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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.

The holiday season is a time where I try to balance out the preparations for Christmas with time to sit back and enjoy the particular elements that only occur this time of year. On that note, I’m happy to report that I’ve finished shopping for gifts, which are all neatly wrapped underneath the tree or on their way to recipients who live far away. I must admit that I have never finished this early before and it is a bit disconcerting as I keep feeling as if I’m forgetting something important.

 

Last weekend, my mother treated us to an outing to The Nutcracker, by Ballet Arizona and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. 

We arrived a bit early, which gave us the perfect excuse to walk through the downtown area. Years ago, I worked in a tall office building as a landscape designer, but it had been a long time since I had spent any time there.

I was delighted to discover a tall Christmas tree in the center of an ice-skating rink – yes, there is ice-skating in downtown Phoenix.

Walking further on, we saw a unique use of umbrellas as art.

My younger daughters couldn’t figure out why the umbrellas were hanging upside down, but I quite liked the artistic effect.

A row of yellow bell shrubs (Tecoma stans stans) added a welcome splash of lush green and yellow color. While you’ll see them grown as a shrub, here they are pruned into small trees. Underneath is the groundcover yellow dot (Wedelia trilobata).

Once inside the Phoenix Symphony Hall, we admired the colorful Christmas trees. It was all quite festive, and my daughters were excited to watch their first ballet performance.

My mother and daughter, Gracie.

Although Gracie has autism, and many things cause her acute anxiety, she was doing very well as she had always wanted to see The Nutcracker.

 

My sister-in-law, daughters, and me!

There is one thing about the performance that I haven’t mentioned yet. My cousin’s daughter is one of the dancers in this ballet. She is a ‘snowflake’ in Act 1, and a ‘wildflower’ in Act 2.

This is all I can show you of the stage as photos of the performance aren’t allowed.

It was marvelous, and everyone enjoyed themselves. After the performance, we met my cousin’s daughter at the stage door, (Gracie hoped that she would still have her costume on). She was so happy that we had come to see her performance and I was struck by the fact that all the dancing genes in the family went to her (as well as her mother) – I certainly didn’t get any 😉

On our way back to the car, we passed by a striking vertical garden, filled with chuparosa (Justicia californica), octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana), and yucca. Even though the chuparosa was a bit too overgrown, the overall effect was lovely.

Back home, things are rather quiet in the garden, with one exception:

 

 

My Halloween pumpkins that I filled with birdseed are still creating quite a buzz with the neighborhood birds. We have had Alber’s towhees, curved bill thrashers, finches, Inca doves, and sparrows come for a visit. It’s been a real treat watching them out the kitchen window. The pumpkins will probably have to be thrown out in another week, but it’s been nice to find a way to reuse them.

Lastly, we’ve been busy baking cookies for upcoming holiday events as well as to give to friends and neighbors. Snickerdoodles are by far our favorite, and they are so easy to make with ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry.

The recipe I use is an old one. I received it at my wedding shower, back in 1986, from a college friend. It has never failed me and cookies are delicious. I’ve had many requests to share it, so here it is:

*Please feel free to print it out and start your own annual Snickerdoodle cookie tradition.

One of the most difficult places in the landscape to grow plants is in areas that receive full sun as well as reflected heat.

Reflected heat occurs when sidewalks, walls, and patio decks absorb the heat during the day only to  re-radiate that heat back out.

As you can imagine, when you couple the intensity of areas that get full sun AND reflected heat, it can be hard to find plants that can not only survive, but add beauty to these spaces.

Thankfully, there are a number of attractive plants that will thrive in these hot spots.

I recently shared 10 shrubs, in my latest article for Houzz, that can handle full sun as well as reflected heat.


Do you have a plant that you like that does well in full, reflected sun?


**For additional shrub suggestions, I recommend Mary Irish’s book, Trees and Shrubs for the Southwest.





Do you enjoy going out into the garden in summer?


I don’t!


I admit to sometimes neglecting my garden when the temperatures go above the century mark.  My aversion to gardening in a furnace is one of the reasons that I like to use desert-adapted plants that don’t need much attention.



One of my favorite fuss-free plants is chuparosa (Justicia californica).  

It has beautiful red, tubular flowers that decorate the garden in late winter into spring and sporadically throughout the year.  Hummingbirds can’t resist it AND it is drought-tolerant and low-maintenance.

Want to learn more?  Here is my latest plant profile for Houzz:




I have been dreaming of converting our backyard into a beautiful, low-maintenance desert landscape.


Right now, it has a large area of grass surrounded by large, flowering shrubs against the wall.  I would have loved to have taken out the grass years ago, but my husband and son protested since they would throw the football back and forth each evening before dinner.

