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Author Archives: Maureen Gilmer

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer has been a noted figure in horticultural journalism for over 30 years. She is author of 18 gardening books and writer of Yardsmart, a national column syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service. She is also garden columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in the international resort town of Palm Springs. Maureen is a public speaker and former host of Weekend Gardening on the DIY Channel. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.
  1. Tough Garden Yuccas      

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    Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa) is an adaptable, bold landscape plant!

    “This flower was made for the moon, as the Heliotrope is for the sun…and refuses to display her beauty in any other light.”  This lovely Victorian quote, taken from the 1878 edition of Vicks Monthly Magazine, set off a fad for yucca plants.  Though they flower in the sun, their blossoms become fragrant at dusk, releasing a seductive scent to draw their pollinators, yucca moths (Tegeticula and Parategeticula moth species).  Yucca species depend on a specific yucca moths for pollination, and yucca moths lay their eggs in yucca flowers where the young feed on some (but not all) of the developing seeds. Both moths and plants need one another for survival.

    Growing yucca is a snap, if you choose the right one.  With so many species and new varieties available at garden centers, it can be mind boggling.  The best choices for those in yucca country are locally native species available in outdoor garden centers.  These will be the best adapted to your region and most likely to bloom well.

    Central and Eastern Yucca for Landscapes

    Moundlily yucca growing in a sandy plain in the American Southeast.

    Yuccas may form single clumps, multiple clumps, or be tree-like.  Clump-forming species are more prevalent in the East and Southeast coastal regions.  Common garden-worthy forms include Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa), an eastern native that inhabits fields and open woodlands, the southeastern moundlily yucca (Y. gloriosa and Y. gloriosa var. recurvifolia) that inhabits coastal landscapes, and the Central US soapweed yucca (Y. glauca) of the dry plains. Spanish bayonet (Y. aloifolia) is a trunked species that inhabits southeastern coasts. These are more tolerant of regular rainwater and soils with clay, but all require well-drained soil and will withstand drought.

    Western Yucca for Landscapes

    The beautiful flowers of banana yucca rising from a tough cluster of leaves.

    In the arid west, Yucca species are adapted to perpetual wind and nonexistent humidity.  Species such as the clump-forming banana yucca (Y. baccata) and tree-like beaked yucca (Y. thompsoniana) have thicker leaves plus a hard outer skin that make them super desert hardy, but painfully slow growing.  That means these are best purchased as mature specimens because young plants take so long to reach a visible landscape size. Arid yucca prefer south-facing, sloping ground with rapid drainage or naturally porous soils.  That’s why it’s essential to know the origin of any yucca you’re considering, to make sure you get a proper fit with your microclimate.

    Landscape yucca of all kinds have been getting a makeover; ordinary green-leaf species are now offered as variegated cultivars that you can buy at garden centers.  These feature brightly striped or blue leaves and compact versions that are ideal for container gardens.  Variegated forms may bring shades of bright gold, ivory, and mint green into the garden for year-round color.

    Growing Yucca in Gardens

    ‘Color Guard’ is a popular variegated Adam’s needle for containers and gardens.

    In the landscape, some yucca species develop a trunk-like growth with age, so they get taller with time.  Others spread laterally, producing large clumps around the mother plant.  Since there are so many species in cultivation, the list below identifies the most widely grown and available species for gardens.  Different cultivated varieties may be available at the garden center, and though they may look different, grow them as you would the parent species.

    Provide your yuccas with soils that drain well. Sandy or gravelly soil is often preferred, though Adam’s needle can withstand loamy soils. Be sure you know the hardiness of these sun lovers before planting them in the garden. Most landscape species are remarkably cold hardy, but the lack of winter light may be  problematic for overall vigor.  Southwestern species cannot withstand winter moisture.

    Growing Yucca in Pots

    Mature Y. gloriosa var. recurvifolia become tree-like with age.

    When growing yucca in a large pot, it’s best to make sure there is optimal flow for drainage.  If you create a small gap between the drain hole and the underlying surface or saucer, the pot will drain more freely.  Take at least 2 pieces of old tile, and slide them under the pot where you can’t see them.  It is important to “gap” the pot with any arid plant grown in containers.

    Juvenile yuccas do beautifully in pots.  Plant them in porous Black Gold Cactus Mix instead of ordinary potting soil, so there’s less chance of overwatering them.  Buy a youngster for a cute matching pot to enjoy up close. As it grows, pot it up into larger containers until it becomes a stunning mature patio specimen.

    Unlike agaves that bloom once at the end of life, yuccas bloom each year with stalked iridescent sprays of snow white blossoms.  They shine in the moonlight reflecting light to lure their moth pollinators, so be sure to plant them where you can’t miss the show for full-moon viewing.

