Colorful containers at Civano Nursery, Tucson

Does your garden have a case of the ‘blahs’?  

One of the most frequent desires for homeowners that I meet with is more colorful interest for their outdoor spaces.  One of the easiest ways to add a splash of color to the garden is introducing brightly colored pots.

There are some situations where adding color using flowering plants is difficult, particularly when there is a lot of shade as most plants won’t bloom in heavy shade.  

My favorite solution for that problem is to plant a shade-loving succulent in a colorful pot such as elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra).

Adding a color element to a shady entry is just one of the many ways to use vibrant pots to add colorful interest year round.  In my latest Houzz article, I share a number of ways how you can utilize pots as a decorative element to the garden.

 

How do you add color to your outdoor spaces?

Life has been awfully busy lately.  So much so, that it has affected me from doing blogging as regularly as I like to do.  So, I would like to take a little time to let you know what I have been up to this past month.

Work has seen me driving me from one corner of the Phoenix metro area to the other, meeting with clients and helping them to create beautiful outdoor spaces.  In fact, I broke my record for the most landscape consultations in a single month.  Now that the holidays are here, work has slowed down a little.

A beautiful succulent, Euphorbia trigona

A beautiful succulent, Euphorbia trigona

One thing that I enjoy about visiting new clients is that I get to see impressive specimen plants like this Euphorbia trigona that flanked the entry of the Phoenix home.

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This is a truly beautiful succulent that lends a tropical look to the landscape.  It is very frost tender and must be protected when temperatures dip into the 30’s.  I’d say it’s worth the effort for a plant like this.

Coyote

Coyote

Encounters with wildlife happens often during my work.  However, seeing a coyote in the middle of the day is rather rare.  As I was driving home from a consultation, I saw this beautiful coyote walk across the street.  I stopped my car and it stood off to the side of road while I took a few pictures with my phone.

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While I’ve seen a number of coyotes over the years, most often their appearance reflects the hardship of living in the desert.  However, this coyote was the healthiest one that I’ve encountered.

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I think that it enjoyed the attention that I was giving it as it stood still for several seconds before walking off into the desert.

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Christmas is my favorite season of the year.   I enjoy shopping for the perfect gift, decorating the house, baking my favorite desserts, singing along to Christmas music in the car, and rejoicing in the reason for Christmas.

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Earlier this week, we filmed a video segment for our church’s upcoming Christmas Eve services.  We were asked to share the story of our daughter Ruthie’s adoption along with her cousin Sofie.  They were best friends in the orphanage when my sister and her family adopted Sofie back in 2006.  One year later, my husband and I went to China and adopted Ruthie.  So, they are not just best friends, but cousins.

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We taped the video at my sister’s house, which took over 3 hours.  The segment will probably only be 3 – 4 minutes in length, but I can hardly wait to see their story shared and hope that it will inspire others.  I will be sure to share it with all of you at that time.

I hope that you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying this holiday season.

 

 

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The appearance of a package in my mailbox always brightens my day.  Sometimes, it is the latest garden product that a company wants me to try out, or new plants to try out in my garden.  But, this small box contained three small items that I had long been waiting for.

Whale's Tongue Agave (Agave ovatifolia)

Whale’s Tongue Agave (Agave ovatifolia)

For those of you who have followed my blog for awhile, you know that agave are my favorite type of succulent.  I love the beauty of their fleshy leaves arranged in rosette patterns with their pointy tips and finely toothed edges.

Two Whale's Tongue Agave

Two Whale’s Tongue Agave (Agave ovatifolia)

My friend and fellow blogger, Pam Penick, also knows how much I love agave.  So, when her whale’s tongue agave (named ‘Moby’, after the book Moby Dick) flowered earlier this year in her Austin, Texas garden, she kindly gifted me with three of Moby’s offspring.

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The three baby agave, which arrived a week ago, came from an agave that is well known throughout the garden blogger community.  Pam’s agave was the focal point of her backyard and appeared in many of her blog posts.  

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I must admit that I fell in love with whale’s tongue agave after seeing ‘Moby’.  The leaves of this agave has a unique shape with a concave dip that makes the leaves resemble the tongue of a whale.  I would often stop and take pictures whenever I saw one while working and began to incorporate into my landscape designs.

