Taking photos of succulents in a hidden garden in California.

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.

succulents solve garden problems

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

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

How Succulents Can Solve Your Garden Problems

February is what I like to call a ‘bridge’ month.  In regards to work, it is a transition month for me.  It is the month between January, when work slows down as it’s cold with not much is growing and March, when the weather is delightfully warm and everybody seemingly wants to redo their landscape.  If I could choose the perfect month in terms of work load, it would be February.

Landscape Dilemma: Colorful Container Before and After Landscape

Landscape Dilemma ,Colorful Container Before and After Landscape

Last week, I was visiting one of my favorite clients whose landscape has been a work in progress.  The backyard was finished last year and now, it was time to pay attention to the front.  Of course, I took a few minutes to see how things were doing in the back and my attention was immediately drawn to this colorful container filled with colorful succulents.  The orange stems of ‘Sticks on Fire’ Euphorbia adds welcome color to the garden throughout the year while elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) trails down the side of the pot.  

I am a strong proponent of using colorful pots filled with low-maintenance succulents in the garden.  Why mess with flowering annuals if you can enjoy vibrant color without the high maintenance?  

Full disclosure: I do have a couple of pots filled with petunias, but the vast majority are filled with succulents 😉

Landscape Dilemma: Colorful Container Before and After Landscape

Landscape Dilemma

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is assisting my clients with their landscape dilemma.  Often, the solution is much simpler than the client imagined.  Last fall, I visited this home which had a large, shallow depression that was filled with dying agave.  The interesting thing was that there was no obvious reason for its presence as no water drained into it.  It definitely wasn’t what the client wanted in this high-profile area.

Landscape Dilemma: Colorful Container Before and After Landscape

So what would be a good solution for this area?   The client wanted to plant a large saguaro cactus in this area, but didn’t want to add a lot of plants.  My recommendation was to get rid of the dying agave and turn the depression into an attractive feature of the garden. 

Landscape Dilemma: Colorful Container Before and After Landscape

This is what it looks like now.  Filling the area with rip-rap rock, adds both a texture and color contrasting element to the landscape. Well-placed boulders with a century plant (Agave americana), Mexican fence post (Stenocereus marginatus), and golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) help to break up the large expanse of the shallow depression with their spiky and globular shapes.  Finally, a saguaro cactus was added, which stands sentinel over this renovated area.  

One would never imagine that this part of landcape hadn’t been planned this way when it was first planted years ago.

Valentine's Day

Lastly, February is all about Valentine’s Day.  I sent my granddaughter a care package filled with goodies for Valentine’s Day.  Dinosaur cards for her classmates, a little craft, a hanging mobile, stickers, and of course chocolates – all with a Valentine theme.  

For me, Valentine’s day comes with mostly great memories.  As a child, I looked forward to handing out Valentines to my classmates and getting them in return.  During teenage years, there was one particularly memorable one when I was 17 years old.  My boyfriend didn’t get me anything, however, another boy gave me a card and a flower, which was some consulation.  And to finish off that infamous Valentine’s Day, I came down the chicken pox that very day.  Guess who also got the chicken pox?  The boyfriend who forgot Valentine’s Day.  Now, I look forward spending the 14th with the main man in my life, who after 31 years, still makes me feel special.

*What do you do to celebrate Valentine’s Day?  

Cactus Flowers Color the Desert Landscape

Caterpillars Eating Shrubs , Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans stans)

Caterpillars Eating Shrubs , Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans stans)

Do you have caterpillars lurking beneath the leaves of your shrubs?

If they look like the yellow bells shrub, pictured above, probably not.

Caterpillars Eating Shrubs

Caterpillars Eating Shrubs

But, if your leaves look as if a vampire came along and sucked them dry, then they are there, whether you can see them or not. Other telltale signs include little black pellets, which are caterpillar ‘poop’. 

Damaged bougainvillea leaves

Damaged bougainvillea leaves

Bougainvillea can also fall prey to hungry caterpillars, who leave behind ragged holes and edges.

So, what do you do?  Nothing?  Or should you pull out all the stops to get rid of them?

I address these questions and more in my latest video:

 
 
 

Fall Gardening Tasks for the Southwest Garden

mother's vegetable garden

*This blog post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a commission (at no additional cost to you). Thanks for your support in this way.*

This is what my mother’s vegetable garden looks like in the middle of winter.  

She works hard at growing a variety of vegetables in her two raised beds.  On Wednesday nights, we all gather for dinner at her house and get to enjoy many of the delicious vegetables straight from her garden.   

