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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I am currently waging war in my backyard. My foe is tiny in comparison to me but knows how to inflict a painful bite when my feet get too close for their comfort. I am proactively searching out ant mounds, which are often cleverly hidden in an attempt to get rid of them. Ant poison isn’t an option as my dogs and desert tortoise, Aesop spends time out in the back garden. So, I need help, which is why I asked Emily of Gardening Wizards if she would share her tips for annihilating fire ants.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Have you ever felt the sting of a fire ant’s bite? I’d rank it as one of life’s most horrible yet somehow trivial surprises, alongside a mildly sprained ankle and spilling pickled beet juice onto your shirt. However, unlike those problems, fire ants can keep coming back like a bad rash if you don’t take the proper precautions and efficiently slaughter them like the pest they are.

The issue here is that most conventional bug sprays and pesticides aren’t exactly healthy for your plants, since they’re literally poison, only targetted at another species. Just like how humans would still have problems having to eat rat poison, you don’t really want to expose your garden to too much bug spray.

Luckily, there are a handful of convenient, garden-safe ways to get the job done, so put on some face paint and scream to whatever deity you worship, because we’re about to go to war. With a little DIY know-how, those ants don’t stand a chance. I’ll also give some tips on how to prevent fire ants from even showing up, which saves a lot of stress (and pain, let’s be real) without much effort.

Tried and True Methods

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Fire ants generally respond pretty poorly to having their mounds drenched in various liquids. Commercially sold pesticides are often spread across your whole lawn, but they’re both unhealthy and expensive. Invest the effort to find all the mounds so you can drown the menace in stuff you have at home, and the results will be better in the long run, especially if you grow vegetables.

Keep in mind that you may often encounter people claiming these methods aren’t perfect, and they’re not. If all you’re interested in is efficiency, pesticides are the way to go, but when you have kids, or you grow crops, it can be extremely unhealthy, not to mention more expensive. These methods cause next to no harm to your surroundings, especially with careful use.

The Fun Method – Baking Soda and Vinegar Volcano

Have you ever made one of these as a kid? It’s a fun way to get children interested in basic chemistry since it lets them replicate the fizzy effect they sometimes see in cartoons when scientists mix chemicals (they probably won’t get to see it much in class, if my chemistry experience is anything to go by).

If you can provide enough protective clothing (let your kids know that the best scientists always come prepared and they need to be up to the challenge), an effective way to clear out fire ants is to make that volcano erupt vinegar on top of the ant mound.

With some luck, the kid could also get to see the spectacle of ants being literally flushed out. Keep in mind that it’s the vinegar that kills the ants, not the baking soda, so try not to be wasteful. Also, prepare to smell vinegar for a while.

The Long Con – Dish Soap

If you’re feeling like some sadistic supervillain, you could also try dish soap. The reason this is particularly sinister is that it doesn’t directly kill the ants; instead, it eats away at their outer protective layer which causes them to dehydrate.

Another bonus effect is that unlike vinegar and a lot of pesticides, dish soap smells really nice, though make sure your pets or children don’t try to eat it. Mix it with water to be able to spray it on points of interest (usually the paths they take to enter your house) and laugh maniacally at their impending doom.

The Easiest Method – Hot Water

Good old hot water is surprisingly effective at murdering ants, though obviously, you should take care not to get any of it on you or splash it just everywhere. A lot of plants will not tolerate being accidentally tortured like a medieval criminal, so maybe other methods are more appropriate if the fire ant mounds are located near precious foliage. Water also has the advantage of being cheaper than any other method since it’s just water, and everyone has more than enough to spare.

The Trap – Cornmeal

Fire ants love cornmeal, and this makes no sense given how much cornmeal doesn’t like them. They will gladly try to eat it, but they can’t digest it. It’s silly, right? Cornmeal is also safe for most pets and definitely safe for children, so you don’t have to worry when you spread it anywhere.

Try not to only rely on cornmeal if you have a huge infestation on your hands, as it’s a pretty localized method, if you get what I mean. It’s not going to destroy a whole mound, but it will deal with entry points and healthy groups of ants in the near vicinity. It’s also not super-risky for surrounding plants like hot water or similar methods.

A Less Brutal Approach – Driving the Ants Away

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Sometimes you don’t need to slaughter every ant that has ever appeared on the face of the Earth. If spotted early enough, a fire ant incursion can be repelled using a few strategic baits and fear tactics. Some of these are less common in most households, but if you’re in a pacifist mood (for some reason), these are a good choice.

Strong Scents

If you sprinkle some, let’s say, cayenne pepper in high-traffic areas, it helps keep the ants away. Have you noticed a pattern emerging in most of these substances? Fire ants really dislike strong scents, as it messes up their communication and makes them unable to follow the invisible scent trail their scouts leave between the mound and a source of food. These peppers are also known as red hot chili peppers. Yes, like the band. And they’re used for chili powder, which has a powerful scent.

