Have you ever renovated the interior of your house? Seeing the old, outdated elements peeled away and replaced with new paint, flooring, etc. can leave you feeling refreshed and even excited. Well, I get to do that with outdoor spaces, assisting clients with already established landscapes, create an updated look. The key to this is NOT to tear everything out and begin from scratch – instead, it’s a delightful puzzle deciding what should remain and what is best removed and replaced.

I get so much satisfaction helping people create an attractive landscape, and even more when I get to see them several months later once the plants have a chance to begin to grow. Last week, I was invited to re-visit a new landscape that I designed, exactly one year after it was completed and was very pleased with the results.

I’d love to show you photos of the finished product, but first, let’s look at what I had to work with.

As you can see, the interior of the house was also undergoing renovation when I first visited. The front yard consisted of two palm tree stumps, a few agave, overgrown gold lantana, and boulders.

The landscape rock was thinning and mixed in with the river rock while the asphalt from the street was crumbling away.

The parts of the landscape that I felt could be reused were the boulders and the gold lantana. Also, the river rock could be re-purposed. All of the rest was removed.

To create the structure for the new landscape elements, additional boulders were added, and the existing contouring was enhanced by elevating the height of the mound and a swale in the front center. The circular collection of rip-rap rock serves to mask the opening of the end of a french drain which helps to channel water from the patio.

A saguaro cactus and totem pole ‘Monstrose’ (Lophocereus schottii ‘Monstrose’) were placed for vertical interest and the gold lantana that were already present were pruned back severely to rejuvenate them and others were added to create visual continuity. Along with the cactuses, other succulents like artichoke agave (Agave parrying var. truncata) and gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa) were incorporated to add texture with their unique shapes.

The existing river rock was removed, washed off and replaced along with the crumbling edge of the street, helping it to blend with the natural curves of the landscape.

Anchoring the corners with a grouping of plants is a very simple way to enhance the curb appeal of a home. This collection of volunteer agave and old palm tree stumps weren’t doing this area any favors.

This corner was built up slightly, creating a gentle rise in elevation. A large boulder joined the existing one, and a beautiful, specimen artichoke agave was transplanted here from the owner’s previous residence. Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) will add year-round color as they fill in. ‘Blue Elf’ aloe were planted to add a welcome splash of color in winter and spring when they flower.

Moving into the front courtyard, the corner was filled with an overgrown rosemary shrub. The dwarf oleander shrubs were also taken out as they were too large for the smaller scale of this area.

Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus) helps to anchor the corner and will grow at a moderate rate, adding more height as it grows.

Year-round color is assured with angelita daisies and ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, which won’t outgrow this area.

Moving toward the front entry, this area is somewhat underwhelming. The natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) adds a pleasant green backdrop and is thriving in the shade, so should stay. However, the Dasylirion succulent should never have been planted here as it needs full sun to look its best.

The solution in this area is quite simple. Pruning back the natal plum to a more attractive shape makes them an asset. A lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) adds height and texture contrast and will grow in the bright shade. We kept the trailing purple lantana (Lantana montevidensis), for the color that it provides. Rip rap rock was placed to add some interest at the ground level.

Moving toward the backyard, another old rosemary shrub was removed from the corner in the background and replaced with ‘Blue Elf’ aloe and angelita daisy, repeating the same planting from the corner area in the courtyard, helping to tie these separate areas together.

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) were added along the shady side of the house where their spiky shape creates interesting shapes. The key to keeping them attractive is to remove new growth around the base as it occurs.

The corner of the backyard is a very high-profile spot and faces the golf course. The homeowner’s wanted to get rid of the dwarf oleander hedge to improve their view. Clumps of agave look slightly unkempt as volunteer agave were allowed to remain and grow. The gold lantana does add ornamental value as does the small ‘Firesticks’ (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’) and can be reused.

One of the clumps of agave was removed, which opened up this area and allowed us to add two aloe vera, which will decorate this corner with yellow blooms in winter and spring. The existing gold lantana provides beautiful color spring through fall. The centerpiece of this group of plants is the water feature.

It’s been over 20 years that I’ve been doing this, and I never get tired of seeing the transformation. I love being a part of it and combining the old with the new for a seamless design.