    List of Common Yucca Species for Gardening

    Latin Name Common Name Form US Region Zone
    Y. aloifolia Spanish Bayonet Tree-like SE 7-11
    Y. baccata Banana Yucca Clumping SW 7-11
    Y. filamentosa Adam’s Needle Clumping SE 4-9
    Y. gloriosa    Spanish Dagger Tree-like SE 6-11
    Y. glauca Soapweed Yucca Clumping C 4-10
    Y. thompsoniana
    Beaked Yucca Tree-like SW 6-11

    Glowing yucca flowers develop a sweet scent at night.

  2. 4-Layer Easy Rock Garden Design

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    Created on a slight incline, this beautiful western rock garden featuring aloes, cacti, and local stones and cobble.

    Alpine succulents from the Atlas Mountains flooded into 17th-century England where the climate and soils were totally unsuitable for growing them.  This created a learning curve for English gardeners. Daily summer rains and great soil explains why their gardens are so fabulous, but succulents need high sun, fast draining soil, and occasional watering to thrive. To compensate, English gardeners learned how to build rockeries, or rock gardens.

    Created along a driveway slot, this layered alpine rock garden shows the adaptability of rockeries to small spaces.

    They learned that succulents could survive English winters if the soil was as well drained as a mountain scree.  In the wild, alpine species thrive on mountainsides where elevated natural pockets between the rock keep them high and dry. So, the elevated English rockeries were raised with rock and pebble and created on south-facing inclines. Contemporary rock gardens in the American West use similar techniques, but the plants grown are more tender species from South Africa and Mexico.

    American succulent rock gardens are easy to make, sustainable, and demand little water.  Their size can be as small as a rocky trough or cover an entire front yard, but all must be sloped or mounded for increased drainage.  They are easiest to create on a preexisting slope that receives full sun. South-facing slopes are best.

    Creating Layered Rock Gardens

    Rock gardens are created in four layers.  Allow plenty of time for thoughtful arrangement of the rocks; placement really matters.  Hand place materials to resemble a natural feature where each stone looks at its best and compliments the plantings. Without careful design and placement, rock gardens can look like rock piles!

    Layer 1 – Place Anchors:  Anchors are key boulders and large rocks that are higher than the final garden grade. They provide height, help support smaller stones, and reduce erosion.  Set them within the bed area in a naturalistic, irregular arrangement that’s pleasing to the eye.

    Layer 2 – Cobble/Rubble:  Stones on this layer range from slightly larger than your fist to robin’s egg sized.  They can be rounded river rock, cobble, or coarse crushed stone with sharp edges that grab the soil on slopes.  Rounded rock or cobble tends to roll or slide without the structure of supporting anchor stones. Leave gaps between the anchor stones to support and raise the planting layer on top.  Leave deeper pockets for planting larger plants.

    Layer 3 – Fill Soil: Pour Black Gold Cactus Mix into all the openings between the cobble/rubble layer. Pack the mix well to avoid wash outs.

    Layer 4 – Gravel Mulch:   Succulents of all kinds love gravel surface mulch.  It prevents mix from washing out and reduces slope erosion.  It’s addition will result in conditions ideal for for both tender and hardy succulents as well as small arid grasses and perennials.

    Keep Planting!

    A rock garden isn’t static; it’s always changing.  Alpine Sedum will spread into crevices and along stones to create vivid mats of color.  Bright Sempervivum will send up their tall blossoms in late spring.  Gorgeous Echeveria hybrids will prove to be the perfect accent plants for hot summer weather.

    Over time, rock garden soils will settle and gravel will erode, but that’s okay.  It’s a natural process.  When soil layers become too thin, add more Black Gold Cactus Mix.  To slow erosion as you add the mix, loosen the soil at the bottom, incorporate the mix, and cover with fresh gravel mulch. If you want to create new planting pockets, just remove some small- to medium-sized rocks, dig a new hole, and add fresh mix.

    Locally mined stone is more affordable due to the short hauling distance.  Visit a local rock yard and take a good look at what’s available in your area before you start your rock garden. Visualize what you want, determine the garden’s area and plantings, order the rock, succulents, and bags of Black Gold Cactus Mix, and you’re on your way to a fabulous new succulent rock garden!

    Gravel mulch holds soil and is the perfect cover for arid grasses and perennials. (by Jessie Keith)

  3. Get an Edge on Porous Paving

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    Short, dense perennials are the ultimate edge plants to tidy up after repairs to eroding edges.

    Artists learn early on that the most important parts of a line are the beginning and end points.  The quality of the start and end define the line’s value. No matter how light the line weight is between the two points, the line continuum will stay intact because the viewer will naturally extrapolate by filling in a missing or faint center.

    This essential working element of design also applies to gardens and landscapes, with garden edges setting the lines that define the flow and focal points of a given space. But, smart landscape and garden designers also consider the functionality of garden edges.

    Path and Patio Edge Problems


    “New” porous patios and paths have become popular because they facilitate ground drainage, but they can also have hidden design flaws. The trend to design patios that enhance drainage has placed emphasis on the patios rather than the gardens that frame them.  The truth is that the most important part of a garden composition is how well the planting line meets a gravel, flagstone, or paver area.  A close edge planting is often omitted in porous paving plantings, which leads to erosion and disrupts the visual flow of the design, causing structural and visual disarray for everyone to see.

