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Firecracker Penstemon

Do you know someone who possesses a green thumb? Usually, it’s someone that has a beautiful garden that stands out among their neighbors, which is filled with thriving plants that are flourishing. 

While you may think that people with green thumbs are born and not made, I’m going to let you in on a BIG secret – behind every green thumb are many dead plants.

 

It’s true. There isn’t a single avid gardener who has never experienced a plant dying on them. Of course, green thumbs may be hesitant to reveal this fact because dead or failing plants are usually pulled out before anyone notices.

I’m not exempt from this either. I’ve got a dead plant or two, currently in my garden that are doing nothing but collecting leaves at their base and I’ve had countless plants die on my watch.

Newly planted ‘Blue Bell’ (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Believe it or not, it’s the fact that plants have died in the garden that helps a person to become a good at growing them. While your first inclination is to get frustrated about the loss of a plant, it helps to look at it as a gardening lesson.

“Each dead plant is an opportunity to learn about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future and become a better gardener in the process.”

There are several factors that can affect whether or not a plant does well where it’s planted.  These include the following:

  1. Is it well-adapted to your climate?
  2. Was it planted in the right exposure (sun, filtered sun, or shade)?
  3. Did it receive the proper amount of irrigation?
  4. Was it maintained correctly (pruning, fertilizing)?

 

New ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis)

Researching plants before purchasing them will help you to avoid many potential problems, but often the best way to learn how a plant will do is to grow them yourself.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to put a shade-loving plant in full sun, or vice versa as you’ll probably be replacing it soon.

As a horticulturist, I experiment in my garden with newer plants that have come onto the market. I recently planted several ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis) grasses. I’ve heard a few different things from people who have grown it regarding the best exposure for it – one says that filtered sun is a must while the other states that it can handle full sun. So, I am trying them out in my front yard to see for myself where they will receive filtered shade until the afternoon when they will be blasted by the sun. 

*One fun bonus of being a horticulturist and a garden writer is that growers often send me their plants for free so I can let them know how they grow in a low-desert garden.

A new Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) finds a home next to my gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa).

Other things that can affect how new plants will do are nearby plants – specifically trees.

One month later.

A tree that creates dense shade will make it difficult for many flowering plants to do anything but grow foliage at the expense of flowers. However, filtered shade from desert natives such as mesquite and palo verde create an ideal environment for many blooming plants that enjoy a little respite from the full sun.

New varieties of autumn sage with the brand new lavender ‘Meerlo’.

Sometimes, there isn’t much information available on new plant introductions and how they will do in an area with extreme weather such as our hot, dry one.  I was given the plants above to see how they would do in my Arizona garden. I knew that the salvia would need some shade to do its best in the low desert, but the lavender was a mystery. I’ve seen some other species of lavender doing well in full sun while others doing well in filtered shade.

As you can see, the ‘Meerlo’ lavender did very well in my zone 9 garden even though the actual information on the plant tag states that it does best in zone 8 and below. What it has not done is flower, which I attribute to the shade it needs to survive my hot, dry garden. But, I’m okay with that as I love the fragrance and color contrast that it adds.

This is a lesson that I could have only learned by trying out this plant. While it could have died, it didn’t and I’ve learned from the experience, which adds to my overall garden knowledge. 

So, the next time you find a dead plant in your garden, see if you can figure out why it died and learn from it. Sometimes plants die when they should be thriving with no apparent reason. Nature isn’t always predictable and sometimes you may have no answers, but you’ll be surprised at what you can learn and before you know it, your thumb may slowly turn ‘green’.

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Do you think of yourself as a trendsetter?  How about being the first landscape in your neighborhood to have the newest plant varieties on display?


I am always on the lookout for new plants that give a unique and often unexpected look to outdoor spaces awash in a sometimes overwhelming sea of bougainvillea, lantana and oleanders.


Now, I would like to state at this point, that I have no problem with bougainvillea, lantana and oleanders as plants – they are beautiful plants that are easy to care for with little fuss.  However, because they are used so often, they lack the impact that we would like for our landscaped areas to make.  At the 2015 Garden Writers Conference that I attended, one of the speakers said this, “When things are expected, they become less powerful and impactful.”



