Summers in the desert garden are hot. That’s no surprise. However, there are periods within these hot months that temperatures climb higher than normal. Because of this, we do need to help protect our gardens from the effects of a heatwave.

So, what is considered a heatwave in the low to mid-altitude desert? As a rule, when the mercury edges above 110 degrees F. During a heatwave, they can even go close to 120 degrees – ouch!

Thankfully, there are things you can do to help prepare the plants within your garden right now.

Here is my #1 tip…

Water your plants deeply the night before three – four day span of 110+ degree are forecast. This is in addition to your regular drip irrigation schedule.

The goal of this supplemental irrigation is to water deeply. This allow the soil to stay moister for longer, which will benefit your plants.

Under normal circumstances, I water my plants for 1 1/2 hours. However, in preparation of a heatwave, I water 2-3 hours. Plants will need more water in order to deal with the extreme temps and the extra water that will be lost to the atmosphere through their leaves.

Don’t do this every night, only every 4 days or so during a heatwave.

My second piece of advice…

Provide temporary shade for young plants in your landscape as they are more susceptible to stress from a heatwave.

This is because they don’t have a well-established root system to uptake much water and sparser foliage, so there aren’t many leaves to shade other parts of the plant.

Shade cloth is useful for protection lasting over several months. But for short-term shade during a heatwave, you can use burlap, sheets, an umbrella, or even place a patio chair over a susceptible plant. Uncover plants once temperatures are within the normal range.

Hot temperatures are a fact of life during the desert summer as are heatwaves. But, implementing one, or both, of these tips will help the plants in your garden.

For more tips for heat-proofing your garden, check out Heatproof Garden: 5 Amazing Tips.

Cactus Farm

Have you ever seen the beauty of cactuses showcased in containers? Adding a cactus to a container helps to set it apart from the rest of the landscape and helps it to stand out so that its unique texture and shape really stand out. However, if the thought of having to plant a prickly cactus yourself has given you second thoughts about doing it yourself, it isn’t as hard as it seems. Let’s take a closer look at how to plant a cactus in a pot.

Cactus Farm

I have planted my share of cactus over my career (usually) without getting stabbed with the spines. My method of choice is to use an old towel to cover the cactus while I removing it from a pot and planting it. However, on a trip to B&B Cactus Farm in Tucson, I was able to observed an expert at work.

Cactus Farm

B&B Cactus Farm

Whenever I find myself in Tucson, I always try to find time to visit B&B Cactus Nursery. They have a large selection cacti, including my favorites – Torch cactus (Trichocereus hybrids).  While they are rather unassuming when not in flower, they transform win spring when their large blossoms open.

Cactus Farm

‘First Light’ Torch Cactus Hybrid

My first visit to B&B Cactus Farm was several years ago and I had the intention of buying one torch cactus. However, as often happens with me and plants, I came home with two, including this stunning ‘First Light’ torch cactus.

Cactus Farm

On my second visit, I bought a new torch cactus hybrid and a colorful blue container to plant it in. 

Normally, I plant my own cactus, but a conversation with one of the cactus experts at the nursery changed my mind.

Cactus Farm

Damon was busy potting cactus at a table with a large pile of succulent potting mix behind him. I struck up a conversation with him and found that he had an interesting story that had him ending up at a cactus nursery in Arizona. He worked in the banking industry and moved to Arizona from Oklahoma a year ago, and began work at a local bank. After awhile, he decided that being a banker wasn’t for him and found happiness working with cactus. As he put it, “People are always stressed about money when they visit the bank, but everyone who comes to the nursery is happy, because plants make people smile.”

We had a great time talking and I decided to have him pot my cactus, which would make it easier to transport home. When I explained that I had a gardening website and wanted to take a video of him potting the cactus, he graciously agreed and provided lots of helpful advice.

So here is a banker turned cactus expert, showing you how to plant cactus in a pot: 

I hope you enjoyed Damon’s helpful tips. For more helpful videos, subscribe to my YouTube Channel

Spring in the desert Southwest is a busy time of year. While those that live in colder climates countdown the days until March 20th, the spring season often begins a full month earlier in the low to middle desert.

As a horticulturist / landscape consultant, my days are quite busy in spring assisting people with their gardens.