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Three ‘Moby’ Juniors

Pam began to chronicle the beginning of the end of Moby’s life as it began to flower and at the end, she harvested the tiny bulbils (agave babies) from the flowering stalk.  

I was so honored when she emailed me to tell me that she had reserved three little ‘Moby Juniors’ for me.  I’ve been anxiously awaiting their arrival and now they are finally here!

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Right now, they are re-hydrating for a day or two until I get organized and get them planted.  I have a few spots in mind for them in the garden.  While they can grow in full sun in Texas, whale’s tongue agave does best in filtered shade or morning sun in Arizona gardens.  I’ll probably plant them underneath the shade of my palo verde trees.

I am so grateful for this special gift of agave and look forward to seeing the beauty of three Moby Juniors grace my Arizona garden.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

“Where do you recommend I go to buy plants?” This is one question that I’m often asked, and Tmy answer varies.

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 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
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 (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.

 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.

**Where do you shop for plants?

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*This blog post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a commission (at no additional cost to you). Thanks for your support in this way.

Have you ever made a discovery that was literally under your nose?  

I did.

Earlier this month, I embarked on a tour of low-water gardens that displayed sustainable design throughout the greater Phoenix area.  

The earlier parts of our tour showed examples of water harvesting using cisterns along with man-made arroyos.  Then we viewed a creative example of sustainable design for a beautiful parking lot that needed no supplemental water and little to no maintenance.


I mentioned last week that I had saved the best for last and I can’t wait to share with you this jewel in the midst of a desert city.

The last stop on our tour of low-water and sustainable gardens was the Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden.
 
The garden is just over 5 acres and sits hidden from the street next to Chaparral Park in central Scottsdale.

Over 200 different types of plants are used throughout the garden, all of which are drought-tolerant and well-adapted to our hot, dry climate.
 
My friend and fellow blogger, Pam Penick, came with me to this beautiful garden (you can see her at the top of the terraced planters).
 
One of my favorite parts of the garden included this innovative design, called the ‘Terraced Cascade’ which creates the appearance of water traveling down between terraced planters filled with Palo Blanco trees (Acacia willardiana) and Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata).  
 
 
 Water does flow down discretely hidden steps between the terraces during times of heavy rainfall toward the water harvest basin where it waters existing plants before flowing underground toward the nearby lake.
 
 
Raised planters were filled with flowering Ocotillo  as well as Birdcage Evening Primrose (Oenothera deltoides).
 
Birdcage Evening Primrose (Oenothera deltoides) in the foreground and Mexican Evening Primrose (Oenothera berlanderi) growing against the Ocotillo.
I must admit that I was surprised to find this garden in an area that I used to spend a lot of time in.
 
Years ago, before the garden existed, my husband and I would take evening walks around the nearby lake with our daughter.  Believe it or not, before there was a garden, there used to be a miniature golf course in this location. 
 
 
I love stone walls and would have some in my own garden, if I could afford them.  The stone walls were capped with flagstone and had rows of round stones, which added an unexpected touch of texture.  
 
 
From our vantage point, we could see to the other side of the garden where a tall, dead tree stood.  Trees like this are called a ‘snag’, which is a dead or dying tree.  This tree provides a home for hawks, which help keep the rabbit population down. 
 
Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) and Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Gabion walls were used along pathways to created terraces to help slow down storm water in order to reduce flooding while watering the plants.
 
The demonstration garden is located next to a water treatment plant and part of the garden sits on top of a reservoir that contains 5.5 million gallons of treated water.
 
Deer Grass in the foreground.
 
One of the things that I enjoy about demonstration gardens is that they ‘demonstrate’ different gardening methods as well as showcasing plants.
 
In this case, I was impressed with the collection of plant species used, which aren’t typically seen in residential or commercial landscapes, which is a shame.
 
 
As we walked down the main path, we came upon a man-made, mesquite ‘bosque’.  The word ‘bosque’ is used to refer to stands of trees nearby rivers or washes throughout the southwestern United States.  Usually, you’ll find these bosques made up of mesquite trees.
 
This bosque was planted with Honey Mesquite trees (Prosopis glandulosa), which is simply stunning in spring when it’s bright-green leaves reappear.  A warning though – it has thorns.
 
Palo Brea (Parkinsonia praecox) trees and gabion walls line the main walkway.
 