Sadly, her plans for this season’s vegetable garden faced a serious setback.

mother fell and broke her leg

My mother fell and broke her leg while cooking dinner with my youngest daughter.  Both bones in her lower leg suffered multiple fractures, and a metal rod had to be inserted down into her tibia.

Understandably, she cannot put any weight on her foot for at least two months.  So, while she works hard at physical therapy to gain as much independence as she can – we decided to help out with her garden.

mother's vegetable garden

My kids, along with my nephews, were eager to help with Grandma’s garden.  We stopped by the nursery to pick up broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and leaf lettuce transplants while I brought some carrot and radish seeds from home.

Lucky for us, she had already amended her soil with one of my favorite soil amendments – used coffee grounds (from Starbucks).  I added some of my favorite organic vegetable fertilizer for the garden, and we were ready to start planting.

mother's vegetable garden

I instructed the kids on where and how to plant the vegetable transplants in staggered rows.

My sister was also watching us and even stepped in to help out, despite the fact that she never gardens.  

mother's vegetable garden

The kids were eager to help out their grandmother, and we all enjoyed out time out in the garden.  

I took a few photos to bring back to her at the rehabilitation facility where she is recuperating, to show her what her grandkids had done for her.

My mother is doing well and is working hard at her daily physical therapy sessions so that she can get home as soon as possible.  We visit her daily, and her room has pictures drawn by her grandchildren and cards from friends and family.

 

On our most recent visit, my grandson discovered the delights of pushing around his grandpa using great-grandma’s wheelchair.  His smile and laughter brightened everyone’s day.

Meanwhile, back at the vegetable garden.

mother's vegetable garden

I came back to check on the newly planted vegetables.  Most were doing quite well, but I did see a few plants with telltale holes in their leaves.

mother's vegetable garden

I discovered the culprit nearby.  Cutworms are caterpillars that eat holes in leafy vegetables as well as ‘cut’ off young vegetable transplants at their base. 

mother's vegetable garden

The cutworms did kill some of the newly transplanted broccoli, but most of the leafy greens were fine other than a few holes in the leaves.

I brought my favorite organic pesticide, BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills the caterpillars.  I like to use Safer Brand 5163 Caterpillar Killer II Concentrate, 16 oz in my own garden, which helps keep the caterpillars at bay.

mother's vegetable garden

I sprayed all the vegetables, taking care to spray both top and underneath the leaves.  

BT can be reapplied every 7 – 10 days until the caterpillars are gone.  

**Note; it can be hard to find BT in your local big box store or even some nurseries.  However, you can find it offered online from garden supply companies and Amazon (affiliate link).

Have you planted any vegetables this season?  What are your favorites?

Citrus Trees Need Sunscreen

Last week, I was visiting one of my favorite clients when I noticed that one of her citrus trees was showing signs of sunburn, which led to me explaining to her that even citrus trees need sunscreen to prevent sunburn in many cases.

Citrus Trees Need Sunscreen

You can see the lighter-colored bark and some cracks as well along the branch. It turns out that citrus trees are very susceptible to sunburn.

So, why is a sunburned citrus tree something to be worried about?

Well, when a tree becomes sunburned, it often forms cracks in the bark and within these cracks, damaging insects or fungus can find a nice home.  Frost damage can also cause cracks in the bark.

In recent years, I have had to deliver bad news to people whose citrus trees became infected with sooty canker, which is a fungal disease that affects the branches and trunks, which takes root underneath the cracked, flaky bark.

Citrus Trees Need Sunscreen

Several times, I have had to tell homeowners that their much-loved citrus tree was badly infected with sooty canker and had to be removed.  You can read more about the signs and treatment of sooty canker, here.

Thankfully, there are things we can do to reduce or eliminate the chance of sunburn to our citrus trees.

Citrus Trees Need Sunscreen

1. Allow citrus trees to grow their lower branches. They will help to shade the trunk.  A bonus for citrus trees grown this way is that the most fruit is produced on the lower branches that also tastes sweeter.

Citrus Trees Need Sunscreen

2. Protect exposed trunks and branches by using citrus paint (available at your local nursery) or by simply mixing white latex paint water so that the resulting mixture is 1/2 paint and 1/2 water. You can also purchase tree wraps made from burlap, which can also help to protect them. Avoid using oil-based paint.