Thank you for allowing me to share this particular project with you!

Leafy green plants make great window coverings

Leafy green plants make great window coverings

Do you have windows that face outward toward a view that you would rather not see?  Perhaps it is the view of the house next door or a bare wall, or maybe you need some protection from the sun. To solve this problem, have you ever considered using plants in place of curtains?

In my garden, I have east-facing windows, which heat up the house early in the day. When our home was being built, I designed the landscape so that there were plants placed in front of those windows. 

Why would I put plants in front of these windows you may wonder? Well, I needed some sort of shelter from the sun, but I didn’t want curtains that would block my view of the garden, so I chose to add Mexican bird-of-paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana). This yellow-flowering shrub can be pruned into a small tree, which is what I have done, which still allows me to view the garden beyond, while providing some protection from the sun’s rays.

A few years ago, I was working with a client who was an interior designer who had employed this same strategy for adding beauty while shielding her windows from the sun. She had decided that instead of curtains for her windows, that she wanted ‘natural, green’ window coverings.

This is the view from her living room where the lush green foliage from the ‘Orange Jubilee’ create interesting shadows inside and she is able to enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by beautiful plants, even while indoors.

To achieve this, she planted a row of ‘Orange Jubilee’ (Tecoma x ‘Orange Jubilee’) shrubs in front of her windows.
Here is another example of using plants in place of curtains. A single hopbush shrub (Dodonaea viscosa) creates a lovely green screen that protects this west-facing window from the blistering afternoon sun.
Have you ever tried using plants instead of curtains?

I’m back with design notes from the field, where I share observations and recommendations from my work as a landscape consultant. This edition features a new build, metal art, weeds, and shade. I hope that you can pick out helpful tips that you can use in your landscape.

Up first, is a new house that is being constructed in east-central Phoenix. The home that used to stand on this lot was taken down to the foundation and an energy-efficient home is coming up in its place. I was hired by the architect to design a landscape that will fit its clean, modern lines.

Several years ago, I solely worked as a landscape designer, working with homebuilders, creating new landscapes from scratch with a blank palette. Nowadays, as a landscape consultant design is just one aspect of what I do as part of an overall plan within an existing landscape, which also includes maintenance recommendations. Now and then, I create one for new homes, and this one has some fun challenges.

The look the architect wants is simple and uncluttered with room for the new homeowner to add to it if desired. So, I am concentrating on using plants to create a framework. This includes two trees in the front along with two along the west-facing side to provide screening from the road and protection from afternoon sun.

Foundation plants will soften the base of the house while taller shrubs will soften the corners. Ground covers will add low-level interest along with a few agave and cactuses for an accent.

A splash of color will be added by the front entry with the placement of a large, colorful pot filled with an easy to care for succulent.

Often, I am asked for advice on what to do in somewhat unique situations. In this case, the homeowner needed advice for what to do for the wall behind the BBQ, which keeps turning black after grilling. 

I tend to look at problems like this as opportunities for adding more interest to the outdoor space. In this case, I recommended adding garden art in the form of rusted metal botanical panels. There is a local artist in Phoenix who creates metal panels with plant shapes cut out of them. He offers standard pieces but also does custom work. 

The rusted metal garden art will add welcome interest behind the BBQ as well as disguise any blackened area on the wall.

Here is an example of the metal botanical panels from another client’s home, which was where I first encountered the work of this artist. You can learn more about this metal artist here

Weeds will always be a problem in the landscape, like these I saw at a client’s home growing through the patio. The solution to this area is to slowly pour boiling water on weeds growing through the cracks, which will kill them. For travertine, only do this if the stone is sealed. 

To wrap our design notes, here is a landscape where the homeowner wanted to concentrate on plants up close to the house and not add any further out. Now if this front yard didn’t have any trees, the absence of plants would cause it to look barren and washed out. However, the patterns from the branches of the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde add beautiful patterns on the ground, so you can get away with leaving it bare, which draws attention to the lovely shadows of the branches.

I hope you have enjoyed this latest session of design notes. I’ll have more for you in the future.

**Stay tuned for a special announcement that I’ll be making the beginning of September. I’m working on a new project that will enable me to help you even more to create, grow, and maintain a beautiful outdoor space in the desert. I’ve been working on it for a while and am so excited to share it with you soon!

