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Valentine bush and feathery cassia

One of the things that I enjoy about living in the Southwest are the beautiful outdoor spaces. In particular, I am struck by the color and beauty in the winter landscape.

Now, for those of you who follow, know that I often take photos of ‘problem’ landscapes I drive by.

Well, not this time!  I was so distracted by the beauty around me that I didn’t notice any landscape mistakes.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and are inspired to create your own!

 
Valentine bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’) is hands down, my favorite shrub.  I love its bright red color, which decorates the landscape from January through April.  Even when not in bloom, the foliage looks lovely.
 
Golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) with their sunny yellow color are a great choice. I use them often in my landscape designs due to their drought tolerance, low maintenance (they need none) and the yellow color they add throughout the year.
 
Large desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) add great contrast with their spiky texture and gray-blue coloring.
 
This is a great pairing of plants that I plan on using in future designs.
 
 
The yellow, fragrant flowers of feathery cassia (Senna artemisioides) are famous for their winter color. Nothing else brightens a dreary winter’s day as much as the color yellow. The silvery foliage of this cassia adds great color contrast and give off a silvery glow on a breezy day.

In the background, you see the pink blooms of pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla). Their uniquely shaped blooms look like a feather duster and hummingbirds find them irresistible. 

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) is a native groundcover that needs little water and provides nice color contrast.

 
This combination was well done but planted too closely together.
 
Against the backdrop of yellow-flowering feathery cassia, a pair of boulders are decorated with blue bells (Eremophila hygrophana). These shrubs have lovely gray foliage and produce purple/blue flowers all year long.  This is a newer plant introduction getting a lot of attention. 
 
A golden barrel cactus offers great contrast along with a pair of agave.
 
 
Here is one of my favorite landscapes in this particular community.  I like the combination of cacti, flowering shrubs, and perennials that create a pleasing landscape.
 
A trio of flowering firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni) easily catches your eye. They are one of my favorite perennials in my own garden and flower January through April in the low desert.
 
 
In another landscape, firecracker penstemon is used as part of a wildflower planting, backed by desert spoon and purple trailing lantana.
 
 
Ornamental grasses add great interest to the winter landscape and pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is one of my favorites. Their burgundy plumes, which appear in fall fade to an attractive wheat color in winter. Soon, they will be pruned back to 3 inches in preparation for a new growth cycle.
 
 
Some landscapes look attractive using a minimum amount of plants.  The key is to use a variety of different plants – not just shrubs or cacti.  In this one, a blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) overlooks a planting of purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) and desert spoon.  While the lantana is frost tender, the canopy of the tree provides it some protection from frost.
 
 
It’s important to anchor the corners in your landscape – particularly those next to the driveway. Here is an example of how to combine plants that look great throughout the year. When warmer temps arrive  ‘New Gold’ lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold’), bursts forth with colorful blooms that last until the first frost. In winter, golden barrel cacti attract the attention and keep you from noticing the frost damaged lantana. 
 
 
This street planting also attracted my attention with the row of little leaf (foothill) palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla) trees, Valentine shrubs and purple trailing lantana. I should note that lantana doesn’t usually flower much in winter, but in mild winters, they do.

An almost leafless mesquite tree stands sentinel over a planting of red-flowering chuparosa (Justicia californica). This shrub has lovely green foliage and tubular flowers that drive hummingbirds crazy with delight.

As you can see, the Southwestern landscape is filled with beauty and color, even in winter.  Unfortunately, many homeowners only use plants that bloom spring through summer. This leaves them with a boring landscape through the winter months for several months. So, celebrate the winter season by adding a few of these cool-season beauties to your garden!

Have you ever taken out an area of grass and added plants in its place?


I have – numerous times.


My past was filled with grass – acres and acres of it, when I worked as a horticulturist for golf courses.  Nothing made me happier then when areas of grass were being removed and I was able to design a new landscape area.


It’s been 8 years since I worked as a staff horticulturist for golf courses, but the past few weeks have found me spending a lot of time back on the golf course.  

Earlier this week, I told you about my most recent project – creating landscape designs for up to 30 acres of former grass area.  Two golf courses, that I have worked with in the past, are removing large areas of turf in favor of a more natural, desert-scape.

The plants that I have chosen are extremely drought-tolerant, need very little maintenance and are native to the deserts of North America.  

Another important criteria for my choices of plants was that I have to had experience growing them myself, either in my own garden or professionally in landscape areas that I have managed.