A helpful way to focus where you apply those strong smells is by using ant balls. No, that is not a gourmet dish served only to the richest people. It’s a name used for small cotton balls drenched in a special oil (or white vinegar, as a convenient alternative) that deter pests such as ants. Try not to leave puddles around, and keep them hidden from children. You should see at least a good decrease in how many ants you encounter.

Chalk

Chalk is another funky way to hide the scent trail from any fire ant invaders. A thick enough chalk line in the ground will often keep fire ants away, and this is another way to get your children involved. Tell them the chalk is magic and that drawing a thick line around the house/mound creates a force field that keeps bad guys at bay. It’s technically not wrong; you just sprinkled some fantasy on top of things! This works especially well when combined with other methods.

General Tips:

  • Don’t leave garbage hanging around for any extended period. Take out the trash regularly, as it attracts not only fire ants, but flies and other annoying bugs.
  • Try to keep your kitchen and bathroom free of puddles. Fire ants will seek out water just like any other critter, so you don’t want to give them more incentive to infiltrate your home.
  • The shorter the grass is around your house, the easier it becomes to spot signs of an infestation before it gets out of hand. You don’t want to be surprised by multiple mounds at the same time, especially if you’re walking around in flip-flops or something similar. You don’t need to salt the earth or anything to keep things safe, just mow the lawn regularly and you’ll be fine.
  • Avoid using things like gasoline to deal with ants, as you really want to avoid the risk of setting plants (and God knows what else) on fire. There is no need to use things that dangerous.
  • Try not to keep trash cans outdoors. Even if you empty them regularly, providing easier access to garbage only promotes fire ant infestation. Composting heaps can be problematic for a similar reason.
  • Don’t try to shovel away the mounds, or place them on top of one another. It could create a big mess, creating more work for you instead of helping.
  • If you get stung by fire ants (you’ll know if it happens, trust me), there are ways to treat the bite, but if you have an allergic reaction, call medical help immediately.

And there you have it! All of these things can be found in your home or through a quick trip to a DIY store of some kind, and they tend not to cost much.

Fire ants are probably the worst kind of pest you can encounter if you have kids or pets, so taking care of this problem puts you mostly in the clear.

After your next great harvest or once your flowers all bloom healthy, you will thank yourself for not resorting to risky pesticide solutions.

Let me know if any of these methods worked! I would love to hear your stories, as having more info is never a bad thing when facing an enemy like fire ants.

About the Author

I’m Emily from Gardeningwizards.com. After a ten year career as a journalist, I have moved on to share my passion for gardening. While getting out in the garden is one of my favorite hobbies, and helps me de-stress after a long day in the office, I often found myself frustrated at not getting the results I wanted from my plants. Through blogging, I have uncovered the answer to lots of common problems and now I want to share my knowledge with other horticulture enthusiasts.

Have you ever encountered this landscaping challenge? This blank wall is rather boring, and the home behind it dominates the view. So what would you do to fix these problems?

I faced this dilemma last month at a client’s home. The pool was the main focal point of the landscape, and the dull wall wasn’t doing it any favors. In coming up with a solution, we had to select a plant that was relatively low-litter, due to the proximity to the pool and that looked attractive throughout the entire year because of the high-profile location.

Hop Bush (Dodonaea viscosa)

I recommended adding three hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa). These are tall, evergreen shrubs that thrive in arid climates such as ours. 

One of the many things that I love about them is their versatility. They thrive in full sun and light shade, and can be allowed to grow up to 12 feet tall, or maintained at a lower height.

Hop bush can be allowed to grow to their natural shape…

…or pruned more formally.

For the area behind the pool, I recommend having it grow to its full height, which will help provide privacy while the attractive foliage will add a welcome screen of green throughout the year.

Hop bush flowers

Hop bush does produce light green, papery flowers in spring, but they aren’t particularly showy. So, we need to add a color element to the area behind the pool.

One of my favorite ways to add color to any landscape is to incorporate brightly colored containers in shade of blue, purple, or orange. That way, whether plants are in bloom or not, there is always a bright splash of color.

For this area, I recommended adding 3 blue pots, equally spaced.

Now it was time to decide what to plant in each pot. The client wanted a low-maintenance choice that wouldn’t require a lot of water.

Immediately, I remembered touring a landscape that had blue containers filled with ‘Blue Elf’ aloe. Even though the aloe had finished blooming for the year, their spiky blue-gray foliage added nice color contrast.

This small aloe is one of my favorite succulents for several reasons. First, it begins to bloom in late winter, lasting into spring adding welcome color to cool-season landscapes. Hummingbirds can’t resist the flowers either.

