned shrubs as well as artificial grass with a putting green that they wanted to get rid of.

I initially met with them in April and put together a plan for a landscape that would reflect their style.  Once they came back to Arizona in November, they asked me to come out and oversee the installation.  

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A mixture of pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’) are being planted in the area formerly covered by artificial turf.

Many of the old shrubs were removed as was the fake grass.  Contouring was added to help add height and interest to the formerly flat backyard landscape.


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Matt, is the landscape contractor, who I refer many of my clients too.  He has the uncanny ability to find the biggest, best plants – he holds his sources close to his chest, but as long as my clients are happy, so am I.

noelle_johnson_landscape_consulting_arizona

I must admit that I am sorely tempted to grab one of his specimen cactus or succulents for my own garden.

BEFORE

BEFORE

The client wanted an area for a cactus garden.  So, we took out the shrubs in this corner and added cactus.

AFTER

AFTER

The saguaro cactus isn’t in place yet, but soon will be.  Our goal was to add several different types of cactus and succulents that the client liked, including beavertail, candelilla, golden barrel, Moroccan mound, and torch cactus.  An ocotillo anchors the corner and will eventually leaf out and flower, which usually occurs about a year after planting.

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A palo blanco (Acacia willardiana) tree will soften this area without outgrowing this area.

It is so rewarding to be a part of the process of homeowner’s landscape be renovated into a space that will provide them with years of enjoyment.

Despite the busyness this fall season, I am getting excited for the upcoming holiday season.  How about you?  What is keeping you busy this fall?

Summer is a season filled with warm weather (or hot if you live in the desert) and brightly colored blossoms.


While I usually enjoy the view of my summer garden from the comfort of my air-conditioned house, this year I’ve experienced a twist in my summer gardening experience.  


I have spent time gardening this summer in an entirely different state.


It all started back in 2007 when my daughter, Brittney, met a handsome geologist and got married.  Fast forward to 2015 and that same geologist finished his Ph.D. and got a job offer in Michigan.  So, they packed up and moved to the picturesque town of Petoskey, which is located at the ‘top of the mitt’ as Michiganders like to say.


In June, they bought their first home, and I was on hand to help them with their new garden.  Now, to be honest, my oldest daughter has never shown any particular interest in gardening to this point in her life, despite my best efforts.  But, that was before she had her very own house and garden.


These next few posts will highlight our garden adventures, including me learning some new things about gardening in a climate where temperatures dip to -20 degrees in winter.

Planting roses for my daughter.

Whether you live in the desert southwest, Michigan or anyplace where you have a small area in which to garden – many of the same gardening guidelines apply, and I invite you to join me on a summer gardening adventure where I promise, you’ll learn a few helpful tips for your garden.


In today’s post, I’d like to share with you a very special day that we spent with our youngest daughter, Gracie.


For those of you who have followed me for a while, you will have read about Gracie’s story and how we adopted her from China back in 2003.


She was one and a half years old when she was adopted and had a sweet smile and a club foot.


Gracie brought instant joy into our lives and despite having a clunky cast on her foot and leg as her foot was being straightened, she always had a smile ready for us.  She rejoiced at belonging to a family for the very first time her short little life.


Three months after flying home from China, Gracie underwent surgery to repair her club foot.  

While her foot healed quickly, we soon came to realize that Gracie was suffering some delays in her development.  At first, we thought it was from her time spent in an orphanage.  However, later we learned that she had autism, or more specifically, Asperger’s, which is a high-functioning form of autism.

Gracie is now 14 years old and as you can imagine, life hasn’t always been easy for Gracie (or us), but on most days, she brings us joy and a smile.

This past weekend, we were able to take part in a special event in Gracie’s life.

She was set to participate in a Special Olympics event representing her school.


The day was set to be a hot one with record-breaking temperatures, but it was still lovely outside while sitting in the stands waiting for the events to begin.  


Only in Arizona are you equally as likely to bring an umbrella for a hot, sunny day as you are for a wet and rainy one 😉


The kids were all gathered off to the side of the field, enjoying the shade of the trees while awaiting their turn.  Gracie’s teachers were there along with other classmates who were to participate in the event.

There were also ‘typical’ kids who were there representing their teams as well and we waited while they competed until it was time for the Special Olympics portion of the event to take place.


Of course, waiting can also make you more nervous and Gracie wasn’t sure if she could do it.  Her events were scheduled to be the 100-meter dash and the long jump.  The problem was, she didn’t want to do the long jump.

Those of you who are parents of teenagers know that it can be hard to reason with your teen, but when they have autism, it is even harder as the regular arguments and persuasions don’t work. 

I wish that her dad and I could take credit for figuring out a way to inspire her to do the long jump but Gracie figured out a way for us to motivate her – promise to buy her a box of ‘Cookie Crisp’ cereal afterward.

