backyard desert garden with fall-blooming plants

Fall is my favorite time of year for two main reasons.

First, it signals the beginning of the holiday season. And yes, I am one of those people who decorate for Christmas early. Thanksgiving dinner at my house is celebrated with a fully decorated tree in the background.

Secondly, fall is a time when my garden comes alive again. I don’t have to tell you that summer is a stressful season for plants. But the lower temperatures of fall bring about changes to your plants.

You may have noticed that your plants look healthier than they did in summer. This is why gardeners in the desert often refer to autumn as our ‘second spring.’

Here are some of the differences you may see in your plants this time of year:

  • Darker foliage has replaced the sun-bleached appearance of some plants due to less intense sunlight.
  • Flowering increases and the blooms may also appear more intense in color due to less intensity from the sun.
  • Some plants only bloom in fall, like black dalea (Dalea frutescens), cascalote (Caesalpinia cacalaco), and my favorite pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).

In the section of my backyard, pictured above, pink muhly and white trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis ‘Alba’) look especially vibrant in fall.

Pink trumpet vine (Podranea ricasoliana) dominates the back corner and blooms in spring and fall. I always know when cooler temps are on their way when they begin to bloom in September.

However, as autumn transitions into winter, the blooms in this area will slow and fade. A few hardy blooms may remain, but overall, the plants will slow down in their growth and flowering. The exception is my angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis) which will bloom off and on through winter.

I invite you to take a walk through your garden and note the changes to your plants. This is a happy time of year in the garden!

I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this one.

We have all likely experienced the death of a plant in our garden, and even though I am a horticulturist, I’m not immune.

Sometimes, plants die in my garden too.

Here is a photo of my recently deceased ‘Blue Bells’ emu bush.

I was surprised to see that it had ‘kicked the bucket’ as its nearby neighbors were flourishing.

So, the question I have to ask myself is, why did it die?

To determine why a plant died, here are some things to ascertain…

  • Was it planted recently? If so, it may not have had enough time to grow enough roots to survive summer.
  • Did it get enough water? Was the drip emitter plugged?
  • Was it planted in the wrong exposure? In other words, did it get too much sun?
  • Does the plant do well in our hot, desert climate?
  • Were there any pest problems, such as ants around the roots or other unwelcome bugs?
  • Are identical plants in your landscape struggling too?
  • Is there a problem with the soil?

Using these questions as guidelines, you’ll likely have the answer to why a plant has died.

However, in my case, the plant was a few years old, always did well, and the ‘Blue Bells’ nearby were thriving.

So, why did it die?

I don’t know…

Sometimes plants die, and we don’t know why. I realize this can be hard to accept without having the answer.

That is what happens in nature – things die, and we don’t always have the answers as to why.

In my particular case, I am replanting a new “Blue Bells” because I know it grows well for me in this spot. I ensured there were no unwelcome bugs in the soil and amended the soil with 1 part compost mixed with 1 part existing soil to give it a little ‘boost.’

I hope my new plant is happy…

succulent plants near a front entry in Arizona garden

Do you enjoy the summer heat?

I’m going record to state that I’m not a huge fan. I prefer to endure the intense heat indoors in the comfort of air-conditioning.

However, the plants in my garden don’t have that option. They are stuck outside no matter how hot it gets.

I always feel sad when I see plants struggle in the heat of summer. If I could bring them indoors to cool off I would 😉. But, let’s face it, that isn’t realistic or really what is best for plants.

For that reason, you will find the plants around my home are fairly heat-tolerant.

If you think that heat-proof plants are boring (and if I’m being honest, some are), many are attractive and beautiful.

One of my clients has a great example of an eye-catching entry that is fuss-free and shrugs off the heat of summer.

Artichoke agave (Agave parryi v. truncata), golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii), and lady’s slipper (Euphorbia lomelii), and yucca create a living sculptural landscape with their unique shapes.

