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Have you noticed that landscapes around parking lots and shopping malls look somewhat lackluster? This is often due to a combination of over-pruning, over-planting, and the wrong plant in the wrong place. 

Sadly, this is so commonplace that a beautifully designed and well-maintained landscape stands out, which is where I found myself recently.

My husband and I went to our local outlet mall to buy some clothes for him, and I hadn’t walked more than a couple of steps when I realized that something was wrong – actually right! The parking lot islands weren’t filled with overcrowded shrubs pruned into round balls and cupcake shapes.

Most of the plants were natives and allowed to grow together and in their natural shapeswhich begs the question, who created a rule that plants can’t touch each other?

Shrubs such as Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia), and chuparosa (Justicia californica), intermingled with ornamental grasses like pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)

I confess that I wasn’t a very helpful shopping companion for my husband as I kept being distracted by the attractive landscaping and stopping to take pictures.

My favorite area was where a fabulous yellow orchid vine (Callaeum macropterum) was growing up a large wall. 

Due to the large scale of the wall, there were likely at least three vines planted together. Yellow orchid vine deserves to be used more in the landscape, yet is rarely seen. 

I find that it does best in morning sun or filtered shade and regular water. Its yellow flowers are lovely and form a papery seed pod that resembles a butterfly. You can learn more about this vine here. While they aren’t a common vine that you’ll find at the nursery, you can usually find them at botanical garden plant sales or your local nursery may be able to order one for you.

If you live in the greater Phoenix area, and want to see some great examples of desert natives and natural landscaping, visit Phoenix Premium Outlets in Chandler. And who knows? You may even find some great deals at your favorite outlet stores.

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.

Most of the time when you walk through a parking lot, you are often greeted by the appearance of islands scattered throughout overplanted with badly maintained shrubs.

Last month, I drove into a parking lot that was quite unusual in that it was planted with attractive succulents and not ugly shrubs.



Instead of shrubs, the medians were planted with beautiful agave specimens.


In addition to different types of agave, were gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) succulents, which added a welcome respite to the crowded and over-pruned shrubs that usually characterize most parking lots.


In addition to the agave and other succulents were  flowering shrubs such as Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), which was allowed to grow into its natural shape.


This parking lot was located in front of a hospital where my husband had an appointment for a routine procedure.  Our walk through the parking lot took twice as long as it would normally take with me pausing every few seconds to take pictures of the plants.


It was so refreshing to see succulents such as these  in parking lot islands instead of struggling shrubs.  They thrive in the hot, reflected heat while needing very little water.

Maybe we should rethink what we plant in parking lot islands and ditch the high-maintenance, thirsty shrubs?
Do you like red-flowering plants?

I do.


Many of the landscape plants in the southwestern landscape tend to be found in shades of purple and yellow.  As a result, I tend to include plants with red flowers whenever I create a design to help balance the purple and yellows in the plant palette.

Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) is one of my favorites because it has such unusual flowers.  

They do look like ‘fairy-dusters’, don’t they?  The unique shape of the flowers is due to the fact that the showy part of each flower is actually a bunch of stamens grouped together – you don’t see the petals.

You can learn more about this beautiful, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance shrub including what zones it will grow in, in my latest plant profile for Houzz

Which red-flowering plants is your favorite?




Do you like spending hours pruning and fertilizing your plants?  Or maybe you are tired of having to spend money on monthly visits from your landscaper.



I have been asked to show some ‘fuss free’ plants for fall planting on Sonoran Living, which is a local lifestyle show on our local Phoenix ABC network. The show will air on September 10th at 9:00. (I must admit that I am a little nervous.  I am off to my favorite nurseries to select some plants for the taping this Sunday, after church).

So, enough about my nerves….

What if you could have a landscape full of beautiful plants that only need pruning once a year and little to no fertilizer? 

Now you may be thinking that I am talking about a landscape full of cactus, like the photo below – but I’m not.  

The key to selecting ‘fuss free’ plants is to choose plants that are adapted to our arid climate.

Here are a few of my favorite ‘fuss free’ plants that need pruning once a year or less…

Firecracker Penstemon

Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatoni) is great addition to any desert landscape.  It’s orange/red flowers appear in late winter and last through the spring.  Hummingbirds find them irresistible.  

Maintenance: Prune off the dead flower spikes in spring.

Hardy to -20 degrees.

Plant in full sun.

Damianita

Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) is a low-growing groundcover that is covered with tiny green leaves.  Masses of golden yellow flowers appear in spring and again in the fall.

Maintenance: Prune back to 6″ in late February.

Hardy to 0 degrees.

Plant in full sun.  Damianita looks great next to boulders or lining a pathway.

Gulf Muhly ‘Regal Mist’

Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’) is a fabulous choice for the landscape.  This ornamental grass is green in spring and then covered in burgundy plumes in the fall.

Maintenance: Prune back to 6 inches in late winter.

Hardy to 0 degrees.

