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Valentine bush and feathery cassia

One of the things that I enjoy about living in the Southwest are the beautiful outdoor spaces. In particular, I am struck by the color and beauty in the winter landscape.

Now, for those of you who follow, know that I often take photos of ‘problem’ landscapes I drive by.

Well, not this time!  I was so distracted by the beauty around me that I didn’t notice any landscape mistakes.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and are inspired to create your own!

 
Valentine bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’) is hands down, my favorite shrub.  I love its bright red color, which decorates the landscape from January through April.  Even when not in bloom, the foliage looks lovely.
 
Golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) with their sunny yellow color are a great choice. I use them often in my landscape designs due to their drought tolerance, low maintenance (they need none) and the yellow color they add throughout the year.
 
Large desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) add great contrast with their spiky texture and gray-blue coloring.
 
This is a great pairing of plants that I plan on using in future designs.
 
 
The yellow, fragrant flowers of feathery cassia (Senna artemisioides) are famous for their winter color. Nothing else brightens a dreary winter’s day as much as the color yellow. The silvery foliage of this cassia adds great color contrast and give off a silvery glow on a breezy day.

In the background, you see the pink blooms of pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla). Their uniquely shaped blooms look like a feather duster and hummingbirds find them irresistible. 

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) is a native groundcover that needs little water and provides nice color contrast.

 
This combination was well done but planted too closely together.
 
Against the backdrop of yellow-flowering feathery cassia, a pair of boulders are decorated with blue bells (Eremophila hygrophana). These shrubs have lovely gray foliage and produce purple/blue flowers all year long.  This is a newer plant introduction getting a lot of attention. 
 
A golden barrel cactus offers great contrast along with a pair of agave.
 
 
Here is one of my favorite landscapes in this particular community.  I like the combination of cacti, flowering shrubs, and perennials that create a pleasing landscape.
 
A trio of flowering firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni) easily catches your eye. They are one of my favorite perennials in my own garden and flower January through April in the low desert.
 
 
In another landscape, firecracker penstemon is used as part of a wildflower planting, backed by desert spoon and purple trailing lantana.
 
 
Ornamental grasses add great interest to the winter landscape and pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is one of my favorites. Their burgundy plumes, which appear in fall fade to an attractive wheat color in winter. Soon, they will be pruned back to 3 inches in preparation for a new growth cycle.
 
 
Some landscapes look attractive using a minimum amount of plants.  The key is to use a variety of different plants – not just shrubs or cacti.  In this one, a blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) overlooks a planting of purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) and desert spoon.  While the lantana is frost tender, the canopy of the tree provides it some protection from frost.
 
 
It’s important to anchor the corners in your landscape – particularly those next to the driveway. Here is an example of how to combine plants that look great throughout the year. When warmer temps arrive  ‘New Gold’ lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold’), bursts forth with colorful blooms that last until the first frost. In winter, golden barrel cacti attract the attention and keep you from noticing the frost damaged lantana. 
 
 
This street planting also attracted my attention with the row of little leaf (foothill) palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla) trees, Valentine shrubs and purple trailing lantana. I should note that lantana doesn’t usually flower much in winter, but in mild winters, they do.

An almost leafless mesquite tree stands sentinel over a planting of red-flowering chuparosa (Justicia californica). This shrub has lovely green foliage and tubular flowers that drive hummingbirds crazy with delight.

As you can see, the Southwestern landscape is filled with beauty and color, even in winter.  Unfortunately, many homeowners only use plants that bloom spring through summer. This leaves them with a boring landscape through the winter months for several months. So, celebrate the winter season by adding a few of these cool-season beauties to your garden!

Cereus cactus, golden barrel cactus, and firecracker penstemon

Is your outdoor space looking rather drab? If so, you aren’t alone – many landscapes can appear somewhat dull, especially if there is a lack of color. But, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

One of my favorite aspects of my job as a landscape consultant is to help my clients to transform their garden from drab to colorful and it is quite easy to do. 

I invite you to join me as I revisit with a client two-years after I created a planting plan for her existing, lackluster landscape. 

BEFORE – Corner of Driveway

Initially, this area did little to add to the curb appeal of the home. Overgrown red yucca plants and a cholla cactus created a ‘messy’ and boring look to this high-profile spot in the landscape.

AFTER

Removing the old plants and adding angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) and gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa), creates colorful interest while adding texture. Before, the boulders were hidden behind the overgrown plants, so now they serve as an excellent backdrop for the new additions. 

 

The corners of the driveway are one of the most viewed spots in the landscape and are often the first part people see when they drive by. It’s important to anchor them visually with plants that look great all year and preferably produce colorful flowers or have an attractive shape or color. I always like to add boulders to help anchor both corners as well.

These areas are also critical in that they create symmetry, connecting both sides of the landscape, which is done by using the same types of plants on each side.

 

Although there is no ‘before’ photo for the entry, here is an example of plants that will add year-round color because of their overlapping bloom seasons. ‘Blue Elf’ aloe blooms in winter and on into early spring while ‘New Gold Mound’ lantana will flower spring through fall, as the aloe fades into the background. A ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) brings a nice vertical element to this spot and will grow taller with age.

BEFORE

Along the front entry path, a tall cereus (Cereus peruvianus) cactus adds a welcome vertical element while the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) creates excellent texture contrast. However, something is missing in this area, in my opinion.

AFTER

A colorful element was what was missing in this area. A single firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) adds beauty while also attracting hummingbirds.

