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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.
 

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*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.*
This is what my mother’s vegetable garden looks like in the middle of winter.  
 
She works hard at growing a variety of vegetables in her two raised beds.  On Wednesday nights, we all gather for dinner at her house and get to enjoy many of the delicious vegetables straight from her garden.   
 
Sadly, her plans for this season’s vegetable garden faced a serious setback.
 
 
My mother fell and broke her leg while cooking dinner with my youngest daughter.  Both bones in her lower leg suffered multiple fractures, and a metal rod had to be inserted down into her tibia.
 
Understandably, she cannot put any weight on her foot for at least two months.  So, while she works hard at physical therapy to gain as much independence as she can – we decided to help out with her garden.
 
 
My kids, along with my nephews, were eager to help with Grandma’s garden.  We stopped by the nursery to pick up broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and leaf lettuce transplants while I brought some carrot and radish seeds from home.
 
Lucky for us, she had already amended her soil with one of my favorite soil amendments – used coffee grounds (from Starbucks).  I added some of my favorite organic vegetable fertilizer for the garden, and we were ready to start planting.
 
 
I instructed the kids on where and how to plant the vegetable transplants in staggered rows.
 
My sister was also watching us and even stepped in to help out, despite the fact that she never gardens.  
 
 
The kids were eager to help out their grandmother, and we all enjoyed out time out in the garden.  
 
I took a few photos to bring back to her at the rehabilitation facility where she is recuperating, to show her what her grandkids had done for her.


My mother is doing well and is working hard at her daily physical therapy sessions so that she can get home as soon as possible.  We visit her daily, and her room has pictures drawn by her grandchildren and cards from friends and family.

On our most recent visit, my grandson discovered the delights of pushing around his grandpa using great-grandma’s wheelchair.  His smile and laughter brightened everyone’s day.
 
Meanwhile, back at the vegetable garden.

 

 
I came back to check on the newly planted vegetables.  Most were doing quite well, but I did see a few plants with telltale holes in their leaves.
 
 
I discovered the culprit nearby.  Cutworms are caterpillars that eat holes in leafy vegetables as well as ‘cut’ off young vegetable transplants at their base. 
 
  
The cutworms did kill some of the newly transplanted broccoli, but most of the leafy greens were fine other than a few holes in the leaves.
 
I brought my favorite organic pesticide, BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills the caterpillars.  I like to use Safer Brand 5163 Caterpillar Killer II Concentrate, 16 oz in my own garden, which helps keep the caterpillars at bay.
 
 
I sprayed all the vegetables, taking care to spray both top and underneath the leaves.  
 
BT can be reapplied every 7 – 10 days until the caterpillars are gone.  
 
**Note; it can be hard to find BT in your local big box store or even some nurseries.  However, you can find it offered online from garden supply companies and Amazon (affiliate link).
 

Have you planted any vegetables this season?  What are your favorites?

California bluebells and red flax
One of spring’s many joys are the fields of wildflowers that we often see growing along the side of the road.  It is one of the many miracles of nature how such lovely flowers can grow in the wild without any help from people.
 
I find it kind of ironic that if we want to grow these flowers of the wild in our own garden we  have to give them a little assistance to get them going.  But, the preparation is fairly simple and the rewards are definitely well worth the effort.
 
Arroyo lupine with white gaura
 
As with many things in the garden, planting begins in advance, and in the case of wildflowers, fall is the best time to sow the seeds for spring bloom.
 
 
I’ve planted wildflower gardens throughout my career, but I’ll never forget my first one.  It was on a golf course and I sowed quite a bit of wildflower seed in that small area – and I mean a LOT of seed.  The wildflowers were growing so thickly together and probably would have looked nicer if I had used less seed and/or thinned them out a little once they started to grow.  But, I loved that little wildflower garden.
 
If you like wildflowers, how about setting aside some space in your garden to plant your own?
 
I have shared my tips on creating a wildflower garden in my latest article for Houzz.  I hope you enjoy it.
 
**Do you have a favorite wildflower?
 
 

 

Earlier this week, I was finishing up an appointment in downtown Phoenix and since I had some spare time available, I decided to drive through one of my favorite historic neighborhoods – the Encanto-Palmcroft district.


I always enjoy driving down streets looking at homes built long ago and seeing how they are landscaped.  Some, remain the traditional landscaping with green lawns, neatly pruned shrubs and deciduous trees, like the one above.


I love porches, which aren’t a popular feature in southwestern homes in general.  These homeowners made the most of their small porch with a pair of rocking chairs and colorful Talavera pottery.


Some of the houses had taken on some more modern design elements such as adding raised beds and a small courtyard.


I really liked this raised bed which was filled with plants prized for foliage and not flowers.


While there were still front landscapes filled almost entirely with grass, but some had decreased the amount of grass.  I liked this one where two rectangles of grass flanked the front entry, yet stops at the wooden fence where it transitions to a xeriscape.  It speaks to the historic roots of the neighborhood while injecting a touch of modernity.