    Every time it rains, particles will flow onto the flagstone and into the pool beyond.

    Unplanted edges and paving gaps are subject to tremendous erosion caused by hard rains powerful enough to dislodge gravel and surface soil particles.  The porous fill flows away with runoff and settles out on low ground.  The greater the impact of each rain drop, the more soil is lost, creating washout spots, gaps, and hidden cavities under stones.  Erosive rains can also undercut the units or frames that hold edging stones in place, creating a double-foot-traffic hazard for tripping.

    Once porous paving starts having these problems, impacted plantings may fail to thrive or die, and your pavers may become loose and unsteady.  Gravel has traveled and thinned at the edges.  Low muddy spots have become a mess and hazard.  Getting that patio created was just half the battle.  What they didn’t tell you is that unlike solid paving (lay it and forget it), porous paving requires well-planted edges and a little more maintenance.

    Plant Your Edges!


    Planting low plants like thyme among pavers can also reduce erosion and add to the beauty of a porous patio.

    Use the mild fall weather to rehabilitate your porous patio and path edges with beautiful plantings that control erosion. Here’s the process:

    1. Fill low edge spots and pack cavities below pavers or flagstones with natural soil blended with 20 percent Black Gold Garden Soil. Shoot for a soil level at least 1 inch below the top surface of your stones to keep them high and dry.
    2. Regrade all peripheral soil beyond the garden edges, so it’s not draining back onto the patio when you water. Reset any pavers or flagstones that have shifted or tilted.
    3. Set your plants along the edges in pleasing designs that consider height and flowering time as well as cultural needs. Choose dense edge plants to hold the soil in place where it has washed out before. Enrich planting holes with more Black Gold Garden Soil to encourage quicker establishment of plants.
    4. Apply gravel, attractive rock, or dense organic mulch over the top of any exposed soil after planting. This protects against future surface erosion every time it rains.

    Edge plantings slow runoff to limit erosion along and below the most vulnerable, outermost paving materials.  Their established roots also reduce gravel creep.  The right plants for this scenario are low and dense, deep rooted, and hardy.  They should be selected for the exposure of your garden space, be it sun or shade.  Most of all, avoid short-lived, easily damaged species, or those with spines and thorns – all unsuitable for this condition.

    Once your garden plantings around your porous patio are dense enough, they will protect it from washout, whether the porous material is recycled antique brick mosaic or pea gravel.  Just remember, when it comes to porous paving, begin with the edges, and the rest will take care of itself.


    “Nest” perennial plantings along the edge to hold soil and gravel and reduce erosion.

  4. Cultivate Beneficial Insects in the Garden

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    Ladybug adults and larvae (orange and black) waging war on black aphids!


    Your garden is a battlefield with more life and death drama than the Serengeti during wildlife migrations.  Among your beautiful plants and flowers there is that age-old war playing out every day as the insect world fights over who eats what.  Some insects are pests that eat your plants – they are garden prey.  Other insects are there to eat the plant pests – they are the predators.  Your goal is to provide the perfect environment for predators to thrive to help keep insect pest populations under control.

    Where to Find Garden Pests

    Whiteflies are common pests consumed by beneficial insects. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    New gardeners need to know this: plant pests, such as white flies, aphids and mites,  show up on the weakest plants first.  When a plant’s natural resistance starts to fail, it sends out stress hormones that attract the pests that feed on them, so always study stressed plants to get a real pest assessment. On the upside, stressed plants also produce stress compounds that attract the beneficial insects that consume these pests, which is why it’s smart to hold off on the pesticides.

    All too often the response to finding pests on your plants is to spray everything in sight with botanical pesticides to stop the spread.  Sadly, there are often beneficial troops in the field, such as ladybugs, that will get killed, too. Spray should always be a last resort. The best solution is to either give the plant extra care to help it fight off pests. You can also remove badly infested stems or whole plants entirely, to quickly relieve pests from your garden.  This decision is up to you, commander and chief, but identifying your garden’s beneficials will help you get to know them, so you can protect them.

    Beneficial Insects

    Baby praying mantids are smaller than a finger nail.

    Praying mantids:  Easy to spot due to their folded, prayer-like front pincers, praying mantids are large and fearless. These champion bug eaters are a gardener’s palace guard.  They consume a great number of insects, particularly larvae which cause rapid, serious damage.  You’ll find mantid egg cases (which look like they are made of builder’s foam) on bark, stems, fences and walls, so don’t disturb them.  New mantids will hatch as nymphs; tiny identical copies of their parents.

    Ladybug adults are cute, which is why everyone loves them! (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Ladybugs:  These are our best bugs for teaching the kids about insect pests and beneficials because ladybugs are cute, not scary. You can always find ladybugs in thriving, insecticide-free gardens. Wherever there are aphids you will find these spotted red beetles and their weird looking larvae. The larvae are the hungriest, eating loads of aphids at a go, but this is also the stage when they are most vulnerable to pyrethrins and other pesticides.

