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winter-blooming-shrubs

Let’s face it, a winter landscape filled with frost-damaged plants isn’t the most attractive. During this time of year, I often find myself itching to grab my pruners and get rid of the ugly, brown growth on my bougainvillea, lantanas and yellow bells shrubs. But before I do, I keep repeating to myself, just a few more weeks…

Perhaps you have a similar urge to prune away all the brown too early. What helps me to stop grabbing my pruners is remembering that the dead outer growth of my summer-flowering beauties is protecting the inner part of the plant AND the fact that freezing temperatures are still a distinct possibility.

winter-blooming-shrubs

Feathery cassia and Valentine bush

And so, I will focus my attention on the winter-flowering plants that are adding beauty to my cool-season garden for now. If you don’t have any, I recommend Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana), Valentine bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’), and Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni), and feathery cassia (Senna artemisioides).

If you would like more information on this subject, I invite you to read “Got Brown Crispy Plants?”

So, what are you dying to prune back in your winter garden?

Do you enjoy winter?


I do.  Surprisingly, the desert Southwest has definite seasons and winters can get cold with temps dipping into the 20’s.  

Frost-damaged natal plum


Unfortunately, the cold temperatures can wreak havoc on our frost tender plants such as bougainvillea, lantana and yellow bells – to name a few.

Let’s face it, no one likes the sight of brown, crispy, frost-damaged plants in the landscape.  Often, our first impulse is to prune off the ugly growth – but, did you know that you can actually do more damage by pruning it off too early?


Learn what plants are most commonly affected by frost damage, when to prune and how in my latest article for Houzz.com

I hope your week is off to a great start!


*This blog post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a commission (at no additional cost to you). Thanks for your support in this way.
Do you have a sustainable landscape?
 
One that does not require excessive amounts of fertilizer, water, pruning, gasoline or time?
 
Over the past week, we have been talking about what a sustainable landscape is.  We learned about the definition of sustainable landscaping and saw examples of both good and bad landscapes in the post, “What Is a Sustainable Landscape.”  
 
In the latest post, we talked about four mistakes that people make that keep their landscape from being sustainable such as over-pruning.  If you missed it, you could see what the other three common mistakes are  – “What Keeps a Landscape From Being Sustainable?”
 
If your landscape falls short of being sustainable, or you want to decrease some resources that you use, there are small steps that you can start to take today toward a beautiful, sustainable landscape.
 
Step 1: Reduce the number of high-maintenance plants in your landscape.
 
 
Isn’t this hibiscus beautiful?
 
However, if you are growing it in the desert southwest with our nutrient-poor soils and dry, hot climate – it takes a lot of fertilizer and water to keep it looking like this.  

In addition to needing fertilizer and more water, pests can often bother hibiscus, which is then treated with insecticides as well.
 
 
As popular as queen palms are, they are not well-adapted to our climate and soils.  So, frequent applications of palm fertilizer are required throughout the warm months of the year.
 
 
Can you tell what this plant is?
 
It is a severely chlorotic and unhappy gardenia.  These plants like acidic soil.  The problem is, we have alkaline soil in the southwest. 



Okay, before I get any rose-lovers angry at me – let me first say that I love roses and have three of them in my backyard garden.


Yes, roses do need extra attention in the form of fertilizer, water, and pest control.  But if you look back at step #1, you will notice that it says to decrease the number of high-maintenance plants.


Yes, our gardens would be more sustainable if we had none of these plants that require extra resources in our landscapes, but gardening is also about pleasure and enjoyment.  So, including a few of your favorite higher-maintenance plants doesn’t make you a bad person 😉


**I use an organic fertilizer for my roses and plant garlic around my rose bushes that help keep aphids away.  

Step 2: Reduce the amount of frost-tender plants.

Frost-damaged bush lantana
Frost-damaged natal plum.



While many frost-tender plants such as bougainvillea, lantana, natal plum (Carissa microcarpa), yellow bells (Tecoma stans) and others thrive in our climate spring through fall – once temperatures dip below freezing, they suffer frost damage.