As you can see, you don’t have to settle for a blah garden or one filled with heat-stressed plants. In fact, I loved this example so much that I featured it in my book, “Dry Climate Gardening” which is available for pre-order.

You know that I don’t care for fussy plants – I prefer plants that look great with little effort on my part and this succulent garden is a great example, don’t you agree?

I invite you to take a walk through your garden to see what plants may be stressed from the heat. It may be time for you to switch them out for more heat-tolerant ones.

The dog days of summer…

By the time midpoint of summer heat arrives, I am firmly in ‘summer hibernation’ mode.

While much of the country stays indoors during the cold of winter, we desert dwellers flip that and spend the hottest days of summer safely ensconced indoors in the comfort of A/C.

Of course, cabin fever can hit, making us venture outside of our homes. That’s where summer getaways come into play.

I’m fortunate that there are many spots in Arizona (where I live) that are just a few hours from my house where the summer temperatures are blessedly cooler.

When my husband and I were young, we couldn’t afford to stay overnight in out-of-town destinations. But, we could go for the day. We would pack up our two young daughters and go on day-long adventures to the cool mountains and pack a picnic lunch. Oh, what fun we had!

Nowadays my husband and I travel to cooler spots and spend a few days. One of our favorite places is the town of Bisbee in southeastern Arizona.

There is a lot of history in there and we love to explore while enjoying the cooler temps. The photo above is a part of Bisbee called Lowell, which is preserved in time from the 1950s.

Speaking about the heat, I’ve heard from a number of people in my membership club who are worried about the lack of flowers they see on their shrubs and groundcovers.

Perhaps you have similar worries…

I want to assure you that this is normal in summer – particularly when monsoon rains have been sporadic and not regular.

Intense heat and dryness tend to make flowering plants slow down and a heatwave can burn flowers of certain plants.

Rest assured that they will come back by summer’s end to provide beauty to your outdoor space.

flowering groundcovers and a cactus landscape

Let’s face it…summer can be brutal.

I tend to spend as little time outdoors as possible when temperatures soar above normal ranges. It’s times like this that I praise the inventor of air-conditioning.

While we can escape record-breaking temperatures, our plants can’t.

However, you can create a landscape filled that thrives in the heat by using native or desert-adapted plants. And you know what? Most are very pretty!

Last weekend, I saw a great illustration of this…

Our church recently opened up a new campus, filled with new plants, but many of them were struggling to survive the intense heat. Many were planted native to more tropical climates.

After church, my husband and I headed out to the hospital to visit a loved one. The hospital had just undergone a renovation and brand-new landscape areas surrounded the entrance.

I stopped to take a photo of one of the areas that were doing very well so I could share it with you. Full disclosure: if you hang out with me, be prepared for sudden stops to take pictures of plants.

There were two main reasons that the landscape by the hospital was doing better than the one by the church:

  • The plants by the hospital were better adapted to hot summers – desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), gold lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold’), and Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus).
  • Additionally, these plants had been installed three months earlier than the ones at the church. Yes, plants can technically be added any time of year BUT there are times that should be avoided if at all possible – specifically May and June.

Sometimes you need to add new plants at the wrong time of year due to construction schedules, etc. In that case, I advise the use of shade cloth on a temporary basis for young plants through September IF you see that certain plants are struggling. This is in addition to watering them more often than existing plants in the landscape to help them establish their roots.

Use native or desert-adapted plants (those from other regions with similar weather conditions) to help your garden to be more resilient to hot, dry temperatures and they will need less help from you to beat the heat.

Stay cool friends!

Have you ever found yourself intimidated by fashion magazines filled with beautiful celebrities and models who are then photoshopped to remove every little imperfection? Or perhaps an Instagram account where the home is filled with natural light, dust-free, and no mislaid items anywhere?

I must admit that I don’t like to follow accounts like that as they promote an unrealistic view and leaves me feeling like something is wrong with me when I don’t look perfect and my house doesn’t either.

