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…

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!

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!

Have you ever noticed circular areas missing from your leaves? If so, you aren’t alone. The other day I noticed several of my plants with neat semi-circular sections missing. But, was I worried? Nope, and I’ll tell you why in my latest garden video.

Has this happened in your garden? What plants were affected?

A 'Painted Lady' butterfly drinking nectar from a lantana.

A ‘Painted Lady’ butterfly drinking nectar from a lantana.

Do you know someone who has a green thumb? Usually, it’s someone with a beautiful garden that stands out among their neighbors with thriving plants that flourish. 

While you may think people with green thumbs are born and not made, I’ll let you in on a BIG secret – behind every green thumb is a trail of many dead plants.

green thumb

It’s true. There isn’t a single experienced gardener who has never had a plant die in their garden. Of course, someone with a green thumb may be hesitant to reveal this fact, and you may not notice because dead or failing plants are usually pulled out before people notice.

green thumb

I’m not exempt from this either – I’ve had many plants die on my watch.

Newly planted 'Blue Bell' (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Newly planted ‘Blue Bell’ (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Believe it or not, the fact that plants die in your garden helps you to become better at growing them. While your first inclination may be to get frustrated about the loss of a plant, look at it as a gardening lesson instead.

“Every 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.  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)

New ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis)

Researching plants before purchasing them will help you to avoid 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. Several years ago, I planted several ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis) grasses. I had heard a few different tips about how to grow them and the best exposure – one says that filtered sun is a must while another person says 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. UPDATE – they do best in full sun 🙂

*One fun bonus of being a horticulturist is that growers often send plants for free so I can try them and give them feedback about 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).

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.

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'.

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.  In this area, a grower sent me plants to see how they would fare in a low desert garden. From past experience, I knew that salvia would need some shade, 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.

Green Thumb

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.

This is a lesson that I could have only learned by trying out this plant in my garden. 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 for 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’.

Fuss-Free Plants for Fall Planting

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take another photo of a landscape I passed by in a neighborhood where I had just finished up a landscape consultation.

Sadly, I often see examples of truly ‘interesting’ or should I say ‘bad’ pruning.  I drove by this landscape and then made a U-turn so that I could take a quick photo…

Shrub pruning

Shrub pruning

I don’t know about you, but these Texas sage shrubs look like mushrooms, don’t you think?

Sadly, pruning these beautiful flowering shrubs this way robs them of their flowers, increases maintenance, creates dead wood, and shortens their life.

While there are quite a few shrubs that take well to repeated formal pruning – doing this to flowering shrubs should be avoided.

I must admit that I have seen Texas sage and other flowering shrubs pruned into many different shapes…

But, let me be frank – shrubs aren’t meant to be cupcakes, frisbees, or gumdrops

Here are just a few reasons why…

  • It removes the leaves needed for the shrub to make energy for itself
  • Excessive pruning actually makes your shrubs grow faster, which equals MORE maintenance
  • Shrubs pruned often require more water as they constantly work to replace foliage lost
  • Continued shearing will shorten the lifespan of your shrubs
  • Green ‘blobs’ are ugly compared to beautiful flowering shrubs

If you are tired of the time and money it takes to maintain flowering shrubs the ‘wrong’ way. I invite you to join me in my online shrub pruning workshop where I will teach you the right way to prune.

Imagine your outdoor space filled with beautiful, flowering shrubs instead of green ‘balls’. Believe it or not, the shrubs in the photo above are the SAME plant – they have just been maintained differently. The one on the left takes much more money and time and the other thrives with pruning once (or twice) a year.

In my online class, I show you how to work with your landscaper or how you can take care of your shrubs yourself. Got ‘green balls’ already in your landscape? I’ll teach you how to rejuvenate them and the best time of year to do it.

So, ditch the ‘green blobs’ in your yard and learn how to prune with confidence – it’s much easier than you think. Learn more here and what students have to say about the class.

yellow flowering tree

‘Desert Museum’ Palo Verde Trees

One of the most popular trees for arid climates is the ‘Desert Museum’ Palo Verde. Once you see one, it’s easy to see why it is present in so many residential, commercial, and community areas.

Its medium-green trunk, feathery foliage, and golden flowers, that appear in late spring, add beauty to any landscape. Another characteristic of this palo verde tree is that is has a moderate to fast rate of growth. The branches lets in enough sunlight so many plants can grow underneath its canopy.

BUT, there is another side to these lovely trees that may dissuade people from growing them and that is wind damage.

Avoiding Storm Damage

Fallen ‘Desert Museum’ Palo Verde trees after a monsoon storm

I’ve heard murmurs from people who don’t want to plant these trees any longer because of their susceptibility to damage from high winds.

However, most of these problems are caused by improper maintenance, poor location, and not selecting the right ‘type’ of Desert Museum palo verde.

