Artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), and lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus),

Does the idea of having to venture outside, when temperatures are above 100 degrees, to care for your garden have you thinking twice? I must admit that there have been times when I have let the plants in my landscape fend for themselves in summer after setting the irrigation controller. But, there is often a price to pay afterward when you have to play catch up with extra pruning and other maintenance.

There are however many different plants that thrive in summer with little fuss allowing you to enjoy the comforts of your air-conditioned home while viewing your beautiful garden through the windows. Here are some of my favorite fuss-free plants for the summer garden.

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

Mexican honeysuckle has lush green foliage and produces tubular orange flowers throughout the entire year. They do best in filtered shade and attract hummingbirds. I like to plant them underneath trees such as mesquite or palo verde.

Learn more about Mexican honeysuckle.

Artichoke Agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata‘)

Artichoke agave is highly prized for its rosette shape, and it’s easy to see where it got its name. The blue-gray color and maroon edges add great color contrast to the garden when it is placed alongside plants with dark and light-green foliage.

Of course, these are but one species of agave that would make a delightful, fuss-free addition to the summer garden. I also recommend cow’s horn agave (Agave bovicornuta), smooth-edge agave (Agave desmettiana), and Victoria agave (Agave victoriareginae) to name a few.

‘Summertime Blue’ (Eremophila ‘Summertime Blue’)

‘Summertime Blue’ is a delightful shrub that needs next to no maintenance throughout the year and decorates the garden with its bright green foliage and violet-blue flowers that appear spring through fall. It grows slowly but will reach approximately 6 feet tall and wide. If given enough room, it can go a year (or two) before needing pruning. While you may have to look around for a nursery that carries it, it’s well worth the effort. It is also usually found at the Desert Botanical Garden’s spring and fall plant sales.

Lady’s Slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)

Lady’s Slipper is a uniquely shaped succulent with thornless stems that have a ‘Medusa-like’ growth habit that is more pronounced in light shade. The upright stems add a welcome vertical element to the landscape, and small orange flowers are produced off and on through spring and fall. They can be grown in containers or planted in the ground and do well in full sun or light shade.

Bush Lantana (Lantana camara ‘Radiation’)

Bush lantana is a familiar sight to many who live in arid climates like ours. This species of lantana is slightly different than the trailing gold and purple lantana. It has larger leaves, grows taller, and has multi-colored flowers that vary according to the variety. Bush lantana is a great choice for a colorful summer garden as they are seemingly heat-proof.

Totem Pole ‘Monstrosus’ (Lophocereus schottii ‘Monstrosus’)

Totem pole ‘Monstrosus’ has become quite a popular addition to the desert garden and it’s easy to see why with its knobby shape. Another bonus is that they are almost always thornless, which makes them suitable for areas near entries or patios where a prickly cactus aren’t welcome. Plant in full sun in a row for a contemporary look or place next to a boulder for a more natural appearance. 

Learn more about totem pole cactus.

‘Heavenly Cloud’ Texas Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Heavenly Cloud’)          

‘Heavenly Cloud’ Texas sage is well worth adding to your landscape for its lovely purple blossoms that appear off and on throughout the warm season, often in response to increased humidity. All species of Texas sage do well in summer and can be nearly maintenance-free if allowed enough room to reach their 8 foot tall and wide size as well as left to grow into their natural shape. This particular species blooms more than the more common ‘Green Cloud’ Texas sage.   

       Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Golden barrel cactus are wildly popular, and it is easy to see why with the globular shapes and yellow coloring. This cactus is quite versatile, able to grow in both sun and light shade. I like to use it in groups of three next to boulders or in a row. They also do well in containers planted singly or along with other succulents.

Learn more about golden barrel cactus.

Red Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)

Red bird-of-paradise is one of the most iconic flowering shrubs in the low desert regions of Arizona. Also known as mexican bird-of-paradise and royal poinciana, visitors marvel at their beautiful flowers in shades of orange, yellow, and red. The striking blossoms appear in late spring and last into early fall much to the delight of hummingbirds. There is nothing to do to care for them in summer other than to marvel at their beauty.
Learn more about red bird-of-paradise.

Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)

Red yucca has the appearance of an ornamental grass, but its leaves are succulent. Coral-colored flowers are borne aloft on tall stalks off and on spring through fall – there is also a yellow variety as well. They look great all year, even when not in flower and are well worth adding to your outdoor space.

Learn more about red yucca.

So if you are tired of having to prune and fertilize plants through summer, I invite you to try one of these 10 fuss-free summer plants.                          **Do you have a favorite fuss-free plant for summer?

Echeveria and aloe planted in an old water fountain in Santa Barbara, CA.

Water features have long had a prominent spot in the landscape, where the both the beauty and sound of water help to create an enjoyable outdoor atmosphere.

However, water features can be high maintenance, messy to clean, and can be problematic in arid climates where water is a precious resource. Because of these reasons, it’s not unusual to see an empty water feature sitting empty without purpose.

In both my garden travels and work as a landscape consultant, I like to discover new uses for water features or ways to mimic the appearance of water, which succulents can fulfill beautifully.

A sink full of succulent plants spill out in the Barrio Garden section of the Tucson Botanical Gardens

Water features and succulents can add welcome interest, from simulating the movement of water with their shapes to taking the place of water in the basin.

Plumbing hardware can be used, along with succulents, to create an artistic arrangement in the garden such as these galvanized buckets and water pipes.

Succulents can also add a lovely planting around water features like the example above with lady’s slipper (Euphorbia macrocarpus), and it’s unique ‘Medusa-like’ growth habit adds an unexpected design element. It is important to keep succulents far enough away from getting any over splash from the water as they need dry soil to grow in.

Containers filled with succulents can make an attractive backdrop for a water feature as they are low-maintenance and their distinctive shapes add welcome texture.

Visit any nursery, and you’ll notice how popular succulents are, as they make up a larger percentage of the plants on display, tempting people to add them to their gardens.

So go ahead and give your water feature new life with succulents!

It’s one of my favorite times of year in the garden – my peach trees are heavily laden with delicious, sweet fruit ready for picking.

Many people are surprised to learn that you can grow peaches in Arizona, but they do very well. However, they do ripen earlier than in cooler climates. May is peach season here in the desert.

My peach trees sit outside my kitchen window, and I’ve been keeping my eye on them to see when they were ready to harvest.  Finally, the day arrived, and I brought out my bushel basket and got to picking.

One peach tree can provide you with most of the peaches you need. Last year, I made peach blueberry jam, which was so good, that it didn’t last long. Today, I’m planning on making regular peach jam, but I can always buy peaches from the store at another time to make other variations if I choose to.

Every May, I haul out my water bath canner, canning jars, and spend 2 hours making delicious peach jam.

Growing peaches and making jam isn’t difficult or expensive, but there are guidelines to follow. I made a video of the process, from what type of peach trees do best in the desert, how to tell if your peaches are ripe, and how to make jam.  I hope you enjoy!

https://youtu.be/jEcyAzCB-W4

 

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?

Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) before pruning

We had experienced a delightful spring with hot temperatures staying away for the most part. The weather has been so lovely that I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the garden. One garden task that has needed to get done is pruning back my winter/spring flowering shrubs.

What are winter/spring flowering shrubs you may ask? Well, they are those that flower primarily in late winter and on into spring. In the Southwest garden, they include cassia (Senna species), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and Valentine bush (Eremophila maculata)

The time to do this varies depending on the plant and the region you live in, but generally, you want to prune them back once flowering has finished. 

I’ve decided to show you how I have pruned my cool-season shrubs and I find that using hedge trimmers make quick work of this job. Yes, I realize that I preach against using hedge trimmers for ‘poodling’ flowering shrubs into formal shapes, BUT they are very useful for corrective pruning for the health and beauty of your shrubs. I only use them ONCE a year.

Above, is a photo of my red globe mallow shrubs before I pruned them. They put on a beautiful show for several weeks, but have gone to seed, and they aren’t particularly attractive in this state. 

Newly pruned globe mallow shrubs

This is what they look like after pruning. As you can see, they have been pruned back severely, which is needed to keep them attractive and stimulate attractive, new growth. Don’t worry, while they may look rather ugly, in a few weeks; they will be fully leafed out.

Valentine bush before pruning

Here is one of my Valentine (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’) shrubs. This is one of my favorite plants, and it adds priceless winter color to my garden. One of the things that I love about it is that it needs pruning once a year when the flowers have begun to fade.