However, if you allow the lower branches of your citrus tree to grow and the trunk is shaded, than you don’t have to paint them. 

citrus trees

3. Don’t over-prune your citrus trees.  The photo above, is an EXTREME example of what not to do.

Citrus trees should be pruned in March, and concentrated on removing dead, diseased or crossing branches.  Avoid pruning more then 20% of its foliage in any given year.  *Remember, that the leaves make food for the tree, which will in turn, produce delicious fruit. If pruning leaves you with exposed branches, then coat them with citrus paint.

**See how to protect citrus from the damaging effects of a heat wave – here.

Even Citrus Trees Need Sunscreen to Prevent Sunburn

I always wear sunscreen whenever I venture outdoors.  Years spent in California at the beach as a teenager, trying to tan my fair skin did not work.  Now, I try very hard to protect my skin from the desert sun.  I do however, often forget to wear my hat as it does mess up my hair 😉

Bougainvillea

**Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link of a product that I use in my garden and I recommend to those who are experiencing similar problems.

A week ago, I was called to see one of my regular clients to see how her landscape was progressing since she had installed a lot of new plants at the beginning of summer.

The majority of her plants looked great considering she had planted them at a particularly tough time of the year.

BUT, what caught my attention was her bougainvillea shrub.

Bougainvillea

The leaves were quite ragged and looked like something had been chewing them.

In addition, there were some small black droppings scattered among the leaves.

The diagnosis was relatively simple…

The culprit was bougainvillea looper caterpillars.

Now, you rarely ever see the caterpillar itself.  It is rather small and looks like a yellow-green to brown colored inch-worm.

The signs are ragged leaves that appear to have been chewed along with the black droppings.

My bougainvillea growing in the back garden.  I haven't seen any signs of caterpillar damage yet.

My bougainvillea growing in the back garden.  I haven’t seen any signs of caterpillar damage yet.

If you see similar damage to your Bougainvillea, don’t panic.  Most Bougainvillea can handle the damage from the chewed leaves.

However, if your Bougainvillea is young, or if the infestation is severe, you can help to get rid of the caterpillars by spraying your bougainvillea with a product containing BT (bacillus thuringiensis), which is an organic pesticide.  I use Safer Brand 5163 Caterpillar Killer II Concentrate, 16 oz in my own garden.

In the case of my client’s bougainvillea, I told her that the damage was not severe enough to warrant any treatment.

Some of you may see similar damage to your yellow bells or orange jubilee shrubs, which I wrote about in a previous post, “Oh No, What’s Happened to My Shrubs”.

**In the future, I will be sharing some gardening problems or design challenges that I encounter during some of my consults and their solutions.

My hope is that they can help you in your own landscape 🙂

**********************

I hope you have a great weekend.  We will be celebrating my 3-year old twin nephews birthday at our house tomorrow morning.  I’ll may post a picture or two next week from the party.

My daughter, Rachele, is doing well after the first week of her combat training in Mississippi.  But, she did share some funny stories that I will share with you next week too!

My inbox has been filled lately with pruning questions.  Specifically, how to prune back overgrown flowering shrubs.

Chihuahuan Sage (Leucophyllum laevigatum)

Chihuahuan Sage (Leucophyllum laevigatum)

You may be wondering why you need to severely prune back overgrown shrubs?

Well, as you can see from the photo, above – as a shrub’s branches age, they produce fewer leaves and flowers.  As time passes – these branches die, which leave ugly, bare areas.

Here are a few more examples of overgrown shrubs that need to be severely pruned back…

'White Cloud' Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens 'White Cloud')

‘White Cloud’ Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘White Cloud’)

You may think the formally pruned sage shrubs in the photo above, look okay besides being a bit on the large side.

But, what you don’t see is a large amount of dead branches inside.  In reality, these shrubs are covered in a very thin layer of growth.

overgrown shrubs

Here is an example of old Cassia (Senna nemophila) shrubs that have only been pruned formally.  You can see that there are more dead areas than live growth.

So, how do you go about severely pruning old, overgrown shrubs back?

First of all – don’t do this during cooler months because it will take your shrubs a very long time to grow back. In addition, it can make frost-tender shrubs more susceptible to frost damage.  Wait until spring for pruning back summer-flowering shrubs such as bougainvillea, sage, oleanders, etc.

You need a good pair of loppers and sometimes a pruning saw and you are ready to go. Simply prune your shrub back until there is only about 1 – 2 ft left.

Hedge trimmers can help if you use them to remove the outer part of the shrub and then you can get your loppers inside to prune off larger branches toward the base.

