Last month, I diagnosed my first ever case of color blindness.

Now, I realize that I am no doctor or medical authority. However, as a horticulturist, I am somewhat of an expert in the garden, which is where I made my diagnosis.

Color Blindness in the Garden

Attractive drought-tolerant landscape in the Southwest

Before I tell you more about my unorthodox diagnosis, I invite you to look at this photo. It’s of a lovely low-desert landscape filled with a mixture of trees, shrubs, and cacti.

Color Blindness in the Garden

Front entry to desert garden with flowering Parry’s Penstemon

Here is another lovely desert landscape with succulents, vines, and a flowering Parry’s Penstemon.

My client has a garden much like those photographed above. It’s filled with a variety of flowering shrubs, agaves, cacti, and ground covers.

So when he called me in a panic telling me that the plants in his garden were doing poorly, I came ready to help him out.

However, once I got there, I didn’t see any problems. His plants looked great! He told me that his plants did look fine before he left on vacation. But, when he returned, they seemed less green and somewhat sickly.

It took me a while to assure him that his garden was healthy, and then we made small talk and I asked him where he went on vacation. His answer? Michigan!

That was an AH-HA moment! I now knew what the problem was, and it wasn’t with his plants. It was his eyes and his perception of green.

Let me illustrate:

Color Blindness in the Garden

A large lilac bush next to a winery in Traverse City, Michigan

Michigan is one of my favorite states to visit because my oldest daughter lives there with her family.

It is a beautiful place to explore with lovely gardens.

Color Blindness in the Garden

Colorful bearded iris in the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There are stunning botanical gardens awash with vibrant flowers spring through summer along with vivid greens.

Color Blindness in the Garden

Example of a Michigan Farm at Frederik Meijer Gardens

Visiting Michigan in summer is something that I look forward to every year. The gardens with their lush greens are a soothing balm when I’m tired of the hot, dry summer heat back home.

My client had an experience much like this, enjoying the saturated greens of a Midwest summer before he returned home to his garden.

Now, take another look at the desert landscapes below:

Color Blindness in the Garden
Color Blindness in the Garden

Do they look a little less colorful to you? Dare I say drab? 

When we travel to regions outside of the desert, our eyes become accustomed to bright, saturated colors that are part of that landscape. Then, when we return home, the soft, subtle shades of green are less evident to us due to the ‘green overload’ we are returning from.

As I explained this to my client, he finally understood that there was nothing wrong with his plants, just his eyes.

The good news is that this is temporary color blindness and that his garden will soon look as beautiful and vibrant as it did before he went on vacation.

Have you ever suffered from temporary color blindness in the garden?

I have a confession to make.  

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

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

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

container-red-geraniums

Red Geraniums and White Bacopa

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

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

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

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

Victoria Agave 'Compacta' Small succulent plants for Containers

Victoria Agave ‘Compacta’

Much of my inspiration for using succulent plants in containers come from those at the Desert Botanical Garden as shown in the photo above and below.

Agaves are some of my favorite succulent plants and the smaller species do very well in containers.

Small succulent plants for Containers

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

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

10 Small-Scale Agaves Just Right for Containers

 
 
 

What do your plants look like in the middle of summer?  Do they thrive despite the hot temperatures?  

Or do they look more like this?

Heatproof Gardening tips

Throw in a heatwave, and your lovely, attractive plants may be suddenly struggling to survive.

Whether you live in the desert Southwest or more temperate climates, this can happen to you if your garden is not prepared for the heat of summer.

So, how do you know if your plants are handling the summer heat?  

Take a walk through your garden during the hottest part of the day and look for signs of wilting leaves as well as yellow or browning leaves.  All of these can indicate heat stress.

The good news is that you can heatproof your landscape and enjoy a garden filled with attractive plants that thrive despite the hot temperatures that summer dishes out.

Here are 5 tips to help you heatproof your garden:

#1. Use native or plants adapted to your climate.

Heatproof Gardening tips

This is perhaps the most important tip for having an attractive, low-maintenance landscape filled with beauty that thrives throughout the entire year.

Native (or adapted) plants have unique characteristics that help them to handle the local climate, including the heat of summer AND the cold of winter.

All too often, we find ourselves with landscapes filled with plants (often with large leaves) that struggle to survive the hot, summer months.  This results in unattractive plants that we work hard to help sustain them until cooler temperatures arrive.  Usually, these plants are best meant to grow in climates with less extreme heat.