Valentine bush after pruning

I prune mine back to approximately 2 feet tall and wide, but you could prune it back even further. This pruning is necessary to ensure a good amount of blooms for next year. Don’t prune it after this as you will decrease a number of flowers that will form later.

Finally, it was time to tackle pruning my feathery cassia shrubs (Senna artemisoides). I love the golden yellow flowers that appear in winter and last into early spring. They add a lovely fragrance to the garden as well. However, once flowering has finished, they produce seed pods that will turn brown and ugly if not pruned.

I’ve created a video to show you how to prune these shrubs. Unlike the others, I only prune them back by 1/2 their size.

*As you can see in the video, my grandson, Eric was having fun helping out in the garden.

That is all the pruning that these shrubs will receive, which will keep them both attractive and healthy.

It’s worth noting that hedge trimmers aren’t a bad tool to use – rather, the problem is when they are used incorrectly to prune flowering shrubs excessively throughout the year.

I hope that this post is helpful to you as you maintain your shrubs. If the video was helpful, please click ‘Like’ and subscribe to my YouTube channel as I will be making more garden videos to help care for and maintain your Southwest garden.

*What do you prune in mid-spring?

I am faced with a wonderful dilemma……

My last post dealt with the loss of one of our beautiful ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde trees. So now we are faced with the question of which type of tree should we choose to replace the one that I lost? We worked hard the past couple of days to remove the fallen tree and now have a bare space to fill.  

I have lived in my home (and garden) for over ten years. As our houseome was being built, we designed the surrounding garden. I enjoyed deciding which trees I would choose to grace our desert garden with not only beauty but shade in the summer months. I honestly do not understand people who don’t plant trees in the garden – especially in desert climates. They not only provide wonderful shade in the summer months but also add a lot of value to your property.  

*This blog contains affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission with no additional cost to you.

 

 Desert Museum Palo Verde (Parkinsonia hybrid ‘Desert Museum’)

 

I loved my palo verde tree that fell…..I have two others just like it, including the one pictured above. There is much to like about these trees beside the beautiful green trunks – they are fast growing, thornless, evergreen and yellow flowers in the spring. The only drawbacks are that there is litter from the fallen flowers in spring, which means that it should not be planted by a pool. The fallen flowers do not bother me at all – I rather enjoy the carpet of yellow.
 
But, even with all of the wonderful attributes of this tree, I have decided to select another type of tree as it’s the replacement. Why may you ask? Well, because they grow quickly, I do have to prune them quite a bit. I do not mind pruning, but pruning three of these trees each year was becoming much more of a chore.

Another reason is that in addition to being a horticulturist, I am also a certified arborist and I do love trees and have grown many different kinds in the landscapes that I managed. Right now, I have 14 trees (8 different types) growing in my front, back and side gardens. I would enjoy adding another kind of tree to my plant palette.
 
So, here comes the fun part…which one to choose?

 

Desert Fern
(Lysiloma thornberi, Lysiloma watsonii var. thornberi, Lysiloma microphylla var. thornberi)

 

One of my favorite things about the desert fern is the beautiful, fern-like leaves – hence its common name.

 

Another plus is that is a native, desert tree and is thornless.  The leaves turn a slight maroon color in the winter in our zone 8b climate.  In colder winters the leaves may drop altogether.  Although what I would call a medium sized tree, it typically grows from 15 – 45 feet high and wide.
 
One drawback is that it does produce brown seed pods, which some people do not like, but I have no problem with them at all. 
 
*I do have a desert fern tree already, and although another one would look great in my newly bare area, I think I will try to choose a different type of tree.

 Sweet Acacia
(Acacia farnesiana, Acacia smallii)

 

In the springtime, air is perfumed with the fragrance of the bright yellow puffball flowers of the sweet acacia.  When not in flower, the tiny, dark green leaves are easier to see.  


Although found in other areas of the United States, it is also native to the southwest.  The mature size is approximately 25 feet high and wide.  In areas with mild winters, the leaves will remain on the tree.  Dark brown seedpods are produced once flowering has finished.
 