Today, I thought that I would show some glimpses of a typical week in spring filled with creative containers, new xeriscapes, cacti flowers and the heavenly fragrance of orange blossoms.

sweet acacia tree

The weather this past week has been warm, in the low 80’s.  Spring-flowering plants were in full bloom such as this sweet acacia tree which produces small, golden, puffball flowers. I love how the deep yellow looks against the blue sky, don’t you?

Often, in my travels assisting clients, I see some great examples of beautiful xeriscapes.

verbena(Glandularia pulchella)

This is a newly planted landscape which stood out from the surrounded homes with its mature plants, the selection of desert-adapted plants and the nice design.

The vibrant purple flowers of the verbena (Glandularia pulchella) demanded attention from passersby. I also liked how the golden barrel cacti looked in the raised bed.  

aloe, artichoke agave and golden barrel cacti.

Another landscape that I saw this week was filled with countless different types of plants. Often, when you have too many kinds of plants, the effect can appear ‘messy’ visually. But, not with this landscape filled with succulents of all sorts including aloe, artichoke agave and golden barrel cacti.

damianita (Chrysactina mexicana)

While driving by a church landscape that I had designed previously, I stopped to take this photo of the damianita (Chrysactina mexicana), which was in full bloom. I absolutely love this plant and have several in my own garden.

creative containers

I took a few moments to stop by a small, local nursery in Fountain Hills, AZ – Verde Valley Nursery. My visits always last longer than I plan because I love looking at all the new plants in stock.

creative containers , Blue Elf aloe, golden barrel, small variegated agave and totem pole 'Monstrosus' cactus

During visits to a few of my regular clients, who have me come by on an annual basis, I saw some great examples of container plants, including this one filled with Blue Elf aloe, golden barrel, small variegated agave and totem pole ‘Monstrosus’ cactus.  

This looks so nice, it almost makes it easy to skip planting high-maintenance annual flowers.

creative containers

I really liked this container. Many people have problems growing flowers in entryways where there is not enough sun. In addition, there is the burden of having to water frequently that can lead to stains on the concrete.  

This colorful container is filled with dried, flowering agave stalks – I love it!

creative containers

One of the joys of my job is when clients invite me back to see their landscape and sometimes recommend a few ‘tweaks’. It was during one of these repeat visits that I saw this trio of Blue Elf aloe, which looks great when planted next to boulders, don’t you think?

creative containers

Sometimes, I see things that are somewhat unusual, like this Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marinatus) that was forming flowers. They do not always flower in the low desert, so this was a really neat to see close up.

sea lavender (Limonium perezii)

Visions of purple-flowering plants filled my week. While on a date night with my husband, we strolled through our local outdoor mall and I saw these lovely sea lavender (Limonium perezii). They do best in areas with filtered sunlight in the desert garden.

 Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

Although I do not have lavender in my garden, I enjoy seeing lavender in other people’s gardens. This Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) looked beautiful.

gorgeous blue hibiscus shrub

I came upon this gorgeous blue hibiscus shrub in an unlikely place – the supermarket parking lot. 

creative containers

While not quite purple, the dark pink of Parry’s penstemon looks so beautiful in the spring landscape, as evident in a landscape as I drove by.

Orange Blossoms

Today as I drove home from an appointment, I rolled down the windows so that I could smell the heavenly fragrance of the orange blossoms from the surrounding orchards.

After beautiful weeks like this, I feel so blessed to work outdoors…

Shopping for Succulents, Desert Botanical Garden Plant Sale

Shopping for Succulents, Desert Botanical Garden Plant Sale

I enjoy attending plant sales hosted by botanical gardens. Why? Because you can often find the newest plants (even hard to find ones) at them. Of course, you can also find old favorites as well.

Succulents, including cacti are a great way to add texture and interest to the garden at a fraction of the maintenance and water that other plants require. However, they tend to be more expensive than shrubs, vines, and perennials. But, don’t worry – I’m here to help you save money on succulents with these tips…

Shopping for Succulents

Shopping for Succulents

1. Avoid purchasing agave in 15-gallon containers or larger.

Why?  Well, almost all species of agave will flower toward the end of their life and then die.  That is what agave do.

