The 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make in the Desert Garden

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 – //bit.ly/2RpFFb5

I hope to see you there!

Creating an attractive garden in the desert can be a daunting task, especially in such a different climate with the unique challenges of blistering heat and dryness “where plants go to die.” But, I’m here to tell you that you DON’T need to settle for a yard filled with rock and spiky cactus.

It is possible to have an attractive landscape filled with flowering plants, edible gardens, trees, succulents, (and yes, cactus), all of which thrive in our hot, arid climate. 

I’ve done it and you can too, and it’s much easier than you think. I help individuals like you learn how to create, grow, and maintain a beautiful landscape that thrives in the desert climate. 

Horticulturist-Arizona-Noelle-Johnson-AZ-Plant-Lady

Not surprisingly, SO many people need help that my calendar is overflowing, so I have created a way to help more of you at a fraction of the price of an individual consultation.

I’m so excited to invite you to join my membership site, “Through the Garden Gate” where I come alongside you to help you create, maintain, and most importantly, enjoy gardening in the desert. Instead of individual clients, who pay hundreds of dollars for a 2-hour consultation, I’ll come alongside to help you on your desert garden journey for a fraction of the price of a private consultation at $19.99 per month!

And you won’t be alone. You’ll be joined by a wonderful community of fellow desert dwellers who are on the same journey as you are. So are you ready to further your desert garden knowledge and enhance your enjoyment in the garden?

**UPDATE: Open enrollment to”Through the Garden Gate” MEMBERSHIP is currently closed so that I can focus on and mentor my newest group of members.

BUT…I’ll be opening doors again and if you’d like to be notified when that happens, simply click the image below to get on the waitlist and I’ll keep you posted!

Years ago, I found myself in your shoes when I arrived in Arizona as a young bride with no idea how to make a lovely outdoor space, much less grow plants in such a hot, dry place. Needless to say, in short order, I killed all my new plants as well as the beautiful rose bushes that had come with my house.

Was I discouraged? Yes!

But, I was determined to figure out how to grow, maintain, and enjoy my desert garden. And so my personal garden journey began, leading me to obtain my degree in Horticulture from Arizona State University and later, as a certified arborist.

In my 20-year career as a horticulturist, I’ve done it all – worked on golf courses, managed landscapes with my crew, designed hundreds of landscapes as a designer, and serving as a personal landscape consultant for countless clients. And yes, I’ve killed my share of plants in the process. BUT, I learned from my mistakes, and I can help you avoid them.

Most people think that having a lovely landscape is hard and do more maintenance than they need to. For example, did you know that:

  • Most desert-adapted plants need no supplemental fertilizer
  • Over 90% of homeowners water their plants too often and not deeply enough
  • Not all plants sold in your favorite big box store will survive in the desert landscape (so, it’s not always your fault if a plant dies)
  • The majority of flowering shrubs and ground covers only need to be pruned twice a year – if done the right way

As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, I’ve seen the frustration that my clients go through trying to garden in the desert. My years of experience have shown me time and again that it is easier than you think – it’s just different, which is why I created my membership site, “Through the Garden Gate” where I can help you.

Your membership includes the following:

1. Library of training videos, with new content added every month to help you garden confidently.

2. Plant of the Month downloadable pdf’s spotlighting my favorite plants along with where to plant, maintain, and how to use them in the landscape.

3. Monthly newsletter filled with garden articles, what’s going on behind the scenes, and monthly garden tasks.

4. Exclusive Facebook group for members-only. I’ll be there every day, and I look forward to seeing you there!

5. Group coaching from me, AZ Plant Lady, via Facebook Live every month where I answer your gardening questions, offer encouragement, and helpful tips tailored for participants. 

 

 

Why it Works:

You will learn at your own pace, and I break it down into simple steps with no fancy garden language.

Ongoing learning – new content is added every month.

A passionate community of beginning, intermediate, and experienced gardeners.

Save money, time, and frustration by avoiding common desert garden mistakes.

Most people over-maintain their plants, fertilizing and pruning too often and I’ll show you how plants need far less maintenance than you’d expect.

You’ll have the knowledge you need to grow and maintain plants without all the stress of trying to figure it out yourself.