Below, are photos of ‘Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’) shrubs that started out overgrown, were pruned back severely, and grew back.

overgrown shrubs

Overgrown shrubs.

overgrown shrubs

Pruned back to 1 ft.

This is the ugly stage.  But you need to go through this ‘awkward’ stage to achieve beautiful, healthy shrubs.

I promise that it doesn’t last long…

overgrown shrubs

New growth appears 3 weeks later

8 weeks after pruning

8 weeks after pruning.

12 weeks after severe pruning.

12 weeks after severe pruning.

You can see that the severe pruning caused the shrub to grow young, new branches that produce beautiful green growth and flowers.

overgrown shrubs

**Although severe renewal pruning keeps your shrubs healthy and attractive – there are a few cases when an old, overgrown shrub won’t grow back. It is doubtful that the Cassia shrubs, above, will survive for long either with or without severe pruning).

This usually indicates that the shrub has declined too much and would not have survived for long even without pruning.  If this happens, you are better off replacing your shrub.**  

Hand pruners, pruning saw and loppers

Hand pruners, pruning saw and loppers

A good guideline for severely pruning your shrubs is to do this every 3 years or so. Of course, you can do this every year if you like to help keep your shrubs from outgrowing their space.

I hope that this helps to answer some of your questions.

If you would like to learn more about how to prune shrubs the right way, I invite you to learn more about my popular online shrub pruning workshop.   

yellow bell shrubs

Last week, as I walked out into the back garden, I noticed something that didn’t look right with my a few of my yellow bell shrubs (Tecoma stans stans).   

The photo, above, shows how they should normally look, however, last week, they looked like this….

Caterpillar Damage

Definitely not normal looking and manyM of the outer leaves were skeletonized, and it got worse. All four of my yellow bell shrubs had the same symptoms.  So, did my orange jubilee shrubs, which are closely related.

Caterpillar Damage

To be honest, I was a bit stunned to see the damage.  You see, I had grown these beautiful shrubs for over 14 years and have never seen this before – not even in landscapes I managed or when consulting.

What was interesting is that other shrubs right next to my yellow bells and orange jubilee weren’t in the least bit affected. So, what is eating my leaves?

I looked at the symptoms – the skeletonized leaves, the fact that many of my leaves were ‘rolled’ and little black dots (insect poop) told me that my shrubs were suffering from ‘looper caterpillars’ which are tiny caterpillars that roll the leaf around them while they eat.  It is hard to spot the caterpillars themselves, but the damage they cause, usually makes it easy to diagnose.

If your Tecoma or Bougainvillea shrubs show significant leaf damage, here are a few different options on how to treat it:

1. Prune off the affected growth and dispose of the leave in the trash can (not in your compost pile).  

2. Treat your shrub using a biological pesticide that contains BT (Bacillus thuringiensis),  which is ingested by the caterpillars.  BT basically ‘eats’ its way from the caterpillar’s stomach outward. I use a ready-to-use-product.

**Whenever using any pesticide – follow directions carefully. For my shrubs, I will prune back the damaged growth and not apply pesticides. However, if the caterpillars continue to attack, then I may decide to use a product with BT.

So, if you have yellow bells or orange jubilee shrubs – check them to see if they are being affected by caterpillars.

**If your bougainvillea leaves are showing signs of being chewed – they may have been visited by ‘bougainvillea looper caterpillars.’  For more information on how to recognize and treat these caterpillars, click here.  

Thankfully, the rest of my garden is looking healthy 🙂

Are Caterpillars Eating Your Shrubs? How to Recognize and Treat Them

I must admit that I have been contemplating this post for quite some time. To be honest, I have been hesitant about it because of people’s overwhelming affection for ficus trees (Ficus nitida).

At first, the benefits of planting a ficus tree are obvious. They are lush, beautiful and provide dense shade, which is sometimes scarce in the desert.

So what’s the problem with having a ficus tree?

Well there are a couple of things that you should be aware of before you plant a ficus tree.

First, is the fact that they do suffer frost damage in the low desert when temperatures dip below freezing. It can be worse when consecutive days of freezing temperatures occur.

Frost-Damaged Ficus nitida

Photo: Frost-Damaged Ficus nitida

This past winter, we had temperatures in the low 20’s for three days in a row and the damage to the local ficus trees was noticeable. I could drive through any neighborhood street and tell from a distance who had Ficus trees and who didn’t by simply noting the ‘brown’ trees.