This aloe is best showcased when grouped together and thrives in full sun, unlike most aloe which prefer filtered shade. Finally, it is hardy to 15 degrees F. so cold winters seldom bother it.

And so, here is the planting that I suggested to my client that will provide year round beauty and privacy.

*Do you have a favorite plant or group of plants that you like to use against bare walls?

 

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In the past, succulents were valued primarily for their drought tolerance and found their way into gardens in arid regions. Today, while they are still a great choice for water-wise plants are wise, they offer many other benefits to outdoor spaces including adding colorful flowers and solving common garden problems.

Elk Horn (Cotyledon orbiculata)

I’ve written a series of articles for Houzz focusing on succulents and how you can add beauty to your garden with these versatile plants that will thrive in arid climates. 

I hope you find inspiration through them and look at succulents in a new way.

 

10 Spectacular Flowering Succulents

 

How Succulents Can Solve Your Garden Problems

 

How do you like to use succulents in your garden?

Living in the desert southwest, I am blessed to be able to grow a variety of citrus trees in my garden and they do very well under most circumstances.

However, when temperatures outside of the average highs and lows occur, steps need to be taken to protect them. With this week’s record-breaking highs, my orange tree has been suffering as is evident from its sunburned leaves. So I thought, this is a great opportunity to talk about how to protect citrus trees from a heatwave.

 

1. Provide temporary shade 

The west and south-facing sides of citrus trees are susceptible to sunburn during a heatwave. This shows up as yellowing or browning on the leaves on those sides of the tree. Sunburn can also occur on immature citrus fruit, so it’s important to protect them.

While spraying citrus trees with sunscreen isn’t an option, adding temporary shade is. Put a large piece of burlap over the tree, focusing on those south and west-facing exposures. Burlap is inexpensive and does allow some sun to penetrate, which is important. You can purchase burlap at your big box store, nursery, or Amazon (affiliate link below).

Burlapper Burlap Garden Fabric (40″ x 15′, Natural)

You can use a bed sheet in place of burlap for temporary shade. Another option would be to place a shade tent/canopy to help block the sun’s westerly rays.

Shade cloth is very useful as a sun shield when placed on a scaffold or other support – it’s important not to rest it directly on the tree as it gets hot and can burn the leaves.

 

2. Increase irrigation and water early in the morning

When temperatures soar above normal, citrus trees, like most plants, lose more water through their leaves. As a result, their regular watering schedule isn’t enough to meet their needs, so increase the frequency of watering as long as the heat wave lasts. 

When you water is vital as it is difficult for plants to uptake water in the middle of the day. This is because all of their resources are dedicated to enduring the stresses of the heat and it’s hard for them to divert those to uptake water. Water in the early morning, which will allow them to build up a water reserve that will help them through the day.

online-class-desert-gardening-101

Tired of struggling in the desert garden? Sign up for my online course, DESERT GARDENING 101.

Once the heat wave is over, remove the temporary shade and resume regular watering. By implementing these two methods, you’ll enable your citrus trees to weather brutal summer temperatures and minimize any negative effects.

*Sun protection for the trunk and bark of citrus trees is essential throughout the entire year. Here is a past blog post showing you how to shield these parts of your tree and why it is so important. 

 

As a garden writer and horticulturist, I am often asked to review new gardening books, which is one of my favorite things to do; especially if the books are about growing plants in the desert.

Years ago, there were precious few books that dealt with the unique challenges and solutions to creating a beautiful outdoor space in a hot, arid climate. Nowadays, there are several books that focus on desert gardening, but most just scratch the surface of how to do it. When I was contacted by The Desert Botanical Garden to see if I would review their new book, Desert Landscape School: A Guide to Desert Landscaping and Maintenance, I said yes.

The origins of the book arose from the Desert Landscape School at the gardens, which offers classes for individuals who are interested in specializing in certain aspects of desert landscaping. Graduates earn a certification in one or more areas, including desert plant palette, planting and maintenance, and desert design. A large group of experts was brought together in the creation of this book, including many that work in the garden.

 

Thumbing through my copy, I looked to see how the information was laid out and whether it addressed common landscape dilemmas that are unique to desert gardening. As you may expect, a book from this prestigious garden didn’t disappoint. I found myself reading through its pages and reliving my early days as a horticulturist learning not only the basics of arid gardening principles but also strategies and tips for growing plants that I didn’t learn until later.

This book is for those who want to learn the reasons why we garden the way we do in the desert to more fully understand it. There is also valuable information regarding plant selection, design, sustainability, installation guidelines, and how to properly maintain the landscape. 

I’ve always said that “gardening in the desert isn’t hard, it’s just different” and the book offers practical tips that make growing plants in an arid climate, easier. For example, connecting tree wells using swales and gravity to allow rain water to flow to where it’s needed instead of down the street.