Avoiding Storm Damage

Desert Museum Palo Verde tree in my backyard

I have three ‘Desert Museum’ palo verdes around my house. They range in age from 10 to 20 years old. In all that time, I have not lost a single one. Of course, there has been a couple of instances of branch breakage, but the trees recovered nicely. Broken branches are a natural part of life with trees – particularly those native to the desert.

So, how can you enjoy the beauty of this tree while lessening the danger of wind damage? As a retired certified arborist, I’m here to tell you that there are definitely things you can do.

5 Strategies for Structurally Healthy ‘Desert Museum’ Palo Verdes Trees:

1. Water deeply to a depth of 3 feet. Deep roots are key to the stability of a tree and also decrease the chance of uplifting roots. Apply water toward the outer reaches of the branches where the roots are concentrated. As a tree grows, its roots move outward, so move your drip emitters or hose as needed.

Be sure to plant in an area where there is adequate area for root growth. Parking lot islands and narrow areas don’t allow enough room for roots to anchor the tree.

Palo Verde Trees

‘Desert Museum’ palo verde that has grown too rapidly due to excess irrigation

2. Irrigate less frequently to avoid your tree growing too fast. This is a big cause of wind damage with palo verde trees. It’s important to remember that they are desert trees and don’t need as much water as other plants in the landscape. But, people often overwater their desert trees, which causes them to grow too quickly. This causes the formation of weak wood because they haven’t had the time to grow strong trunks and branches. In the photo above, notice how thin the multiple trunks are.

Established native desert trees, that have been in the ground for at least 3 years, can follow these general guidelines – water 1 to 2X a month in spring/fall, 2 to 3X a month in summer, and monthly in winter. These guidelines are for our current drought situation but can be modified as needed.

Palo Verde Trees

Trees that have been pruned up too high (lion-tailing)

3. Prune your tree correctly. There are examples of awful pruning. One common one is known as ‘lion-tailing’ which is when trees have been over-pruned so the majority of the tree is devoid of branches except for the very top. This pruning deprives the branches of foliage needed to produce energy for the tree and to increase tree strength. It also increases the amount of overhanging branches toward the top making the tree more likely to fall.

Many landscapers don’t know the right way to prune trees and can inadvertently cause harm to your tree. I highly recommend enlisting the services of a certified arborist to prune your tree correctly.

4. Select a multi-trunk form of palo verde instead of one growing on a single trunk. Desert trees naturally in a multiple trunk form, which distributes the weight of the upper branches. Palo verde trees that have been trained to grow on a single trunk, are under more stress from the wind with their heavy top half. The majority that you see fallen have been trained into a single-trunk tree.

Palo Verde Trees

This tree needs pruning before the monsoon season to lessen the weight of the canopy

5. ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde trees generally need pruning at least once (sometimes twice) a year. You want to be sure to prune them before the onset of monsoon season – removing any heavyweight or branches that are weakly attached.

Palo Verde Trees

Newly-pruned ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde tree ready for the monsoon season

Palo verde trees are a great choice for the desert garden that adds welcome beauty and shade. If you have a ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde (or other native desert tree), I encourage you to follow these tips to help ensure a beautiful and stable tree for years to come.

Want to learn more about this and other palo verde tree species? Check out my previous blog post here.

Have you ever had a sunburn?  Maybe a better question is, “Who hasn’t?”  

Well, did you know that many plants get too much as well?

I recently made a house call for a client who was worried about her newly planted citrus trees.

new citrus trees planted in pots.

Sunburned Citrus

This particular client has a large courtyard with several new citrus trees in pots.

The citrus were planted in spring and as summer progressed, the client noticed the leaves on her orange tree turning yellow.

sunburned citrus

Now yellow leaves can indicate a number of different problems.  But in this case, the diagnosis was rather simple – her citrus tree has a case of sunburn.

Here are some common signs of sunburned plants:

– The areas of the leaf that are yellow are in the center and NOT along the tips or edges.

– Often, the yellow areas begin to turn brown.

– Signs normally occur in the summer months.

– The sunburned leaves are usually located on the south and west-facing parts of the plant.

– This particular citrus tree is in an area that receives reflected, afternoon sun.

So, what can you do to prevent sunburned citrus?

In this case, the solution is simple – moving the citrus tree to another part of the courtyard that receives afternoon shade is all that is needed to prevent further sunburn damage. OR, 50% shade cloth can be used from mid-May through September.

Citrus do best when planted at least 10 – 15 ft. away from walls, which absorb the heat of the day and re-radiate it out.

Avoid planting where they get the full force of afternoon sun.

Protecting Your Desert Garden From a Heatwave

Protecting Your Desert Garden From a Heatwave

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

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

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

Here is my #1 tip…

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

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

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

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

My second piece of advice…

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

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

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

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

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