Once the warmer temperatures came back, there were quite a few ‘short’ ficus trees seen around the neighborhood due to the frost-damage branches being removed.

Ficus tree that had frost damaged branches removed.

Photo:Ficus tree that had frost damaged branches removed.

The second problem that sometimes occur when people don’t research how large ficus trees will become.

Young Ficus Tree

Photo: Young Ficus Tree

They are soon caught unprepared when the pretty, shade tree that they planted soon grows so large that it almost seems like it is ‘eating’ up the house….

Mature Ficus Tree

Photo: Mature Ficus Tree

So, what should you do if you absolutely love ficus trees and want one in your garden?

By all means, buy one. Just know that you will have some winters where it will suffer frost damage and will look unsightly until new branches grow in.

Grab my FREE guide for Fuss-Free Plants that thrive in a hot, dry climate!

Also, be careful where you plant it.  Allow enough room for it to grow so that it doesn’t ‘eat’ your house.  In addition, keep it away from patios and pools or its roots can become a problem with shallow watering.  It can grow 30 – 50 feet high and 40 feet wide.

Some people look to sissoo trees as an alternative to ficus – BUT, this isn’t advisable either.

Sissoo Tree

Photo: Sissoo Tree

The sissoo tree (Dalbergia sissoo) is similar in appearance to the ficus tree, but they do have greater tolerance to frost.

Like ficus trees, sissoo trees do grow quite large but I no longer recommend them for average size residential landscapes. The photo of the tree above was taken four years after it was planted from a 15-gallon container and it rapidly grew even larger.  This tree made it’s debut in the Phoenix area about 15 years ago and rapidly became quite popular for its lush green beauty.

However, as sissoo trees have been grown in the southwest landscape for several years, problems have begun to crop up. They have invasive root systems that cause problems with sidewalks, patio decks, pools, and block walls. In addition, their mature size is so big that they dwarf the landscapes they have been planted in. 

Sissoo Trees

Photo: 3 Sissoo Trees

Sissoo trees are a better choice than ficus trees when used in large outdoor areas such as parks as they have greater tolerance to frost.

Many people tell me that they are tired of their boring, round green shrubs.  Often, they are surprised when I tell them that those ‘boring’ green balls would actually flower if given a chance.

So, how do you take those boring green balls and turn them into beautiful, flowering shrubs?  

pruning flowering shrubs

‘Green Cloud’ Texas Sage shrubs

The first step is to rejuvenate your green ‘balls’ by severely pruning them back.

Now I warn you, this is an ugly stage.  Your shrubs will look like a bunch of sticks poking out of the ground.

pruning flowering shrubs

Red Bird-of-Paradise shrubs, newly pruned.

This is best done at certain times of the year, depending on what type of flowering shrub you have.  For example, if you severely prune summer-flowering shrubs back in December, you will have to wait a long time for them to leaf out, once the weather warms.

I pruned the ‘Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’) shrub below in March and by early April, it had already begun to produce new branches.  

pruning flowering shrubs

‘Rio Bravo’ Sage, 1 month after severely pruning.

So, when should you prune your shrubs?

Here is a list of some of the most common shrubs in the low desert and when they should be pruned. (If you live in the high desert, you can adjust the timing by a month or so later.)

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea species) – March

Red Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) – March

Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) – March

Cassia species (Senna species) – May (once flowering is finished)

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) – June

Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’) – May

Texas Sage (Leucophyllum species) – March

Oleander (Nerium oleander) – May or June

Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans) – March

Cape Honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) – March or April

If you look closely at the list above, you can see that in most cases these shrubs are either pruned once they have finished flowering OR just after the danger of frost is over in the spring.

The reward for your efforts is a beautiful, flowering shrub like the ‘Green Cloud’ Texas Sage, below.

'Green Cloud' Texas Sage

‘Green Cloud’ Texas Sage

If your shrub is getting a bit large later in the year, you can prune it using hand pruners and removing no more then 1/3 of the growth.  Just be careful not to use hedge-trimmers.

So, do you have to prune your flowering shrubs severely every year?

Absolutely not.

As long as your shrub is attractive and not outgrowing its space, you can save severe pruning for every 3 years or so, which will remove older branches and cause new ones to grow in their place.  This is what I do in my own garden.

Want to learn about pruning flowering shrubs the right way? I invite you to check out my popular online pruning workshop. I’ll teach you how to maintain beautiful flowering shrubs by pruning twice a year or less.