Posts

With the imminent arrival of fall, I can’t wait to get to the nursery to choose plants for some empty spots in my landscape. Each year, I do an inventory or audit of my garden and look at plants that are struggling or just not adding much to my outdoor space.

If you are like me, you may be thinking of adding plants this fall too. 
 
 
In my career as a horticulturist, I’ve designed, planted and overseen the installation of thousands of plants over the years.  
 
As you can imagine, I have accrued tips along the way of how-to and how NOT to select the best plants for the landscape.
 
Plant nursery at The Living Desert Museum in Palm Desert, CA
 
In my online course, Desert Gardening 101, one of the very first sections deals with how to best choose plants from the nursery. Today, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite tips on how to select the best plants at the nursery that will save you money and future problems.
 
Earlier this month, I wrote about how important it is to research plants before buying. This is a crucial step to make sure that you are select a plant that will thrive in your climate.  
 
I encourage you to take a few minutes to read these tips, which could save you from buyer’s remorse and a dead plant.
 
Foxglove for sale in front of an Arizona big box store nursery.  This lovely perennial is not the easiest plant to grow in the desert garden.
 

1. Avoid impulse buys.

 
Believe it or not, some nurseries carry plants that will NOT grow well in your area. There are many times I have seen hydrangeas offered at my local big box store. While I would LOVE to be able to grow hydrangea in my Southwest garden, I know that within a few weeks of planting – it will soon languish and die.
 
Don’t assume that just because your local nursery sells a certain type of plant, that it will grow in your climate. Sadly, this is particularly true of big box stores.
 
Why do the stores stock plants that won’t grow in the local climate? The answer is simple – most people are drawn to these plants because they are colorful and beautiful.  So, they inevitably purchase them assuming that they will grow in their garden. A few weeks later, they are dismayed when their new plant becomes sickly and dies. This leads to many people believing that they have a black thumb.
 
 

2. Smaller sizes can be better.

In many cases, skipping over the larger-sized plant in favor of one in a smaller-sized container is the better choice.
 
Of course, there is the amount of money you will save, but did you know that the smaller plants have an easier time becoming established? 
 
Smaller plants are younger and are better able to handle the shock of being transplanted than older plants. In addition, they have less upper growth (branches, leaves & stems) to support, so they can focus on growing roots, which is vital to its growth rate. 
 
Bigger and older plants aren’t as adaptable and take an extended length of time to grow.
 
Planting smaller plants works best with those that have a moderate to fast growth rate. For plants that take have a slow rate of growth, you may want to select a larger plant size.
 
Another bonus is that in addition to saving money, you don’t have to dig as large a hole!
 
Root-bound plant

3. Avoid plants that have been in their containers too long.

 
Sometimes, nurseries don’t sell plants as quickly as they’d like. So what happens when a plant sits in a container too long?
 
The roots start growing around and around each other causing the plant to become root-bound. Once roots grow this way, they have a hard time growing outward into the soil as they should. Eventually, the plant will can decline and even die.
 
How can you tell if a plant has been in its container too long?
 
– Look for signs such as weeds growing in the pot, which indicates that it may have been in the nursery for a while.
 
– Are there any dead leaves inside the pot? This is also an indicator that it may have been sitting in the nursery for a long time.
 
– See if roots are growing through the drainage holes – if so, that is a clear indication of a plant that has been its container too long.
 
This blog post contains affiliate links.
 
If you have brought a plant that turns out to be root bound, you can help it out. Take a box cutter or ‘hori-hori’ garden knife which is a soil knife that is useful for cutting and digging. I use it to make a series of vertical cuts around the root ball so that you are cutting through the circled roots. Do this on the bottom too.
 
By cutting the roots, you are disrupting the circular growth pattern, and they should be able to grow out into the surrounding soil.
 

4. Select healthy plants.

 
While most plants at the nursery are usually healthy and in good shape, this isn’t always the case.
 
Avoid plants with yellow leaves, which can be a sign of incorrect watering. Look for signs of any yellow or brown spots on the leaves as well, which can be a sign of disease. Also, check for signs of disease such as insects or the presence of webs or chewed leaves.  
 
Bringing any plants home with a disease or damaging insects can inadvertently infect your existing plants.
Check the soil in the pot and if appears overly moist or has a funny odor, walk away. Overwatered plants rarely do well.
 
 

5. Select plants that are grown locally whenever possible.

 
In Arizona, where I live, many plants found in our nurseries are grown in California. (I don’t have anything against things from California – I grew up there 😉
 
However, plants that are grown in a different climate and then brought over to another one can have a tough time adapting to the new climate unless they have had time to ‘harden off’ and adjust to the weather conditions.
 