Plants are maintained just the way I like them – no shearing or over-pruning.  
Gold Mound Lantana, Orange Bush Lantana and Pink & White Globe Mallow.
 
The main pathway parallels the local dog park.
 
 
There is little that can compare to the beauty of the  new spring leaves of mesquite trees.  I love how the coral-colored variety of Bougainvillea and the yellow flowers of Aloe Vera look like brightly-colored jewels along with the leaves of the mesquite.
 
 
Nearing the end of the trail, I couldn’t help but marvel at this beautiful garden and its creative design.
 
Throughout the garden were educational signs talking about a myriad of gardening subjects that were clearly illustrated by the garden itself including planning and design, plant care and desert habitat.
 
 
A large cistern was located on one end of the trail, which was filled with the average amount of water that a household uses in 1 week.  
 
Around the outer border of the cistern is an American Indian saying that says:
 
“THE FROG DOES NOT DRINK UP THE POND IN WHICH HE LIVES”
 
Those are words that all of us who live in the dry, southwest should all ponder…
 
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The Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden is located at Hayden and McDonald Roads in Scottsdale.  It is open from sunrise to 10:30 at night.
 
I hope you have enjoyed these posts of our tour of sustainable, southwestern landscapes in the greater Phoenix area.
 
Pam and I drove about 170 miles in one day and we weren’t able to see all of the great examples of sustainable landscaping.  However, if you are interested in seeing examples of sustainable gardening, then I would recommend starting at the Desert Botanical Garden, which is filled with arid-adapted plants that thrive in our climate with minimal water and fuss.
 
If you haven’t visited Pam’s blog, Digging, I encourage you to do so.  Many of the plants that she grows in Austin do well in our climate too.  Did I also mention that she is an author?  She has a fabulous book called Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, which I highly recommend.
Desert Botanical Garden Plant Sale
 
I enjoy attending plant sales hosted by botanical gardens.  
 
Here in the southwest, you can often find the newest succulents including those that are hard to find as well as old favorites.
 
There are a few tips that I’d like to share with you the next time you are buying a succulent whether at a plant sale or your local nursery that can save you money.
 
 
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.  Different species live for differing lengths of time – some live less then 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.
*Sometimes, you can find more then one agave growing in the same nursery container – that’s like getting 2 for the price of 1!
 
 
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.
 
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 in height plus arms.
 
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 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.
 
 
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 may notice on the lower right side that there has been a section cut off.  Soon, I’ll show you how to take a cutting from an existing cactus to create a new one!
 
 
3. Have a plan in place for planting your new cactus/succulent.
 
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.
 
 
*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.
 
 
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.
 
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I hope that these tips will be helpful to you the next time you are shopping for succulents.

Now, you may think that I am talking about soft, cuddly puppies finding a new home.  But, I am actually talking about my agave pups.  The word ‘pups’ refers to the small agave offsets that sometimes form from the adult agave.

 Agave americana surrounded by her ‘pups’.

Some agave species produce quite a few pups, while other species rarely do.  I do try to stay from agave species like Agave americana because they produce so many pups that it becomes quite a maintenance chore to constantly remove them all.  But that being said, I have many friends and clients who just love this particular agave.

Well, the day finally came in my garden for my agave pups to move away from their childhood home.
Can you see them?  There are 4 in the picture above.  Three are quite small still, but more then ready to leave their mother, my Agave parryi.  I am actually quite excited to be getting pups from this agave because in my experience, they do not produce many pups.  It may be that this one has because it does receive overspray from my lawn sprinklers.
Okay, this may seem obvious, but you would be amazed at how many people just start digging in the middle of their gravel (granite) without clearing it away first.  Believe me…you want to clear it away first or else you will be left with a mixture of rock and soil mixed together.
 
Aren’t they cute in a prickly sort of way?  They really are quite tiny.
I carefully removed the soil around the pups, leading to the mother plant because the pups are still attached to her by a thick, fleshy root.  You can see that the pups are beginning to form their own roots, branching out to the side.
Just cut the root connecting the pup to the adult agave….that’s it.  It is really very easy.
Now, this same adult agave also has another pup, which has grown much closer to home then these tiny pups.
 
