backyard desert garden with fall-blooming plants

Fall is my favorite time of year for two main reasons.

First, it signals the beginning of the holiday season. And yes, I am one of those people who decorate for Christmas early. Thanksgiving dinner at my house is celebrated with a fully decorated tree in the background.

Secondly, fall is a time when my garden comes alive again. I don’t have to tell you that summer is a stressful season for plants. But the lower temperatures of fall bring about changes to your plants.

You may have noticed that your plants look healthier than they did in summer. This is why gardeners in the desert often refer to autumn as our ‘second spring.’

Here are some of the differences you may see in your plants this time of year:

  • Darker foliage has replaced the sun-bleached appearance of some plants due to less intense sunlight.
  • Flowering increases and the blooms may also appear more intense in color due to less intensity from the sun.
  • Some plants only bloom in fall, like black dalea (Dalea frutescens), cascalote (Caesalpinia cacalaco), and my favorite pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).

In the section of my backyard, pictured above, pink muhly and white trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis ‘Alba’) look especially vibrant in fall.

Pink trumpet vine (Podranea ricasoliana) dominates the back corner and blooms in spring and fall. I always know when cooler temps are on their way when they begin to bloom in September.

However, as autumn transitions into winter, the blooms in this area will slow and fade. A few hardy blooms may remain, but overall, the plants will slow down in their growth and flowering. The exception is my angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis) which will bloom off and on through winter.

I invite you to take a walk through your garden and note the changes to your plants. This is a happy time of year in the garden!

I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this one.

We have all likely experienced the death of a plant in our garden, and even though I am a horticulturist, I’m not immune.

Sometimes, plants die in my garden too.

Here is a photo of my recently deceased ‘Blue Bells’ emu bush.

I was surprised to see that it had ‘kicked the bucket’ as its nearby neighbors were flourishing.

So, the question I have to ask myself is, why did it die?

To determine why a plant died, here are some things to ascertain…

  • Was it planted recently? If so, it may not have had enough time to grow enough roots to survive summer.
  • Did it get enough water? Was the drip emitter plugged?
  • Was it planted in the wrong exposure? In other words, did it get too much sun?
  • Does the plant do well in our hot, desert climate?
  • Were there any pest problems, such as ants around the roots or other unwelcome bugs?
  • Are identical plants in your landscape struggling too?
  • Is there a problem with the soil?

Using these questions as guidelines, you’ll likely have the answer to why a plant has died.

However, in my case, the plant was a few years old, always did well, and the ‘Blue Bells’ nearby were thriving.

So, why did it die?

I don’t know…

Sometimes plants die, and we don’t know why. I realize this can be hard to accept without having the answer.

That is what happens in nature – things die, and we don’t always have the answers as to why.

In my particular case, I am replanting a new “Blue Bells” because I know it grows well for me in this spot. I ensured there were no unwelcome bugs in the soil and amended the soil with 1 part compost mixed with 1 part existing soil to give it a little ‘boost.’

I hope my new plant is happy…

flowering shrub

Isn’t this a pretty shrub?

I saw this flowering beauty at a client’s home.

Now, when you see a plant that you like in a friend or neighbor’s yard, you probably ask them what it’s called.

My client was very proud of her shrub and called it Firecracker Bush. The problem is that two completely different plants called that name.

To complicate things further, this lovely shrub is also called ‘Fire Bush,’ ‘Scarlet Bush,’ and ‘Hummingbird Bush.’

Are you confused yet?

If so, you aren’t alone.

You see, common names for plants aren’t a reliable way to refer to plants – especially when you head out to the nursery for a particular plant. It’s a frequent mistake to come home with the wrong plant.

If you look at a plant label, you’ll notice that they come with two names – a common name and a botanical (Latin) name.

In this case, the plant’s botanical name above is Hamelia patens.

So, why do you need to know the Latin name of a plant? Obviously, it’s easier to pronounce the common name.

Each particular plant has only ONE botanical name, unlike a common name that may refer to several different plants. Therefore, when you learn the botanical name, there won’t be any confusion about what plant it refers to.

Now, I realize it can be intimidating to try to pronounce Latin plant names. However, recognizing the botanical word for your desired plant will ensure that you are buying the right plant. Don’t worry, you don’t need to say it out loud – simply write it down.

This lovely firecracker bush (Hamelia patens) has lush green foliage and produces red/orange flowers that hummingbirds love. It is cold hardy to 18 degrees F. and will suffer frost damage when temperatures dip into the 30’s, but recovers quickly in spring.

It has a naturally mounded shape and doesn’t require any shearing (no poodle-pruning). Firecracker bush grows to approximately 3-4 feet tall and wide.