Langman's Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae)

Langman’s Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae)

Let’s look at an example of an adaptation that this Langman’s sage has that enables it to handle full sun and 110+ temperatures without undue stress.

Notice that the flowers have small hairs.  So do the leaves, giving them a slightly grayish cast.  These tiny hairs help to reflect the sun’s rays, which lowers the temperature of the leaves and flowers.

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) and Shrubby Germander 'Azurea' (Teucrium fruticans 'Azurea')

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) and Shrubby Germander ‘Azurea’ (Teucrium fruticans ‘Azurea’)

Another way that plants have to handle the heat is by having small leaves, which limits the amount of water lost, which helps them to deal with hot, dry temperatures.

Here in the desert Southwest, there are many native plants that are used as well as plants from Australia and other arid regions, which have similar climates.

To find out what types of plants are best adapted to your area, check your local cooperative extension office for a list of plants.  A visit to your local botanical garden can also be helpful.

#2. Provide shade

Heatproof Gardening tips

Adding shade to the garden can provide relief from the hot sun as well as cooling air temperatures.  The shade benefits plants and can provide cooling to the house as well.

*It is important to note that it can be hard to grow many plants in dense shade – especially flowering ones.  However, using trees that provide filtered shade provide just enough shade while allowing enough sun through for plants.

#3 Water deeply and infrequently

Heatproof Gardening tips

Plants need water to survive, and not surprisingly, they need the most in the summer.  However, we often water them too often and shallowly for it to do much good.

Shallow watering keeps roots close to the surface of the soil, where the soil temperatures are hot, and the water dries up quickly.

Deep watering is the proper method for irrigating plants because encourages deep root growth where the soil is cooler and stays moister for longer.  As a result, you do not need to water as often.

“Plants that are watered deeply and infrequently are better able to withstand the heat.”

Shrubs should be watered to a depth of 2 feet and perennials and groundcovers to 18 inches.  You can determine how deeply you are watering by inserting a piece of rebar down into the soil (right after you have finished watering) to see how long you need to irrigate.  On average, 2 hours is the length of time to irrigate to the desired depth.  

Almost as important as watering deeply is the time of day that you water. The best time to water is early in the morning.  Watering plants in the afternoon is not as useful since plants allocate their resources at that time toward surviving the stresses of the heat and so they do not take up water as efficiently.  

Click here for watering guidelines for the Phoenix metro area.

#4 Mulch around your plants

Heatproof Gardening tips

Not surprisingly, mulch has a variety of benefits and not just in regards to heat proofing your garden.

Mulch serves to help cool soil temperatures in summer while helping to conserve moisture – all important in helping plants thrive despite hot temperatures.

A bonus is that they also help to prevent weeds from taking root.

Heatproof Gardening tips

Let’s take a minute to rethink our definition of what makes an excellent mulch.  

While shredded bark and wood chips may come to mind, did you know that fallen leaves, pine needles and even fallen flowers can also serve as a mulch?  That is how nature does it.

So, the next time you are tempted to whip out your leaf blower, how about directing it toward the base of your plants where the leaves and flowers can serve as a mulch?  They will also help to improve the soil around your plants as they decay.

#5 Ditch flowers in favor of succulents in containers

Heatproof Gardening tips

While growing pretty flowers in containers are relatively simple in fall, winter and spring-summer can be another matter entirely.  Often, it can be hard to grow flowering annuals in pots throughout the hot summer.

The reasons for this is that the soil around the roots of container plants is hotter than if grown in the ground.  This is especially true for the outer 6 inches of soil which heats up in response to air temperatures and the hot container.  As a result, annuals can wilt and struggle to produce flowers in summer.

Succulents are a great way to enjoy attractive container plantings throughout the year, not just in summer.  Their ability to store water is what makes them an excellent choice for containers.

Heatproof Gardening tips

If you want to grow something else besides succulents, how about trying heat-tolerant shrubs? Bougainvillea does great in pots as does lantana.

Heatproof Gardening tips

Another tip for containers is to leave them empty in the summer months and wait until fall to plant them.  

When thinking in terms of growing plants in containers in hot climates, bigger is better – at least 2 feet wide at the top.  The larger the pot, the more soil and therefore, more insulation for the roots from the hot outer zone.

**So what can you do if you do have plants that are struggling in the heat – particularly during a heatwave?  Other than replacing them, you can provide them with temporary shade such as a patio chair strategically placed so that it protects it against the afternoon sun.  A light spraying of water over the plant and surrounding area in the evening can help reduce the temperature – don’t do this when the sun is out, or you may burn the foliage.

