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Overgrown, old Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)

You have undoubtedly seen an old, overgrown shrub filled with mostly leafless branches that rarely flower anymore. Or, perhaps it is an aged succulent that has brown patches that are slowly encroaching onto the upper parts of the plant from the base. So, what is the solution for plants that no longer add decorative value to our landscape?

Old rosemary filled with unproductive woody growth

While some woody plants such as Texas sage or oleander can be rejuvenated by severely pruning them back, not all plants respond favorably to this and grow out again. Let’s take a look at some Southwestern favorite shrubs and succulents and talk about whether you should prune severely or when it’s best to replace.

Oleander that has undergone severe renewal pruning in spring.

Many shrubs can be rejuvenated by severely pruning them back, which gets rid of old, woody growth and stimulates the production of new branches, which will flower more (in the case of flowering shrubs). It is helpful to think of severe renewal pruning as the “fountain of youth” for many plants. This type of pruning is best done in spring, once the weather begins to warm up. Shrubs that respond well to this include bougainvillea, jojoba, lantana, oleander, Texas sage, and yellow bells. It’s important to note that not all shrubs will come back from this method, but the pruning didn’t kill the shrub – it only hastened the demise of the plant that was already in progress. If this happens, replace it with another.

Old desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri)

There are some plants that don’t respond well to renewal pruning or where that isn’t possible to do in the case of succulents. In this case, the solution is simple – take them out and replace them with a younger version of the same plant. Examples of plants that are better removed and replaced include aloe, desert spoon, red yucca (hesperaloe), rosemary, and prickly pear cactus. When you think about it, the cost isn’t very high, when you consider the beauty that these plants added to your landscape for eight years or more.

Heavenly Cloud Texas Sage several weeks after severe pruning.

When you think about it, the cost isn’t very high, when you consider the beauty that these plants added to your landscape for eight years or more.

*Have you severely pruned back an old shrub and had it come back beautifully? Or, maybe you recently removed and replaced some old succulents?

 

Have you ever driven by a newly-planted landscape?  If you have, you probably noticed that many of the plants were quite small.  

I like to joke that sometimes you need a magnifying glass just to see the new plants.  But, within a short amount of time, those plants start to grow.  


After three years or more, the plants are well-established and look great.  

Fast forward five additional years, and you may start to see signs of some plants becoming overgrown and unattractive.

When this happens to shrubs, we can often push a ‘restart button’ and prune them back severely in spring, and that solves the problem.  However, there are some plants where this approach doesn’t work.

Let’s identify a few of these plants and how to deal with them once they outgrow their allotted space or become filled with old, woody growth.

Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Desert spoon is one of my favorite plants.  I love how its blue-gray, spiky leaves add texture to the garden and contrast with plants that have darker green foliage.  


After ten years or more in the landscape, desert spoon can start to take on a ragged, rather unattractive appearance, as well as grow quite large.

When this happens, I recommend that they be removed and a new desert spoon planted in its place.  

Now, some of you may think that may seem wasteful, but I invite you to take another look at your landscape and the plants within it.

Your outdoor space isn’t static and unchanging.  Its appearance changes with the seasons, plants blooms at different times of year, trees extend the amount of shade they provide as they grow, and plants change in size.  

A newly planted garden doesn’t look the same through the years, it changes.  

Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’)
Rosemary is a good choice for those who want rich, dark green color in the garden.  Bees love the light blue flowers that appear in late winter and spring, and the aromatic foliage can be used to flavor your favorite dishes.  


But, as time passes, it does get bigger, outgrowing its original space.  


When this happens, people start to shear their rosemary, which is stressful for the plant and contributes to sections of branches dying.

For those who don’t like the formal look, pruning rosemary back severely would be a likely choice.  But, the problem with rosemary is that they often don’t respond well to severe pruning.

So again, in this case, it’s best to pull out the old rosemary and add a new one, which will provide beauty for several years.