But, now my son is almost 12 and often throws the football over the wall, so now I have been give permission to at least start thinking of converting the backyard.

Often, on my way home from a landscape consult, I will mentally design my new backyard garden.  I have some concrete ideas, but there is still a lot to be decided.

Whenever I see a landscape area that I like, I stop to take a picture.  I have quite a few pictures that I have taken of landscapes that inspire me.

Here are just a few…

Red flowering Chuparosa, growing underneath native mesquite and foothills palo verde trees.  A hedgehog cactus grows by a large boulder.  Mexican bird-of-paradise, trained as trees are growing in the background.

Goodding’s verbena, chuparosa and brittlebush blooming with creosote bush in the background.

Desert ruellia provides an attractive background for golden barrel cacti.  This area needs to be pruned once every 2 years.

Young palo verde tree with potted artichoke agave.

I am still in the “designing inside my mind” stage, but will soon need to put things down on paper.  I have my drafting supplies ready to go once I am.

Of course, the entire project hinges on having enough money for large containers, big boulders, trees, plants, dirt for mounds and paying someone to rip out our grass.

I would hope to be able to do this next winter, but we will see…

Which one of the landscape areas above do you like best?

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?

Now, the title of this post does NOT apply to me.  My ancestors hail from Northern Europe and so whenever a sunny day beckons me outdoors, you will find me with my hat and my sunscreen.

What this title does refer to are plants that not only thrive in our full desert sun, but those that can even thrive in areas with hot, reflected heat.  Just picture a brick wall, facing west, getting the full force of the sun in the afternoon.  Believe it or not, there are quite a few plants that do quite well in the summer sun and seem to be saying “Bring it On”.

Most people either hate or love Bougainvillea.  If you have a pool – do NOT use this plant as they can be quite messy.  That being said, I do love Bougainvillea and have two planted along the back wall that receives afternoon sun.  They do extremely well and actually flower more when in full sun.
For those who prefer using native plants, Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) provides beautiful yellow flowers in the winter and spring.  Their gray leaves provide a great color contrast to your other plants throughout the year, even when not in flower.
Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), a native from our neighboring Chihuahuan Desert, is a favorite of mine to use in hot, sunny areas.  There are quite a few different Leucophyllum species that come in a variety of leaf colors and offer flowers in shades of purple, pink and white.  They can grow up to 6 ft. high and are great for covering up a large expanse of a brick wall.
Red Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) is a wonderful plant to use in sunny locations.  Red flowers are produced year-round, although the heaviest bloom occurs in the spring and fall months.  They are a great favorite of hummingbirds.
Cassia species are a wonderful export to us from Australia.  There are four different species that are commonly found in our area, but my two favorites are Silvery Senna (Senna phyllodenia) and Desert Senna (Senna artemisioides sturtii)Beautiful flowers appear in winter and last through spring.
It is no surprise to those who have read my blog for any length of time that I would add Globe Mallow Sphaeralcea ambigua) to my list of sun-loving plants.  The shrub above, is located in my front garden and I will soon be planting some seeds along the wall in my back garden, which faces west and receives full sun all afternoon.
Whether you prefer the green or purple leafed Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa), both types will grow upright and produce an evergreen shrub that will thrive in the sun.
 Many succulent plants do well in areas with hot, reflected heat.  But a word of caution – just because a plant is a succulent (stores water in it’s leaves), does NOT mean that it can handle full sun.  However, Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) does very well in the hot sun.


This is one of my favorite succulent plants.  Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is actually not a yucca at all.  But it’s succulent leaves make it look like an ornamental grass.  In spring and summer red flowers start to bloom.


Chuparosa (Justicia californica) can be seen along the roadsides throughout the desert.  They are decorated with orange/red tubular flowers that hummingbirds just love.  If they can thrive out in the open desert, they can do very well in your garden.

I hope this list is helpful to those of you who have an area that receives hot, reflected heat that desperately needs a plant.  By adding a plant to areas such as these – actually help to cool that area down because the plant actually absorbs the sun’s rays and keeps them from heating up the surrounding wall, rock, etc.

**Please stay away from planting plants such as Hibiscus, Roses, Citrus and Heavenly Bamboo in these areas.  They do not do well in areas with hot, reflected heat.  However, all of these plants will do very well in north, south and eastern exposures.

If you are reading a plant label at the nursery to see what type of exposure the plant requires, please keep the following in mind.  Full sun in the desert is quite different from the full sun experienced in other areas of the country.  For example, a Hibiscus shrub that is growing in San Diego, can handle full sun.  However, the intensity of the sun coupled with the heat of desert, will make it difficult for a Hibiscus to handle being planted in a western exposure in Arizona.
And so in closing, I hope this list will prove helpful to you as you search for the right plant for that particular area in your garden.