Plant in full sun in groups of 3 to 5.  Gulf Muhly also looks great when planted next to large boulders or around trees.

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) is the perfect plant for areas with filtered shade.  Tubular orange flowers appear off an on throughout the year that attract hummingbirds.

Maintenance: Little to no pruning required.  Prune if needed, in late winter.

Hardy to 15 degrees.

Plant in filtered shade such as that provided by Palo Verde or Mesquite trees.  Add Purple Trailing Lantana in the front for a beautiful color contrast.

Baja Fairy Duster

Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) has truly unique flowers that are shaped like small feather dusters.  The red flowers appear spring through fall and occasionally in winter.

Maintenance: Prune back by 1/2 in late winter, removing any frost damage.  Avoid pruning into ’round’ shapes.  Baja Fairy Duster has a lovely vase-shape when allowed to grow into its natural shape.

Hardy to 20 degrees.

Plant in full sun against a wall.  Baja Fairy Duster can handle locations with hot, reflected heat.

Angelita Daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis formerly, Hymenoxys acaulis) is a little powerhouse in the garden.  Bright yellow flowers appear throughout the entire year.

Maintenance: Clip off the spent flowers every 3 months.

Hardy to -20 degrees.

Plant in full sun in groups of 3 around boulders.  Pair with Firecracker Penstemon for color contrast.  Thrives along walkways in narrow areas that receive full, reflected sun.
These are just a few ‘fuss free’ plants that you can add to your landscape this fall, which is the best time of year to add plants in the Desert Southwest.

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So, I will be heading to the television studio early Tuesday morning with my sister, who will help me set up and take photos of the whole experience.  I promise to share the video link for those of you who would like to watch it 🙂

**For more of my favorite ‘fuss free’ plants, check out my latest post.

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) – December
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.

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Now for those of you who really like the appearance of formally pruned shrubs….

Don’t worry – there is hope.  

There are some types of shrubs that do very well when formally pruned.

But, I’ll leave that for my next post 🙂

Well anyone who knows me well, would definitely have a hard time believing that I actually wrote a title like this one.

For those of you who may not know me personally….I will let you in on a secret – I love getting a good deal and living simply.  My mother (Pastor Farmer) is very good at this as was her mother, so I guess it is in my DNA.  I love shopping sales and coming home with items that normally would have cost much more.

When I quit my full-time job as a landscape designer, we had to make some cuts to our household budget which was a challenge that I actually enjoyed, especially at the grocery store.  My daughter Ruthie is always asking me how much I saved each week at our local grocery store.  I think she is on her way to becoming a saver as well.

I am also a huge proponent on saving money in the garden as well and it is really not difficult to do while still having a beautiful garden.  Now you would expect that the best way to save $ in the garden is by downsizing and you would be partly right.  You can definitely save money by downsizing, but it does not always save you money.
I am going to share with you a great way to add beauty to your garden, decrease your maintenance and save money.  It is really so simple that I hope you are inspired to try this in your own garden.
Okay, are you ready?  All you need to do is to purchase shrubs that will grow to a large size.  You may be asking, is that all?  YES!  
Many shrubs will grow to a large size, which takes up space in the garden.  The more space covered equals fewer plants needed.  Large shrubs also are great at covering up bare walls, hiding pool equipment / air-conditioning units while adding beauty, particularly if you select a flowering shrub.
My Arizona Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans stans) shrub easily grows to 7 ft tall and wide.  Mine covers approximately 30 sq. ft. of area in my garden while providing beautiful flowers 9 months out of the year.  It also helps to cover up my bare wall.
Want more examples?
This is a ‘Torch Glow’ Bougainvillea that I placed along my father-in-law’s back garden wall.  Paired with two others, their unique branching habit along with their bright colors really provided a great focal point.
Now people either love or hate Oleanders (Nerium oleander).  For the average garden, I do NOT recommend planting the large varieties.  But, the dwarf forms of Oleanders do grow to a good size and can reach heights of 6 ft.  Since Oleanders are so easy to grow, many people have them in their gardens.
So, if you would like to include some in your garden, I recommend trying a red flowered variety since most Dwarf Oleanders seen in landscapes are the pink and salmon colors.  (Be aware that all parts of Oleanders are poisonous).
 When you talk to newcomers to the desert southwest, they often ask about the beautiful large shrubs with orange/red flowers are planted along the freeways.  
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) is beautiful in the summer landscape and as you can see, hides a bare wall very well.  Maintenance in my zone 8b area is very simple – just prune back to 1 ft. in January and they will soon grow back to 6 ft. high in the summer months.  **Another helpful tip to help prolong bloom – prune back lightly (by 1/4) in August to extend the bloom period throughout October and early November.
I just love the unique flowers of Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica), so do hummingbirds.  I love both the beauty and low maintenance of these shrubs.  Please do not prune them into ‘balls’…..they are so beautiful in their natural form 🙂
If you prefer more green then flowers, then the following shrubs may be more to your taste….