Here are the plants that I am using in this first area:

Desert Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)

Desert Ruellia is a favorite shrub of mine.  It is incredibly drought-tolerant.  I like to use it as a smaller substitute for Texas sage.

In this first landscape area, I wanted a shrub that could survive with intermittent deep-watering, limited maintenance while still looking attractive.  The purple flowers that appear spring through fall will add color to the area.

Chuparosa (Justicia californica)

This flowering native, will find a place underneath the filtered shade of the large mesquite tree already present.  

Chuparosa explodes with color off an on throughout the year, attracting every hummingbird in the neighborhood.  It does well in full sun or filtered shade.

Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeler)

Succulents are a vital part of the plant palette for all of these new areas.  Their unique colors and shapes add texture to the landscape and contrast well with the more softly-shaped plants.

Desert spoon will be interspersed throughout this first area where its gray color will contrast with the darker greens of the shrubs.

Santa-Rita Purple Prickly Pear (Opuntia santa-rita)

Santa-rita purple prickly pear is also high on my list of favorites.  You just can’t beat the purple coloring that appears toward the tips of gray/blue pads.

Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

Often grown as a annual, Desert Marigold is a short-lived perennial that flowers throughout the year.  

Cold and lack of water don’t bother these tough little perennials.  They require little to no maintenance – but I cut them back severely to 3 inches once a year to improve their appearance and promote more flowering, although you don’t have too.

Whether you or not you are a fan of yellow – it is an important color to include in the garden because the color yellow helps the other colors in the landscape to ‘pop’ and stand out more vividly.

Although short-lived, desert marigold self-seeds, ensuring that they remain a presence wherever they are planted.

Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatoni)

If you are a fan of penstemons, this is one to consider adding to your list.  Firecracker penstemon has a long bloom period in the low-desert.  It starts blooming in late December and continues into spring.  

You can often prolong the bloom period by removing spent flowering stalks, which will promote a second flush of bloom.  I have several of these growing in my own garden – some are 15 years old and still going strong – although that is uncommon.

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea)

I’ll be the first one to admit that this low-growing shrub is not exciting – one may even call it ‘boring’.

But, bursage is seen carpeting the ground throughout the Arizona portion of the Sonoran desert.  Its gray/green foliage serves as an understory plant that helps to tie the separate elements of this ‘natural landscape’ together.

Example of bursage use in a natural desert landscape planting.
The key to keeping bursage attractive is to prune it back severely to 6″ tall and wide every 2 – 3 years in early spring.

So, this is the plant palette for the first of many ‘natural desert landscape areas’.  I do have a few more plants that I will show you as I create designs for the other areas on the golf courses.

Do you grow any of these plants in your garden?

As gardeners, most of us are used to finding surprises in the garden.  Some are welcome and some are not.  Yesterday, as I walked outside in my front garden, I was greeted by the following sight….

Aren’t these flowers just beautiful?  
I would love to share with you the story of how I discovered the plant the produces these very pretty pink flowers…..
Fresh out of college, armed with a degree in horticulture my first job was to manage the landscape areas and trees of a golf course.  On a good day, I would have a couple of crew members along to help as long as there was not too much to do on the golf course.  The golf course itself rested around a desert mountain and the grassed areas actually made up a small part of the golf course.  Landscape areas flanked the golf course while the surrounding hills remained untouched.
 Golf course feature area with Ironwood trees (Olneya tesota), Little Leaf Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla), Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) and Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa).

 Unfortunately, some of the ‘untouched’ desert areas were designated for future homes and were due to be cleared.  Before an area was to be cleared I would venture out with my crew and harvest what cacti and native plants that I could.  We would then replant them around the golf course.  
Much of the native desert in our area is covered by a low-growing shrub known as Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea).  Certain times of the year, it is leafless and ugly.  However in the rainy season, they are covered with sage green leaves that you can see in the photo above.  
It was during the month of April that I glimpsed a spot of pink underneath a particular Bursage.  As I walked closer to it, I found a little cactus, covered in rings of pink flowers.
Known by various names such as Pincushion Cactus or Arizona Fishhook Cactus (Mammillaria grahamii or Mammillaria microcarpa), I was so excited with my discovery.  Armed with a pick, my foreman and I quickly dug it up in order to save it from the coming bulldozers.  We then began to look to see if we could find more of these little cacti in areas soon to be bulldozed.