Flowering is triggered by the age of the agave. In addition, different agave species live for differing lengths of time – some live less than 10 years. If you buy a 15-gallon or larger boxed agave – it is safe to assume that they are much older then those in smaller pots and will flower and die much sooner.

So my advice is to purchase agave in 1 or 5-gallon sizes – they will last much longer and you’ll save a lot of money.

*BONUS: Look for succulents that have more than one plant growing in the nursery pot. Sometimes, you can find more than one – that’s like getting 2 for the price of 1!

agave

Better yet, ask a friend or neighbor for a volunteer (pup) from their agave.  Many agave species produce volunteers that can be transplanted.  To learn how, click here.

Shopping for Succulents, My husband and daughter checking out the young saguaro cacti.

Shopping for Succulents, My husband and daughter checking out the young saguaro cacti.

2. Buy smaller cacti rather then larger.

Columnar cacti are beautiful, but expensive. The price is usually based on the height of the cactus. Saguaro cacti are priced based on each foot high they are plus the height of each arm.

The price for a 1 ft. high Totem Pole cactus was $48.

The price for a 1 ft. high Totem Pole cactus was $48.

The reason that I recommend starting out with a smaller columnar cactus such as Mexican Fence Post (Pachycereus marinatus) or ‘Monstrose’ Totem Pole (Lophocereus schottii ‘Monstrose’) is that they will begin to grow at a faster rate once planted in the ground.

In fact, smaller plants have an easier time becoming established then larger ones.

Many columnar types of cacti grow faster in the landscape then in the wild due to the presence of water – that includes saguaro cacti as well.

cacti

Like agave, you can start some species of columnar cacti from cuttings.

I planted this Mexican Fence Post cactus in my garden 11 years ago.  It started out as a 2 foot cutting given to me by a client from their large cactus.

Look how much it has grown! You can ask a neighbor or friend if they would mind you taking a stem (or pad) off of their cactus so you can start your own.

Many cacti can be started as cuttings. Simply take a piece of cacti, and place it in a dry, shady spot for two weeks and then plant it in the ground or in a pot. Wait a month before watering. For a new cactus cutting, it’s a good idea to water it once a month through its first year.

cactus/succulent

3. Plant it yourself

If you hadn’t noticed, many succulents are prickly. So, it is a good idea to plan on how you are going to plant it. Decide whether you can do it yourself or if you will need to hire someone to plant it for you.

For small cacti, you can use a towel to help you plant them without getting pricked. See how here.

For larger cacti, you can use pieces of carpet or rubber straps. But when in doubt about whether you can plant it yourself, hire an expert.  

Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)

*Years ago, as a golf course horticulturist, I used to transplant Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) from areas that were to be built upon.  I would use rubber straps to carry the cholla and regular kitchen tongs to pick up the pieces that dropped off.  I would then plant them elsewhere.

discounted plants.

4. Keep an eye out for discounted plants.

Often, not all plants will meet the high standards of the nursery.  Sometimes, this can be mostly cosmetic damage, but occasionally you will see a succulent that has not been watered correctly or placed in too much or too little sun.

This can be a great way to save money and provide a little TLC to new succulents.  Research online how to care for that particular plant and soon you will have a healthy succulent growing in your garden that cost you a lot less.

*******************

I hope that these tips will be helpful to you the next time you are shopping for succulents.

Landscape No-No

Photo: Landscape No-No

Have you ever driven past a landscape that had some problems with it?  As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, my attention diverts whenever I see ‘Landscape No-No’s’ like this one.

Awhile ago, I shared the photo of the landscape, above, on my Facebook page and invited people to identify three things wrong with the landscape.  I received a lot of comments including “looks like Versailles by the inept” and “shrubs arranged like funny looking ottomans spread across gravel.”  

It’s important to not that my reasons for showing examples like this aren’t to shame the homeowners. Instead, my goal is to help others to learn to identify problems and give them easy steps to correct or avoid them in the first place.

So, using this landscape as an example, let’s look at the problems and later, focus on how to solve them:

shrubs pruned the wrong way

1. Shrubs are planted too closely together.  

It’s obvious that there are too many plants in this area and the mature size of the shrubs wasn’t factored in the original design.  The types of flowering shrubs in this area – desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis),  Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), and ‘Green Cloud’ sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) are good choices. The problem is that they are spaced too closely together and pruned the wrong way.