    Lacewings:  These delicate transparent insects are voracious feeders that travel from plant to plant gobbling up pests, such as aphids, mites, whiteflies, mealybugs, and thrips.  They’re universally present, like ladybugs, in diverse gardens where there are no chemicals to limit their numbers. Lacewings have long been used for the control of whiteflies in greenhouses, and they do lots of good outdoors too.

    Many spider species dwell in the garden.

    Garden spiders:  Most folks are naturally afraid of spiders, but in the garden these predators are at the top of the list when it comes to attacking pests.  There are many types of garden spiders, which cast a wide net to catch prey on the wing or as they move from plant to plant. Even though they may catch the occasional pollinator, they do far more good than damage.

    Heavy artillery:  Though not insect predators, the heavy bombers of your garden are birds in the daytime and bats at night.  Bats are vital to consuming tomato hornworm moths, and a single bat can eat up to 600 mosquitoes a night, which benefits everyone.

    Quick List of Common Garden Pests

    A praying mantid laying in wait for its next meal. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Aphids: These sucking insects attach many flower and vegetable plants, and populations can get out of control fast without the help of beneficials. Their natural predators include ladybugs and lacewings.

    Mealybugs: White mealybugs crawl along plant stems and leaves sucking out their juices and doing a lot of damage fast. They particularly like stem crevices. Natural predators include ladybugs, lacewings, and the mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri).

    Spider Mites: Tiny spider mites populate quickly and suck juices from below the leaves of plants. The beetles and larvae of the all-black spider mite destroyer ladybug (Stethorus picipes) will do serious damage to populations. Standard ladybugs will also eat them.

    Thrips: These tiny sucking insects damage the leaves and flowers of many garden plants. Ladybugs and lacewings are two of their biggest natural predators.

    Whiteflies: Ladybugs and lacewings will attack the clouds of small whiteflies that feed on the leaves of many garden flowers and veggies.

    Leafhoppers: Fast-moving leafhoppers suck the juices from plant leaves and spread viral diseases along the way. Ladybugs and lacewings will help keep them under control.

    Assorted larvae: The larvae of many pesky beetles and moths will chew on lots of favorite garden vegetables and flowers. Predators include praying mantids, lacewings, and ladybugs. Birds and bats will also feed on them.

    Building Insect Armies

    Tomato hornworms are large enough for a praying mantid to devour.

    Your first protective step should be to give your plants good care to keep them strong and vigorous! Do not draw your sword to kill a fly, as the Korean saying goes.  Build your armies instead by tending your plants. Use quality Black Gold potting soil and amendments to help keep plants vigorous and further support the age-old secret war of the garden.  Manage pest populations naturally, by removing badly infested stems and plants. Do this and you’ve become a partner of your garden predator protectors who will return the favor, just as beloved watch dogs protect homes at night.


  5. Plant a Cactus Fruit Garden

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    Prickly pear fruits are tangy and often deep red. (Opuntia ficus-indica shown)

    Cactus fruit are a forgotten staple of hot climates where they ripen quickly with a very high sugar content.  Fruits are cooked down into syrups, squeezed into icy drinks, made into jam, or eaten fresh after peeling.  These native fruits of the American Southwest and Mexico are both a staple and a survival food, depending on the quality of the fruit.

    All over Mexico, the wild summer cactus fruit harvest is ongoing every year.  Flowers of spring mature into huge fruits savored by both humans and birds alike.  From Native American gatherings to haute fresh cuisine, the right kinds of cactus in your western garden yields these same fruits, too.

    Fruiting cactus for gardens can be divided into three basic groups, prickly pear, apple cactus, and vine cactus.  Prickly pears (Opuntia spp.) exist across the Americans with many cold hardy North American species.  The Peruvian apple (Cereus repandus) and dragon fruit (Hylocereus spp.) are from South America are best grown in frost free climates.   All of these produce fabulously large or brightly colored spring flowers, as well as delicious fruits and are very ornamental edibles.


    Prickly Pear


    Large prickly pears make large fruit that’s ideal for making summer jams and jellies.

    The prickly pears offer some of the most colorful and prolific species bearing bright fruits on colorful paddles. They have cast iron constitutions and many are hardy.  The larger the fruit produced by a particular plant, the better it is for eating. These fruits are called pears or “tunas” in Mexico.  They are very spiny and difficult to both pick and peel.  Tunas must be handled with tongs, then their small spines (called glochids) rubbed off in sand or burned with a hand torch before peeling.  Eat fresh or cook them down into syrup for recipes.  Their seeds are BB sized.  Buy prickly pears in summer with fruit forming to find the best plants for eating.  North American species can be quite cold hardy, particularly our many native species from western states, and the eastern devil’s tongue (O. humifusa).


    Apple Cactus


    Smooth skin fruit make apple cactus the favorite where winters are mild.