If it had not been for the fact that they were flowering, it would have been much harder to find them – they only grow to about 6 inches tall at maturity.  But I started seeing glimpses of pink everywhere.  We started walking all over the desert areas slated to be leveled for homes and were able to save countless little cacti.

This is ‘untouched’ desert and part of the Tonto National Forest.
The low shrubby plants are what Bursage looks like before they leaf out.  
The small cacti often hide underneath.

Nowadays, whenever I visit a client whose homes are surrounded by native desert, I often look to see if I can find any of these cacti.  I love to show the homeowner the surprise that lurks beneath their somewhat boring Bursage.

You do have to look closely, especially when they aren’t flowering.
It blends fairly well doesn’t it?  Actually, it is hard to believe that the ugly, leafless Bursage has anything of value underneath.  The cactus is rather boring when not in flower.  But just wait until spring and summer arrive….

Back when I worked at the golf course, my boss gave me permission to take a cluster of little cacti home to plant in my garden.  **Note, this is a protected species and cannot be removed unless on private land with the owner’s permission.  
I planted my Fishhook Cactus over 10 years ago and each year, the clump grows larger and produces more flowers.  


One of my favorite things about my Fishhook Cactus is that it blooms repeatedly in the summer months in response to the rain.  Once it has finished blooming, small, bright red fruits are formed that are edible – they have a tart taste.

One of the common names, Arizona Fishhook Cactus, comes from the fact that their spines are hooked.


My garden has very few cacti and this one is my favorite.  When the day comes that we move from our home, I will dig up my favorite cactus and take it wherever I go 🙂
Young saguaro cactus were peeking out from its bursage nurse plant.

As you walk through the desert, there are many opportunities to view some of the striking cacti and their unique shapes.  What is not initially apparent, are the many examples of plants helping young cacti survive.  However, if you look closely, it is all around you – desert shrubs and trees sheltering growing cacti from the harsh desert climate. 

Young barrel cactus underneath a bursage nurse plant
Despite their tough, prickly appearance, cactus are quite vulnerable.  Of the thousands of seeds that are released by each cactus, only a tiny fraction grow into new cactus plants.  Most would not survive if it were not for “nurse plants.”   These plants provide much-needed protection from the sun, cold temperatures and predators (including humans).  Nurse plants also provide much needed additional moisture for the new cacti.

Mammillaria microcarpa 

It is easy to walk by and not even notice the presence of the small cacti growing underneath nurse plants.  Most of the year, the fishhook cactus (Mammillaria microcarpa), pictured above, are almost impossible to see.  It is only in the spring when they are blooming that you can spot them.

Hedgehog cactus outgrowing it’s bursage nurse plant.

For the smaller cacti species, bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) most often serves as the nurse plant.  It also often serves as the first nurse plant for saguaro cacti.

 
Two young saguaro cacti outgrowing their creosote and bursage nurse plants
 
Creosote (Larrea tridentata), palo verde, mesquite or ironwood trees often serve as the nurse plants for larger species of cacti.  As it grows larger, it requires more water and nutrients from the soil, which leaves little for the nurse plant.  So frequently, the nurse plant will decline and die as you can see from the photo above.

Young buckhorn cholla emerging from its bursage nurse plant.    

So next time you have the opportunity to take a walk in the desert, look around….you will most likely see examples of this unique relationship of plants helping young cactus survive.

I just had to share this photo of my flowering Arizona fishhook cactus(Mammillaria grahamii) also known as (Mammillaria microcarpa).

While walking outside in the garden this morning, I caught a glimpse of pink off in the distance. As I went over to explore further, I noticed my little Arizona fishhook cactus in full bloom. I don’t have many cacti in my garden, but even if I did, this little one would probably still be my favorite. 

Pink crowns of flowers appear off an on throughout the summer months in response to rain much to the delight of native bees.

I found this little cactus growing alongside a large boulder in an area of desert that was getting ready to be graded for a new house. At the time my crew and I were digging up different types of cacti, like barrel cacti and teddy bear cholla, to relocate them around the site out of harm’s way. I received permission to keep this little one.

One of the things that I love about this little cactus is it flowers off and on during the summer months in response to rain or a small amount of water from my garden hose.

Look closely at the spines, you can see where it gets its common name with their fishhook shape.

Believe it or not, I can hold this cactus (carefully) without getting pricked.

During the rest of the year, this small cactus fades into the background and is hard to see.  You can find it growing underneath bursage shrubs throughout the desert.

Do you have a favorite flowering cactus in your garden?