The tradeshow associated with the conference had many vendors displaying the newest tools to make gardening easier, which I wrote about in a previous post.  There were also many growers present showcasing the newest plants on the market along with new varieties of well-known plants.


Walking through the booths filled with beautiful plants, I felt like a kid in a candy store.  Everywhere you looked, there was a new plant drawing me in closer to read its tag to see if it could be grown in a hot, arid climate.


Many of the growers handed out free plants to conference attendees so that they could try them out in their own gardens.

Like I said before….I was a kid in a candy store where everything was free!

Monrovia, a well known grower, had a large number of plants on display including this one that I found rather interesting…


This is a dwarf jacaranda, called ‘Bonsai Blue’, which grows 6 ft. tall and 5 ft. wide.  This would be a great option for someone who had limited space but who wants this tropical plant along with its purple flowers decorating their outdoor space.

I was excited to receive 3 ‘Brakelights’ red yucca (Hesperaloe parvifolia ‘Perpa’), which have darker red flowers than the traditional red yucca.


I headed out to the Southern Living Plant and Sunset Western Garden Collection booth in search of plants that would thrive in my neck of the woods.


Lovely varieties of autumn sage, nandina and other salvias were a feast for the eyes.  Many of the new nandina varieties are compact, reaching 2 ft. high and tall.


Many of the plants in their display were suitable for testing in my garden, so arrangements were made to send a variety to me to try out such as ‘Flirt’‘Lemon Lime’ and ‘Obsession’ varieties of nandina, which are more compact and offer a variety in foliar color. Another plant to look forward to receiving in the mail is ‘Little Kiss’ Salvia which has red and white bicolor flowers, much like ‘Hot Lips’ salvia, but is more compact in size, reaching 18 inches.   

In the meantime, I was given 2 ‘Meerlo’ lavender plants at the tradeshow, which have lovely variegated leaves giving an entirely new loook to lavender.


High Country Gardens, is a mail-order nursery that specializes in drought tolerant and native perennials.  I spoke to the owner, David Salmon  about their newest plant introductions including ‘Showy’ pink milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).


Salvias species such as autumn sage (Salvia greggii) and closely related, Salvia microphylla were on display.  In low desert gardens, they bloom fall, winter and spring and do best when planted in partial shade.
I picked up 3 varieties of Salvia microphylla from the of the Salvia Heatwave Collection to try in my home garden.  They are purported to be more compact than the closely related Salvia greggii, while also being great in containers.  


Roses were also on prominent display, including many types of low-maintenance, groundcover roses such as these ‘Drift’ roses distributed by Star Roses and Plants.  This new type of rose is a cross between groundcover roses and miniature roses making them perfect for the smaller garden.

I received a single ‘Drift’ rose at the tradeshow, which now is now planted in my side garden.

Other plants offered by this grower include the highly popular ‘Knockout’ roses as well as beautiful shrubs and perennials. 


A representative from my favorite grower of roses, David Austin Roses, was on hand, direct from England.  These are shrub roses with old-fashioned blooms that are highly fragrant.  I’ve grown several in my garden and was excited for the opportunity to try their newest rose introduction – ‘Olivia Rose Austin’, which isn’t available to the public yet.  They will be sending me one this winter to plant in my garden. 


Believe it or not, I did pass up the offer of some free plants.  Azaleas and gardenias would not grow well in the alkaline soils and while I wish that I could grow hydrangea – they do not like the dry, heat in the Southwest.


‘Wave’ petunias have taken the potted, flowering annual realm with their masses of blooms.  The petunia flowers are smaller than regular petunias, which allows for more of them to grow closely together creating a mass of welcome color.

Several varieties were on display including the newest variety ‘Burgundy Velour’ with its deep red flowers.

Petunias are my favorite cool-season flowering annual because they aren’t fussy and the newer ‘Wave’ varieties are simply stunning.  You can find them at most local nurseries.


It took me 2 afternoons to get through all the booths at the tradeshow and my bags were filled with plants as well as samples of the newest gardening tools and other items.

I could hardly wait to get my new plants home and into the garden.

So, how did I get them home on the airplane you may wonder?

I brought two suitcases with me and carefully wrapped each plant in newspaper and then a plastic bag.  I then used my dirty clothes to cushion the area around them in each suitcase. 

 They all made it home relatively unscathed and are now planted in my garden 🙂