Rosemary hedge
To avoid having to remove and replace rosemary, allow them plenty of room to grow to their mature size.

Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
Red yucca is prized for its succulent, green leaves that resemble an ornamental grass and its coral flowers, which appear spring through fall.


Once it has been growing seven years or more, red yucca may overwhelm the landscape visually, particularly if the area it is growing in isn’t very big.

Occasionally, some people will try to remove the outer leaves at the base, but this is laborious and only serves to stimulate red yucca to grow back faster.

In those situations, I tell people that they have had a nice life, but it’s time to start over with new ones.

Newly-planted red yucca

The question that may come to mind is why use plants that you’ll only have to replace after seven to ten years?

Well, all three of these plants add beauty to the landscape and are low-maintenance.  Another way to think of it is to compare your landscape with the interior of your home.  Do you make small changes to the decor of your home every few years to keep it looking fresh and attractive?  The same should be true of the outside.

Replacing a few plants after seven years or more isn’t expensive, and the beauty that these plants offer to your outdoor space makes them worth it.
I love to use plants that thrive in the desert Southwest.  

But, I won’t use just any plant – it has to be drought tolerant, low-maintenance and add beauty to the landscape.

One of my favorites for adding spiky texture and great color contrast is desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri), also known as ‘sotol’.

It handles freezing temperatures, is evergreen and unlike agave, won’t die after it flowers.

I recently wrote about all the reasons that I like desert spoon along with ideas of how to use it in the landscape, which you can find in my latest article for Houzz.com


**By the way, there is just 5 days left to enter the giveaway I am hosting for Troy-Bilt’s most powerful, handheld blower.  Click here to enter!

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?

In honor of Halloween, I thought that I would do a ‘scary’ post for all of you.  


Now, this post isn’t filled with ghouls, witches, skeletons or zombies.  But that doesn’t make it any less scary.  


Over the years, I have photographed examples of truly horrific pruning, which are quite scary 😉


WARNING:  The following images are not for the faint of heart…



These used to be Jacaranda trees.  I say “used to” because they died because of this severe and unnecessary pruning.

This is a photo of a Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) that was pruned the wrong way.

Unfortunately, this was a landscape that I was in charge of 14 years ago next to the clubhouse on a golf course.  

My well-intentioned crew member, thought he was doing me a favor by pruning them for me.  He was so proud of the work he had done, that he came into my office and asked me to come outside and see his handiwork.

I must say, that it was hard to criticize him because he was so proud of his work.  Needless to say, I transferred him to doing more clean-up and less pruning around the golf course.

A few months later, he returned to his small town in Mexico where he became mayor 🙂

*This is what Red Yucca are supposed to look like when in flower…


As you can see, you don’t cut the grass-like, succulent foliage below – ever.  The flowers can be pruned to the base when they die.  If the base clump become to wide, then divide the base much like you would perennials.

This photo was taken of another landscape area about 12 years ago that I was in charge of by another golf course.  I made sure that the crew did not prune it 😉


Last month, I was in the historic district of downtown Phoenix returning from a landscape consultation when I drove by these very sad California Fan Palms.  

While fall is the time to prune back – this is NOT the way to do it.  Too much was removed.  For guidelines on how to prune palm trees, click here.


This was a beautiful Palo Brea tree.  Unfortunately, it was ‘topped’ in order for the homeowner to preserve their view of the mountains.

‘Topping’ trees is very bad for trees.  It leaves the upper branches open to sunburn, which is often followed by insect infestations or disease.  

In fact, topping trees causes the tree to grow faster, to replace the lost foliage, which leads to an increased need for pruning.  The branches that appear after ‘topping’ have a very weak attachment, which makes the new branches a hazard because they are in danger of breaking off.

**If a tree is blocking a view that is important to you – then remove the tree instead of subjecting it to torturing it with this type of pruning.


Here is another example of ‘topping’.  This parking lot in Scottsdale, has trees like this.