Once spring rolls around, homeowners and landscapers are hard at work pruning back all of the brown, crispy foliage which contributes to green waste (branches, etc.) that often ends up in landfills.  Also, gasoline is a resource used to deliver our garden debris to the landfill and powers some of our pruning equipment.



Before we leave the subject of reducing the amount of frost-damaged plants – let me say a word about ficus trees.


They are lush, green and beautiful.  However, they are also sensitive to temps below freezing.  


During a mild winter, your ficus may not suffer any frost damage.  But, every few years, we do go through a cold spell when temperatures dip into the 20’s, and severe damage is done to the outer leaves and branches.


Homeowners are then faced with severely pruning back their ficus trees, which causes them to look somewhat ugly while they slowly recover.


To learn more about ficus trees and other trees better suited for the landscape, click here.


Step 3: Use plants adapted for your climate.

This is perhaps the most obvious step toward a more sustainable landscape.


In the desert southwest, plants that are adapted to our hot, arid climate are crucial to a sustainable landscape.


Arid-adapted plants have a special characteristic that helps them to thrive in the blistering heat of summer while not requiring large amounts of water.


Notice the flowering of ‘Rio Bravo’ sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’), pictured above.  Do you see the tiny hairs that cover the flowers?  There are even smaller hairs that cover the leaves, which give them a grayish color.


These tiny hairs help to reduce the amount of water lost to the atmosphere (evaporation) and also reflect the sun’s rays away from the plant.

This Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana) tree has different characteristics that helps it to survive our desert climate.  


It has tiny leaflets, which limit the amount of water lost to evaporation.  But, it also goes even further – in times of drought, the tiny leaflets will fall off, which further decreases the amount of water lost to the atmosphere.  This type of trait is known as ‘drought deciduous.’

Succulent plants such as cacti and agave handle arid regions by storing water inside.

Step 4: Research plants before purchasing.

Have you ever been tempted by a beautiful, flowering plant and not knowing anything else about it?
If you have, you aren’t alone.
But, you will be saving yourself a lot of time, money and more if you do a little research before you buy a new plant.


When deciding what type of plant to add to your landscape, ask yourself the following questions:


– How large will the plant grow?
– What exposure does it need – full sun, filtered shade or full shade?
– Is the plant drought-tolerant, or does it require large amounts of water?
– Will it require regular applications of fertilizer?
– Is it prone to pests or other problems?

Those are basic questions that you should know before you even dig a hole for a new plant.


So, if you don’t have a bookcase or two filled with plant books (like I do) – where can you go to research plants?


Here are a few online resources to get you started researching plants for the southwestern climate:

 

I do have a few favorite books that are invaluable as well…

Landscape Plants For Dry Regions: More Than 600 Species From Around The World

Arizona Gardener’s Guide (Gardener’s Guides
Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes

Month-By-Month Gardening in the Deserts of Arizona: What to Do Each Month to Have a Beautiful Garden All Year

 

 

Silver Spurge (Euphorbia rigida)



I like to use plants that I call ‘fuss free’.  They are all drought-tolerant, most are cold-hardy in zone 9a, don’t require supplemental fertilizer, need pruning once a year or less and most of all – they are beautiful.


A FEW FAVORITE ‘FUSS-FREE’ PLANTS

Texas Ebony

Trees:


Cascalote (Caesalpinia cacalaco)
Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana)
Shoestring Acacia (Acacia stenophylla)
Texas Ebony (Ebanopsis ebano)

Baja Fairy Duster

Shrubs:


Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica)
Desert Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)
Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)
Valentine  (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)

Damianita

Groundcovers:


Bush Morning Glory (Convolvulus cneorum)
Daminaita (Chrysactinia mexicana)
Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatoni)

Soap Aloe

Succulents:


Beavertail Prickly Pear (Opuntia basilaris)
Silver Spurge (Euphorbia rigida)
Soap Aloe (Aloe maculata)
Victoria Agave (Agave victoria-reginae)

Pink Muhly

Ornamental Grasses:


Bear Grass (Nolina microcarpa)
Pink Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)


Of course, these are but a very sampling of arid-adapted plants that add beauty and sustainability to your landscape.


