For quite some time, I’ve been considering writing this post. I’ve hesitated due to the overwhelming affection people have for ficus trees (Ficus nitida). While the benefits of planting ficus trees are apparent. They have lush beauty and dense shade that are particularly valuable in desert environments. There are a few considerations to bear in mind before incorporating them into your landscape.

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.

The Pros and Cons of Ficus Nitida Trees: What You Need to Know

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.

One of the primary challenges with Ficus trees is their vulnerability to frost damage. This is especially concerning in low desert regions when temperatures drop below freezing. This concern becomes even more pronounced during stretches of consecutive freezing days.

Frost-Damaged Ficus nitida with extensive browning and damage

Photo: Frost-Damaged Ficus nitida

This past winter, we experienced a three-day period of temperatures in the low 20s. The impact on local Ficus trees was unmistakable. A mere drive through any neighborhood allowed me to distinguish, even from a distance, who had Ficus trees and who did not. The extensive presence of ‘brown’ trees gave it away.

After the return of warmer weather, many Ficus trees sported trimmed branches. This results in a shorter appearance due to frost damage mitigation (see image below).

Ficus tree that had frost damaged with larger branches removed.

Photo:Ficus tree that had frost damaged branches removed.

Growth Size and Control

The second challenge stems from insufficient research regarding the potential size of Ficus trees. Individuals often find themselves ill-prepared when the charming shade tree they planted rapidly becomes an overwhelming presence. Trees often seem to engulf their homes.

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 in front of suburban home

Photo: Mature Ficus Tree

What to Consider When Planting Ficus Trees

If your heart is set on having a Ficus tree grace your garden, go ahead and acquire one. Just remember that some winters might result in frost damage, temporarily affecting the tree’s appearance until new branches emerge. To ensure a successful experience with Ficus trees, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Proper Placement: Exercise caution when choosing a planting spot. Allow ample space for the tree to reach its mature dimensions without infringing on your house. Additionally, avoid planting near patios and pools, as the tree’s shallow roots can pose problems with insufficient watering. Ficus trees can attain heights of 30 to 50 feet and widths of 40 feet.
  2. Alternatives to Consider: While sissoo trees (Dalbergia sissoo) might appear to be an attractive alternative to Ficus, they also come with their own set of considerations.
Guide for Fuss-Free Flowering Plants for the Desert Garden
Grab my FREE guide for Fuss-Free Plants that thrive in a hot, dry climate!

Sissoo Trees as an Alternative

Sissoo trees, resembling Ficus trees in appearance, exhibit greater frost tolerance. Despite their appealing features, it’s crucial to exercise caution when integrating sissoo trees into your landscape.

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

Sissoo Trees look more like a traditional northern park tree

Photo: Sissoo Tree

The sissoo tree (Dalbergia sissoo) is similar in appearance to the ficus tree. They do however 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. It rapidly grew even larger.  This tree made it’s debut in the Phoenix area about 15 years ago. It has become quite popular for its lush green beauty.

While sissoo trees flourish in larger outdoor areas such as parks due to their enhanced frost resilience, they present potential challenges for average-sized residential landscapes. Despite their initial popularity for their lush green beauty, their invasive root systems can wreak havoc on sidewalks, patios, pools, and block walls. Moreover, their eventual size can dwarf the landscapes they were intended to enhance.

Sissoo Trees can grow very large.

Photo: 3 Sissoo Trees

Careful Planning is the Best Approach for Ficus or Sissoo Tree Placement

The allure of Ficus nitida trees is undeniable, but careful planning and consideration are necessary to ensure a harmonious coexistence between these magnificent trees and your landscape. Understanding their susceptibility to frost damage and their potential for significant growth is vital for making informed decisions.

While sissoo trees can be a reasonable alternative, they too come with their own set of challenges that need to be weighed carefully. Ultimately, choosing the right tree for your outdoor space involves a blend of appreciation for aesthetics and awareness of practicality.

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.

Those who know me quickly learn that I love a bargain.  I get so excited when I find something on sale.  It gets even better when I have a coupon for the sale item.  Finding a good bargain is in my DNA.  I come from a long line of women who love to find great deals.

Well for me, this also extends to the landscape.  Now, it may seem a contradiction when I state to my clients that they can save a lot of money by using large plants.   We all know that large plants cost a lot of money at the nursery.  

I quickly go on to explain to them that I DO NOT recommend buying large-sized plants at the nursery.  In fact, I love finding shrubs in the 1-gallon size at the nursery.  They are much cheaper, which pleases the bargain hunter in me.  What I DO recommend is buying plants in small containers that will grow large fairly quickly.