Believe it or not, this ‘topped’ tree is a Willow Acacia (Acacia salicina).

This is what it should look like…


Hard to believe that they are the same type of tree, isn’t it?


I don’t think that I have ever seen an agave pruned so badly before.

The only time you need to prune an agave is to remove the bottom leaves, once they die.

I think that this agave would have looked much nicer if they had left it alone, like the one below…


It would also be much healthier and less likely to be susceptible to insect attack.


Believe it or not, these are citrus trees.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I drove by and saw what had happened to these trees.

You may be thinking that maybe they suffered from severe frost damage and had to be cut back.  But, I assure you, this wasn’t the case.  I worked just down the road from this house and there was no reason for these trees to be pruned this severely.

Ideally, citrus trees are pruned in March, concentrating on removing dead branches and suckers.  

In fact, did you know that the lower branches produce more fruit that tastes sweeter than that on the higher branches?  That is why you see citrus growers letting the lower branches of their trees grow instead of pruning them up into tree shapes.

**Just don’t let any branches (suckers) from below the bud union grow because they are from the root stock and are thorny and will produce sour fruit.


Much like the Red Yucca I showed you earlier, these Desert Spoon have been butchered.

They also did the same to their own Red Yucca, off to the right.

Desert Spoon has a beautiful, natural form.


The only pruning to be done is to remove the bottom leaves once they turn brown and die.

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I hope you haven’t been to ‘scared’ by these scary pruning practices.

Sometimes it is easy to get carried away when pruning.  But it is important to remember that a plant’s leaves make the food for the plant.  Take away the ability of the plant to make food, it will re-route resources normally used for dealing with environmental stresses as well as defenses against insects and disease toward growing new leaves.

This will make your plants/trees more susceptible to other problems, not to mention leaving them ugly.


When I am driving about town, I tend to look at the landscapes that I pass by.  Usually, I tend to see some “landscape no-no’s”, which I like to share with you now and then.


But, I also take pictures of what I like to call “landscape do’s”.  I realized the other day, that I tend to share with you bad examples of landscapes much more then the good ones, so here are a few that I saw the past couple of weeks…



I love Gold Lantana and how it flowers non-stop spring through fall.  When planted next to boulders, you get a great contrast in textures.

What is even better about this arrangement, is how easy Lantana is to grow.  Unlike many tropical climates, Lantana is not invasive in arid climates.  Just water it regularly and prune it back hard in spring (6″ high), after the last frost.  Periodically prune it back every 2 – 3 months, stopping pruning 3 months before the first frost date in your area.  



Sometimes, I see great examples of desert trees that are properly pruned.


This Texas Ebony (Ebanopsis ebano formerly Pithecellobium flexicaule) is beautiful tree that is prized for its dark green foliage that is evergreen.


It does have thorns and gets seedpods, but it highly prized by those who live in the Southwest.



This nicely designed landscape was located next door to a house where I was visiting a client.


I like how the columnar cacti flank the entry on either side.  Totem Pole (Lophocereus schotti ‘Monstrosus’) is on the left and has the bonus that it is thornless.  Another favorite of mine, Mexican Fence Post (Pachycereus marginatus), which is one of the few cacti that I have in my own garden.


The yellows of the Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii)with their rounded shapes contrast nicely with the spiky fans of Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri).


**Another bonus about this landscape is that it is extremely low-maintenance.



While stopped at an intersection in Scottsdale, Arizona, I noticed this distinctive landscaped area with contrasting spokes of a wheel fanning out from the sign.


Different sizes of gravel are often used to add interest to the landscape by the contrasts in size.


Agave and Aloe vera make up the plantings in the lighter colored spokes while Golden Barrel are used in the darker rip rap.


Well, these are just a small sampling of the “landscape do’s” that I have seen lately.


I hope you enjoyed seeing them and maybe will be inspired to replicate a couple of these plantings in your own landscape.