When possible, choose plants grown by local growers. Not only will the plants have an easier time becoming established, but you will also be supporting your local economy.
Do you have any plant-buying tips? Please share them in the comments.
 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

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.
 

Fall is finally here and it’s time to get busy in the garden.  Did you know that fall is the best time of year to add new plants?  It doesn’t matter where you live, planting in fall gives plants three seasons to grow a healthy root system before summer arrives.



Today, I’d like to share with you another drought tolerant and beautiful plant – shrubby germander (Teucrium fruiticans).

While it’s name may not be impressive, this shrub certainly has a lot to boast about.

Shrubby germander planted alongside Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

First, it has blue flowers that add welcome color that contrasts with other colors such as orange and red.

Young shrubby germander growing alongside red autumn sage (Salvia greggii)

The silvery foliage also adds great color contrast to the landscape when paired near plants with darker green foliage.


Shrubby germander can grow 5 – 6 ft. tall and wide, however, there is also a more compact variety ‘Azureum’ that only reaches 3 ft.

For more reasons why you’ll want to add this attractive shrub to your landscape, check out my latest plant profile for Houzz.com.

It’s hard to believe that we have made it through another summer.  

Oh, I realize that we have a few more weeks of 100+ degree weather, but whenever there is month that ends with the letters “ber” it just feels cooler to me.

I am gearing up for my favorite season in the garden.  In my last post, I talked about the reasons why fall is the best time to add new plants to the Southwest landscape.  

Today, I’d like to share with you three tips to help you make the most of your fall planting.

This planting hole is too small.

It all comes down to the hole.  It’s hard to believe that often what determines a plant’s initial success is the size of the hole it is planted in.

If you are digging holes like the one above – then you may be in trouble.  That hole is too narrow.

The ideal hole should be 3X as wide as the root ball.  

Why?

Well, most of a plant’s roots grow outward into the soil.  When they are placed in a hole like the one above, the recently loosened soil makes it much easier for roots to grow into, which helps the plant to establish much sooner.

*It’s important to note that the depth of the hole should be the same depth as the root ball or even a few inches shallower.  This helps prevent problems from the dirt settling, which can leave your new plant sitting rather low in the soil where problems with becoming waterlogged can happen.


The big question – whether to add soil amendments or not?

When you go to your local nursery to buy new plants, you may be encouraged to buy soil amendments such as compost, potting soil or even manure.

The question is, do you really need it?  Often you don’t.  

I have planted thousands of plants throughout my career as a horticulturist and most of them without adding anything to the soil.  The plants were healthy and did very well without any extra additions to the soil.

Here a few guidelines to follow to help you decide whether or not to add any amendments to the soil before planting.

– If your soil is well-drained AND your new plants are native to any of the desert regions of the United States, than the answer is “no”.  

Native plants are adapted to growing in the nutrient poor soils of the desert and do best when nothing is added to the soil.  In fact, if the soil is too fertile – you’ll often see green growth, but flowering will be decreased.

Valentine (Eremophila maculata), Feathery Cassia (Senna artemisoides) and Purple Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis) planted without needing any soil amendments.

The same can be said of some non-native plants – particularly those from Australia such as Eremophila and Senna species.

So, are some times when adding soil amendments is a good idea?

Absolutely!

– If you have heavy clay soil or very sandy soils, than adding compost to the planting hole can help.  Mixing compost in with clay soils help them to drain better.  This is important because most plants that grow in the Southwest do best in well-drained soil.

Conversely, sandy soils have a hard time holding onto enough water, so compost helps those soils to hold onto more water.

Add 1 part compost to 1 part native soil and mix together before planting.


– Amend the soil when planting non-native plants that do not originate from arid climates.

Plants like day lilies, iris, roses, etc. require fertile soil to grow their best.  Amending the soil with compost, manure and other amendments will improve the soil texture, add small levels of nutrients and add beneficial microorganisms which will benefit your plants.  

Plants such as these will need regular applications of fertilizer to do their best.

Personally, I like to grow what I like to call ‘fuss-free’ plants where I don’t have to add fertilizer with the exception of my roses.


Skip the fertilizer for newly planted plants.  This tip is NOT always popular with some nurseries who often encourage the application of fertilizer at the time of planting.

So, let’s talk about when to add fertilizer.

– Most native plants will not need fertilizer ever.  In fact, many can make their own fertilizer.

– For plants that do need fertilizer such as hibiscus,  iris, roses, etc. – wait until you see new growth occurring before adding fertilizer.