I am a self-professed lover of roses and rejoice whenever I come across rose bushes that are thriving in our hot, arid climate and I also enjoy unexpected discoveries in the garden. On a recent visit to new client’s home, I came upon a hidden rose garden in the desert. 

As I walked up to the front door, I was preparing for my consultation with her and noted that her front landscape had a nice framework in place with mature plants.

Upon walking into the backyard, I was greeted by expansive views of the desert, dotted with palo verde trees and saguaro cacti. Like the front, the landscape had good bones but, needed some attention to the subtler points, such as adding color.

After discussing my recommendations for the backyard, we started toward the large side garden, when I caught a glimpse of the owner’s pride and joy – her rose garden.

I experienced pure joy when I saw this lovely garden, filled with colorful roses that were happily growing in a desert landscape. Groups of roses were planted in beds, with amended soil and edged with rocks that created a natural look.

The owner inherited these roses, and she has put her green thumb to good use, but there are other factors that affect her success with roses. 

Tropicana Rose

First, the roses are located in designated beds, with amended soil, such as compost and steer manure. Second, and perhaps most importantly for a desert garden, they are located in an area that has filtered sunlight. While roses can grow in full sun, they can struggle in the summer, and appreciate some relief. Third, she feeds her roses in spring and fall with a rose fertilizer.

Although I lean toward using plants that look great with little fuss, I make an exception for roses. I have grown roses for over 25 years, and now I’m testing new roses for rose growers to see how they do in a low desert garden. 

I firmly believe that if a specific type of plant brings you joy, then it’s worth a bit of extra work, like roses.

As I stood in my client’s rose garden, I looked out onto the saguaro forest that stood outside her backyard wall and was struck at how beautiful this colorful oasis stood in stark contrast with its surroundings.

Growing roses in the desert doesn’t have to be difficult, but there are factors that affect your success. I’ve compiled my rose-growing posts into a single list, which you can access here

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Cereus cactus, golden barrel cactus, and firecracker penstemon

Is your outdoor space looking rather drab? If so, you aren’t alone – many landscapes can appear somewhat dull, especially if there is a lack of color. But, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

One of my favorite aspects of my job as a landscape consultant is to help my clients to transform their garden from drab to colorful and it is quite easy to do. 

I invite you to join me as I revisit with a client two-years after I created a planting plan for her existing, lackluster landscape. 

BEFORE – Corner of Driveway

Initially, this area did little to add to the curb appeal of the home. Overgrown red yucca plants and a cholla cactus created a ‘messy’ and boring look to this high-profile spot in the landscape.

AFTER

Removing the old plants and adding angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) and gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa), creates colorful interest while adding texture. Before, the boulders were hidden behind the overgrown plants, so now they serve as an excellent backdrop for the new additions. 

 

The corners of the driveway are one of the most viewed spots in the landscape and are often the first part people see when they drive by. It’s important to anchor them visually with plants that look great all year and preferably produce colorful flowers or have an attractive shape or color. I always like to add boulders to help anchor both corners as well.

These areas are also critical in that they create symmetry, connecting both sides of the landscape, which is done by using the same types of plants on each side.

 

Although there is no ‘before’ photo for the entry, here is an example of plants that will add year-round color because of their overlapping bloom seasons. ‘Blue Elf’ aloe blooms in winter and on into early spring while ‘New Gold Mound’ lantana will flower spring through fall, as the aloe fades into the background. A ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) brings a nice vertical element to this spot and will grow taller with age.

BEFORE

Along the front entry path, a tall cereus (Cereus peruvianus) cactus adds a welcome vertical element while the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) creates excellent texture contrast. However, something is missing in this area, in my opinion.

AFTER

A colorful element was what was missing in this area. A single firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) adds beauty while also attracting hummingbirds.

BEFORE

On the corner of this lot was a palo brea tree with a large desert spoon and turpentine bushes. Overall, there was nothing exciting in this spot.

AFTER

The turpentine bushes were removed to make way for a set of gopher plants, which served to tie in this corner of the garden with the areas next to the driveway. These succulents flower in spring and add nice spiky texture throughout the rest of the year.

