Landscape No-No

Photo: 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.

Awhile ago, I 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.  Take out 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 shrubs is that quite a few 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 in spring. 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

Photo: 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

Photo: 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.

If you are tired of shapeless shrubs shaped like green blobs, I invite you to learn more about how to prune ‘right’ way in my online Shrub Pruning Workshop.

palo verde tree bougainvillea backyard landscape

Do you have parts of your backyard landscape that you would like to change? 

Perhaps you have areas you like, but there are plants you are tired of or are struggling with.

I want to show you what I did in my backyard, where I blended both old and new elements.

First, a little history:

I was fairly happy with with the areas bordering the walls of the backyard. They are filled with colorful shrubs such as Bougainvillea, Coral Fountain, and Yellow Bells.

However, the center of my backyard space was dominated by a large lawn, which we had removed last year.

The decision to replace the grass was made with a focus on plants that I love and would blend well with the existing plants.

The focal point is a new flagstone seating area with Adirondack chairs arranged around a portable firepit. Around this area, boulders add height and texture. Angelita Daisy, Artichoke Agave, Blackfoot Daisy, and Pink Muhly grasses surround the seating area, which adds year-round color and texture.

In another area, a gentle mound stands planted with a ‘Bubba’ Desert Willow tree. Purple Trailing Lantana grows around the tree and will soon cover the entire mound in a mass of purple blooms.

At this point, the new plants are still rather small. However, plants grow quickly in the desert climate and, in another year, will soon reach their mature size.

The result? A backyard landscape where the new and old will blend seamlessly together.

I must admit that I am delighted with how it turned out. It took me a long time to decide what to do with this area – it is so much easier to design someone else’s yard than your own.

I look forward to seeing it evolve and promise to share it with you 🙂

Progress! One-Year Post Desert Landscape Renovation

bougainvillea is beautiful

Do you love the beauty of bougainvillea? Many of us will agree that bougainvillea is beautiful, but many homeowners hesitate to grow them for a variety of reasons. The most common that I hear is that they get too big and as a result, too messy.

While both statements are certainly true, wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy the beauty of bougainvillea while minimizing its size and messiness?

Grow Bougainvillea in Pot

Let’s face it; summers in the desert can be brutal and bougainvillea are one of the lush green, flowering shrubs that thrive in intense heat and sun. So, why not consider adding one in a high-profile area where you can enjoy their beauty throughout the warm season?

Grab my FREE guide for Fuss-Free Plants that thrive in a hot, dry climate!

Growing bougainvillea in pots limits their overall size, and with smaller shrubs, there is less mess. It also makes it easier to protect them from frost damage in winter by moving the container to a sheltered location, such as underneath a patio or covering them with a sheet.

container plants

Bougainvillea make excellent container plants. In fact, many gardeners who live in cold climates, only grow them in pots and move them indoors in winter. I met a gardener in Austin, Texas who treats bougainvillea like an annual plant, planting a new one every year to replace the old one lost to winter cold. Thankfully, we don’t need to do add a new one every year.

Growing bougainvillea in pots

Growing bougainvillea in pots is easy to do. Select a location in full sun where it will promote the most bloom. Bougainvillea are one of the few flowering plants that can handle west-facing exposures. 

grow bougainvillea

Provide support for them to grow upward if desired. You can also grow bougainvillea as more of a compact shrub form if you wish.

Water deeply and allow the top 2 inches to dry out before watering again. Bougainvillea does best when the soil is allowed to dry out between watering.

container gardening

Apply a slow-release fertilizer in spring, after the danger of frost is passed. You’ll want to reapply fertilizer every three months until September.

Growing bougainvillea in pots keeps them small enough to make it feasible to cover them when freezing temperatures occur.    

So, if you like container gardening, consider growing bougainvillea in a pot.

Creative Container Gardening Tips

Desert Garden heat with little fuss.

Let’s face it. Hot summers are not surprising to desert dwellers. In fact, a typical desert garden with native and desert-adapted plants will weather intense heat with little fuss.

However, this summer has been one for the books and I’ve seen signs of heat-stress that I’ve never seen before. And yes, within my own garden.