Some drawbacks to consider are the thorns having to be careful when pruning is necessary (requiring gloves and long sleeves).  Now, I am more of a “Do as I say” person rather than a “Do as I do” person.  I always wear gloves when I prune, but I rarely wear long sleeves in the summer months.  As a result, I have some small scratch scars on my forearms from pruning sweet acacia in the past. 
 
Although I love the beauty, size and the springtime fragrance of this tree, I don’t think I want to accrue any more scars on my arms 😉

Southern Live Oak
(Quercus virginiana)

 

Believe it or not, oak trees do very well in our desert climate.  Southern live oak, cork oak, and holly oak are all found in the suburban landscape.  Southern live oak is the most prevalent, however.
 
There is little not to love about these trees – they are thornless, have evergreen foliage, are tolerant of full and reflected sun making this tree very low-maintenance.  In non-desert climates, they can reach heights of up to 40 – 60 ft., but will not grow that large in the desert.  In the landscape areas that I managed, they were a favorite because there was so little maintenance required.
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I may be crazy, but this tree seems a little boring to me.  I don’t know why.  I spent my teenage years growing up in the town of Thousand Oaks, California and the hillsides are dotted with large, specimen oak trees.  The oak trees that I see growing in our area do not resemble the ones from my childhood, so maybe that is the reason that I do not have any in my garden.  But, I would wholeheartedly recommend this tree to anyone who wants a lovely, low-maintenance tree.

Bottle Tree
(Brachychiton populneus)
 
Some of you may be surprised to know that many of our trees and shrubs are grown in our arid climate are native to Australia.  The bottle tree is one of them.  First of all, I love the shape of the leaves and how the sun reflects off of them in a gentle breeze.  I also like the slightly pendulous way that the branches hang down.  Evergreen in areas with mild winters and a smooth trunk make it an asset in the garden.  Its mature size of 30 – 45 feet high and 30 feet wide, makes it suitable for narrower spaces.
 
As a child, growing up in Los Angeles, we had one in our front garden.  My sister and I used to pretend that the little flowers were ‘fairy caps and the flowers were soon followed by large, brown seedpods.

 
The pods themselves are quite cool looking, and my mother would use them in making wreaths out of seedpods.  But what I most remember about the seedpods is getting some of the ‘fuzz’ from the inside stuck on my bare feet, and it hurt.  I think that is maybe why I do not have this tree in my garden.  But, many people I know who have a bottle tree love them.
 
**One note of caution, this tree is quite susceptible to Texas (Cotton) root rot (a fungal disease that infects the roots).  So if you know of cases of Texas root rot in your neighborhood, I would advise growing another type of tree.

Palo Blanco
(Acacia willardiana)

 

If you have not already noticed already, I am somewhat biased about certain types of trees.  This one is one of my favorite smaller trees.  The word ‘palo blanco; means “white stick” in Spanish and refers to the white trunk of this tree – considered to be one of its most attractive assets.

 
 
 The bark peels off in papery sheets.  Palo blanco trees look great when planted near each other in groups of 3 or 5 where their distinctive tree trunks can be shown off.
 
I also like the bright green foliage of the trees and their tiny leaflets.  In winter, the leaves do fall from the desert native, but they are so small and do not create much litter.
 
 
 When mature, it reaches a height of 15 – 20 feet and spreads to 10 feet wide which makes it suitable for a patio tree or other small area.  Maintenance is minimal, only requiring a small amount of pruning.

 

Tiny flowers grace the tree in spring, followed by decorative seed pods.
 

Excellent book about what to do in the garden and when

I like these trees so much that I have three of them.  They are growing against my west-facing garden wall and do great in the reflected sun.  But, I will probably choose something else for my bare area since I would like a tree that is a little larger for that area.

 Indian Rosewood / Sissoo 
(Dalbergia sissoo)

 

It’s hard to beat the sissoo tree for fast growth and shade. However, they ARENT recommended 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 – soon, it had to be removed due to its invasive roots. This tree made its 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. Also, their mature size is so big that they dwarf the landscapes they have been planted in. 
Shallow watering often causes the roots to grow along the surface. 
 
Sissoo trees are best used in large outdoor areas such as parks.

Olive 
(Olea europaea)

Olive trees are also an option. Most are multi-trunk with beautiful olive green leaves. They are evergreen and thornless. Regular fruiting olives are no longer sold in many cities due to their highly allergenic pollen. Thankfully, there is a non-fruiting cultivar called ‘Swan Hill,’ which is available.