In the desert garden, I find it does best in areas with filtered sunlight, making it a worthy addition to your garden.

desert tree with shrubs planted underneath in a garden

In a perfect world, everything runs smoothly with no unexpected problems, and while you may not know what the future holds, it’s always positive.

But, you know that isn’t how life works and this is certainly true in the desert garden.

The other day, I was walking through my back garden after returning from summer vacation, and what I noticed didn’t make me happy.

Several plants around my flagstone seating area were dead or barely alive. In fact, I need to replace at least ten plants in this area.

This lead me to wonder why I suffered these mishaps in my garden. The plants are about three-years-old and were doing fine earlier this year.

In the picture above, you can see a part of this area as it looked last fall. As you can see, all the plants are happy and thriving. Sadly, now some of them aren’t – especially the blackfoot daisy and shrubby germander.

So why did some die this summer?

Sometimes, the reason a plant dies isn’t readily apparent, but in my case, I knew what the answer was.

Back in June, a large branch from my palo verde tree broke off from being too heavy. Normally, my trees are well-maintained by a certified arborist company. However, due to the labor shortages prevalent post-Covid, most arborists are struggling with insufficient employee numbers.

So, my tree pruning, which normally takes place in March was postponed until July. As a result, the branch became too laden with new foliage and branches and broke off.

This particular branch shaded the seating area and a large number of plants around it. All of the plants in this area can handle full sun with no problem. However, they were accustomed to the filtered shade offered by the tree. So, when the branch fell, they were exposed to the harsh desert sun without having a chance to adjust to it over several weeks.

Mishaps like this are part of living with nature and it’s why there are no ‘perfect’ gardens. If you strive for a perfect garden, you are likely to experience disappointment now and then.

In my instance, I am making a list of replacement plants and may try something different in place of the blackfoot daisy – I am not sure what yet.

Unexpected problems like this are often an opportunity to try new plants. Fall is right around the corner, which is the best time of year to add new plants, so I will wait until then to get my new ones in.

I hope that your garden is weathering the summer heat nicely, but if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to try something new this fall!

succulent plants near a front entry in Arizona garden

Do you enjoy the summer heat?

I’m going record to state that I’m not a huge fan. I prefer to endure the intense heat indoors in the comfort of air-conditioning.

However, the plants in my garden don’t have that option. They are stuck outside no matter how hot it gets.

I always feel sad when I see plants struggle in the heat of summer. If I could bring them indoors to cool off I would 😉. But, let’s face it, that isn’t realistic or really what is best for plants.

For that reason, you will find the plants around my home are fairly heat-tolerant.

If you think that heat-proof plants are boring (and if I’m being honest, some are), many are attractive and beautiful.

One of my clients has a great example of an eye-catching entry that is fuss-free and shrugs off the heat of summer.

Artichoke agave (Agave parryi v. truncata), golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii), and lady’s slipper (Euphorbia lomelii), and yucca create a living sculptural landscape with their unique shapes.

As you can see, you don’t have to settle for a blah garden or one filled with heat-stressed plants. In fact, I loved this example so much that I featured it in my book, “Dry Climate Gardening” which is available for pre-order.

You know that I don’t care for fussy plants – I prefer plants that look great with little effort on my part and this succulent garden is a great example, don’t you agree?

I invite you to take a walk through your garden to see what plants may be stressed from the heat. It may be time for you to switch them out for more heat-tolerant ones.

The dog days of summer…

By the time midpoint of summer heat arrives, I am firmly in ‘summer hibernation’ mode.

While much of the country stays indoors during the cold of winter, we desert dwellers flip that and spend the hottest days of summer safely ensconced indoors in the comfort of A/C.

Of course, cabin fever can hit, making us venture outside of our homes. That’s where summer getaways come into play.

I’m fortunate that there are many spots in Arizona (where I live) that are just a few hours from my house where the summer temperatures are blessedly cooler.

When my husband and I were young, we couldn’t afford to stay overnight in out-of-town destinations. But, we could go for the day. We would pack up our two young daughters and go on day-long adventures to the cool mountains and pack a picnic lunch. Oh, what fun we had!

Nowadays my husband and I travel to cooler spots and spend a few days. One of our favorite places is the town of Bisbee in southeastern Arizona.

There is a lot of history in there and we love to explore while enjoying the cooler temps. The photo above is a part of Bisbee called Lowell, which is preserved in time from the 1950s.

Speaking about the heat, I’ve heard from a number of people in my membership club who are worried about the lack of flowers they see on their shrubs and groundcovers.

Perhaps you have similar worries…

I want to assure you that this is normal in summer – particularly when monsoon rains have been sporadic and not regular.

Intense heat and dryness tend to make flowering plants slow down and a heatwave can burn flowers of certain plants.

Rest assured that they will come back by summer’s end to provide beauty to your outdoor space.

flowering groundcovers and a cactus landscape

Let’s face it…summer can be brutal.