2. Lack of different plant types. 

As you can see, there is a tree, a couple of succulents (prickly pear cactus & yucca), and a LOT of shrubs.  However, the landscape suffers from an overabundance of shrubs.  

3. Incorrectly pruned flowering shrubs. 

These lovely, flowering shrubs have been turned into anonymous, green blobs, lacking in beauty and character.  In fact, you would have to look closely to be able to identify what each shrub is.  The problem has to do with what is missing from this landscape, which are attractive shrubs allowed to grow into their natural shapes, covered in colorful flowers.  Other problems associated with maintaining flowering shrubs this way is that it is stressful for the plant, shortens their lifespan, causes to them to use more water to regrow their leaves, and creates more maintenance.

Now that we have identified the problems, we can now look at the solutions.  I will use the landscape above as my example:

landscape-no-no-badly-pruned-shrubs
  • Remove excess shrubs.  Take out 24 of the existing 32 shrubs so that you are left with eight flowering shrubs.  To decide what shrubs to remove, learn what type of shrub they are and look up how large they are at maturity.  Then, make sure that the ones that remain have enough room to grow.  Shrubs should be places up near the house, to anchor the corners of the landscape, and flank an entry.
  • Severely prune back remaining shrubs.  One of the things I love about shrubs is that quite a few have a ‘restart button’ where much of the damage that has been done due to excessive pruning can be reversed.  Severe renewal pruning entails pruning back shrubs to approximately 1 1/2 feet tall and wide in spring. You’ll have nothing left but woody branches and little to no leaves.  However, this stimulates plants to produce new, healthy growth. This type of pruning should be done in spring.  The key is to keep hedge trimmers away from your newly pruned shrubs forever. Any pruning should be done using hand pruners, loppers, and pruning saws.  This will work with most shrubs except for a few that were in declining health.
Which one would you rather have? Learn how to maintain shrubs the right way in the desert garden in my popular shrub pruning workshop

Photo: Which one would you rather have? Learn how to maintain shrubs the right way in the desert garden in my popular shrub pruning workshop

  • Incorporate lower-growing plants such as groundcovers and succulents. A well-designed landscape has plants with varying heights, including those at ground level.  For the landscape above, I’d add a few boulders and plant some gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) and twin-flower agave (Agave geminiflora) alongside them.  Other ideas for low-growing succulents include ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, Moroccan mound, and artichoke agave.  Flowering groundcovers would also look nice like angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), and sandpaper verbena (Glandularia rigida).  I like to use damianita, trailing lantana, and penstemon for color at lower heights.
Texas sage shrub with natural shape

Photo: Attractive desert landscape with room for plants to grow

Here is a snapshot of a landscape area at the Desert Botanical Garden where plants have room to grow and are allowed to grow into their natural shape and form.

Transforming the problematic landscape shown earlier, and others like it isn’t difficult, and the results are dramatic.  What you are left with is a beautiful landscape filled with healthy plants that use less water and needs little maintenance.

If you are tired of shapeless shrubs shaped like green blobs, I invite you to learn more about how to prune ‘right’ way in my online Shrub Pruning Workshop.

Desert Garden heat with little fuss.

Let’s face it. Hot summers are not surprising to desert dwellers. In fact, a typical desert 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.

Desert Garden heat-stressed Rock Penstemon and Golden Barrel Cactus

Heat-stressed Rock Penstemon and Golden Barrel Cactus

I must admit that it’s been hard to see certain plants struggling in my desert 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 in desert garden

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 desert garden

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 desert garden

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 in desert garden

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

'Sparky' Tecoma shrub (Tecoma 'Sparky') in desert garden

‘Sparky’ Tecoma shrub (Tecoma ‘Sparky’)

Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Will soon burst forth in burgundy plumes in fall

Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Will soon burst forth in burgundy plumes in fall.

Gold Lantana in full sun all day in desert garden

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 in desert garden

‘Rio Bravo’ Texas Sage

Bougainvillea in desert garden

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.
garden in the desert with small tree and plants

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.

desert garden

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!