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


I hope you have found these first steps toward a more sustainable landscape helpful.


Next time, we will discuss how to care for your plants and avoid unnecessary maintenance. In most cases, if you choose the arid-adapted plants, they will need very little maintenance.

When I am out and about doing landscape consults, I often take the opportunity afterward to drive around the neighborhood and take pictures of examples of both bad and good landscaping.


Last week, I was near my old neighborhood, which is populated by ranch homes with carports.  Many of the homes were built in the 1950’s and while some had landscaping that dated back to that time – there were also great examples of updated landscapes that complimented the ranch style homes.


This one in particular, stood out to me…


The homeowner updated the facade of the house by adding textured stone and removing the old window shutters in favor of newer window treatments.

But, what I loved was the landscape design.  

I’ll break it down into three parts and why I liked it…


The front raised beds are filled with succulents, including some that will flower.  The octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana), blue elf aloe  (Aloe x ‘Blue Elf’) and lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus). 

A large container filled with purple and burgundy petunias provide a great splash of color.  

To the left, a palo blanco tree (Acacia willardiana), is leafless, but new green growth will soon appear.  The beauty of this tree lies in its white trunk.

Growing in the grass is an olive tree.  I’m not a huge fan because I hate pruning tree suckers.  But, it looks very nice in this area.


These raised beds are filled with a pair of octopus agave that are flowering.  Many people make the mistake of cutting off the flowering stalk of agave as it begins to grow.  That is a HUGE mistake.  The flowering stalk is the crowning glory of the agave and is beautiful.  Cutting off the stalk will not keep the agave alive.  Once they flower, they begin to fade and then die.  

In this case, simply replace the octopus agave with new ones.

I do like the ornamental grasses in the raised bed.  I think it makes a great alternative to shrubs or even flowering perennials.  

**What I don’t like is the purple fountain grass.  I find that it keeps getting wider and unwieldy.  I do like the Regal Mist (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’) that flanks the fountain grass because it has a neater growth habit.


I really like the plantings along the driveway (except for the fountain grass – I’d use ‘Regal Mist’ instead).

The contrast of textures between the octopus agave and the grasses is just wonderful.  Petunias add color and serve as a ground cover as well.

This landscape is a great example of how using frost-tolerant plants can help your landscape look great, even in winter.  It weathered the severe cold snap we had a couple of months ago, just beautifully.

**Compare the next door neighbor’s landscape.  Frost-damaged ficus trees, (which will have to be cut back severely) and poodle-pruned shrubs.

Which landscape design would you prefer?


I didn’t post a blog on Friday, but I had a very good excuse…
Frost-damaged Bougainvillea
It was time for my springtime annual pruning.
In my zone 9a garden, we do experience temperatures below freezing and as a result, some of my frost-tender plants always suffer some frost damage.
The best time to do this is once the danger of frost is over, which in my area is approximately March 1st.
Arizona Yellow Bells with frost damage.
I really don’t mind, because they look beautiful 9 months out of the year.
‘Rio Bravo’ Sage needing a trim.
This past Friday, I had no consults, the kids were at school and I wasn’t scheduled to babysit my granddaughter.
So, I put on my old gardening clothes, boots and gloves and headed out into my back garden.
Tobey came out to supervise.
My Bermuda grass is still dormant, but once nighttime temperatures stay above 55 degrees, it will start to green up fast.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, in the upper sixties.  I started first on my Orange Jubilee shrub and then moved on to my ‘Rio Bravo’ Texas Sage shrubs.
 
Every  2 – 3 years, I prune back my ‘Rio Bravo’ severely, which rejuvenates them.  Old wood doesn’t produce as much leaves or flowers and eventually dies.  Severe renewal pruning stimulates new growth and helps keep your shrubs from becoming too large.
To say that I am a bit passionate about pruning flowering shrubs the right way, is an understatement.
You can read more if you like in my previous post….
 I spent three hours pruning 10 large shrubs.  It was so nice to experience the outdoors with nothing to listen to except for the breeze and the birds.
There is something so satisfying about surveying how much work you have accomplished after you have finished pruning.
Of course, after I finished, I went inside and took 2 ibuprofen for my sore back.
I think I will let my husband put my pruned branches in the trash can 😉
How about you?  Are you ready to prune yet? 

