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.

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.
 
 
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
 
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 in the garden is a time of celebration with plants enjoying the period after the heat of summer has bid goodbye and before the cold of winter arrives. 


This time of year is filled colorful blooming plants decorating our outdoor spaces.  In the past few weeks, the color purple has made its presence known in several gardens that I have visited recently.


If you love the color purple, here are some plants that you may want to include in your garden.

 
Black dalea (Dalea frutescens) saves its flowering for fall when violet flowers appear above its lacy foliage.
 
This Southwestern native is hardy to 15 degrees F. and does best in full sun.  Black dalea is underused in the landscape and deserves to be used more.
 
 
Desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis) is a shrub that I use it often for my client’s designs.  I love that it flowers throughout the year as well as its attractive foliage.
 
A native of Mexico, this shrub does best in full sun to partial shade and is hardy to zone 9 gardens.
 
 
Sometimes, parking lot medians can put on a spectacular show.  This blue ranger (Leucophyllum zygophyllum) begins blooming in summer but saves its best flowering for fall.
 
The gray foliage adds nice color contrast in the garden.  Hardy to 10 degrees, plant in full or reflected sun for maximum flowering.
 
 
One of the most beautiful purple blossoms belongs to the skyflower (Duranta erecta) shrub.  Delicate purple flowers are arrayed on graceful arching stems.
 
Hardy to 20 degrees, skyflower blooms spring through fall.  
 
 
Last week, while I was doing a landscape consultation, my attention was drawn to a beautiful blue potato bush (Lycianthies rantonnetti) blooming in the front yard.
 
 
The vibrant purple flowers contrasted beautifully with the bright green foliage.  This shrub is hardy to zone 9 gardens.
 
 
Finally, let’s look at the generous blooms of purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis).  This lantana groundcover blooms spring through fall and needs very little care other than pruning once or twice a year.
 
Hardy to 20 degrees, this lantana grows in full sun or partial shade.  
 
I hope that you have enjoyed this tour of purple autumn blooms.  
 
What is flowering this fall in your garden?

“Where do you recommend I go to buy plants?” This is one question that I’m often asked, and Tmy answer varies.

The choices that people have for purchasing plants range from a locally owned nursery, a nursery chain, or a big box store.  

So which is best? Well, that depends on the situation. So, I am going to give you my recommendations based on different factors.

Local Nursery
Situation #1:
You have just moved into a new house and want to add some plants, but you have no idea what kind of plants do well in your new region, how to care for them, or what type of exposure is best.
Answer: 
I would highly recommend visiting a locally owned nursery, which employs people who are knowledgeable about plants. Also, the types of plants they carry are most likely well-adapted to the growing conditions of your area as well.  
Local nurseries also sell a greater variety of plants.
 
The mature size of a plant often depends on what climate they are grown in.  So your local nursery professional can tell you how large the plant will become in your zone, what type of exposure it needs along with watering and fertilizer requirements the plant will require.
You will pay a little more at a locally-owned nursery or a small chain, but you will save money due to the excellent advice and the fact that they usually only stock well-adapted plants for the region.

 

Big Box Store Nursery
Situation #2:  
You have a list of plants that you need for your garden, are familiar with the plants that do well where you live and how to care for them. Also, your budget for purchasing new plants is small.
 
Answer:
When you exactly what plants you need and are dealing with a tight budget, you may want to check out your big box store’s nursery
Another important thing is to be familiar the plant’s needs because, while their nursery personnel may be helpful, not all of them are knowledgeable about plants.
 
The biggest benefit for shopping at a big box store’s nursery is that plants are often less expensive than at your local nursery.  Many also offer an excellent plant warranty as well.
 
One important thing to remember about shopping at a big box store nursery is that just because you see a plant there, does not necessarily mean that it will do well in your area.  I have seen quite a few plants available in my local big box store that is sold out of season or very difficult to impossible to grow where I live.
 
So where do I shop for plants?
Well, it depends on several factors.

Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

 
For flowering annuals, I shop at the nearby big box store as it’s hard to beat their variety and amount plants available.
When I need perennials, shrubs, succulents, or trees, you’ll find me at my favorite local nursery. They grow most of their nursery stock, so I know that it is adapted to the climate.

While traveling to areas with similar climates to mine, I take time to see if they have any specialty nurseries and take time to visit.

I do need to confess that my favorite place to find plants is not at a nursery, but at my botanical garden’s seasonal plant sale. They have hard to find plants, and I know that whatever plants I come home with will do well in my garden.

 Regardless of where you shop for your plants, I highly recommend researching plants ahead of time.  