For example, this 1-gallon Green Cloud Texas Sage cost about $5 dollars at the nursery.

using large plants

I admit, it is not very impressive and it is hard to imagine what it will look like when it grows up.  But, this is a fast growing shrub and in just 2 – 3 years it will look like this….

using large plants

I’d say that you got a pretty good deal for only $5.

A few years ago, I worked for a home builder, helping new buyers design their new landscapes.  By the time I would meet with them, they had spent a lot of their money already on the inside of their new home.  And so, their budget was quite limited in terms of what they could spend on their landscaping.  

I would then create a design for them using trees and shrubs that would grow large and quickly.  This way, they did not have to spend money on a large amount of plants and their garden would still look very beautiful.

Here are some shrubs that grow quickly and will grow large, as long as you don’t over-prune them.  All of them can be purchased as 1-gallon plants.

using large plants

 Orange Jubilee (Tecoma x Jubilee)

using large plants

 Threadleaf Cassia (Senna nemophila)

using large plants

 Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa)

Bougainvillea

 Bougainvillea

Other advantages in starting out using 1-gallon plants as opposed to 5-gallon or larger is that the smaller the initial size of the plant, the easier it is for them to be transplanted.  Not just for the gardener, but it is also easier for the plant as well.  Larger plants can have a more difficult time dealing with transplant shock.

I have been making some changes in my own garden and have been on the look out for shrubs in a 1-gallon size.  I planted a Chaparral Sage (Salvia clevelandii) last month from a 1-gallon container.  

 using large plants

I admit, that it is quite small.  But, it won’t stay this way for long.  Soon, it will soon reach the size of this 3 year old Chaparral Sage that I planted in a commercial landscape….

 using large plants

While you are waiting for your small shrubs to grow large, you can fill in the empty spaces with annuals that you can later pull out once your shrubs start to grow.

Another new addition to my garden is a new Red Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima).  The nurseries are starting to stock them right now and it is easy to find them in 5-gallon sizes.  I had to look a little more carefully before I found the 1-gallon size.

Beautiful Garden

Okay I admit that I almost have to put on my reading glasses to be able to see this tiny shrub.  But it grows so quickly. 

In just 2 – 3 years, it will look like this….

 using large plants

Not too bad for $4, is it?

Visions of Pink – One Pretty, One Amusing and the Other Unique

type of grass

Okay, you were probably thinking that I meant the ‘other’ type of grass.  But the type of grass I am referring to cannot be smoked, (at least I don’t think it can).  ‘Regal Mist’ (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’), is a beautiful ornamental grass to include in your landscape.  It is low-maintenance, thrives almost anywhere and has stunning burgundy foliage in late summer and early fall.

type of grass

USES:  This Texas native looks best when planted in groups of at least 3, but I think groups of 5 or 7 are better.  This ornamental grass grows to approximately 3 ft. High and wide.  However, when flowering, add 1 – 2 ft. to their total height.  They can be planted in full sun, areas with reflected heat and even in areas with partial shade.  

type of grass

This ornamental grass is tolerant of most soils.  Regal Mist is a great choice for planting around pools, boulders and in front of walls.  I have planted them around golf courses, and many people would ask me, “What is that plant?  It is beautiful.”  It is evergreen in areas with mild winters, but it is hardy to -10 degrees F (Zone 6).  Frost will turn them light tan in color. 

Regal Mist

 Regal Mist when not in flower

MAINTENANCE:  You can hardly get more low-maintenance then this – prune back severely in the winter, almost to the ground, to remove old foliage and spent flowers.  I do not fertilize Regal Mist, and they look just great.  Although drought tolerant once established, supplemental water is necessary for them is needed for them to look their best and to flower.  Self-seeding is not usually a problem when they are irrigated with drip-irrigation.

type of grass

So, for those of you who are frequently asking me for a beautiful, low-maintenance plant – this is it.  Include a few in your garden, and I promise you will have people asking you, “What is that beautiful grass?”

Skeletons in the Desert

Ficus nitida

Ficus Nitida simply the wrong plant, and usually in the wrong place.

I think this photo probably speaks for itself…..

But, I will add to it by saying that it is vital to realize that the little, spindly tree that you plant WILL GROW. Be sure to check the mature size of any tree, (or any plant for that matter), before you plant so you can be sure that there is ample room for growth.

By the way, the tree above is a Ficus nitida, which is a beautiful, dark green tree. But, it does grow enormous, as does its roots, making it unsuitable from most residential landscapes.