    Cereus repandus is a very popular tall branching cactus well established in southern California and across the Southwest.  A Peruvian species, it was chosen as the orchard cactus for Israeli farms due to its large, spineless fruit with orange-red skin and snow white flesh.  Vigorous and easy to propagate from cuttings, this cactus is adaptable to heavier soils than most. Smooth skin makes ripe fruits popular with birds, if not picked promptly.


    Dragon Fruit


    Dragon fruit (Hylocereus spp.) are colorful, delicious fruits borne from vines.

    Dragon fruit (Hylocereus spp.) are fabulous super market fruits borne from vines.  They make famous hedges in  Hawaiian landscapes but are being rediscovered as arid fruits for small spaces in other warm-climate areas with mild winters.  Vines don’t ask for much ground to produce a lot of stems, flowers, and fruits on a fence, wall, trellis, or arbor.  This makes them ideal for hot and humid, coastal conditions, or sheltered areas with more moisture in the desert.  Vine cactus are night bloomers that are pollinated by bats in the night and remain open in the early morning for bees to pollinate until breakfast time.

    Cactus Soils

    When grown in-ground, amend the soil for cactus to speed drainage.  The crown, where root meets stem on these cacti, is the vulnerable part, so be sure to keep soils here as sandy and light as you can.  Consider using Black Gold Just Coir to mix into heavy arid soils at planting time because it enhances drainage and resists decomposition. Unlike white perlite, which visually contaminates natural soil, coir offers more pathways for holding water and providing air pockets.

    Grow container cactus in Black Gold Cactus Mix.  Above all, make sure the drain holes in the container are numerous, large, and free flowing.  This is because moisture accumulation in the bottom of the pot will fill air pockets and cause root rot.  It also helps reduce the chance of over watering, particularly when there is occasional summer rain.

    All these cacti are easy for everyone to grow.  Spend your summer shopping for plants while they’re still showing their fruits.  Bring them home to create an atypical approach to summer-fresh fruit growing, with little to no extra water required.

    Both the vine and apple cactus bear white-fleshed fruit with crunchy seeds.

  6. How to Transplant an Olive Tree

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    Fruiting olive trees make resilient landscape specimens for edible landscaping in the West.

    Olives (Olea europaea)  originate from the Mediterranean region but have been important landscape trees in the American Southwest for the past 70 years, losing and gaining favor as trends change. After World War II, mature olive trees were transplanted to new family homes all over the West. Old trees were moved from California orchards under the hottest, driest conditions; dug and replanted in the dry summer months when moisture-related diseases were less of a worry. Transplanted olive trees were a “quick fix” for barren southwestern yards because they were tough and easily moved by a novice, but eventually some homeowners became disenchanted by the tree’s fruit mess and copious, allergenic pollen. Thankfully, the rise of edible landscaping has made olives desirable once more.

    Now seen as the haute new organic orchard crop for a changing climate, old olive trees have renewed value. Those interested in growing olives may still be able to seek out established, unwanted specimens from old orchards or landscapes. It’s a great way to get a free tree while relieving someone else of an unwanted plant. If the tree is small enough for you to manage alone, or with a little help, you can get a nice fruiting specimen for no more than the effort to transplant it.


    How to Transplant an Established Olive Tree

    Cut a trench around the root ball edge for access to deeper roots for easy cutting on sides and underneath.

    Step 1:  Size the root zone.   Identify the outside edges of your root ball relative to the size of the tree with a shovel line. Use the diameter of the resulting circle as a guide to determine the size of the hole you will need at the new planting location.

    Step 2:  Dig and sever roots.   Dig a trench around the outside edge of the tree’s root ball line. If you encounter big roots, use sharp cutters or a saw to cleanly sever them on the sides and underneath the root ball. Note the tree bark changes color at the soil line; this is the “bark line” and will guide the depth of your new planting hole. Measure from the bark line to the bottom of the root ball to get the minimum depth of your new hole.

    Once the root ball is free, measure its depth and diameter to determine the size of the planting hole at the new location.

    Step 3:  Move the tree.   When the root ball is entirely free, you’re ready to move the tree. Moving can be done with pure manpower, or with the help of a professional. If you are moving it by hand, wrap the ball with burlap or a tarp to lift it and keep it intact. For large trees, hire a professional crane service to lift and transport the tree to its new location; this is easier and safer for very large specimens.

    Step 4:  Dig the hole.   Put a tarp next to your new planting location to place your backfill soil on as you dig. Your olive tree should be planted at the same soil level in new location as it was in the old, so depth should match the depth of the root ball and the hole should be a several inches wider than the root ball.

    Once the root ball of the olive is free it’s ready to be moved and transplanted.

    Step 5:  Amend the soil.   Encourage new root formation by enriching the backfill soil for your olive root ball. It adds vital organic matter that helps to oxygenate the soil to enhance root development, plus it grabs and holds the water in the root zone. Add OMRI Listed Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to the fill dirt and mix it in. Keep another bag on hand to work into your excavated hole before filling.