Purple and white trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) serve to create a colorful carpet throughout the warm months of the year. This type of lantana can struggle in full sun in the middle of summer in the low-desert garden but, thrive underneath the filtered shade of a palo verde tree.

When working with an existing landscape, I relish the challenge of determining what existing plants still add beauty to the outdoor space, or have the potential to if pruned correctly. Sometimes an ugly, overgrown shrub can be transformed into something beautiful if pruned back severely. Often, it’s up to me to decide what goes and what stays. Then, the real fun part begins, which is selecting what areas need new plants and what ones will work best.

I find that many people think that to renovate a landscape, you need to get rid of most of the plants and put in a lot of new ones. But, this is rarely the case. All you need to do is keep the plants that will continue to add to the curb appeal or create a beautiful, mature backdrop for new plants and new plants should be concentrated in high-profile areas where their impact will be maximized.

What would you like to get rid of in your landscape and what would you keep?

Noelle Johnson, AKA, ‘AZ Plant Lady’ is a horticulturist, landscape consultant, and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. While writing and speaking on a variety of gardening topics keeps her busy, you’ll often find her outside planting vegetables, picking fruit from her trees, or testing the newest drought-tolerant plants. 

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November is a very busy time in the low-desert garden. Cooler temperatures make this best time of year to add plants and as a result, my phone begins to ring off the hook. Many of my clients have established landscapes that they are looking to do some tweaking to the landscape.

This usually consists of identifying what existing plants still add beauty to the landscape, or background structure, from a design standpoint, and then removing those that don’t. New plants are then added that will compliment the older ones.

One easy tip for creating a newer look to the desert landscape is to clean out river rock washes. While it is labor intensive, the process is quite simple. All you need to do is remove all the rocks, wash them off with water from the hose and put them back.

I must admit that I love working outdoors this time of year when the weather is simply lovely.

Here is a colorful surprise that I discovered while visiting a client last month. ‘Loretta’ is an eye-catching piece of garden art and I love her pink arms. She was purchased in San Francisco and is made up of parts from an old bike.

On another note, my grandson, Eric, decided to put on some ‘face cream’. The only problem? It was diaper cream! I think that all of us probably have a story like this one…

I hope that you are enjoying the fall season – I know that I am.

 

 

One of the best things about having a garden in the desert southwest is our ability to grow citrus of all kinds. Lemon trees are a popular fruit tree and I am often asked what type of lemon do I recommend. 

 

There are different types of lemons but the one that is my favorite isn’t a ‘true’ lemon tree at all. It’s a Meyer lemon, which is a cross between an orange tree and a lemon tree. 

The result is a fruit that tastes sweeter than your typical lemon and has a lovely thin, smooth skin. Meyer lemons are suitable for use in the same ways that other lemons are, but you can use them in additional ways as well due to their sweeter nature.

I recently shared the reasons why you should plant a Meyer lemon tree in one of my latest articles for Houzz.

Have you ever grown a Meyer lemon tree?

 

 

Nasturtiums are always present in my cool-season vegetable garden.

I enjoy taking a stroll in my back garden in the morning before getting to work. It helps me to start the day with a feeling of peace as I stop to admire a new flower or the vibrant greens creating lovely contrasts of color with the more gray/greens of my flowering shrubs.

Today’s post is all about you. There are two things that I have been asked to do by several of you.

First and foremost, I receive a lot of gardening questions via my inbox and my Facebook page, which I do my best to answer.

Several of you have asked me to do a Q & A session where I take questions and provide answers. So, I am asking you if any of you would be interested in this. It would be done through Facebook Live, where you can view it ‘live’ at a preset day and time and I’ll answer your answers in real time. If you can’t watch it live, you can watch it when it suits you. *If you cannot watch it live, you can send me your questions ahead of time and I’ll answer them during the session.

Would any of you be interested in this? If so, please let me know in the comments section and if enough people express interest, I will schedule a live Q & A session.

Salvia splendens with ‘Meerlo’ lavender/

The second item that I’d like to address are the requests to see more of my garden. I’ve hesitated to do this in the past, other than glimpses here and there, as my garden isn’t perfect. But, then I realized that ‘perfect’ gardens can inspire stress in those that view them as they feel pressure to emulate that perfection, which in all reality, probably takes a lot of work from landscape professionals.