 

Frequently Asked Questions:

What does “Through the Garden Gate” membership offer that a nursery or landscape professional can’t? A welcoming community, personal support, and unbiased advice with no motivation to sell you unneeded products or maintenance services.

I am brand new to gardening. Will I fit in? Absolutely! No one is born knowing how to garden, and no prior experience is needed. This group is a great place to learn and grow as a gardener.

I already read your blog and follow you on Facebook. What more will I get from the membership? In-depth training in the form of video training, exclusive content in the form of garden video trainingdetailed plant profiles, newsletter, a members-only Facebook page, and group coaching with me, AZ Plant Lady, via Facebook Live. 

I know you live in Arizona. Is the membership designed only for people in your region? The club is open to anyone who is interested in learning how to create, grow, and maintain a garden in the desert. I focus on low-desert gardening for those who live in elevations lower than 3,000 feet in altitude, but members who live in other desert regions can gain helpful information too.

I have gardening experience in a cooler, wetter climate. Can the club help me learn how to garden in the desert? Yes! All levels of gardeners are welcome, and your previous experience will help you learn a little more quickly how we do things differently in the desert garden.

My life is very busy, and I don’t have a lot of time to devote to learning about desert gardening. This membership is for you! The videos are short but informative and the newsletters, and “Plant of the Month” resources are packed with information that takes little time out of your busy life

Do I really get live access to you? Yep! I’ll be using Facebook Live to talk to the membership group through our Facebook page at pre-scheduled times on a monthly basis. If you can’t watch the video live, you can watch the video, which will be posted on the FB page. You can submit your gardening questions ahead of time too so I can be sure to answer them if you can watch live to ask your question.

How do I access the resources? We have an online library with all of the videos, “Plant of the Month” pdf’s, and other handouts. Newsletters will be emailed to you monthly. When you join the club, you will be provided with a link to join our private Facebook group as well as information on how to log on into the online library.

How long does the subscription last? It is designed as a monthly subscription, which means that it can last as long as you would like it to. I will be adding new content each month, which along with the live group coaching, will help you in your garden journey for as long as you want. You can cancel at any time.

 

So, are you ready to join and learn “the dirt on gardening in the desert”? You get all this PLUS group coaching for only $19.99 a month!

I am opening the doors for new members to join “Through the Garden Gate” for just a few days. Sign up beginning September 5th. Doors close at midnight MST on September 10th!! 

I’d love to come alongside you on your desert garden journey! 

I love using color in the garden, which is why I welcomed the opportunity to review the book, ‘The Colorful Dry Garden‘ and host a giveaway.

In my work as a horticulturist and landscape consultant, I find that people often have the mistaken impression that desert landscapes are destined to be brown and barren, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are many plants that offer vibrant color to outdoor spaces while thriving in an arid climate.

Horticulturist, Maureen Gilmer, makes her home in the Palm Springs area, in the midst of the California desert, and she has put offered her expertise in creating colorful dry gardens in her latest book.

Her book is broken up into two different parts, with the first taking you through the steps of how to convert your landscape into one that saves water. Whether you want to do a total renovation or do it in phases, the book provides you with helpful guidance.

Part two has a comprehensive list of plants that add welcome color to the arid landscape. However, unlike many plant lists, the author groups plants into groups that focus on their role in the garden such as structure (shrubs), canopy (trees), accent plants, and those that add beautiful texture.

I have reviewed a large number of books that deal with gardening in a dry climate and ‘The Colorful Dry Garden’ approaches it a bit differently by focusing on color, design, plant function, as well as real steps on how to transition your landscape to one filled with water-saving, colorful plants.  

I enjoyed reading through the book and feel that it deserves a spot in your garden library. 

**The folks at Sasquatch Books are giving away a free copy of ‘The Colorful Dry Garden’ for readers of my blog. To enter, leave a comment telling me what your favorite colorful plant is. I will announce the winner on March 22nd.

Please feel free to share via social media or email, using the buttons below. 

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Firecracker Penstemon

Do you know someone who possesses a green thumb? Usually, it’s someone that has a beautiful garden that stands out among their neighbors, which is filled with thriving plants that are flourishing. 