 
Learn how big they get, what type of maintenance they require, watering needs and how it will do where you live.  You can find most of this information easily online by doing a simple search using the plant name + where you live, which will give you links on the plant and how it does in your area.

**Where do you shop for plants?

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The blooming of my desert willow tree (Chilopsis linearis), is beginning to slow down.  The leaves will fall in December.  However, there were a few lovely pink flowers left.

Also, the recent monsoon storms have caused my ‘Rio Bravo’ sage, (Leucophyllum langmaniae), to burst out in flower.

Beautiful, magenta brachts surrounding the tiny, cream-colored flowers on my single bougainvillea shrub.

I also love the multi-colored blooms of my lantana ‘Patriot Desert Sunset.’  They will soon stop blooming for the winter.

The vibrant colors of my red bird-of-paradise, (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) add vibrant color to my garden and nectar for hummingbirds.  


In another month, many of these flowers will no longer be flowering, but until then, I’ll enjoy the view.

This beautiful plant is one of my favorite shrubs in the garden – so much so, that I have three.  Yellow bells produce bell-shaped flowers beginning in spring and lasting through the fall months until the first frost.
 
 Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.  The vibrant green foliage and colorful flowers make this shrub a welcome addition to any desert landscape. 

Yellow Bells is a large shrub that grows to a height of 4 – 8 ft. and spreads 3 – 8 ft. wide.  You can find its native habitat in the Americas.  There are two different types; Tecoma stans angustata and Tecoma stans stans.  Visually, the most significant difference is in the shape of the leaves.  Tecoma stans stans had a broader leaf and are pictured above and below.

USES:

Because of its size, this large shrub makes a great backdrop plant.  I have used it to screen fences, sheds and also planted it up against the house.  Yellow Bells works well as a tall, naturally-shaped hedge.  This shrub thrives in full sun to filtered shade.  They do best in warm-winter areas but can be successful as a summer annual in colder regions.

MAINTENANCE:

This shrub is relatively low-maintenance.  It will freeze back in the winter months when temperatures go below 28 degrees F.  Since it blooms on current season’s growth, all that is required is to prune back the frost damage in early spring.  Seed pods are produced and can be removed if desired, which will extend the bloom period and improve the appearance, (the seed pods do not bother me, and I do not remove mine).   After an initial application of slow-release fertilizer when planting Yellow Bells, I have not needed to fertilize further. 

**Occasionally, caterpillars will appear but can be easily removed by spraying some BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) which is an organic pesticide.

 
 

COMMON NAMES: 

There are many familiar names for these beautiful shrubs.  Tecoma stans angustata is native to the Southwestern US and northern Mexico and goes by the names Arizona yellow bells, yellow bells, and yellow trumpet bush. 
 
Tecoma stans stans are native to Florida, the Caribbean and parts of South America and also goes by the name of yellow bells and sometimes yellow elder.  Because of the overlap of familiar names, be sure to purchase plants based on their scientific name.

The saguaro cactus is one of the most iconic plants of Arizona, (Carnegiea gigantea), it is perhaps the most recognizable trademark of the Sonoran desert with their tall arms reaching toward the sky.

Although, saguaros are only in some regions of the Sonoran desert. The vast majority are found in Arizona and Mexico. They are often found growing on the south side of the mountains due to the warmer air temperatures.
Another iconic Sonoran desert plant is the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with its leaf covered canes topped with brightly colored flowers. Sometimes, people, mistake ocotillo as a type of cactus, but they’re actually a type of shrub.

Ocotillo produces beautiful vermillion blooms that attract hummingbirds and their canes leaf out occasionally in response to humidity and rain.

Do you like hummingbirds?

If so, you may want to make sure that you have some autumn sage (Salvia greggii) growing in your garden – it is a hummingbird magnet.

While red is the most common color of this small shrub, it also comes in other colors including shades of pink, purple, coral and white.

It has has a long bloom period in low desert gardens, beginning in fall and lasting until late spring. When growing in the flat desert, plant it in a filtered shade for best results.  Prune back by 1/2 its size in early March.

 

 
Late August is a time when I usually lightly prune a few of my summer flowering shrubs. 

I just finished pruning my Red Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), taking off about 1/3 of the height. This will help to promote additional flowers in early October.

The key word here is to prune lightly, not severely prune. By pruning carefully at this time, it will help your plants look better throughout the winter months instead of looking messy and overgrown. Light pruning will also enable your plants to produce some new growth before the weather cools down and most plants stop growing.

 

Another plant that this works well for is many of your Lantana species. Lantana often suffers frost damage in the winter (in zones 9 and below) and by pruning lightly, it will minimize the size of the unsightly frost damage in winter.

In general, this method of pruning works well for most summer-flowering shrubs and perennials.