How to Help Your Plants Survive a Heatwave

“How much water do my plants need?”

I am often asked this question by desert dwellers and my answer is always, “That depends.”

desert-landscape

There are several variables that determine how much water plants need, along with the frequency of watering.

Variables include:

  • Type of soil (clay, sand, combination)
  • What kind of plant (native plants, higher water use flowering shrubs and ground covers, succulents, etc.)
  • Recommended depth of water
  • Desert region (low-desert, mid-altitude, high desert)
  • Efficiency of irrigation system
  • Water pressure (can vary between neighborhoods)

As you can see, there is no universal watering guideline in regards to how long to water or how often.

Let’s look into the variables a little more closely to help you determine what yours are:

Soil – Clay soils hold onto water longer than sandy soil. They take longer for water to permeate to the recommended depth. The result? Clay soils need irrigation less often than sandy ones but need to be watered for a longer length of time. Phoenix area soil tends to have more clay in them while those in the Palm Springs area are sandy.

Plants – Native or desert-adapted plants need less frequent irrigation versus those that come from tropical climates. Cacti and other succulents do well with infrequent irrigation.

Water Depth – Trees need to be watered deeply while ground covers and succulents do fine at a more shallow depth – shrubs fall in between the two.

Desert Region – Where you live in the desert matters when it comes to water and your plants. The differences include rainfall amounts, when the rain falls, high and low temps, and more. Residents of low-desert cities like Palm Springs and Phoenix need to add water to their plants more often than those who live in higher elevation regions such as Tucson.

Irrigation System – The older your irrigation system, the less efficient it is. This is due to mineral build-up within the system, which affects the amount of water that comes out. Also, old drip irrigation systems tend to accumulate leaks. The average lifespan for a drip irrigation system is 10-15 years. 

Despite these differences, what is a shared characteristic is that the vast majority of desert residents water too often and not deeply enough. This is usually due to lack of knowledge and thinking the ‘more is better,’ especially in the desert.

Landscapers are generally not a reliable source when it comes to scheduling irrigation – most recommend irrigating far too often.

So what is a desert dweller to do?

Thankfully, there is very useful information available for homeowners to help them figure out when and how much water their landscape needs.

Major metropolitan areas throughout the Southwest have excellent watering guidelines available for residents. The guidelines include the regional variables we have discussed so far.

Here are helpful links based on major desert cities (click the link for the city closest to you):

Las Vegas

Palm Springs

Phoenix

Tucson

Watering guidelines are just that – guidelines. Circumstances may mean that you need to water more or less often, but these guides are a useful baseline to work from.

*One final note – before you implement a new irrigation schedule, it’s important to gradually wean your plants to the new one over several weeks. The reason for this is that it allows plants to become accustomed to the new schedule.

Yes, it does take a little work to figure out how much and often to water your plants, but these guides are incredibly helpful and will guide you along the way.

Tecoma Red Hot

Red Hot

I am always on the lookout for new plants to the desert plant palette. Growers experiment with new varieties of more common plants in an attempt to find new colors, sizes, and more desirable characteristics.

This past fall, I was invited to visit Civano Nursery Farm, located in Sahuarita, 20 miles outside of Tucson. The main reason for the visit was to introduce me to their new Tecoma shrub hybrid called ‘Red Hot.’ This new plant is closely related to yellow and orange bells, which are both ones that I like to use when designing.

At the time of my visit, ‘Red Hot’ was not yet available to the public but was being grown throughout the Southwest as a test plant.

Civano Nursery Farm tour AZ Plant Lady

While I met with Jackie Lyle, their Brand Development Manager, who plays an integral part in the introduction of new plants to the Southwest region.

Our tour began in the greenhouses where we explored their state-of-the-art automated systems and massive amounts of plants in all stages of growth. I was in heaven!

Civano Nursery Farm Tour AZ Plant Lady

I have never worked in a nursery or for a grower, so it was fun to see how they propagate plants from cuttings.

Greenhouse with Red Hot Tecoma shrubs

While touring the greenhouses, I got my first view of ‘Red Hot’ Tecoma. Instantly, I could see why there is so much excitement about this new variety. The foliage has the characteristic color of most Tecomas, but the leaves were somewhat smaller than yellow bells and more compact.

Red Hot Tecoma flowers

So vibrant red blooms are simply stunning and sure to draw hummingbirds to drink the nectar from their flowers.