    Step 6:  Plant the tree.   Place the tree in the hole, and adjust the hole depth and adjacent soil grade so it lines up to the tree’s bark line. Straighten the tree to same angle that it was growing at before. (One person may have to hold the tree straight while another adds the fill dirt.) Tamp down the soil as you go for stability and to collapse air pockets.

    This large tree is being lifted by a crane to be dropped into the new hole just 10 feet away.

    Step 7:   Create basin and water.   A reasonable sized water basin will have raised berm edges from 6 to 12 inches high, made of the left over backfill material. Transplanting requires a great deal of water to fill such a basin. This lets it slowly percolates down into the root ball and surrounding enriched backfill, where new roots form. For best results, keep the basin area moist, but not wet, throughout the hot months after transplanting.

    Final tip:   Speed rooting by adding root stimulant hormones or Superthrive to your irrigation water for quicker root formation.

    Larger olive trees, or those in high wind areas, may require staking or tree guy wires that are anchored outside the root zone in undisturbed soil. Blow-over is a serious issue until anchoring roots form to hold such a top-heavy tree.

    Olive trees are a miracle of nature that changed the course of history in the ancient world, providing nutritious fruits and oil to feed peoples across many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. Though they are coming back into edible landscaping, there are also fruitless ornamental varieties available for easy maintenance. The new ornamental olive has left many old, unwanted fruiting olive trees in yards all over the West just waiting to be rescued. Transplanting keeps these valuable trees from going to waste!

    Olive fruits can be harvested for home-preserved olives and even oil!

  7. 5 Big, Beautiful Wildflowers for Dry Western Gardens

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    This relative of hollyhock loves growing along the dry edges of cactus and succulent gardens.

    The American Southwest is rich in wildflowers, and a few have proved to be exceptional choices for arid gardens.  When wildflowers perform well and are beautiful, they are ideal candidates for home landscapes filled with existing drought resistant plants.  They also make exceptional problem solvers in desert gardens of cacti, succulents, and rocks where many other wildflowers fail to thrive.

    The Big 5 Western Wildflowers

    Penstemon parryi, Parry’s Penstemon

    Fast to grow from seed, this amazing heat-tolerant short-lived perennial is a great plant to seed into succulent gardens in fall.

    This is one of the biggest most exciting late-winter bloomers for Southwest gardens. Super tall, delicate stems lined with hot pink flowers are produced. The plants are incredibly vigorous from seed sown in the fall, and bloom in the first year.  Full sun exposures and soils with limited fertility and rapid drainage are required.  Once the plant has finished blooming, it produces a low rosette of leaves. This wildflower is reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 8. Flowers are bee pollinated.


    Matilija poppy is an enormous wildflower that thrives in full sun and sandy dry soils.

    Romneya coulteri, Matilija Poppy

    A California native, this is among the largest perennial wildflowers with an affection for sandy ground.  Big snow white blossoms with a golden ball of stamens resembling a fried egg cover the stems in spring and summer. The large, spreading subshrub reaches 5 feet in height and width and is reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 8. Flowers attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.





    Brittlebush has golden spring flowers. (Image by Sue)

    Encelia farinosa, Brittlebush (image below)

    This is a more cold-hardy southwestern perennial that is is reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 7 and ideal for foothill sites and rocky terrain. Mounding blue-gray foliage and bright yellow spring flowers offer reliable landscape appeal. Brittlebush is especially vigorous and has the constitution of a cactus, making it a desert garden staple. Offer it full sun and well-drained ground that is slightly alkaline. Flowers attract bees and butterflies.




    This relative of hollyhock loves the dry edges of cactus and succulent gardens.

    Sphaeralcea ambigua, Desert Mallow

    Vivid wands of orange flowers and silvery scalloped leaves make this 1-3′ subshrub stand out in spring, then die back in summer, much like Parry’s penstemon. It reportedly has the largest flowers and most drought tolerance of all the desert mallows. This wildflower is allergic to summer water, but reliably cold hardy up to USDA Zone 6, making it a good choice for gardeners in middle elevations of the Southwest ranges. Flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.




    Salvia apiana, California White Sage

    Over harvested to make smudge sticks, this perennial is proving quite adaptable to gardens.

    A very long-lived subshrub that’s popular for smudge sticks, California white sage produces stems of small white (sometimes pale lavender) flowers and all parts emit a curious catty odor.  The fragrant oils protect these beauties from browsing by rabbits and other herbivores. Summer drought is required for garden success, and plants will survive in USDA Hardiness Zone 8, if provided full sun and dry, well-drained ground. Flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.






    Western Wildflower Culture

    What seems to be the single unifying cultural requirement of all these plants is a need for porous soil. They are known to grow on rocky cliffs or sandy washes where their roots are free to travel far and wide.  Very little water lingers in the soil in these locations, and what does sinks deep down. Gardens with heavy soils and clay cannot support these plants. Only when grown on slopes or rocky outcroppings can these wildflowers survive the rainy season. On rocky ground, the water runs off so fast, the rootzone remains dry.