The reason for this is that when you first add a new plant, it needs to concentrate on growing new roots in order to support future top growth (stems, branches and leaves).  If you add fertilizer at the time of planting, you are forcing the plant to focus on the top growth before it has the roots to support it.

So, a general rule is to wait until you see new top growth before adding fertilizer.

– The rule for fruit trees is slightly different.  It is recommended to wait until 1 year after planting before fertilizing.

Again, you may hear differently from your nursery who in addition to wanting you to be happy with your purchase, also has their bottom line (profits) in mind.

I am not including all nurseries or nursery professionals into this one group.  However, I have visited nurseries where customers are told that they need to fertilize all their plants.  Many of my clients are thrilled when I tell them to throw out their fertilizer because their native plants don’t need it.

*I remember a story from one of my horticulture professors who talked about standing in line behind a customer at the store with a cart filled with native, desert plants and another cart with ‘special’ fertilizers that they were encouraged to buy.

My professor loudly commented to her husband, standing next to her, that “Numerous studies have shown that fertilizer is a waste of money when used for native plants.”

So, are you ready to add some new plants to your landscape?

Before you head out to the nursery, I invite you to come back for my next post, when I’ll share with you some tips on how to select healthy plants AND I will reveal to you what my favorite plant nursery is!

************************

I apologize for the relative lack of recent posts.  Life has been very busy with the kids back in school, increased landscape consults and getting ready to go visit my daughter, Rachele, who is expecting.  We will find in a few days whether we will be welcoming a boy or girl!

I have two biological children – both girls and my oldest daughter, Brittney, has a daughter.  So, we will see if Rachele will break the pink trend in our family.

My son Kai (who is adopted from China) and has four sisters and a niece is really hoping for a boy 😉

Are you anxious for fall to arrive?
 
I certainly am!  
 
Fall is my favorite season because of the holidays, cooler weather and best of all – the it is the best time of year to add new plants to the landscape.
 
Now you may have thought that spring was the best time of year to start planting and while you certainly can plant then, I’ll tell you why fall is better…
 
Planting in fall allows enough time for plants to grow a good root system before the heat of the next summer arrives.
 
Think about it – plants must have a good root system so that they can soak up enough water to handle the stress from intense heat and the dry conditions of summer.  
 
If a plant is planted just before or during the summer months, they are focusing on just hanging on until temperatures cool off.  In many cases, they don’t make it.
 
 
The only exception to fall planting is with frost tender plants such as bougainvillea, lantana and yellow bells.  
 
Because young plants are particularly susceptible to frost damage, or even death, it is best to wait until the danger of frost has passed to add these plants to your landscape.
 
 
Over the next couple of posts, I’ll share with you some other helpful tips to help you with selecting plants, how to tell if they are healthy, the best way to dig a hole and finally – I’ll reveal my favorite plant nursery!
 
****************************
 
On a personal note, I am going to be a grandma again 🙂
 
My second-oldest daughter, Rachele, is having her first baby and my husband and I are flying to California to be there when she gets her ultrasound and finds out if she is having a boy or girl!
 
I can hardly wait….

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.

*******************************

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.

The time has finally arrived!  Summer temperatures are but a memory and fall is here! 

Every year we wait for the end of summer so we can start adding plants in the garden. The only question is what plants will I add?

The possibilities are endless…    
                                                                                                                           

Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violaceae)

The signs that fall in the desert may not be as evident as in other parts of the county, yet they are here.  Elongating shadows, cooler evening temperatures along with increased plant growth and flowering are clear signs that the heat of summer is fading and cooler temperatures are on their way.

Blackfoot Daisy  (Melampodium leucanthum)

October and November are the best months in which to plant most types of plants in the desert.  The reason for this is that plants use the cooler weather in which to grow a healthy root system so that by the time that the summer arrives, they are ready to handle the stress of the intense heat. 

Parry’s Penstemon  (Penstemon parryi)
Most trees, shrubs, perennials, and succulents can be planted now.  Stay away from planting palms, bougainvillea, lantana and other plants that suffer frost damage during the winter months.  They do best when planted in the spring.
 
Chaparral Sage   (Salvia clevelandii)
As in all climates, be sure to plant correctly.  Dig a hole three times as wide as the root ball but no more profound than the root ball.  This will allow the roots to grow outwards more quickly.  
 
When growing native plants, you do not need to add any amendments to the hole as this can cause the roots to just stay in place, enjoying the nutrient-rich soil, instead of venturing out into the regular soil.  If you do decide to add amendments to the soil, be sure to incorporate them well with the existing soil.   
 
Newly installed plants will initially require more water than established plants, so be sure to adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
 
Bower Vine (Pandorea jasminoides)

 So visit your local nursery and get planting!