I must admit that I have been contemplating this post for quite some time.  To be honest, I have been hesitant about it because of people’s overwhelming affection for ficus trees (Ficus nitida).

At first, the benefits of planting a ficus tree are obvious.  They are lush, beautiful and provide dense shade, which is sometimes scarce in the desert.

So what’s the problem with having a ficus tree?

Well there are a couple of things that you should be aware of before you plant a ficus tree.

First, is the fact that they do suffer frost damage in the low desert when temperatures dip below freezing.  It can be worse when consecutive days of freezing temperatures occur.

Frost-Damaged Ficus nitida
 
This past winter, we had temperatures in the low 20’s for three days in a row and the damage to the local ficus trees was noticeable.  I could drive through any neighborhood street and tell from a distance who had Ficus trees and who didn’t by simply noting the ‘brown’ trees.
 
Once the warmer temperatures came back, there were quite a few ‘short’ ficus trees seen around the neighborhood due to the frost-damage branches being removed.

Ficus tree that had frost damaged branches removed.

The second problem that sometimes occur when people don’t research how large ficus trees will become.
 
Young Ficus Tree
 
They are soon caught unprepared when the pretty, shade tree that they planted soon grows so large that it almost seems like it is ‘eating’ up the house….
 
Mature Ficus Tree
 
So, what should you do if you absolutely love ficus trees and want one in your garden?

By all means, buy one.  Just know that you will have some winters where it will suffer frost damage and will look unsightly until new branches grow in.


Also, be careful where you plant it.  Allow enough room for it to grow so that it doesn’t ‘eat’ your house.  In addition, keep it away from patios and pools or its roots can become a problem with shallow watering.  It can grow 30 – 50 feet high and 40 feet wide.
Some people look to sissoo trees as an alternative to ficus.
 
Sissoo Tree
 
The sissoo tree (Dalbergia sissoo) is similar in appearance to the ficus tree, but they do have greater tolerance to frost.  
Like ficus trees, sissoo trees do grow quite large but I no longer recommend them for average size residential landscapes. The photo of the tree above was taken four years after it was planted from a 15-gallon container and it rapidly grew even larger.  This tree made it’s debut in the Phoenix area about 15 years ago and rapidly became quite popular for its lush green beauty. However, as sissoo trees have been grown in the southwest landscape for several years, problems have begun to crop up. They have invasive root systems that cause problems with sidewalks, patio decks, pools, and block walls. In addition, their mature size is so big that they dwarf the landscapes they have been planted in. 

 
3 Sissoo Trees

 Sissoo trees are a better choice than ficus trees when used in large outdoor areas such as parks as they have greater tolerance to frost.
Today was a beautiful, crisp day.  Temps are in the upper 50’s and there are still flowers present in the garden.
Firecracker Penstemon
Hummingbirds just love the flowers.  Blooms will continue until late April.
**I will have some seeds available this spring.  Click here to see if this perennial will grow where you garden.
Stolk
Flowering in my children’s pool garden.
See earlier post about planting this garden.
Angelita Daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis)
This bright perennial will bloom all year.
This particular flower is from my neighbor’s garden.