Gorgeous Germander for Desert Gardens

locally owned Plant Nursery

“Where do you recommend I go to buy plants?” This is one question that I’m often asked by desert dwellers.

The choices that people have for purchasing plants range from a locally owned nursery, a nursery chain, or a big box store.  

So which is best? Well, that depends on the situation. So, I am going to give you my recommendations based on different factors.

local Plant Nursery

Local Nursery

Situation #1:

You have just moved into a new house and want to add some plants, but you have no idea what kind of plants do well in your new region, how to care for them, or what type of exposure is best.

Answer: 

I would highly recommend visiting a locally owned nursery, which employs people who are knowledgeable about plants. Also, the types of plants they carry are most likely well-adapted to the growing conditions of your area as well.  

Local nurseries also sell a greater variety of plants.

The mature size of a plant often depends on what climate they are grown in.  So your local nursery professional can tell you how large the plant will become in your zone, what type of exposure it needs along with watering and fertilizer requirements the plant will require.

You will pay a little more at a locally-owned nursery or a small chain, but you will save money due to the excellent advice and the fact that they usually only stock well-adapted plants for the region.

Big Box Store Nursery

Big Box Store Nursery

Situation #2:

You have a list of plants that you need for your garden, are familiar with the plants that do well where you live and how to care for them. Also, your budget for purchasing new plants is small.

Answer:

When you exactly what plants you need and are dealing with a tight budget, you may want to check out your big box store’s nursery

Another important thing is to be familiar the plant’s needs because, while their nursery personnel may be helpful, not all of them are knowledgeable about plants.

The biggest benefit for shopping at a big box store’s nursery is that plants are often less expensive than at your local nursery.  Many also offer an excellent plant warranty as well.

One important thing to remember about shopping at a big box store nursery is that just because you see a plant there, does not necessarily mean that it will do well in your area.  I have seen quite a few plants available in my local big box store that is sold out of season or very difficult to impossible to grow where I live.

So where do I shop for plants?

Well, it depends on several factors.

Parry's Penstemon from plant nursery

Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

For flowering annuals, I shop at the nearby big box store as it’s hard to beat their variety and amount plants available.  

When I need perennials, shrubs, succulents, or trees, you’ll find me at my favorite local nursery. They grow most of their nursery stock, so I know that it is adapted to the climate.

While traveling to areas with similar climates to mine, I take time to see if they have any specialty nurseries and take time to visit.

I do need to confess that my favorite place to find plants is not at a nursery, but at my botanical garden’s seasonal plant sale. They have hard to find plants, and I know that whatever plants I come home with will do well in my garden.

bought from plant nursery

Regardless of where you shop for your plants, I highly recommend researching plants ahead of time.

Learn how big they get, what type of maintenance they require, watering needs and how it will do where you live.  You can find most of this information easily online by doing a simple search using the plant name + where you live, which will give you links on the plant and how it does in your area.

5 Tips for Choosing Plants From the Nursery

Creative Container Gardening

Spring in the desert brings a flurry of activity out in the garden – much of it involving container gardening.

As they say, in late spring, it’s “out with the old and in with the new.” In the desert garden, it’s when cool-season flowering annuals are traded out for those that can handle the hot temperatures of summer.  

Examples of cool-season annuals are pansies, petunias, and snapdragons, which are grown fall through spring. BUT, they won’t survive hot, desert summers. So, in late April, it’s time to plant flowering annuals that can take the heat. My favorites include angelonia, ‘Blue Victoria’ salvia, and vinca.

While flowers are a popular pot filler, there are so many other things that you can do with growing plants in containers.

Here are some of my favorites:

Jazz up the appearance of your containers by painting them a different color.

beautiful container

Let’s face it – beautiful containers can be expensive while inexpensive plastic containers are a bit boring. I like to dress up my plastic containers by adding a coat of paint.  

Many spray paints can be used on plastic and last a long time. I have several painted pots in my garden that add a welcome splash of color.

Grow herbs and vegetables along with flowers in pots.

Leaf lettuce and garlic grow along with flowering petunias in Container

Leaf lettuce and garlic grow along with flowering petunias.