Plant tag Red Hot Tecoma

So’Civano Select’ are plants created by the grower, which have slightly different characteristics than the more common species that they are a welcome addition to the desert plant palette. I was thrilled to view several of their ‘Select’ plants during our tour.

Bougainvillea-Civano-Nursery

As you can imagine, this is a bustling nursery, and there were shipments of plants headed out to job sites and other nurseries.

Red-Hot-Tecoma-Shrub-Nursery-Container

Whoever is getting these ‘Red Hot’ shrubs are in for a treat!

new-plants-desert-garden

Coming Home

And, guess who came home with her own ‘Red Hot’ shrubs? Me!

Then I was extremely honored to receive two of these new shrubs, so I can share with you how they do in my Phoenix area garden. They are doing very well along the south-facing side of my house underneath the window by my kitchen.

Then, of course, I also brought home other plants – autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Mt. Lemmon marigold (Tagetes lemmonii), ‘Mr. Liko’ pink gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Mr. Liko’). Getting free plants is like Christmas to this horticulturist!

The great news is that ‘Red Hot’ Tecoma is now available at many local nurseries.

Want to see if this is the right shrub for your garden? Here are the stats:

‘Red Hot’ Tecoma

Size: 4 feet tall and wide

Exposure: Full sun, reflected sun

Bloom Season: Spring through Fall

Cold Hardiness: 15 degrees

Attracts: Hummingbirds

I will share the progress of my new ‘Red Hot’ shrubs and maybe you can do the same.

The 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make in the Desert Garden

I am always looking for ways to help people on their desert garden journey and so I’m offering a FREE class on 5 reasons you are struggling with your desert garden.

As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, I have seen people making the same mistakes, which prevent them from having a beautiful outdoor space.

Because of this, they unintentionally ‘hurt’ the plants by over-maintaining them and spending money on unneeded products and landscape services.

If this sounds like you, I AM HERE TO HELP!

I’ve been helping people like you for over 20 years and I can help you too!

Free Webinar AZ Plant Lady

This LIVE class is on January 17th, at 1:00 MST. *If you want to register for this free class, but can’t attend it live, it will be recorded so you can watch it at our convenience for a limited time.

Knowledge is power and once you know what you are doing wrong in the landscape – you have taken one GIANT step in having a desert garden that you are proud of.

CLICK the following link to learn more and register – http://bit.ly/2RpFFb5

I hope to see you there!

Sometimes, one area that many homeowners struggle with is what to plant in their side yards. It can be an awkward place with little sun and not much room for plants to grow. Most of these narrow spaces along the side of our home are little more than “yards,” but there is potential to turn them into “gardens.” On a visit to a client’s house, I saw a great example of this, where the homeowner had created side gardens.

Bougainvillea with Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) in side garden

First, her first side garden was planted with upright Bougainvillea shrubs against the wall with Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) planted in between. I liked the symmetry of the alternating plants and how they covered the wall so well – I’m not a fan of a view of a bare wall outside my window.

Most of the time the star jasmine produces small white fragrant flowers in spring, and the bougainvillea produces vibrant blooms spring through fall. Also it’s neat about this plant combination is that the base of the wall in a narrow side garden rarely gets much sun, and star jasmine does well in the shade. After all, bougainvillea does best in sunny spots, and the top part of them gets just enough sun to promote blooms.

Yellow oleander (Thevetia peruviana) and 'Orange Jubilee' (Tecoma x 'Orange Jubilee') in side garden

In the other side of the garden, Yellow oleander (Thevetia peruviana) trees grew along the wall toward the back and ‘Orange Jubilee’ (Tecoma x ‘Orange Jubilee’) shrubs covered the wall closer up creating a lush green backdrop.

I did make two suggestions in regards to this side garden. Remove the ‘Orange Jubilee’ shrubs growing in-between the yellow oleander trees. Right now, they make that area look overcrowded, and you cannot see the beauty and symmetry of the tree trunks against the wall.

Also, If you never see your side garden or it serves as your utility area, understandably, you may not want to spend time and money on adding plants. However, I do recommend focusing on placing plants directly across from any windows that face into that area, because who wants to look out onto a bare wall?

What do you have growing in your side garden?

(Desert Adapted Plants) Indian Mallow

(Desert Adapted Plants) Indian Mallow (Abutilon palmeri)

I always enjoy seeing well-designed landscapes that make use of many of my favorite desert adapted plants. A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to explore lovely landscape areas that existed within an imaginary land with real plants that were used to provide a sense of reality to this fictional place.