I tend to spend as little time outdoors as possible when temperatures soar above normal ranges. It’s times like this that I praise the inventor of air-conditioning.

While we can escape record-breaking temperatures, our plants can’t.

However, you can create a landscape filled that thrives in the heat by using native or desert-adapted plants. And you know what? Most are very pretty!

Last weekend, I saw a great illustration of this…

Our church recently opened up a new campus, filled with new plants, but many of them were struggling to survive the intense heat. Many were planted native to more tropical climates.

After church, my husband and I headed out to the hospital to visit a loved one. The hospital had just undergone a renovation and brand-new landscape areas surrounded the entrance.

I stopped to take a photo of one of the areas that were doing very well so I could share it with you. Full disclosure: if you hang out with me, be prepared for sudden stops to take pictures of plants.

There were two main reasons that the landscape by the hospital was doing better than the one by the church:

  • The plants by the hospital were better adapted to hot summers – desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), gold lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold’), and Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus).
  • Additionally, these plants had been installed three months earlier than the ones at the church. Yes, plants can technically be added any time of year BUT there are times that should be avoided if at all possible – specifically May and June.

Sometimes you need to add new plants at the wrong time of year due to construction schedules, etc. In that case, I advise the use of shade cloth on a temporary basis for young plants through September IF you see that certain plants are struggling. This is in addition to watering them more often than existing plants in the landscape to help them establish their roots.

Use native or desert-adapted plants (those from other regions with similar weather conditions) to help your garden to be more resilient to hot, dry temperatures and they will need less help from you to beat the heat.

Stay cool friends!

Do you have a bare block wall surrounding your backyard?

If you live in California or the Southwest, it’s likely that you do and while they are sturdy, they aren’t very attractive to look at.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to make them look better without spending a lot of money to do so.

Here are my top 3:

  • Plant large shrubs along the wall. Look for shrubs that grow at least 5 feet tall and wide. Be sure to allow enough room for the shrubs to grow to their mature size – no ‘poodle-pruning.’ The shrubs will look great while adding texture and color like the ‘Sparky’ Tecoma shrub above. Note: Many people get this wrong by either spacing shrubs too closely together or excessively pruning them.
  • Paint your wall a colorful shade of blue, purple, red, or even yellow. This is a common design style in the Southwest and several of my clients have employed this design strategy. You can add plants like shrubs or cacti along the painted wall for added interest. Garden art also looks great on painted walls and is a useful option when there isn’t enough room for plants to grow.
  • Cover the wall with pine wood planks, arranged horizontally, and stain them an attractive color. The planks of wood can be attached to metal stakes along the back. This creates a very modern look with an organic element. A welcome bonus is a wood decreases the radiated heat that comes off of block walls in summer.

So, if you are tired of looking at a bare block wall, I hope you will explore one of these options. 

gardening book

Have you ever had a big secret that you were dying to tell?

Well, I have been keeping a lid on a big project that has consumed most of my time over the past year and now I can finally spill the beans to you…

I have written a book on how to garden in a dry climate!

Oh, it feels so good to be able to tell you my exciting news!

Within the pages of the book, I share how to create, grow, and maintain a beautiful garden that thrives in a hot, dry climate – whether you live in the desert or in semi-arid Mediterranean regions, you will get helpful advice and practical tips.

I’ve taken what I’ve learned in my 25+ year career as a horticulturist and landscape consultant and put it all here. As a California native and resident of Arizona, I know the unique challenges that we face gardening where dry conditions are prevalent, coupled with hot summers.

The good news is that you can pre-order your copy now.

I can hardly wait for you to see all I have included within its pages!

Pruning tree suckers

I don’t need to tell you that early summer in the desert garden is hot. In mid-June, we typically experience several days of extreme heat. I have many people who ask me what garden tasks CAN they do in their garden right now.

Well, the answer is an easy one…

Do as little as possible.

June is a very stressful time of year for plants because it is very hot and dry. Both of these conditions make it hard on plants. In fact, June is the hardest time of year for most plants.

In other words, don’t add new plants, do unneeded pruning, or fertilize.

If you find yourself with new plants still in their nursery pots, put them in a shady spot and water them regularly as they will dry out fast!

Pruning is also stressful for plants so limit your pruning to getting your trees ready for monsoon season. If you have some suckers growing mature trees (see photo above), you can prune them off.

Don’t fertilize plants now. Most plants don’t need it with the exception of flowering annuals, herbs, vegetables, and smaller palm trees.

In the meantime, get out early in the morning before it gets too hot to make sure there aren’t any plants that are struggling. You may need to add more water or provide temporary shade.

Toward the end of June, the monsoon season will be on its way with extra humidity and hopefully rain, which will provide some relief for plants.