Did you know that you can grow vegetables in pots? I love doing this in my garden. In the fall, I plant leaf lettuce, spinach, and garlic in my large pots alongside flowering petunias. When March arrives, I like to add basil, peppers along with annuals.

Winter Container Gardening with spinach, parsley and garlic growing with pink petunias

Winter container garden with spinach, parsley and garlic growing with pink petunias.

For pots, I recommend you use a potting mix, which is specially formulated for containers and holds just the right amount of moisture.  

Container plants need to be fertilizer. You can use a slow-release fertilizer or a liquid fertilizer of your choice.

Cucumbers growing with vinca and dianthus Container

Cucumbers growing with vinca and dianthus.

In spring, vegetables such as cucumbers, bush beans, and even zucchini can grow in containers paired with flowers. 

*If you would like to try growing edible containers, click here for more info.

Plant succulents for a low-maintenance container.

Creative Container Gardening

My favorite filler for containers in the desert garden is cacti and succulents. They do very well in pots and need less water than those filled with flowering annuals and perennials.

Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) Container

Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri).

Succulents are an excellent choice for planting in areas where water is not easily accessible. While they will need supplemental water, they don’t need water every day, making them a better choice for these areas.

cactus & succulents Container

In general, succulents are lower-maintenance as well, so they are an excellent choice for the ‘fuss-free’ gardener.

Use a potting mix specially formulated for cactus & succulents, which will drain well.

Fertilize succulents spring through fall using a liquid or slow-release fertilizer at 1/2 the recommended strength.

*For more information on how to plant succulents in containers, including how to do it without getting pricked, click here.

Fill the bottom space of large pots with empty, plastic containers. 

Container Gardening

Let’s face it – potting mix is expensive and makes your pots very heavy. If you have a large pot, your plant’s roots most likely will never reach the bottom – so why waste soil where you don’t need it?

Fill up the unused space with recycled plastic containers and then add your potting mix. You will save money, AND your container will be much lighter as well. 

Whether you are new to gardening, an experienced pro, or have a small or large garden space – I invite you to reimagine what you can do in a container!

winter garden

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 winter 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) winter garden

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 from winter garden

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

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) from winter garden

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) from winter garden

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) from winter garden

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) from winter garden

‘Winter Blaze’ (Eremophila glabra)

Eremophilas from winter garden

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 from winter garden

Blue Bells Eremophila and Mexican Fence Post Cactus

Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana) from winter garden

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') from winter garden

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 from winter garden

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) from winter garden

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') from winter garden

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) from winter garden

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.

winter garden colors

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?

Drive By Landscapes: Winter Beauty in the Southwest Garden

Imagine finding yourself stepping back in time, surrounded by small adobe homes and extensive historic gardens – all in modern-day Phoenix.

neighborhood in Phoenix an Historic Garden

The Phoenix Homesteads District dates back to the 1930s and is the only adobe neighborhood in Phoenix.  Mature pine trees line the streets interspersed with Mexican fan palms creating a green tunnel that beckons you to explore further.

Small adobe homes sit on large lots with large, mature trees and shrubs.

Small adobe homes sit on large lots with large, mature trees and shrubs.  

The homes were built in the ’30s, and 40’s so residents could grow much of their food and own small livestock.

The purpose of my journey to this historic neighborhood was to visit a local artist and her picturesque gardens. 

historic garden jewel is located on 'Flower Street.'

This historic garden jewel is located on ‘Flower Street.’

I came to visit this special place at the recommendation of a client who told me about a resident artist, Suzanne Bracker, who not only had a beautiful garden but creates wonderful pieces of art.  

As I pulled up to her home, little did I know that the historic garden was just the beginning of the wonderful things I would see.

historic garden

Suzanne met me by the curb in front of her home to lead me on a journey of inspiration and discovery. 

The curved pathway at historic garden jewel is located on 'Flower Street.

Just a few steps into the garden, it’s apparent that Suzanne loves to repurpose items in her garden.  The curved pathway at historic garden jewel is located on ‘Flower Street.’ garden entrance is edged with broken concrete, often referred to as ‘urbanite’.

 adobe structure

The property consists of two 1/4 acre lots. The adobe structure that used to serve as a garage/shed, straddles the original property line. 