I invite you to explore these areas along with me and look for clues as to where it is.

Globe mallow, Mexican honeysuckle, and Indian mallow

Globe mallow, Mexican honeysuckle, and Indian mallow

This is a gorgeous layering of three different shrubby plants. Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri) anchors the background with its gray-green leaves and yellow flowers. In the middle stands Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera), which has lovely foliage and orange flowers that appear throughout the year. Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) adds nice color contrast with its foliage and orange flowers in the foreground. All of these are drought tolerant and thrive in desert gardens.

saguaro cactus, ocotillo, and a little yucca

Continuing our exploration, we walk by a desert planting filled with young saguaro cactus, ocotillo, and a little yucca. It almost made me feel like we were in Arizona.

jojoba shrub (Simmondsia chinensis)

The beautiful green foliage of a jojoba shrub (Simmondsia chinensis) stood out against the reddish walls of a ‘canyon’.

(Pachycereus marginatus)

Mexican fence post cactuses (Pachycereus marginatus) along with other cereus cacti add a lovely vertical element.

desert Southwest

Naturally-themed areas are filled with a plant palette that places you in the desert Southwest. But, we were several hundred miles away from the real desert.

Have you guessed where we were yet? Here is another clue:

Desert Adapted Plants

Information signs reveal the different kinds of plants in this imaginary land. Your final clue is the name of the plants as well as the shape of the small prickly pear pad.

Radiator Springs

We were exploring the town of ‘Radiator Springs’ which came to life in the movie ‘Cars’ and its sequels. These are my favorite Disney movies because they take place in my own backyard.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well this imaginary town was constructed and the plants used to create a look of authenticity. However, there were some notable exceptions to having live plants throughout Radiator Springs.

Cozy Cone Hotel

Old-fashioned rear lights were used to create imaginary flowers at the Cozy Cone Hotel. 

Cozy Cone Hotel

Other car parts serve as components of this cornucopia.

Radiator Springs

While I was distracted by both the real and imaginary plants, other visitors were thrilled by the appearance of the inhabitants of Radiator Springs.

An Imaginary Land With Real Plants

Have you ever visited Cars Land at California Adventure? If you get the chance, you may be surprised to find inspiration for your desert garden.

(Russelia equisetiformis) coral fountain

When you ask most people what they want in their garden, their most common answer is, “color”. One of the best plants that I like to recommend for warm-season color is coral fountain, also known as firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis). It has beautiful, cascading foliage that resembles the movement of water.

coral fountain

Deep orange flowers begin to appear in spring, the attract both humans and hummingbirds. As you can see, this is not a plant for subtle color – it is dramatic.

Coral fountain paired with elephants food (Portulacaria afra).

Coral fountain paired with elephants food (Portulacaria afra).

 It looks great when paired with succulents like artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’)elephants food (Portulacaria afra), or lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus). For additional interest, you can plant it alongside yellow-flowering plants from the low-growing gold lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold’) or angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) all the way to the tall yellow bells (Tecoma stans stans).

 coral fountain

In my garden, I have three of them growing underneath the filtered shade of my palo verde tree. If you’d like to learn more about coral fountain to see it would be a good fit in your garden, please read my earlier post

palo verde trees yellow flowers

My garden has been transformed with yellow showers of flowers, courtesy of my palo verde tree. It’s a delightful time of year with warm spring temperatures and colorful landscapes filled with flowering shrub, perennials, and trees.

palo verde trees yellow flowers

However, nothing heralds the arrival of spring in the desert Southwest like the golden yellow flowers of palo verde trees. I have three ‘Desert Musuem’ palo verde trees spread throughout my garden – one in the front, in the side garden (our dog run), and in the backyard.

palo verde trees yellow flowers

The flowers do spread everywhere, which bothers some people, but I like to focus on the lovely yellow flowers transform things in the garden, like my artichoke agave where the flowers nestle inside its rosette.

palo verde trees yellow flowers

One of my favorite views of the garden is looking out the patio door to the side garden where the branches of my palo verde tree frame the view.

There are several different species of palo verde and each one has a slightly different color flower, form the pale yellow of the foothills palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla) to the deep yellow of ‘Desert Museum’ (Parkinsonia hybrid ‘Desert Museum’).

Here is more information about palo verde trees from an earlier post. Do you enjoy the blooms of palo verde trees?