 
Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa)
 You could easily put 5 small shrubs along with 3 groundcovers in this area….where just 2 Photinia (Photinia fraseri) fit very well in the area above.
 
Many of you may be surprised to find out that many of the shrubs you already have in your own garden can grow quite a bit larger then you let them.  The solution to the problem is quite easy…..stop over pruning them and let them grow.  The alternative is to plant multiple shrubs in a given space and as they grow,  you are forced to keep pruning them back to keep them from crowding each other.
 
Well how about buying a single 1-gallon shrub (you don’t need to spend extra for a 5-gallon) and give it space to grow?  You will be rewarded with more $ in your pocket, a large beautiful shrub and fewer plants to prune and maintain.
Yes, your new 1-gallon Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) will look scrawny – but not for long….
Other suggestions for shrubs that will grow large:
Littleleaf Cordia  (Cordia parvifolia)
Orange Jubilee  (Tecoma x ‘Orange Jubilee’)
 Pink Beauty  (Eremophila laanii)Feathery Cassia  (Senna artemisioides)
Chaparral Sage  (Salvia clevelandii)
 
You may be wondering where my next post on our trip to the east coast will come.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure if they were becoming somewhat boring – especially for those who read my blog for gardening topics.  So, I thought that I had better write a gardening post.  I promise that I will write more about our trip  – our visit to Amish country was just fabulous.
Have a great week everyone!
Summer time brings a riot of color to our desert gardens, which are but a distant memory in December.  However, cooler temperatures do not mean that our gardens have to take a holiday.  In our desert climate, there are many plants that flower reliably in December.  Here are some of my favorites….
Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)
Beautiful flowers and a magnet for hummingbirds.  Need I say more….?
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
The delicate light blue flowers are so beautiful.

Baja Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)
I just love this shrub and it’s pretty purple flowers.  Most blooms are produced in spring, but some flowers are still produced in winter.
Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii)
Reliable bloomer fall through spring.  Hummingbirds will appreciate this small shrub in the garden.
Pink Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
Blooms fall through spring.
Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica)
Flowers year-round.  Slows down in the winter, but continues to flower in protected areas.
 
 Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)
My favorite plant in the garden.
Angelita Daisy (Hymenoxys acaulis)
Year-round bright color.  Heaviest blooming occurs in the spring. 

Valentine (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)
This is what my Valentine looks like in December.  However, peak flowering occurs in February, hence the name ‘Valentine’.
So, just because it is December, it does not mean that you have to resign yourself to a landscape without flowering plants.  Try one or more of these and see the difference a little color in December adds to your desert garden.
 

Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica) is a must-have for the desert garden.  There is so much to love about this shrub.  

 
My favorite attribute is that it flowers off and on all year.  Its red flowers are shaped like miniature feather dusters.  Also, this plant attracts hummingbirds, is low-maintenance, drought tolerant and great by swimming pools because of its low litter.
 
Baja fairy duster has a vibrant red flower, which is often a color missing in the desert plant palette.  The majority of flowering occurs spring through fall, but some flowering can occur in areas that experience mild winters.  
 
It is native to Baja California, Mexico and is also called red fairy duster by some.  It is evergreen to 20 degrees F.  During some unusually cold winters when temperatures dropped into the high teens, I have had some killed to the ground, but they quickly grew back from their roots. 
 

USES: This shrub grows to approximately 4 – 5 ft. High and wide, depending on how much you prune it, so allow plenty of room for it to develop.  

 
It makes a lovely screening shrub, either in front of a wall or blocking pool equipment, etc.  It also serves as a colorful background shrub for smaller perennials such as damianita, blackfoot daisy, Parry’s penstemon, gold or purple lantana and desert marigold.  
 
Baja fairy duster can take full sun and reflected heat but can also grow in light shade.  It is not particular about soil as long as it is well-drained.
  
 Baja fairy duster in the middle of a desert landscape, flanked by desert spoon to the left and ‘Torch Glow’ bougainvillea to the right.  Red yucca is in the foreground.
 
MAINTENANCE:  As I mentioned before, this is a very low-maintenance shrub.  Some people shear this shrub, which I DO NOT recommend.  This removes most of the flowers and takes away from the natural shape of this shrub.  However, it’s size can be controlled with proper pruning.  Pruning should be done in late spring and should be performed with hand-pruners, NOT hedge clippers.
 
Baja fairy duster does require regular irrigation until established but then is relatively drought-tolerant.  However, proper watering is needed for it to look its best and flower regularly, which is what I do.  


Other than adding compost to the planting hole, no other amendments or fertilizer is needed.  Most native desert plants have been adapted to growing in our nutrient deficient soils and do best when left alone in terms of fertilizing.  I tell my clients to fertilize only if the plant shows symptoms of a nutrient deficiency.
 
So, go to your local plant nursery and get some of these beautiful shrubs for your garden.  Then, while you sit and enjoy its beauty, you can debate what you love most about it….the beautiful year-round flowers, the hummingbirds it attracts, it’s low-maintenance, or come up with your reasons.