BEFORE

On the corner of this lot was a palo brea tree with a large desert spoon and turpentine bushes. Overall, there was nothing exciting in this spot.

AFTER

The turpentine bushes were removed to make way for a set of gopher plants, which served to tie in this corner of the garden with the areas next to the driveway. These succulents flower in spring and add nice spiky texture throughout the rest of the year.

Purple and white trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) serve to create a colorful carpet throughout the warm months of the year. This type of lantana can struggle in full sun in the middle of summer in the low-desert garden but, thrive underneath the filtered shade of a palo verde tree.

When working with an existing landscape, I relish the challenge of determining what existing plants still add beauty to the outdoor space, or have the potential to if pruned correctly. Sometimes an ugly, overgrown shrub can be transformed into something beautiful if pruned back severely. Often, it’s up to me to decide what goes and what stays. Then, the real fun part begins, which is selecting what areas need new plants and what ones will work best.

I find that many people think that to renovate a landscape, you need to get rid of most of the plants and put in a lot of new ones. But, this is rarely the case. All you need to do is keep the plants that will continue to add to the curb appeal or create a beautiful, mature backdrop for new plants and new plants should be concentrated in high-profile areas where their impact will be maximized.

What would you like to get rid of in your landscape and what would you keep?

Noelle Johnson, AKA, ‘AZ Plant Lady’ is a horticulturist, landscape consultant, and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. While writing and speaking on a variety of gardening topics keeps her busy, you’ll often find her outside planting vegetables, picking fruit from her trees, or testing the newest drought-tolerant plants. 

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Do you enjoy seeing “before and after” photos?


I do – especially with landscapes.


Just over a year ago, I was asked to help renovate a local church’s landscape.
  



As you can see their landscape had become rather bare as plants had not been replaced over the years.  In addition, there were some old plants that needed replacing.

So, I got to work on a new design.  When renovating an existing landscape, it’s important to determine which existing plants to keep.  I rarely get rid of all the plants since mature plants help anchor a new landscape while the new plants take time to fill in and grow.  Also, why waste a perfectly good plant as long as it is still attractive and can fit into your design?  You can always create a design to go with an existing plant.

A year after being installed, I was asked to come back to work on a different area of the church,  During that time, I took some “after” pictures of what the landscape looks like now.  


This area was filled with two old shrubs, which we elected to keep.


Some contouring (mounding) was added for elevation and river rock washes were added for drainage.


And this is what it looks like 1 year later.  Flowering feathery cassia (Senna artemisioides) adds color in winter and spring.  Year round color is supplied by angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis) and ‘Blue Bells’ (Eremophila hygrophana).

Agave and boulders will add texture contrast.


In this area, I tagged two struggling shrubs with paint for removal along with a yucca plant that the church landscape committee wanted removed due to it poking people with its sharp leaves as they walked by.

The Mexican bird-of-paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana) tree would remain in this area.


The small wash was redone, which serves double duty – it adds a decorative element to the landscape and helps channel water from the roof.

Golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) were planted in the corner where they will lend sunny yellow color all year long.  ‘Blue bell’ shrubs complete the planting in this area.


While pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) is a beautiful desert shrub in spring, it makes a poor hedge.  In addition, it does not flower 9 months of the year.  A plant that would look great throughout the majority of the year was needed in this area.


Ornamental grasses fit the bill perfectly in this area.  Pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is green from spring through summer and puts on a show in fall when burgundy plumes appear that fade to an attractive wheat color in winter.  Instead of a hedge, which would need pruning throughout the year, pink muhly needs pruning once, in spring.


This area had a few sage shrubs, a single red yucca and a barrel cactus.

I had everything removed in this bed except for the barrel cactus.  The church had a large number of old Texas sage shrubs (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’).  The reason that I had many of these taken out was because a the majority of the members of this church are winter visitors.  Texas sage flowers in summer and early fall when they are gone.  I was asked to add plants that would provide winter and spring color.


Now this area is filled with feathery cassia and Valentine bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine), both of which flower in winter and spring.  Desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) adds both color and texture contrast and ‘Blue bell’ shrubs will add colorful flowers throughout the entire year.


This corner section of the landscape was filled with formally pruned shrubs that offered little beauty to the area.


The ocotillo and yucca remained and angelita daisies, ‘Blue Bell’ and feathery cassia were added.

I must admit that I was quite pleased at how everything looked.  It’s one thing to create a design on paper and another thing entirely to see it growing in beautifully.

On a slightly different note, I also took time to check on the streetside landscape by the church that I had designed 2 years ago.


In the beginning, there was nothing there but an old cactus or two.


What a difference 2 years makes!  A young palo blanco tree (Acacia willardiana) grows among feathery cassia, Valentine and purple trailing lantana.

The plant palette for the church mirrored that of the street landscape for a visually seamless transition.


Along this section fo the street, all that was present were 3 Agave americana and utility boxes.


The agave were relocated along this stretch of road with trees and colorful shrubs.  You can hardly see the utility boxes now.

Thank you for letting me share with you some of my favorite “before and after” photos.  Learn more about the plants that I used in this project by clicking their names: ‘Blue Bell’ shrubs, feathery cassia, Valentine bush and pink muhly grass.

*Do you have an area in your landscape that needs a little help?  Take some time and drive around and take pictures of landscapes that you like.  Then take them to your local nursery or landscape professional and have them help you renovate your landscape.