Desert Garden heat-stressed Rock Penstemon and Golden Barrel Cactus

Heat-stressed Rock Penstemon and Golden Barrel Cactus

I must admit that it’s been hard to see certain plants struggling in my desert garden and I know you may have similar feelings. So, why has this summer been so much more difficult than others?

Pink Trumpet Vine partially defoliated due to the heat in desert garden

Pink Trumpet Vine partially defoliated due to the heat

While it is normal to have several days above 110 degrees F., the summer of 2020 is one for the record books. We have experienced not just a couple of stretches of above-normal temps but, several long spans of infernal heat. Damage to plants is often cumulative. This means that the more days of above-average (or below-average) temperatures – the higher incidence of reaction from plants.

Take a walk outside in your garden. You will likely notice some plants that are yellowing, wilting, or have given up and died. However, you may also note that there are some that are doing well.

Why is that? Let me show you some examples from my own garden – the good AND the ugly.

Let’s start with the ugly:

New Mexican Fence Post cactus transplants desert garden

New Mexican Fence Post cactus transplants

In March, much of my backyard was renovated. This included the addition of two separate plantings of Mexican Fence Post cacti. They are located along my back wall and as you can see, one is doing very well while the other makes me cringe when I see the yellowing.

Does the yellowing cactus need more or less water? No. Many succulents yellow in response to summer heat. Of course, this very hot summer has made it more severe. So, why the difference between the two?

The one on the left gets filtered shade in the afternoon from a nearby Palo Verde tree. You can tell that the one on the right doesn’t get any shade but full afternoon sun. In a normal summer, it would be normal to see some yellowing that will return to green once temperatures cool. I am hopeful that will happen. As plants age, they tend to handle heat stress better and as these are young, the stress was especially severe.

Signs of heat stress desert garden

Signs of heat stress

In another area of my garden, I have Green Desert Spoon and Hardy Spineless Prickly Pear, which are very heat-adapted. Yet, they do show signs of mild heat-stress that I haven’t seen before. But, they will green back up in fall. Other plants that are struggling include Artichoke Agave, Gopher Plant, and Shrubby Germander.

I am thrilled that my young Desert Willow tree in this photo is thriving despite the heat. I have four others scattered throughout my landscape and all are doing just as well.

Here are some of the good:

Young Baja Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis) doing very well in desert garden

Young Baja Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis) doing very well. The neighbor’s Dwarf Myrtle isn’t.

'Sparky' Tecoma shrub (Tecoma 'Sparky') in desert garden

‘Sparky’ Tecoma shrub (Tecoma ‘Sparky’)

Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Will soon burst forth in burgundy plumes in fall

Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Will soon burst forth in burgundy plumes in fall.

Gold Lantana in full sun all day in desert garden

Gold Lantana in full sun all day

Feathery Cassia, Purple Trailing Lantana, and Yellow Bell shrubs are also doing well.

Here are a couple of exceptional performers that get full, reflected sun:

'Rio Bravo' Texas Sage in desert garden

‘Rio Bravo’ Texas Sage

Bougainvillea in desert garden

Bougainvillea

There are still six weeks of summer heat ahead of us. So, what should we do for now?

  1. Be sure plants are receiving enough water. You may need to increase the frequency when temps are above 110 degrees.
  2. Don’t fertilize. Feeding plants simply makes them work harder to produce new growth when all they are trying to do is deal with the heat.
  3. Don’t prune away heat-damaged growth until September. While brown leaves are ugly, they are protecting the interior of the plant. Some pruning is recommended in mid-September, which I teach in my Shrub Pruning Workshop.
garden in the desert with small tree and plants

We don’t know if this summer will be an anomaly or the beginning of a new normal. But, instead of throwing in the towel, I invite you to do the following instead:

Take a stroll through your garden and take note of which plants are doing well and those that aren’t. If this is to be the new norm, it would be a good idea to add more of those that handle the heat well.

desert garden

I am not going to make any major changes in my own garden. Most of my plants have done just fine in past summers. I’ll replace the few plants that died but am hopeful that next summer will be one with average temperatures. If not, then I know what plants have withstood the heat best.

Before we know it, fall will be here, and I for one, can’t wait!

