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The signs that fall is approaching are sometimes so subtle that it is easy to miss them.  But, they are there just the same.


You may notice the lengthening shadows on your way home from work, signaling shorter days.  Or maybe you’ve noticed that you aren’t rushing indoors as quickly as you did earlier this summer.

 
Fall is a time to celebrate the end of hot summer temperatures and what better way to do that than to venture out into the garden again?
 
Before you head out to shop for plants, it’s important to pick the right ones or you may be left with a dead or struggling plant and a thinner wallet. 
Here is my most important piece of advice before you head to the nursery:
 

Research plants before buying.

 
It sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But you would be surprised to learn that most people don’t research plants before they add them to their landscape.  
 
There are three questions you should have the answers to before planting.
online-class-desert-gardening-101

Tired of struggling in the desert garden? Sign up to be notified when I reopen doors of my popular online gardening class!

 

1. Know how large your plant will grow at maturity.

 
Neglecting to get the answer to this question can have unfortunate results.
 
This homeowner had ficus trees planted in the raised bed around their swimming pool.
 
Now, when you look at this picture, you may be wondering why would anyone plant ficus trees in this area.
 
Newly planted ficus tree
 Well, it goes without saying that new plants are much smaller than they will be once they are planted and have a chance to grow.
 
Mature ficus tree.
 
But, once plants are in the ground and begin growing, that small little plant can increase in size exponentially.  In this case, the ficus looks like it is ready to swallow up this house.
 
Over-planted shrubs
Another example of not researching the mature size of plants can be seen in many landscapes throughout the Southwest.  
 
In a nutshell, the small 1 foot tall and wide shrub in the nursery can grow more than 10X its original size.
 

2. Know what exposure the plant does best in.

 
Putting a plant that needs full sun in a shady spot will result in a leggy plant with few leaves and almost no flowers.
 
What a plant that does best in filtered shade looks like when planted in full sun.
 
Conversely, if you place a plant that does best in the filtered shade in an area that gets full, afternoon sun – it will suffer.
 
You will save yourself a lot of time, money and frustration by simply placing plants in the exposure they like.
 

3. What type of maintenance will your plant require?

 
Fuss-free Eremophila ‘Summertime Blue’
 
Some plants need frequent pruning, fertilizing and protection from pests.
 
Others are what I like to call ‘fuss-free’ and need little else besides water.
 
The amount of maintenance a plant needs is largely dependent on whether or not it is native or adapted to your client.
 
 
For example in the Phoenix area where I live, queen palms are very popular.  The problem is, is that they are not particularly well-adapted to our desert climate.
 
In fact, it is rare to see a healthy queen palm growing in the greater Phoenix area.  Frequent applications of palm fertilizer are required to get them to look okay and even then, they will never look as good as those growing in Florida or California.
 
I don’t like to fuss over plants except for a couple of rose bushes in my garden, so I am a strong proponent of using native or adapted plants that need little pruning, no fertilizer and aren’t bothered by insect pests.
 
Now we know three important questions to get answered before selecting plants for your garden.
 
So, where can you go for the answers to these questions?
 
There are a few different places you can go to find out these as well as other questions.
 
Master gardeners are an invaluable resource and their job is to help people learn how to grow plants successfully. You can call them, email your questions or stop by and talk to them in person.
 
Take some time to visit your local botanical garden. Write down which plants you like, or snap a photo of them with your phone. Note how large they are and what type of exposure they are growing in.
 

Have you ever moved to a new area with no clue what type of plants you have or how to care for them?  Well, your plight isn’t unusual – people find themselves in this situation often.

Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to learn about your landscape, the plants in it, how to care for them and what types of new plants will do well.  

Believe it or not, it doesn’t matter what region you live in – the steps are the same.



In my last post, I shared about my daughter’s move from Arizona to Michigan.  She and her husband became new homeowners the beginning of this summer and were faced with many questions about their landscape.

I invite you to join them in their garden journey, learning helpful tips finding out about their new landscape, what plants to choose, and how to care for them.  

Even if you live in a completely different climate than Michigan, my hope is that you’ll learn what steps to take when you find yourself in a new place with no clue how to take care of your garden.


