The vibrant flowers of firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni) add a welcome splash of color during winter and into spring.

People often ask me to post more photographs of my garden on my blog.  I must confess that I am sometimes reluctant to do so as I wonder if they expect a ‘perfect’ garden – one that is meticulously maintained and expertly designed.  

However, I decided that would show you my garden, even if it bursts a few bubbles of what people expect it to look like.  

The yellow flowers of angelita daisy contrast with the cool colors of purple and white trailing lantana. Gopher plants (Euphorbia rigida) are getting ready to produce chartreuse-colored flowers.

The landscape that surrounds my home reflects my love for plants that add beauty without needing much attention from me.  I don’t tend to rake or blow my leaves and the plants are allowed to grow into their natural shapes without much interference from me. 

The fragrant blossoms of feathery cassia (Senna artemisiodes) add visual warmth to the winter landscape.

That is important because I am usually so busy helping others with their landscapes, that I often don’t have enough time to fuss over mine.  Pruning once, or at most, twice a year is my standard of a fuss-free plant.

I love color  throughout all seasons.  So, you are just as likely to find as much color in my winter garden as in the summer.

Green desert spoon (Dasylirion texanum) add spiky texture contrast to the landscape.

As for the design of my garden, horticulturists are by nature, collectors of plants.  This means that we likely to include many different kinds of plants – often more than you would see in a well-designed garden.  

I do enjoy designing landscapes and have done my best in designing my own garden, while incorporating a large variety of plants.  

The leafless canes of an ocotillo will soon leaf out with the arrival of spring.

I’ve always felt that a garden should reflect the owner’s personality while also enhancing the exterior of their home.  Mine shows my love for color and low-maintenance beauty.

What does your garden reveal about you?

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.

Which one would you rather have? Learn how to maintain shrubs the right way in the desert garden in my popular shrub pruning workshop.

 

  • 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:
 
 

 

 

 
I am always on the lookout for great examples of plants in the desert landscape. In my work as a landscape consultant, I drive through countless neighborhoods, which allows me to see lots of ideas.
A few years ago, I drove by a house that had a beautiful Hop Bush shrub (Dodonaea viscosa).  
 
 
This evergreen, drought tolerant shrub does wonderfully in our southwestern climate, and it is a frequent addition to landscapes I design. 
It’s versatility is one of the reasons it is near the top of my favorite shrub list.
  • Hop Bush is a great substitute for Oleander shrubs.
  • They can grow up to 12 feet tall or be maintained at a shorter height – basically you can decide how large it gets.
  • Their height makes them a great choice to screen out an unattractive view in spaces where a tree won’t fit while providing shade for for windows.
  • Hop Bush can be allowed to grow into their natural shape or pruned more formally.

 

 
Native to the Southwest, Hop Bush is quite versatile and relatively fuss-free, especially if maintained by pruning every 6 months or so, as shown above. Here is another example of a hop bush shrub that has been pruned more formally, which it handles well.
 
 
 Of course, you can always let it grow into its more natural form as a large shrub.
 
For more information on hop bush including what its flowers look like and why it’s becoming a popular substitute for oleanders, you can read my earlier blog post – “Drought Tolerant and Beautiful: Hopbush the Alternative to Oleanders.”

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?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take another photo of a landscape I passed by in a neighborhood where I had just finished up a landscape consultation.


Sadly, I often see examples of truly ‘interesting’ or should I say ‘bad’ pruning.  I drove by this landscape and then made a U-turn so that I could take a quick photo…

 
I don’t know about you, but these Texas sage shrubs look like mushrooms, don’t you think?
 
Sadly, pruning these beautiful flowering shrubs this way, robs them of their flowers, increases maintenance, creates dead wood and shortens their life.
 
While there are quite a few shrubs that take well to repeated formal pruning – doing this to flowering shrubs should be avoided.  
 
I must admit that I have seen Texas sage and other flowering shrubs pruned into many different shapes…
 
But, let me be frank – shrubs aren’t meant to be cupcakes, frisbees or gumdrops.
 
How about you?  
 
What interesting shapes have you seen flowering shrubs pruned into?
If you are tired of the time and money it takes to maintain flowering shrubs the ‘wrong’ way. I invite you to join me in my online shrub pruning workshop where I will teach you the right way to prune. Imagine being able to prune with confidence and have a landscape filled with beautiful, flowering shrubs? It’s much easier than you think. 