While you may think that people with green thumbs are born and not made, I’m going to let you in on a BIG secret – behind every green thumb are many dead plants.

 

It’s true. There isn’t a single avid gardener who has never experienced a plant dying on them. Of course, green thumbs may be hesitant to reveal this fact because dead or failing plants are usually pulled out before anyone notices.

I’m not exempt from this either. I’ve got a dead plant or two, currently in my garden that are doing nothing but collecting leaves at their base and I’ve had countless plants die on my watch.

Newly planted ‘Blue Bell’ (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Believe it or not, it’s the fact that plants have died in the garden that helps a person to become a good at growing them. While your first inclination is to get frustrated about the loss of a plant, it helps to look at it as a gardening lesson.

“Each dead plant is an opportunity to learn about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future and become a better gardener in the process.”

There are several factors that can affect whether or not a plant does well where it’s planted.  These include the following:

  1. Is it well-adapted to your climate?
  2. Was it planted in the right exposure (sun, filtered sun, or shade)?
  3. Did it receive the proper amount of irrigation?
  4. Was it maintained correctly (pruning, fertilizing)?

 

New ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis)

Researching plants before purchasing them will help you to avoid many potential problems, but often the best way to learn how a plant will do is to grow them yourself.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to put a shade-loving plant in full sun, or vice versa as you’ll probably be replacing it soon.

As a horticulturist, I experiment in my garden with newer plants that have come onto the market. I recently planted several ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis) grasses. I’ve heard a few different things from people who have grown it regarding the best exposure for it – one says that filtered sun is a must while the other states that it can handle full sun. So, I am trying them out in my front yard to see for myself where they will receive filtered shade until the afternoon when they will be blasted by the sun. 

*One fun bonus of being a horticulturist and a garden writer is that growers often send me their plants for free so I can let them know how they grow in a low-desert garden.

A new Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) finds a home next to my gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa).

Other things that can affect how new plants will do are nearby plants – specifically trees.

One month later.

A tree that creates dense shade will make it difficult for many flowering plants to do anything but grow foliage at the expense of flowers. However, filtered shade from desert natives such as mesquite and palo verde create an ideal environment for many blooming plants that enjoy a little respite from the full sun.

New varieties of autumn sage with the brand new lavender ‘Meerlo’.

Sometimes, there isn’t much information available on new plant introductions and how they will do in an area with extreme weather such as our hot, dry one.  I was given the plants above to see how they would do in my Arizona garden. I knew that the salvia would need some shade to do its best in the low desert, but the lavender was a mystery. I’ve seen some other species of lavender doing well in full sun while others doing well in filtered shade.

As you can see, the ‘Meerlo’ lavender did very well in my zone 9 garden even though the actual information on the plant tag states that it does best in zone 8 and below. What it has not done is flower, which I attribute to the shade it needs to survive my hot, dry garden. But, I’m okay with that as I love the fragrance and color contrast that it adds.

This is a lesson that I could have only learned by trying out this plant. While it could have died, it didn’t and I’ve learned from the experience, which adds to my overall garden knowledge. 

So, the next time you find a dead plant in your garden, see if you can figure out why it died and learn from it. Sometimes plants die when they should be thriving with no apparent reason. Nature isn’t always predictable and sometimes you may have no answers, but you’ll be surprised at what you can learn and before you know it, your thumb may slowly turn ‘green’.

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Have you ever passed through the fertilizer aisle at your local nursery or big box store and felt overwhelmed at the large selection? It’s not surprising with so many different brands and types of fertilizer vying for our attention. What do those three numbers mean and how do you know which one is right for your needs? 

In my latest Houzz article, I go through the basics of fertilizer and examine how they work so you can choose the right one that fits the needs of your plants.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvia splendens with ‘Meerlo’ lavender/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does your garden reveal about you?

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.

I recently 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.  Remove 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 most shrubs is that they 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. 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.

Click here to see how to prune flowering shrubs correctly.

 

  • 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

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.

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.

mountain_states_wholesale_nursery

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

brakelights_hesperaloe

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

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

Before

BEFORE

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

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

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

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


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

noelle_johnson_landscape_consulting_arizona

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

BEFORE

BEFORE

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

AFTER

AFTER

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

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

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

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