At this point, I should mention that we rarely give our kids what we call ‘sugar cereals’, which are filled with empty calories and don’t fill you up.  But, I happily promised to drive to the store and buy her a box right after the race if she was brave enough to do the long jump – her school team was depending on her.

She also wanted a medal very badly.  So, I said that if she didn’t get a medal, I would make her one, to which Gracie said, “But you’ll have to buy spray paint, a circle-piece of wood and ribbon.”  At this point, I told her that I would be happy to make her the coolest medal I was capable of for her to wear.


Our son, Kai, also came to cheer Gracie on.  I love this photo that I was able to get of them – they rarely stand this close to teach other – ha, ha.

If you’ve ever spent time with people with autism, you may have noticed the blunt and honest ways they phrase things.  One of Gracie’s classmates noticed Kai standing next to Gracie and exclaimed excitedly, “Gracie, your brother, Kai, is here.”  To which Gracie replied, “Uh, I know…. he’s standing right next to me.”

The first event that Gracie was to participate in wasn’t the 100-meter dash as previously scheduled.  That event was cancelled and her team needed her to fill in the space of a missing team member for the 400-meter relay race.  Since that would entail Gracie running 100-meters, that would work.


She was nervous about dropping the baton, but she grabbed it and began running.


So far, so good. 


Go, Gracie!


Almost ready for the hand-off!


The hand-off went off without a hitch except that Gracie got a stomachache from all the excitement and running as she walked with her math teacher and coach to toward the rest of her team. 

After the race was over, the teams were asked to gather around the medal podium.


Guess who got a medal for helping her team come in second place?


Yeah!  That’s my girl!

All the kids who participated in the Special Olympics relay race received medals, but Gracie’s team did get second place, which made her feel extra special.


I guess I won’t have to make her a wooden medal now.

Next, it was off to the long jump, and hopefully, a box of ‘Cookie Crisp’ cereal afterward.


Gracie waited patiently for her turn and then pumped her arms very fast (for extra energy, she said) before taking off running.


And she takes off…


This is Gracie’s favorite photo since it looks like she is flying.


Nice landing!


As you can see, this was a very memorable day for both Gracie and us.  Being a teenager is hard enough without having autism.  When you pair that with the challenges that they face everyday trying to fit into a world whose rules and social norms don’t make sense, then you get an idea of what a momentous occasion this was for her.
Gracie wore her medal to church yesterday and it warmed my heart to see members of our congregation come up to hug and congratulate her.

**Thank you for taking a few minutes out of your day to read Gracie’s story.  It is an honor being her mom and sharing her story with you!

If you would like to see Gracie’s long jump video, I’ve posted it below.  You can read Gracie’s adoption story, here.


Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine Article

My passion is to teach people how to create beautiful outdoor spaces using plants that thrive in our arid climate.  Part of that involves writing garden articles for a variety of publications, including Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine, Home Depot, Houzz, and Birds & Blooms Magazine.

It’s hotter than he**  (dare I use the word “hell”?) outside in June and while most desert dwellers can be found hibernating indoors enjoying air-conditioned temperatures in the 70’s – you’ll find a few of us darting outdoors to pick apples.



While parts of the country wait until late summer and on into early fall to harvest apples – June is apple harvesting time in the desert.


Many people don’t realize that apple trees can grow in the desert Southwest – so do apricots, peaches and plums.

The key to growing these types of fruit trees is our relatively cold temperatures.  They need a certain number of “chilling hours”, which are when temperatures are within 32 – 45 degrees F.

When summer temperatures are hovering in the 100+ range, it’s hard to recall what cold winter temperatures feel like, but it’s those chilly temps that make it possible to grow apple trees.


In the past years, I have harvested my apples from among the several apple trees located on the family farm.

But, not this year.


Three years ago, we transformed our side garden, creating a “potager”, which is a French term for a kitchen garden filled with fruits, herbs, vegetables alongside ornamental plants.

In the potager, we have the largest of our vegetable gardens, blackberry bushes, two peach trees, an orange tree and two apple trees.


The apple trees are located toward the end of the garden with the blackberry bushes growing against the wall.

This was what they looked like 1 1/2 years ago.  Since then, they have grown quickly and are filled with apples, ready for us to pick.


Today, we will head out in the morning and pick our apples.  There are so many growing, that I won’t need any from the family farm.

Normally, I make applesauce and an apple pie from apples.  This year, I will make those but will add to it.  We will also be making apple chips and apple sugar.  Who knows?  If we get a ton of apples, I may need to find more things to make with them.

My daughter, Ruthie, and niece, Sofie, will help me along with a very special friend who is their “orphanage sister”.  

**Next time, I’ll share their special story along with all the goodies we make along with helpful links so you can make them yourself with apples from the supermarket.