1. Take stock of the existing landscape.

We walked around the entire landscape, including the areas up against the house and further out.  The front of their home had a combination of shrubs, perennials, and flowering bulbs while the outer areas had a number of different trees.


Lilac shrubs were in full bloom and peonies were just beginning to open…



 I must admit to being slightly envious since my Arizona garden doesn’t get cold enough in winter to be able to grow these lovely plants.  However, I was fortunate to be there when hers were in bloom.

2. Take pictures of large areas as well as individual plants – particularly those that you don’t recognize.


 While I knew what most of the plants were in my daughter’s landscape, she didn’t and there were a few that even I couldn’t identify (plants from more temperate climates aren’t my specialty).



If you see something that you think is wrong with your plants, take a picture of that too.  I wasn’t sure what was growing on the surface of the maple trees.  (It turns out they are leaf galls, which are fairly common and don’t seriously impact the tree.)

3. Visit a local nursery.


You will find most of your answers at a local plant nursery.  Show the nursery staff pictures of your plants.  They can help you identify what you have and can often tell you how to care for them. 


Often, you will find the same plants at the nursery, where you can check the labels for the names along with instruction on how to care for them.



We found that the shrubs alongside the house are ‘dappled willow’.


During your visit, take pictures of plants that you like along with a clear photo of the plant label.  But, avoid buying anything at this point.

Be sure to show pictures to the nursery professionals of any suspected problems of your plants.  They can often tell you what it is and how to treat it, if needed.

Local nurseries often have free (or inexpensive) guides on a range of gardening subjects.  Be sure to ask if they have any.

**I advise against going to a big box store for advice on plants.  Not all the staff is particularly knowledgeable and you’ll often find plants for sale that aren’t always suited for that climate.  Local nurseries are best.


For example, I found this Texas sage for sale at the local big box store.  The problem is that this shrub can only handle temperatures as cold as 10 degrees F.  In northern Michgan, winter temperatures can get down to -20 degrees.  Unfortunately, this isn’t isolated to just this instance – it happens everywhere.  So, visit local nurseries for the best advice and plant selection.

4. Contact the local cooperative extension office.

If you’ve never heard of cooperative extension services, you are missing out on a valuable resource.  They are an “educational partnership that offers numerous programs implemented by county field faculty and supported by university-based specialists”.  

Master Gardeners work for the cooperative extension office in your area, which is usually divided up by counties.  

They have many resources for homeowners, especially in regards to their landscape, that is specifically tailored for that specific region.  Often, much of the information can be found online and/or you can talk to a master gardener on the phone.  

Here are some helpful questions to ask:

– What USDA planting zone do you live in?

– What type of soil is present in the area?  Acidic or alkaline?  That’s important to know since certain plants do better in one or the other.

– What is the average first and last frost date?  In other words, how long is the growing season?  For my garden in Arizona, the growing season is 10 months long while my daughter’s is only 6 months.

– When is the best time to prune roses, trees and shrubs?

– What are the planting dates for specific vegetables?

– Are there any insect pests that are particularly troublesome?  How do you get rid of them?

For a listing of cooperative extension services, click here

5. Take pictures of local landscapes and plants that you like. 

When you are walking your dog or taking a stroll through the downtown area, grab your phone and take photos of plants that you like.  



If it’s growing and looks healthy, than it will probably grow in your garden.  You can take the photos to your local nursery to help you identify what they are.

6.  Wait 6 months to a year before making dramatic changes to the garden.

A garden undergoes several transformations throughout the year as plants bloom, change colors and fade.  It is helpful to observe the plants, to see what you want to keep and those that you went to remove.  

In addition, this is also a period of time to see how functional the design of your garden is.  If plants are struggling, it may be because they are planted in the wrong exposure, get too wet from storm runoff or don’t have enough room to grow.

Once you have lived with your new landscape for awhile, it’s time to make changes.


BEFORE


I invite you to come back to see the changes that we undertook in my daughter’s landscape.  We took out some plants while adding some new ones.  I’ll also provide some helpful planting tips.

See you next time!