This one did not want to leave home, even though it was quite grown up.  When the pups are growing right up alongside the adult plant, just insert a shovel and push down firmly, cutting the connecting root.  **Sometimes you have to be a bit forceful in getting some pups to leave home  😉
I was able to harvest 5 pups.  I was so happy and had fun selecting where I wanted to put them in my garden.
Before you plant them, you need to put them in a dry, shady spot for 4 – 7 days so that the cuts have a chance to dry first.  This helps to prevent rot when they are planted.  Don’t worry about them surviving without water for a few days….they have plenty stored inside – they are succulents after all.
Once you have planted them, they will need supplemental water to help them establish and grow roots.  Agave do best when given supplemental water, even when mature.  Most are connected to my drip irrigation system.  The others receive overspray from my sprinklers, which is enough for them.
If you haven’t noticed this before, I am not a perfect gardener and am likely to tell people, “Do as I say, not as I do”.  But, I do not profess to be a perfectionist and so I will show you one of my larger agave, whose pups should have left home long ago…
smooth-edge-agave-pups
This is my Smooth Leaf Agave (Agave desmettiana).  I love this type of agave.  It is medium size, and the sides of the leaves do not have thorns.  The thorns on the tips can easily be cut off if desired for a more pedestrian friendly agave.
As you can see from the photo above, the pups are quite large and should have been kicked out long ago.  So, I brought in the muscle (my husband) to help get them out.
Because the pups were growing close to the parent plant, a shovel had to be used to separate them.
 
Agave desmettiana is known for producing offsets (pups), but in my experience, there are not too many.
Actually, the adult agave below was grown from a pup.
A proud parent and her 8 offspring.  I planted a few and gave some to my mother, Pastor Farmer, of Double S Farms.
There were times when I worked on golf courses that my budget was tight, so I would ask residents to bring their agave pups to me so that we could use them in landscape areas around the courses.  The residents were very generous and after a while, we had more then we knew what to do with.  So, if you have some agave pups, plant one in a pretty container and give to a friend or donate them to your city, church or other organization.
**My son continues to do better each day.  We did have a little bit of a setback on Saturday, but yesterday and today, he is feeling much better.  Thank you again for your support and prayers!

What comes to mind when you think of cactus?  

Perhaps the first thing you think of is the spines. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been pricked by a cactus, you’ll likely never forget that most of them have needles.  
*Did I ever tell you about the time I worked on golf course landscape and backed into a teddy bear cholla and got an entire piece lodged in the back of my leg?
 
Besides being painful to those who get too near to cacti, did you know that there are important reasons that cacti have spines?

Golden barrel cactuses (Echinocactus grusonii)

First, let’s look at the spines of cactus for what they are – the main part of cactus often functions as a modified stem, and its needles are the leaves.
 
The most obvious function of cactus spines is to protect the cacti from animals and people. There are, however, a few animals who aren’t deterred by the sharp spines of cacti such as javelina, tortoises and pack rats.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) spines

 
Suprise, the primary function of the spines are to actually shade the cactus.
 
Although just one small spine would hardly provide shade, thousands of them can provide enough.
 

Why is sun protection needed for the surface of cacti? The shade from the spines let the cactus lose water through the atmosphere. This helps keep the cactus temperature relatively low.

Black-spine prickly pear (Opuntia macrocentra)

 Another function that the spines serve is that they help certain species of cacti such as cholla to root and spread.

Teddy bear cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)

Spines of the Cholla are specialized to detach and attach onto anything that comes to close. There are tiny barbs at the tips which grab on to anything that gets too close. It almost appears as if they ‘jump’ off of the main cactus as they latch on the unlucky recipient.

Segments of the Cholla are usually moved and then fall off and grow in better conditions. If you have ever seen cholla growing in large groups, this is why. 
**If like me, you are ever unlucky enough to find a piece of cholla embedded in your clothes or worse, your skin – you can use a comb to help pull out the barbs.  When hiking in the desert, it is easy to get them stuck on your shoes.  I usually grab a rock and use it to push off the Cholla segment.  When all else fails, a good pair of needle-nose pliers works.
 

Two young saguaro cactuses are emerging from the shelter of a creosote shrub.

Hopefully, you have a new appreciation for cacti and their spines.  But, it’s still important to be careful because it hurts when you get pricked!
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.