Queen’s wreath vine (Antigonon leptopus) and lantana grow on large river rocks within wire (gabion walls).  The bright blooms of bougainvillea provide a welcome pop of color.

gnarled tree root sits among vines

An old, gnarled tree root sits among vines and adds both color and texture contrast.

 Peruvian apple cactus in Historic Garden

Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus peruviana) grows through a giant bush lantana (Lantana camara) that is trained up as a small tree. 

After only 5 minutes in this artist’s garden, I could tell that I was on a journey of the unexpected and could hardly wait to discover more.

Historic Garden

The garage/shed is now an artist’s studio where pieces of Suzanne’s work are on display.

Historic Garden

The original adobe wall can be seen inside the studio.  Adobe walls (made from mud and straw) keep buildings cool in summer.

Historic Garden

You can see the bits of straw mixed in with the adobe as well as a small note in a crevice just waiting to be discovered and read.

Evidence of Suzanne’s interest in a variety of artistic mediums is immediately apparent.

Historic Garden
Historic Garden

From mosaics…

Historic Garden

To paper…

Historic Garden

 Clay…

Historic Garden
Historic Garden

And jewelry. Her talent is evident in almost everything she touches.

As we ventured back outdoors, Suzanne revealed a particular spot she affectionately calls her “graveyard”.

Historic Garden

Underneath the shade of a large carob tree, the ‘graveyard’ is an area where the broken clay heads from Suzanne’s clay art find a place to rest. 

Historic Garden

This is a novel way to repurpose items that otherwise would have found its way into the trash.

Historic Garden

Weights from old windows in the house now hang from metal trellises alongside snail vine.

Small crystals from old chandeliers

Small crystals from old chandeliers now decorate the trellis and cast small rainbows wherever they catch the sun’s rays.

carob tree.

Peach-faced parrots, who live in the wild, stop by the bird feeder under the carob tree.  

skyflower (Duranta erecta)

Sprays of delicate purple flowers from a large skyflower (Duranta erecta) shrub, arch over the garden path. 

Historic Garden

Along flagstone pathways, a flash of blue and green color catches my eye. Where most of us would throw out a few leftover glass beads, she uses them for a touch of whimsy.

Historic Garden

As I enter her home, the original kitchen catches my eye – there’s no granite countertops or stainless steel appliances here.

 kitchen is functional

Although small, this 1930’s kitchen is functional and very cute.

Back outdoors, there is still more to see in the garden.

An Historic Garden Jewel in the City
vibrant shades of blue and purple

Plants aren’t the only thing that provides color in this garden – the buildings are painted in vibrant shades of blue and purple.

An Historic Garden Jewel in the City

Old oil cans, a kettle, and creamers find new life as garden art.

old Lady Bank's rose

As I walk through the garden, we come upon a shady oasis, underneath the massive canopy of an old Lady Bank’s rose – this is the same type of rose as the famous Tombstone Rose.

olorful rooster and his chickens

A colorful rooster and his chickens enjoy the shade from the rose.

Gold lantana

Gold lantana grows among round step stones. The sizes and location of these step stones were poured in place. Their shape adds another artistic element to the landscape.

garden rooms

One of the many enjoyable aspects of this garden are the ‘garden rooms’ interspersed. 

old, antique, toy cars

Among the garden paths, there’s always something to discover like these old, antique, toy cars.  These were left by the previous owner and Suzanne put them on top of an old tree stump to add another fun element.

 jujube (Ziziphus jujube) tree

At the end of our garden journey, we pass by a jujube (Ziziphus jujube) tree, which tastes a little like apple.  

Sharon tree

The second house on the property has a lovely Rose of Sharon tree in front along with some interesting garden art.

True to the historical roots of this home, the concrete pipes that decorate the front are made from old irrigation pipes used for the flood irrigation This practice is still common throughout parts of Phoenix in older areas. 

flood irrigation

This garden still uses flood irrigation – the same as in the 1930s.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

The blossoms of a small, Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) add whimsical beauty with its flowers that change color as they age. 

An Historic Garden Jewel in the City

Gardens that both surprise and inspire us are a real treasure – especially when found in the middle of a city.

Suzanne’s garden is a historic jewel. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met her and observe how her artistic talent extends to everything she touches.