Reaching a mature size of 20 – 30 feet high and wide, olive trees make excellent shade trees and are slow-growing. Some olive trees have fallen prey to some creative pruning.


Not quite my taste and I would like a tree that will not take too long to grow, so let’s press on to other trees.

Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis/Pithecellobium flexicaule)

 Texas ebony is an excellent choice for those who like a dense, dark green canopy of leaves. Native to both Texas and Mexico, this tree does very well in the Arizona desert.  Everything about this tree is dark – the green leaves the dark brown trunk. 

This evergreen tree, has thorns and large brown seedpods.  Texas ebony grows slowly to about 15 – 30 feet high and 15 – 20 feet wide. 

This is a favorite tree with my clients, but again, I am looking for a tree that grows more quickly.

Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

=
An excellent tree for those who like lush, green trees that lose their leaves in winter. Chinese pistache grows to 25 – 25 feet high and wide and has some welcome surprises.


It is one of the few trees in our area that produces a rich fall color.  Female trees produce clusters of little berries in the fall.
 
I like this tree, but I want to see more trees before I decide…..

 Cascalote
(Caesalpinia cacalaco)

 

Another tree that also provides beautiful color in fall and winter is the cascalote.  Plumes of yellow flowers start to appear in November and stay through December.  At maturity, they reach approximately 15 feet tall and wide.

 
I love the clusters of small round leaves that are evergreen.
 
 
 Now I am not a fan of thorns, but the thorns on this tree are almost pretty.  But, you want to plant this tree away from pedestrian areas.  You can remove the thorns if you like, which is what I have done in the past.  However, there is now a thornless variety, called ‘Smoothie.’


The first flowers of the season begin to open.  I bought my first one on a field trip with my Plant Identification college class to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  I brought it home and planted it in a container because we were renting a house at the time, waiting for our new home to be built.  Later, I planted it in our front garden, and I look forward to the beautiful yellow flowers in the fall.
 
Aleppo Pine
(Pinus halepensis)
  
Believe it or not, some pine trees also do well in the desert.  I love the sound of the wind as it blows through pine trees.  Aleppo, Canary Island (Pinus canariensis) and mondel pines (Pinus eldarica) are all found in suburban areas of the lower desert areas of the southwest.  
 
Depending on the species, they grow anywhere from 30 – 60 feet tall and most should not be planted in a residential landscape unless there is ample room for growth. They can suffer from soils and water with high amounts of salts.
 
Pine trees offer heavy shade that will prevent most grasses from growing underneath.  Pine needles litter the ground as well.  But did you know that pine needles make an excellent mulch?  As they break down, they help to acidify our alkaline soils.  And so, if you have a neighbor with pine trees, offer to rake some pine needles up to put in your garden.  Your neighbor will be so happy 🙂
I am pretty sure that I will not plant a pine tree because I have memories of many hours spent nursing along many pine trees growing on golf courses that were irrigated with reclaimed water.  Most of the pine trees did not do well with the high level of salts in the effluent water.

Desert Willow
(Chilopsis linearis)
A summer favorite is the desert willow tree. Beautiful, willow-shaped leaves and flowers brighten up the summer garden. It can grow anywhere from 8 – 30 feet high and wide. Available in both single and multi-trunk, I prefer the beauty of the multi-trunk shape.
 
You will find this tree growing in parks, roadside plantings as well as in residential landscapes. Its small-medium size makes it suitable for smaller areas. It does lose its leaves in winter and forms narrow seed capsules. While not the prettiest tree in winter, the flowers produced spring through fall make it more than worth it and there are new (almost seedless) varieties such as ‘Bubba’ and ‘Timeless Beauty’ that produce little to no seedpods.

That is why I have four currently growing in my garden.  
 
I would still like to find something different, that I do not currently have growing in my garden.  
I need to continue looking at possible tree choices. (You can check out my second post of possible tree selections, here 🙂
P.S. Do you have more questions about choosing a tree for your landscape? I share my experience as a horticulturist and certified arborist and profile my top 20 along with all of their characteristics in my mini-course “How to Select the Right Tree for Your Desert Garden”.