This type of unreal perfection extends to the garden too! Just between you and me, I’ve been to many gardens that are highlighted on social media and they never look quite as good in person.

Believe it or not, vegetables also fall into this unrealistic realm when shown in magazines and online. Articles filled with photographs of perfectly-sized vegetables without a speck of dirt on them can be intimidating to the average vegetable gardener.

dirty secrets of vegetable gardening

Well, I’m here to tell you the truth and reveal two dirty secrets of vegetable gardening with some assistance from my little helper. 

My granddaughter, Lily

This is my granddaughter Lily who loved to help me in the garden when she was little. She was always a willing helper when it came time to harvest vegetables from my garden.

Toward the end of spring, it was time to harvest the last head of broccoli, pick the carrots, pull the garlic, cut parsley, and harvest the first of our blackberries.

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

This is what our harvest looked like. Not particularly photo-worthy for a magazine or social media, is it? But, this is the reality of what it looks like.

'secret' about vegetable gardening.

If you haven’t guessed the secret about vegetable gardening – it’s that it is DIRTY!

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

Think about it – vegetables grow in the dirt.  They don’t come out clean.  In fact, it can take a while to clean the dirt away.

Lily was excited to help me clean the vegetables, so she would fill her ‘My Little Pony’ cup over and over and pour them over the carrots. 

 harvested vegetables leave

In fact, freshly harvested vegetables leave dirt behind on counters, floors too!

clean garden tools and spotless gloves

And those shiny, clean garden tools and spotless gloves? They don’t exist in a real garden.

Now, here is another secret of vegetable gardening…

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

“Not all the vegetables are the same size and come out unblemished.”

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

Here are four carrots that I harvested from the same garden.  As you can see, they are all different sizes.

The tiny ones, came from an area where I accidentally dropped a small pile of seeds. The large one was a result of an area in the garden that received too much water and the carrot was so big that it broke off as I attempted to pull it out.  

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

Of course, any decent photo would display only the ‘normal-sized’ carrots – but that is not necessarily the truth of what a real garden harvest would look like.

Lily’s Tigger was excited to try some carrots.

crop of garlic

Here is another example. Our crop of garlic was bountiful. But, notice that there are not all uniform sizes.

crop of garlic

While the majority of the garlic harvest is made up of normal-sized garlic heads – there are some very small and some giant heads.

But of course, that is not what you see when people typically show off their garden harvest – especially when they are to be photographed.

– First, only the most attractive vegetables are shown – ones with no blemishes and uniform size. Second, all the dirt is removed. And finally, the decorative dish towels come out for an attractive background.   

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

I have several decorative dish towels that have never seen a dish and I use them when I photograph vegetables, herbs, etc.

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

Here is my ‘perfect’ garlic harvest. What is interesting is what you DON’T see. All of them are nicely shaped, roughly the same size, and most of the dirt is gone. This is NOT what they look like when they come in from the garden.

The Dirty Secret of Vegetable Gardening

So remember that vegetables aren’t perfectly clean, they may have blemishes and come in all sizes and shapes. So, when you harvest vegetables, don’t worry about perfect-looking vegetables. Remember, it’s the taste that matters!

My Secret Vegetable Gardening Tool…

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?

Do you have a front garden or a front yard?

I really don’t like to refer to the front area of a home as a ‘yard’.  

The definition of the word ‘yard’ is “a piece of ground adjoining a building or house.”

Now, while I do have a piece of ground adjoining my house – it is so much more than that.  

The piece of ground is filled with trees, shrubs, perennials, and succulents, which in my opinion makes it not a ‘yard’ BUT a ‘garden’.

So, I thought that I would show you a little of what is growing in my front ‘garden’….

 firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)

This time of year, my firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) is in full bloom, much to the delight of bees and hummingbirds.