Gorgeous Germander for Desert Gardens

Roses Feeling The Heat

Photo: Roses Feeling The Heat , My Abraham Darby shrub rose and my little dog, Tobey.

If you live in a hot arid climate, chances are that your roses are feeling the heat and aren’t looking their best right now. While gardeners in cooler climates celebrate summer with beautiful rose blooms, the opposite is true for those of us who live in the desert.

Surprisingly, roses actually grow quite well in hot, southwestern zones, and even though mine look somewhat sunburned – I’m not worried because this is normal.  

You see, roses that are grown in the low desert regions, don’t like the intense sun and heat that summer brings. As a result, the flowers become smaller, and the petals burn in the sun and turn crispy.  By July, you are unlikely to see any new roses appearing until Fall.

Roses Feeling The Heat

The rose blooms aren’t the only parts of the roses affected by the summer heat – the leaves can become sunburn.  

The sight of brown crispy petals and leaves may make you want to prune them away, but don’t.    

Why?

Pruning will stimulate new growth that will be even more susceptible to sunburn damage.  Second, the older branches and leaves will help to shade the growth underneath the sun.  

I know that it is very hard not to prune away the brown leaves – I feel you. However, in September, pull out your pruning shears and prune back your rose bushes by 1/3. This removes the sun-damaged flowers and leaves, and stimulates new growth. 

Roses Feeling The Heat

If you lament the less than stellar appearance of your summer roses and feel that it’s easier to grow roses in other climates, you would be wrong. 

Oh, certainly, we have to deal with our roses not looking great in the summer.  But, compare that with gardeners in other regions who have to deal with the dreaded Japanese beetle that shows up every summer and eats their roses. Or, people who live in more humid climates and are having to deal with severe cases of blackspot or powdery mildew (white spots on the leaves).    

Lastly – we are fortunate to enjoy two separate bloom seasons for our roses.  In fall, when many other gardeners are putting their roses to bed for the winter, ours are getting ready to bloom a second time that year.

Roses Feeling The Heat

And so, I will ignore my less than beautiful roses this summer, because I know that they will look fantastic this fall 🙂

Two New Roses Find a Home in a Desert Garden

locally owned Plant Nursery

“Where do you recommend I go to buy plants?” This is one question that I’m often asked by desert dwellers.

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 Plant Nursery

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

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 from plant nursery

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.

bought from plant nursery

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.

5 Tips for Choosing Plants From the Nursery

self-planted bouquet

Have you ever had the experience of receiving an unexpected self-planted bouquet?

I’ve been blessed to have gotten bouquets throughout my life from my wonderful husband, my children, and in the past – from a boyfriend or two.

But recently, I was presented with a bouquet from an unlikely source.

self-planted bouquet

If you look up the definition of the word, ‘bouquet’, it states “an attractively arranged bunch of flowers, especially one presented as a gift or carried at a ceremony.”

This spring, I was delighted to see that my garden had presented me with an unexpected bunch of flowers – in other words, a bouquet.

This area in my front garden has a lovely Sandpaper Verbena (Glandularia rigida), which is a ground cover with vibrant purple flowers. It blooms spring through fall and thrives in full sun.

I planted the Sandpaper Verbena, however, I didn’t add the other flowers in this area.

Last year, I noticed the white flowers of Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) growing up in the middle of the Verbena. It came from a seed from a nearby plant that alighted in this area and grew in the presence of irrigation.

I liked the look and as the plants were doing well together, I left them to their own devices.

Well evidently, someone else wanted to join the party. Enter, Angelita Daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) that came up on its own. I have several throughout the landscape and they do self-seed sometimes.

I absolutely adore colorful plants and I must say, I am so happy with this bouquet growing in my garden. As long as they play nice and one doesn’t try to take over the other, they can remain.

Who knows who will show up in my living bouquet next year?

mesquite tree Branches

Have you ever paused in the shade of a mesquite tree (Prosopis spp.) and noticed that its branches grow every which way? 

I was reminded of this when I was visiting a client earlier this week and was advising him on how to care for his mesquite tree. I looked up and saw a cluster of branches growing up, down, sideways, and in curvy pathways.

mesquite tree Branches

Texas Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)

In an ideal situation, mesquite trees resemble the shape of more traditional tree species, as shown above. However, they don’t always turn out this way. 

mesquite tree Branches

Have you ever wondered why mesquite trees grow in such crazy ways?