So, I have decided to create a video of my entire garden, which is a work in progress but should be posted later this week.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on both of these things.  I hope your week is off to a great start!

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.

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 😉

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is assisting my clients with their landscape dilemmas.  Often, the solution is much simpler than the client imagined.  Last fall, I visited this home which had a large, shallow depression that wass 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.

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. 

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.

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?  

Landscape No-No

Have you ever driven past a landscape that had some problems with it?  As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, my attention diverts whenever I see ‘Landscape No-No’s’ like this one.

I recently shared the photo of the landscape, above, on my Facebook page and invited people to identify three things wrong with the landscape.  I received a lot of comments including “looks like Versailles by the inept” and “shrubs arranged like funny looking ottomans spread across gravel.”  

It’s important to not that my reasons for showing examples like this aren’t to shame the homeowners. Instead, my goal is to help others to learn to identify problems and give them easy steps to correct or avoid them in the first place.

So, using this landscape as an example, let’s look at the problems and later, focus on how to solve them:

shrubs pruned the wrong way

1. Shrubs are planted too closely together.  

It’s obvious that there are too many plants in this area and the mature size of the shrubs wasn’t factored in the original design.  The types of flowering shrubs in this area – desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis),  Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), and ‘Green Cloud’ sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) are good choices. The problem is that they are spaced too closely together and pruned the wrong way.

2. Lack of different plant types. 

As you can see, there is a tree, a couple of succulents (prickly pear cactus & yucca), and a LOT of shrubs.  However, the landscape suffers from an overabundance of shrubs.  

3. Incorrectly pruned flowering shrubs. 

These lovely, flowering shrubs have been turned into anonymous, green blobs, lacking in beauty and character.  In fact, you would have to look closely to be able to identify what each shrub is.  The problem has to do with what is missing from this landscape, which are attractive shrubs allowed to grow into their natural shapes, covered in colorful flowers.  Other problems associated with maintaining flowering shrubs this way is that it is stressful for the plant, shortens their lifespan, causes to them to use more water to regrow their leaves, and creates more maintenance.

Now that we have identified the problems, we can now look at the solutions.  I will use the landscape above as my example:

landscape-no-no-badly-pruned-shrubs

  • Remove excess shrubs.  Remove 24 of the existing 32 shrubs so that you are left with eight flowering shrubs.  To decide what shrubs to remove, learn what type of shrub they are and look up how large they are at maturity.  Then, make sure that the ones that remain have enough room to grow.  Shrubs should be places up near the house, to anchor the corners of the landscape, and flank an entry.

 

  • Severely prune back remaining shrubs.  One of the things I love about most shrubs is that they have a ‘restart button’ where much of the damage that has been done due to excessive pruning can be reversed.  Severe renewal pruning entails pruning back shrubs to approximately 1 1/2 feet tall and wide. You’ll have nothing left but woody branches and little to no leaves.  However, this stimulates plants to produce new, healthy growth. This type of pruning should be done in spring.  The key is to keep hedge trimmers away from your newly pruned shrubs forever.  Any pruning should be done using hand pruners, loppers, and pruning saws.  This will work with most shrubs except for a few that were in declining health.

Click here to see how to prune flowering shrubs correctly.

 

  • Incorporate lower-growing plants such as groundcovers and succulents.  A well-designed landscape has plants with varying heights, including those at ground level.  For the landscape above, I’d add a few boulders and plant some gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) and twin-flower agave (Agave geminiflora) alongside them.  Other ideas for low-growing succulents include ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, Moroccan mound, and artichoke agave.  Flowering groundcovers would also look nice like angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), and sandpaper verbena (Glandularia rigida).  I like to use damianita, trailing lantana, and penstemon for color at lower heights.
Texas sage shrub with natural shape

Attractive desert landscape with room for plants to grow

Here is a snapshot of a landscape area at the Desert Botanical Garden where plants have room to grow and are allowed to grow into their natural shape and form.

Transforming the problematic landscape shown earlier, and others like it isn’t difficult, and the results are dramatic.  What you are left with is a beautiful landscape filled with healthy plants that use less water and needs little maintenance.