Plants such as artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’) and lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) fit in seamlessly with the other more traditional landscape elements in this garden.


This home also retained its lawn but added drought tolerant plants up toward the foundation.  The spiky texture of agave and yucca add a contemporary touch along with texture contrast.

  
Here is a car that you would expect to see when many of these homes were brand new.  

Check out the large Texas olive (Cordia boissieri).

  
This home had a walled-in courtyard added for privacy and a curved path leads up toward the entry.


The pathway leading toward the residence begins at the parking strip and is flanked by river rock.


A couple of the historic homes shed their green lawns and formerly pruned shrubs completely.

Mature specimens of ironwood (Olneya tesota), jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), and creosote (Larrea tridentata) create privacy for this house.

An informal pathway also bisects this parking strip leading toward the entry path to the house.


The purple door contrasts beautifully with the hunter green color of the house.


The backyard of this desert retreat is surrounded by a fence made of rebar.


Small vignettes are visible through plantings of hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa) and yucca.


As I left the historic district, I spotted a beautiful specimen of a palo blanco tree (Acacia willardiana)

I could have spent several hours exploring the Encanto-Palmcroft historic district, but it’s nice to have a reason to come back again someday.

*You can view another garden in this historic district from an earlier post, A Hidden Jewel In the Middle of Phoenix.


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Most of the time when you walk through a parking lot, you are often greeted by the appearance of islands scattered throughout overplanted with badly maintained shrubs.

Last month, I drove into a parking lot that was quite unusual in that it was planted with attractive succulents and not ugly shrubs.



Instead of shrubs, the medians were planted with beautiful agave specimens.


In addition to different types of agave, were gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) succulents, which added a welcome respite to the crowded and over-pruned shrubs that usually characterize most parking lots.


In addition to the agave and other succulents were  flowering shrubs such as Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), which was allowed to grow into its natural shape.


This parking lot was located in front of a hospital where my husband had an appointment for a routine procedure.  Our walk through the parking lot took twice as long as it would normally take with me pausing every few seconds to take pictures of the plants.


It was so refreshing to see succulents such as these  in parking lot islands instead of struggling shrubs.  They thrive in the hot, reflected heat while needing very little water.

Maybe we should rethink what we plant in parking lot islands and ditch the high-maintenance, thirsty shrubs?

It may seem rather strange to think of landscapes decorated with lilies in fall, but summer and fall rain bring on the lovely blooms of rain lilies (Zephyranthes species).



Rain or ‘zephyr’ lilies add beauty to the gardens throughout the Southern half of the U.S., including the Southwest.  While their apperance may make you think that they are delicate and needs lots of coddling, nothing could be further from the truth.


Like other types of lilies, they are grown from bulbs planted in fall and are surprisingly, moderately drought tolerant.


The white species (Zephyranthes candida) is my favorite and has evergreen foliage.  There are other species and hybrids in colors such as pink and peach.

Rain lilies deserve a greater presence in the landscape, given their delicate beauty that adds welcome interest to the fall garden.  They are also easy to grow.

For more information on this delightful plant, including the different species and how to plant and grow your own this fall, check out my latest plant profile for Houzz.

For those who live in the western half of the United States, water has always been seen as a precious resource – especially during recent years as long-term drought has made its impact felt with dwindling water supplies.  As a result, many of us find ourselves looking for ways to save water and as the largest user of residential water – the landscape is the first place to make significant changes. 


Let’s look at three different low water landscape options and how they can help you save water.  


Option #1: Drought Tolerant – This landscape is characterized by lush green, flowering plants such as bougainvillea, lantana, oleanders and yellow bells – all of which do well in hot, arid climates in zones 9 and above.  While most of these plants aren’t native to the Southwest, they are considered moderately drought tolerant and are suitable for those who want more a lush-appearing desert garden.  For best results, deep water once a week in summer and every 2 weeks in winter.

Option #2: Moderately Drought Tolerant – Native, flowering plants make up this type of landscape and include plants like chuparosa, damianita, penstemon, Texas sage and turpentine bush.  Because these plants are native to the Southwestern region, they need infrequent watering to look their best – a good guideline is to water deeply twice a month in summer and monthly in winter.


Option #3: Extremely Drought Tolerant – For a landscape that can exist on very little water, a collection of cacti and succulents are the way to go.  Columnar cacti such as Mexican fence post, organ pipe, saguaro and totem pole add height to the garden alongside lower growing succulents like agave, candelilla and desert milkweed, which can be used to create a landscape filled with texture and contrasts.  Golden barrel, hedgehog cacti and mammillaria fill in smaller spaces and look great next to boulders.  Once established, they can survive on natural rainfall, but will look best with deep monthly watering in summer when possible.

It’s important to note that plants should be watered deeply to a depth of 2 ft., which promotes deep root growth and the soil stays moister longer.  