    The key to growing them in heavier soils is creating beds with a combination of elevation and aeration. Raise the plant up above soggy ground in an island of porous soil. To achieve this you need a retaining wall, raised planter, or planting pockets created between loose boulders or wells of stacked dry stone.  Fill the cavity with super fast-draining Black Gold Cactus Potting Mix.  Make larger amounts of aerated fill, combining equal amounts of Black Gold Cactus Potting Mix with sandy garden loam.  Mix thoroughly in a wheelbarrow before filling your raised beds or garden pockets.

    Water applied to plants in these pockets will pass through quickly to the dense soil below.  Because clay is slow to absorb water, it will gradually hydrate and provide moisture for the roots to tap into during the heat of summer.  This method is also helpful where it’s hard to keep plant root zones dry enough due to summer rainfall.

    Brittlebushes are rangy subshrubs and among the most drought resistant of all desert species.

  8. The Best Pomegranates for Home and Garden

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    ‘Wonderful’ is a popular orchard variety pomegranate that also grows well in home gardens.

    Since antiquity the bright red seeds of the pomegranate (Punica granatumhave been likened to rubies.  The fleshy seeds are a sign of the nutritional treasure hidden inside the fruit’s tough, leathery rind. The covering of these Middle Eastern fruits protects them from birds and dehydration, unlike fully exposed stone fruits and berries.

    The pomegranate tree has changed little since the earliest biblical references, making it a paleo fruit. They provided vital nutrition for the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African people who traditionally grew them in wall gardens that protected the foliage from drying winds and cool weather.  This is key to growing pomegranates because a lack of heat or too much wind will limit fruiting.  Untimely rains in the fruit’s late-summer and fall ripening season can also cause rinds to crack open prematurely, spoiling the contents.

    Growing Pomegranates

    Bright foliage and coral blossoms make pomegranates a beautiful early color source for gardens.

    Bright foliage and coral blossoms make pomegranates a beautiful early color source for gardens.

    Pomegranates may be deciduous, semi-evergreen, or evergreen, depending on the climate and variety. In the American Southwest, they are deciduous. What makes them so great in gardens is that the small trees or large shrubs are both ornamental and edible.  The flowers are vivid coral red, offering early visual interest. As fruits ripen later in the season, they offer more visual interest.

    Today’s pomegranate trees come in a huge range of sizes, with smaller trees for city yards or larger trees with abnormally large fruits for orchard or spacious landscape plantings.  So long as the local climate is within the cold tolerance range (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11) and summers are not humid and rainy, pomegranates should thrive.

    Just because pomegranates grow well in poor, dry, rocky soils doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from organically fortified soil.  Commercial growers know that to achieve the largest juiciest fruits regular moisture and nutrition are needed.  So long as the soil drains well, a pomegranate will appreciate added soil amendment.  The best choice is to blend Black Gold Garden Compost into the soil at planting time.  This helps young potted trees transition from potting soil to native soil.


    Pomegranates crack open on the tree when there is too much summer rain.

    The addition of a balanced NPK fertilizer has also been shown to increase fruit yields and decrease fruit cracking.  As temperatures rise, mulch the young pomegranate with more compost to keep roots cool and moist as you deeply water them over the first summer.

    Each “ruby” inside the fruit has a tart, sweet, juicy outer flesh that envelopes a BB-sized seed  Seeds are typically hard, but breeding has reduced seed size. The seeds of some new varieties are nearly non-existent, so only the flesh develops.  These types are preferred for eating out of hand, so be aware of fruit quality when choosing a variety.

    Pomegranate Varieties

    The very ancient pomegranates grown by the Spanish in the California missions did not have attractive fruit.  New varieties are different. Twentieth-century breeding has yielded dozens of excellent improved selections with varying fruit and seed color, tree sizes, and tolerance to cool coastal growing conditions.

    Choosing the right variety may be as simple as selecting the universally popular heirloom variety ‘Wonderful’ (1898), or picking the right-sized variety for your landscape or patio.

    Top Varieties of Pomegranates for Western Gardens

    ‘Wonderful’: The most commonly grown commercial variety preferred by those who grow for juice.

    ‘Ambrosia’: Identical to ‘Wonderful’ except its fruit is three times larger.

    ‘Sweet’: Preferred for cooler summer climates and container culture.

    ‘Eversweet’: An early seedless variety ideal for short growing seasons further north or at higher elevations of foothills.

    ‘Pink Satin’: A super sweet, semi-seedless variety for eating out of hand.

    ‘Red Silk’: A dwarf selection (6′) perfect for small city gardens or for containers on the patio, conservatory, courtyard, or greenhouse.

    ‘Kashmir Blend’: Fruits have a complex flavor favored by connoisseurs and chefs.

    Ripe pomegranate on the branch. The foliage on the background.