The answer is quite simple – in nature, mesquites grow as large shrubs. The branches of shrubs grow in all directions, up, down, sideways, etc., and so do mesquites.  

The problem arises when we train them up as trees, and their branches don’t always behave as trees do. Because of this, mesquites that have been pruned into trees, do best being pruned by a professional, particularly when they are young and certain branches are being chosen to remain while others are pruned off.

mesquite tree Branches

Of course, this doesn’t always happen, and you can see the results of bad pruning practices in many places. 

I do love the shade that mesquite trees provide and I must admit that I enjoy a good chuckle when I see the unusual shapes that some mesquite trees have taken.

How about you? Have you ever seen a mesquite tree with crazy branches?

To Do About Aphids

What do you do when you spot aphids on your plants?

Do you reach for the nearest bottle of insecticide? Spray them off with a hose or remove them with your fingers?  

Believe it or not, sometimes the best thing is to do nothing.

So, is this something I learned in school? No. I figured it out by observing the plants in my first garden.

To Do About Aphids

I remembered this early lesson when I passed by a severely pruned oleander shrub in front of my favorite bagel shop.  

To Do About Aphids

The oleanders were growing back nicely. However, there were yellow aphids on the young leaves.

Years ago, my oleander shrubs had an infestation of yellow aphids like this, and I was anxious to get rid of them. Really, this is our first reaction when we see bugs on our plants – we want them gone.

I had several methods at my disposal – insecticidal soap, a strong jet of water or my fingers – all of which, would help get rid of most of the aphids. But, life got in the way, and I didn’t have a chance to get out to treat my shrubs until about ten days later.  

Can you guess what I found?  Not a single aphid.  I didn’t have to do a thing, and the aphids were gone, and my shrubs look great.

So, what happened to the aphids?

When harmful insect pests first appear, it can take a week or two before their natural predators follow. In the case of aphids, lacewing and ladybugs showed up and ate the aphids.  

To Do About Aphids

Plants are tougher than we give them credit for and can handle a certain amount of insect pests without any adverse effects.  

So, when I come back in a couple of weeks to the same bagel shop, I expect to see no aphids in sight and a healthy oleander shrub.

The lesson here is that you don’t need to freak out when you see aphids as the normal cycle of nature will take care of them. However, you can step in to get rid of them if you see adverse effects on plants such as wilting, smaller blooms, or discoloration.

One of my favorite things I do as a landscape consultant is to show my clients newer plant and shrub introductions on the market.

Imagine being the first person on your block with the latest plant that all your neighbors will want to add in their landscape.  

Orange Jubilee shrub

Tecoma x ‘Orange Jubilee’

Many of you may be familiar with the large, orange-flowering shrub Tecoma x ‘Orange Jubilee’. This popular shrub has clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers and a long bloom period. Its large size 8-12-foot height makes it a favorite for screening out a block wall or unfavorable view.

While the flowers and lush foliage are a plus, Orange Jubilee is too large for many smaller areas, which is why this newer shrub is one of my new favorites. 

'Sparky' Tecoma shrub

‘Sparky’ Tecoma is a hybrid that has bi-colored flowers and is named after Arizona State University’s popular mascot due to the coloring. It was created by a horticulturist and professor at ASU.

Sparky shrub

‘Sparky’ is about half the size of ‘Orange Jubilee,’ which makes it suitable for smaller spaces. It has smaller leaves and a slightly more compact growth habit, reaching 4-5 feet tall and wide.

Both types of Tecoma have the same requirements – plant in full sun and prune away frost-damaged growth in March.  ‘Sparky’ is slightly more cold tender than ‘Orange Jubilee’.

new Shrub

I have added three of these lovely shrubs in my front garden. One along my west-facing side wall, and two that flank either side of my large front window. They add beautiful color 9 months a year.

For those of you who are U of A alumni, you can plant one and call it something else. To date, there isn’t any word of a red, white and blue hybrid yet – but, I’ll be sure to let you know if they create one 😉