This tough perennial blooms January through April in my zone 9a garden. In cooler climates, it will flower in the summer.

white gaura (Gaura lindheimeri)

Underneath the front window, lies a row of white gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), which flowers in spring and fall.  This perennial is hardy to zone 5.

perennials and succulents

Agave are my favorite type of succulent and I have several different types in my garden.

This one is near the front entry and is called artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’).

It is a medium-sized agave and can grow in zones 7 and up.

As you can see, it has produced some offsets (babies, pups, volunteers).  They are attached to the mother plant by a underground stem.

I have taken several of the offsets and replanted them around my garden…

perennials and succulents

This one was planted 2 years ago from the mother plant.

It is easy to take offsets and plant them in other areas in the garden.  I wrote about it a few years ago and you can read it here.

perennials and succulents

In late winter, I am always impatient to see my globe mallow begin to show the first glimpse of color peeking through.

I have several globe mallow plants and each one produces a different-colored flower.  

pink globe mallow

Here is my pink globe mallow.

white flowers

And it’s neighbor, which has white flowers.

perennials and succulents

This globe mallow has vibrant, red flowers and is located on the other side of my front garden.

While I love all of my globe mallow flowers, I think that the pink are my favorite…

perennials and succulents

The most common color of globe mallow is orange.  But, as you can see, there are other colors available.

You can read more about this plant and its flowers in an article I wrote for Houzz.com

perennials and succulents

I mentioned that I had a few different species of agave in my garden.

This is my largest one, which is called octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana).  

perennials and succulents

I raised this agave from a tiny pup (bulbil) from the flowering stem of its mother, who I had grown in a large pot.

This agave has a tropical look with its curvy leaves and does best in areas with filtered or afternoon shade.

Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)

Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae) was named for Queen Victoria.

This smaller agave has a very distinctive look and is highly-desired, which makes it rather expensive.

I was given the largest one in the photo, above, by a client and it has since gone on to produce many babies for me.

perennials and succulents

Some people may think that lantana is overused in the landscape, but I like to put a twist on the traditional lantana.

There is a lantana called ‘Lavender Lace’ that produces both purple and white flowers on the same plant.  BUT, it can be hard to find and is expensive.

So, I create the same look by planting both a purple and a white trailing lantana in the same hole.

perennials and succulents

My favorite types of plants are flowering shrubs and groundcovers.  However, I like the different textures that succulents add to my front garden.

So, I have green desert spoon (Dasylirion acrotriche) on both sides in the front.  This species of desert spoon has a darker-green color then the gray/blue leaves of regular desert spoon.

perennials and succulents

Finally, I’d like to finish with my favorite flowering shrub, Valentine whose red blooms began to appear at Christmas and will last through April.

*********************

I hope you enjoyed this partial tour of my front garden.  I do have trees and other plants growing, but because they are dormant in winter, I will show you them in the future, once they are looking their best.

A 'Painted Lady' butterfly drinking nectar from a lantana.

A ‘Painted Lady’ butterfly drinking nectar from a lantana.

Do you know someone who has a green thumb? Usually, it’s someone with a beautiful garden that stands out among their neighbors with thriving plants that flourish. 

While you may think people with green thumbs are born and not made, I’ll let you in on a BIG secret – behind every green thumb is a trail of many dead plants.

green thumb

It’s true. There isn’t a single experienced gardener who has never had a plant die in their garden. Of course, someone with a green thumb may be hesitant to reveal this fact, and you may not notice because dead or failing plants are usually pulled out before people notice.

green thumb

I’m not exempt from this either – I’ve had many plants die on my watch.

Newly planted 'Blue Bell' (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Newly planted ‘Blue Bell’ (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Believe it or not, the fact that plants die in your garden helps you to become better at growing them. While your first inclination may be to get frustrated about the loss of a plant, look at it as a gardening lesson instead.

“Every dead plant is an opportunity to learn about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future and become a better gardener in the process.”