Whichever option you select, creating an attractive water saving landscape is within your reach that will thrive in our drought-stricken region.

Plants that stay green all winter while also producing flowers are somewhat rare in the Southwest, which is why Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) is one of my favorite additions in landscapes I design as well as in my own garden.



Orange, tubular flowers appear throughout the year, with the heaviest bloom occurring in spring.


Hummingbirds find their flowers irresistible.


The lime-green foliage looks great year round and this small shrub thrives in light, filtered shade.

For more information on this latest drought tolerant and beautiful plant, including what plants to pair it with, check out my latest article for Houzz.


*Disclosure: I was given a free copy of the book, “Beautiful, Desert Pots” in return for my honest review.

In the desert, we are fortunate to be able to grow plants in containers throughout the entire year.

 

 

Of course, living in the desert does bring along its special challenges when it comes to gardening and growing plants in pots is no exception.
 
 
However, with the right pot, location, planting mix and plants – it is possible to grow a perfectly lovely container filled with thriving plants.
 
 
I like to think of potted plants as a way to decorate your outdoor space with both color and texture.  They also offer the flexibility to change out plants easily for a different look as well as the ability to move the pots around to new locations.
 
 
A pot filled with plants is nothing short of a miniature garden in a confined space.
I hope that these photos of lovely potted gardens help to inspire you to get out there and create your own.
 
 
To help get you started, I highly recommend the book, “Getting Potted in the Desert”, written by Marylee Pangman, Tucson resident who has over 20 years of experience growing potted plants in the desert.  She is a certified Master Gardener and ran her own company, “The Contained Gardener”, where she designed and maintained container gardens for clients for years.
 
**Now it’s time to announce the winner of our giveaway for a free copy of “Getting Potted in the Desert”**
 
Susan aka ‘Gardening Granny’, you are the winner of this fabulous book!
 
Congratulations!
 
Thank all of you who entered and let us know what you like to grow in containers.
 
If you didn’t win, you can still order a copy of this book for yourself or a friend who loves to garden.
Click here to be directed to the ordering page.

“Where do you recommend I go to buy plants?” This is one question that I’m often asked, and Tmy answer varies.

The choices that people have for purchasing plants range from a locally owned nursery, a nursery chain, or a big box store.  

So which is best? Well, that depends on the situation. So, I am going to give you my recommendations based on different factors.

Local Nursery
Situation #1:
You have just moved into a new house and want to add some plants, but you have no idea what kind of plants do well in your new region, how to care for them, or what type of exposure is best.
Answer: 
I would highly recommend visiting a locally owned nursery, which employs people who are knowledgeable about plants. Also, the types of plants they carry are most likely well-adapted to the growing conditions of your area as well.  
Local nurseries also sell a greater variety of plants.
 
The mature size of a plant often depends on what climate they are grown in.  So your local nursery professional can tell you how large the plant will become in your zone, what type of exposure it needs along with watering and fertilizer requirements the plant will require.
You will pay a little more at a locally-owned nursery or a small chain, but you will save money due to the excellent advice and the fact that they usually only stock well-adapted plants for the region.

 

Big Box Store Nursery
Situation #2:  
You have a list of plants that you need for your garden, are familiar with the plants that do well where you live and how to care for them. Also, your budget for purchasing new plants is small.
 
Answer:
When you exactly what plants you need and are dealing with a tight budget, you may want to check out your big box store’s nursery
Another important thing is to be familiar the plant’s needs because, while their nursery personnel may be helpful, not all of them are knowledgeable about plants.
 
The biggest benefit for shopping at a big box store’s nursery is that plants are often less expensive than at your local nursery.  Many also offer an excellent plant warranty as well.
 
One important thing to remember about shopping at a big box store nursery is that just because you see a plant there, does not necessarily mean that it will do well in your area.  I have seen quite a few plants available in my local big box store that is sold out of season or very difficult to impossible to grow where I live.
 
So where do I shop for plants?
Well, it depends on several factors.

Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

 
For flowering annuals, I shop at the nearby big box store as it’s hard to beat their variety and amount plants available.
When I need perennials, shrubs, succulents, or trees, you’ll find me at my favorite local nursery. They grow most of their nursery stock, so I know that it is adapted to the climate.

While traveling to areas with similar climates to mine, I take time to see if they have any specialty nurseries and take time to visit.

I do need to confess that my favorite place to find plants is not at a nursery, but at my botanical garden’s seasonal plant sale. They have hard to find plants, and I know that whatever plants I come home with will do well in my garden.

 Regardless of where you shop for your plants, I highly recommend researching plants ahead of time.  

 
Learn how big they get, what type of maintenance they require, watering needs and how it will do where you live.  You can find most of this information easily online by doing a simple search using the plant name + where you live, which will give you links on the plant and how it does in your area.

**Where do you shop for plants?

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