For those of you who have read my blog for awhile, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was interested in the pruning and maintenance section, as I am passionate about teaching people correct pruning practices. One illustration that grabbed my attention was the right and wrong way to prune palm trees.

Badly pruned palm trees

I had taken this photo a couple of weeks ago of palm trees that had been pruned incorrectly with too many fronds removed. Overpruning weakens the tree and leaves it open to other stresses, which the book addresses.

The structure of the book is set up so that each section can be read on its own, so readers can focus on what they are interested in learning most. Of course, I recommend reading the entire book as it contains invaluable information which leaves the reader well-informed and confident in their ability to garden successfully in the desert southwest as well as other desert regions.

Desert Landscaping & Maintenance is truly a one-of-a-kind book that serves the role of several desert gardening books in one, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this brand new desert gardening guide.

Right now, the book is available for purchase for visitors to The Desert Botanical Garden or you can buy it online.

Taking photos of succulents in a hidden garden in California.

I have a love affair with succulents. 

There are so many reasons for my passion, but the biggest reason is that they are easy to grow, and a low-maintenance way to add beauty to the garden.

The popularity of succulents is taking off and nursery shelves are filled with numerous varieties to tempt gardeners. Many people are beginning to replace high-maintenance plants with fuss-free succulents.

Sticks on Fire Euphorbia and Elephants Food

Succulents can also be a great choice for solving common gardening problems.  For example, they make great container plants and require a fraction of the care that flowering annuals do. 

I share my favorite ways to use succulents in the garden in my latest article for Houzz. I hope that you find inspiration for solving your garden problems by adding these lovely plants.

How Succulents Can Solve Your Garden Problems

 

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?

Have you ever paused in the shade of a mesquite tree (Prosopis spp.) and noticed that its branches grow every which way? 

I was reminded of this when I was visiting a client earlier this week and was advising him on how to care for his mesquite tree. I looked up and saw a cluster of branches growing up, down, sideways, and in curvy pathways.

In an ideal situation, mesquite trees resemble the shape of more traditional tree species, as shown above. However, they don’t always turn out this way. 

Have you ever wondered why mesquite trees grow in such crazy ways?

The answer is quite simple – in nature, mesquites grow as large shrubs. The branches of shrubs grow in all directions, up, down, sideways, etc., and so do mesquites.  

The problem arises when we train them up as trees, and their branches don’t always behave as a tree’s do. Because of this, mesquites that have been pruned into trees, do best being pruned by a professional, particularly when they are young and certain branches are being chosen to remain while others are pruned off.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen, and you can see the results of bad pruning practices in many places. 

I do love the shade that mesquite trees provide and I must admit that I enjoy a good chuckle when I see the unusual shapes that some mesquite trees have taken.

How about you? Have you ever seen a mesquite tree with crazy branches?

I have a problem in my garden.  The suspects who wreak havoc on my vegetable gardens are furry, have tails and whiskers.  On the surface, they are very cute, but wild on the inside and shy away from contact with humans, except for the neighbor who feeds them.

 

Now before we go further, I must tell you that I like cats – a lot.  I don’t mind them in my backyard and enjoy watching them stretch out in the sun on a winter’s day or enjoying the filtered shade from my trees in summer.  What I don’t like is that they use my raised vegetable beds as a litter box.

To help deter them, I added a motion control sensor that is attached to my hose, which sprays anything that gets too close to the garden (including me if I forget to turn it off before working in the garden).  This has helped, but there is still half of the garden that the cats continue to use as a toilet.  Not a place I want to grow vegetables.  

I had done research on plants that may repel cats, and the herb ‘rue’ (Ruta graveolens) kept coming up.  The problem was, I had a hard time finding it as it’s an old-fashioned herb, and isn’t used much anymore.  

Nursery visits have become more frequent for me lately as I am preparing for a visit from a magazine and a wedding that will be held in out backyard.  So, I’ve been giving my garden a little more attention, and that means plant shopping!

While I was browsing through the aisles at the nursery, I spotted a tray filled with rue plants.  I must admit that I could hardly contain my delight and bought seven without a second thought.  Of course, I also came home with several other plants for the garden too.

I was so thrilled to have found some rue and have a chance to see if it would keep the cats out of the garden.  The dried leaves from rue are also purported to keep cats away, so I can harvest the leaves and use them in other areas if I need to.

The plant itself is attractive with lacy foliage, and the leaves smell just fine to me – cats just don’t like it – hopefully.

I am somewhat hopeful that this will do the trick, but I am also a bit cautious as not all surefire solutions work.  I’ll be sure to let you know if it works to keep the cats out of the vegetable garden.

**Have you ever had a problem with cats in your garden?  What did you do to get rid of them?