Valentine (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)
My Valentine shrub is really starting to bloom.  
Blooming peaks in February, but continues into late April.
Rio Bravo Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’)
Surprisingly, my Sage is still blooming, although there are not many left.
**Look closely at the little hairs covering the flower…this helps to protect the flower from the intense heat and sunlight in the summer months. 
Whirling Butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’)
This perennial blooms spring through fall.  It is slowing down, but I was able to get some pictures of the last blooms.
My neighbor’s yellow rose.
Roses continue blooming through December and into January.  
We actually have to cut them back severely in January to force dormancy.  It just kills me to prune off the beautiful rose blooms of my roses….
My Purple Violas are blooming beautifully.
Goodding’s Verbena (Glandularia gooddingii)
A few blooms remain.  
Next to the flowers is a volunteer Victoria Agave that has sprouted from the parent plant.
Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
Blooms fall through the spring.
Unfortunately, they do self-seed prolifically and I have to do a bit of weeding.
**If any of you are interested in seeds, I should have quite a few available this spring.
Click here to see if Globe Mallow will grow in your area. 
Purple Lantana (Lantana montividensis)
A few blooms remain, but a lot of Lantana has been burned by frost.
This one is located underneath a tree, which gives some protection from the frost.
Bougainvillea
The colorful ‘petals’ are actually not the flower.  They are called ‘brachts’.
The actual flowers are the tiny cream colored flowers in the center.
*I realize I include photos of my bougainvillea often, but it has done very well. Most Bougainvillea have been damaged by the frost, but this one is located underneath a tree in my backyard, which has protected it from the cold.
Thank you for joining me for December’s Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day.  Please visit May Dreams Gardens for more sites to visit.
Coming up soon…..A Desert Christmas Celebration.  More specifically, how we decorate our homes and gardens for Christmas.   You may be surprised at what we cover with lights…..  
This may come as a shock to some of you….but, it does get cold in the desert.  Tonight’s temperatures are dropping to the low 30’s, which for us desert dwellers is cold.  Below, is a sampling of how winter looks in the desert.

I was surprised when I moved here from Southern California, that is actually got much colder here in the winter.  I live in zone 8b and we do have a few nights a year with the temps in the 20’s, occasionally dipping into the high teens.  Tonight, my neighbors have their frost-sensitive plants covered with either frost cloth or old towels.   I just covered my 3 Lantana shrubs in the front yard with some old sheets.
I have enjoyed the photos of frost covered landscapes that many of you have posted.  My most memorable experiences with frost is of driving through the golf courses where I worked when there was a solid layer of frost on the grass.  Everything was white and looked so beautiful.
I do enjoy the winter months, but I am always ready for the spring and warm weather….
This beautiful plant is one of my favorite shrubs in the garden – so much so, that I have three.  Yellow bells produce bell-shaped flowers beginning in spring and lasting through the fall months until the first frost.
 
 Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.  The vibrant green foliage and colorful flowers make this shrub a welcome addition to any desert landscape. 

Yellow Bells is a large shrub that grows to a height of 4 – 8 ft. and spreads 3 – 8 ft. wide.  You can find its native habitat in the Americas.  There are two different types; Tecoma stans angustata and Tecoma stans stans.  Visually, the most significant difference is in the shape of the leaves.  Tecoma stans stans had a broader leaf and are pictured above and below.

USES:

Because of its size, this large shrub makes a great backdrop plant.  I have used it to screen fences, sheds and also planted it up against the house.  Yellow Bells works well as a tall, naturally-shaped hedge.  This shrub thrives in full sun to filtered shade.  They do best in warm-winter areas but can be successful as a summer annual in colder regions.

MAINTENANCE:

This shrub is relatively low-maintenance.  It will freeze back in the winter months when temperatures go below 28 degrees F.  Since it blooms on current season’s growth, all that is required is to prune back the frost damage in early spring.  Seed pods are produced and can be removed if desired, which will extend the bloom period and improve the appearance, (the seed pods do not bother me, and I do not remove mine).   After an initial application of slow-release fertilizer when planting Yellow Bells, I have not needed to fertilize further. 

**Occasionally, caterpillars will appear but can be easily removed by spraying some BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) which is an organic pesticide.

 
 

COMMON NAMES: 

There are many familiar names for these beautiful shrubs.  Tecoma stans angustata is native to the Southwestern US and northern Mexico and goes by the names Arizona yellow bells, yellow bells, and yellow trumpet bush. 
 
Tecoma stans stans are native to Florida, the Caribbean and parts of South America and also goes by the name of yellow bells and sometimes yellow elder.  Because of the overlap of familiar names, be sure to purchase plants based on their scientific name.