Many of us are familiar with how over-pruning can take away much of the beauty of flowering shrubs, in addition to contributing to their early death.


But, have you ever wondered what they look on the inside?


I found this ‘ugly’ example alongside the drive-thru of Taco Bell.

 
It isn’t pretty, is it?
 
The side of the ‘Green Cloud’ Texas Sage was sheared away because it was growing over the curb.  
The result of planting the shrub too close.
 
You can see the thin layer of leaves that cover the shrub and the dark, interior where sunlight seldom reaches.  
 
If this resembles your shrub(s), the good news is that you can usually fix them.

Imagine going from the shrub on the left to the one on the right?
 
You can still do this in April for your Cassia (Senna species), Sage (Leucophyllum species), Ruellia, Fairy Duster (Calliandra species) and Lantana shrubs.
I teach you how in my popular online shrub pruning workshop where you’ll learn how to rejuvenate over-pruned shrubs and how to prune them the right way in the future.
Declare your landscape free of shrubs pruned into balls, cupcakes, and squares 🙂

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

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’)
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.
 
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.
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…

New growth appears 3 weeks later
8 weeks after 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.
 
 
**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
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
 

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?  

‘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.
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.
‘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 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
 
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.

Aren’t these shrubs beautiful?

Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)
 
Thunder Cloud Sage (Leucophyllum candidum ‘Thunder Cloud’)
‘Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’)
You would think that the beauty of these shrubs, in flower, would be enough for people to stop pruning them into absurd shapes, but sadly, this is not the case. There is an epidemic of truly horrible pruning that affects not only Texas Sage (Leucophyllum species), but also Cassia (Senna species), Fairy Duster (Calliandra species) and even Oleander.
I dedicated an entire post to the unfortunate shaping of many of these beautiful shrubs into ‘cupcakes’, which you can view here Read The Plant Label Or You Might End Up With Cupcakes. I had not planned on creating a similar post, until last weekend when I was driving along, just minding my own business and I saw an entire line of shrubs pruned like this…
Okay, it should be rather obvious, but I will say it just the same, 
“Do not prune your shrubs into the shape of a ‘frisbee’.
I kept driving and found even more examples of truly awful pruning.  Sadly, all within a 5-minute drive of my house.
I call this ‘pillbox’ pruning.
These Texas Sage & Cassia shrubs were located across the street from the ‘frisbee’ shrubs.
An attempt at creating a ‘sculpture’?
Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)
 A second attempt at creating a sculpture?
 
I have no idea what they were trying to do with these Texas Sage, a sculpture of some sort?  Honestly, when I first saw them, words failed me – I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing and believe me, I have seen a lot of pruning disasters.

Learn how to prune shrubs the right way

 
Now on to some of my favorite ‘cupcake’ examples:
  
    
An entire line of ‘cupcakes’.
‘White Cloud’ Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘White Cloud’) 

 

Do you think they use a ‘level’ to make the tops perfectly flat?
I honestly wouldn’t put it past them.
You can see the dead area on the top, which is caused from this shrub being sheared repeatedly.
 
 This dead growth is caused by lack of sunlight.  Repeated shearing (hedge-trimming) keeps sunlight from reaching the interior of the shrub.  
As a result, branches begin to die.
Well, I had seen enough of really awful pruning and was on my way home and I drove down the street and saw this poor shrub:
 
 Now if you look closely, you can see a light layer of gray-green leaves, which really don’t begin to cover the ugly, dense branching that has been caused by years of repeated shearing.


I actually like topiary, but not when done to a Texas Sage.
Some people prune up their shrubs so that they can clean up the leaves underneath more easily.
Now, I am not against formal pruning, when performed on the right plants.  But, it is not attractive when done on flowering, desert plants and it is also unhealthy for the shrubs themselves and contributes to their early death in many cases.  Add to that the fact that it greatly increases your maintenance costs due to repeated pruning and having to replace them more frequently.
 
Now if you have shrubs that look like any of these pruning disasters, don’t panic! They can be fixed in most cases.
Now, why would anyone want to remove the flower buds from your shrubs by shearing, 
when you can have flowers like this?
So for now, this is the end of horrible pruning examples. If you are tired of seeing beautiful shrubs pruned into unnatural shapes, I invite you to check out my popular online shrub pruning workshop where I will teach you how to maintain flowering shrubs by pruning twice a year or less.