There are several factors that can affect whether or not a plant does well.  These include the following:

  1. Is it well-adapted to your climate?
  2. Was it planted in the right exposure (sun, filtered sun, or shade)?
  3. Did it receive the proper amount of irrigation?
  4. Was it maintained correctly (pruning, fertilizing)?
New 'Blonde Ambition' (Bouteloua gracilis)

New ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis)

Researching plants before purchasing them will help you to avoid potential problems. But often the best way to learn how a plant will do is to grow them yourself.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to put a shade-loving plant in full sun, or vice versa as you’ll probably be replacing it soon.

As a horticulturist, I experiment in my garden with newer plants that have come onto the market. Several years ago, I planted several ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis) grasses. I had heard a few different tips about how to grow them and the best exposure – one says that filtered sun is a must while another person says it can handle full sun. So, I am trying them out in my front yard to see for myself where they will receive filtered shade until the afternoon when they will be blasted by the sun. UPDATE – they do best in full sun 🙂

*One fun bonus of being a horticulturist is that growers often send plants for free so I can try them and give them feedback about how they grow in a low-desert garden.

A new Parry's penstemon (Penstemon parryi) finds a home next to my gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa).

A new Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) finds a home next to my gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa).

Other things that can affect how new plants will do are nearby plants – specifically trees.

One month later.

One month later.

A tree that creates dense shade will make it difficult for many flowering plants to do anything but grow foliage at the expense of flowers. However, filtered shade from desert natives such as mesquite and palo verde create an ideal environment for many blooming plants that enjoy a little respite from the full sun.

New varieties of autumn sage with the brand new lavender 'Meerlo'.

New varieties of autumn sage with the brand new lavender ‘Meerlo’.

Sometimes, there isn’t much information available on new plant introductions and how they will do in an area with extreme weather such as our hot, dry one.  In this area, a grower sent me plants to see how they would fare in a low desert garden. From past experience, I knew that salvia would need some shade, but the lavender was a mystery. I’ve seen some other species of lavender doing well in full sun while others doing well in filtered shade.

Green Thumb

As you can see, the ‘Meerlo’ lavender did very well in my zone 9 garden even though the actual information on the plant tag states that it does best in zone 8 and below.

This is a lesson that I could have only learned by trying out this plant in my garden. While it could have died, it didn’t and I’ve learned from the experience, which adds to my overall garden knowledge. 

So, the next time you find a dead plant in your garden, see if you can figure out why it died and learn from it. Sometimes plants die when they should be thriving for no apparent reason. Nature isn’t always predictable and sometimes you may have no answers, but you’ll be surprised at what you can learn, and before you know it, your thumb may slowly turn ‘green’.

Fuss-Free Plants for Fall Planting

Wildflowers ,  California bluebells and red flax

California bluebells and red flax

One of spring’s many joys are the fields of wildflowers that we often see growing along the side of the road.  It is one of the many miracles of nature how such lovely flowers can grow in the wild without any help from people.

I find it kind of ironic that if we want to grow these flowers of the wild in our own garden we  have to give them a little assistance to get them going.  But, the preparation is fairly simple and the rewards are definitely well worth the effort.

Wildflowers , Arroyo lupine with white gaura

Arroyo lupine with white gaura

As with many things in the garden, planting begins in advance, and in the case of wildflowers, fall is the best time to sow the seeds for spring bloom.

Wildflowers

I’ve planted wildflower gardens throughout my career, but I’ll never forget my first one.  It was on a golf course and I sowed quite a bit of wildflower seed in that small area – and I mean a LOT of seed.  The wildflowers were growing so thickly together and probably would have looked nicer if I had used less seed and/or thinned them out a little once they started to grow.  But, I loved that little wildflower garden.

If you like wildflowers, how about setting aside some space in your garden to plant your own?

I have shared my tips on creating a wildflower garden in my latest article for Houzz.  I hope you enjoy it.

Plant a Wildflower Garden in Fall for Spring Blossoms

Wildflowers

**Do you have a favorite wildflower?