    Healthy, ripe pomegranates look colorful and beautiful on the branch.

    With so many pomegranate varieties emerging from around the world, consider it a jumping-off point to find the optimal fit for your yard.  Before you take the plunge, inquire at a local garden center or with a local extension agent for the varieties best suited to your climate to ensure plentiful fruiting.

    The American Southwest is an optimal location to grow pomegranates as both decorative garden or productive home orchard plants.  Reach back into the Old World to cultivate this ancient crop now updated to become the arid zone’s favorite edible tree, second only to the date palm.


  9. The Well-Prepared Parterre Potager

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    The grand French Chateau de Villandry Ornamental Parterre Garden is in the foreground with the Ornamental Kitchen Garden in the background.

    As with most things French, even vegetable gardens can be decidedly beautiful.  What makes them so special are parterre potagers, a practice of creating symmetrical, geometric patterns with beds of vegetables of different colors and textures. Within the geometric beds, which are often lined with trimmed boxwood, rosemary, or santolina hedges, are planted many different food crops over the season, sometimes formal, sometimes country casual.  What they all share, however, is the highly geometric layouts and the diversity of plants grown there.

    Grand Parterres


    The vegetable beds at Villandry are edged in boxwood and filled with colorful edibles. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Parterres were originally created using clipped hedges and colorful ornamentals placed in grand designs for the French Aristocracy. They were to be appreciated from the high windows of a palace or chateau, such as the famous Chateau de Villandry built in the Loire Valley during the Renaissance. Patterns can be as simple as repeating squares and rectangles or consist of intricate designs, such as repeating Fleur de Lis, knot work, and starbursts. The designs were created on a large scale, but their clean geometry also made them adaptable on a smaller scale with more functional plants.

    Potager Parterres

    The potager parterre doubles as both a kitchen garden and appealing ornamental garden and fits nicely into small spaces. Raised edging can create the same impact as low hedges without additional maintenance.  This makes it easier to create a unique look with symmetrically designed beds delineated by edging and gravel walkways.


    Simple, contemporary edging and gravel combine to create a French-inspired herb and vegetable parterre. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    What makes the French garden so fun is that it’s rich in herbs as well as vegetables and other plants that contribute to the famous cuisine.  Some may be perennial, such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme, while most others are annual vegetables of all kinds.  Often the annuals are cycled in and out of the same ground, as the cool and warm seasons pass.  In the South of France, where conditions are warmer, these hard-working gardens are packed with heavy feeding veggies most of the year.  Unfortunately, many of these gardens experience nutrient decline over time unless the soils are routinely fed with quality soil amendments and added fertilizer.

    Amending Parterre Soil

    When native soil is worn out and the microbial content depleted, it’s best to err on the side of overdoing it.  It is rare to experience ill effects caused by too much compost, because it’s quickly consumed by soil microbes, in a healthy organic environment.  The more the microbes feed, the more amendments you need to keep their numbers high for consistent soil fertility year in and year out.


    Black Gold Garden Compost Blend is superb food for microbes.

    The best choice for in-ground parterres is OMRI Listed® Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, which is superb food for microbes.  Compost can be added to natural soil in spring and fall.  Turn your earth gently with a fork and blend in the compost at least 6-inches deep before planting.  This ensures there will be plentiful organic matter for crops to do their best.

    For additional grow power and added nitrogen, amend with OMRI Listed® Black Gold Earthworm Castings Blend.  At planting time, work a handful of castings into each planting hole to ensure the roots will encounter a boost of natural nitrogen and micro-nutrients derived from the earthworm’s diet.

    For parterres with hedge edges, mulch them with the leftover compost and worm castings to keep them healthy, green, and beautiful.  Just leave a 3″ ring of open ground around the base of the hedges to let their trunks breathe.

    Petite parterres are a great way to create a formal look or one that’s rooted in history.  They can be planted with vegetables, or flowers, or both.  That’s what makes this garden style so inspiring. One can grow good food while never sacrificing great design.


    This mid-sized parterre is a good solution for a functional backyard landscape. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)


  10. Blueberries for Western and Southern Gardens

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    New, heat-tolerant blueberries should be enjoyed in more gardens south of the Mason Dixon Line and in the Southwest

    Forget that blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are just a crop for the far north, because that’s changed.  Modern selection and breeding has resulted in a range of hybrids and varieties that extend blueberries into almost every growing zone.  What makes this such a great opportunity is that blueberries are produced on shrubs.  That means they will fit right into any existing ornamental landscape while producing annual crops of berries.

    Best Warm-Climate Blueberries


    A blueberry is no different from any other acid-loving shrub in your landscape.

    Choose from two blueberry types for warmer climates: drought-tolerant rabbiteye hybrids (Vaccinium ashei hybrids, Zones 7-9, 10-12′), and southern highbush hybrids (Vaccinium corymbosum x V. darrowii x V. ashei  hybrids, Zones 7-10, 6′).  In the Southwest and California, try rabbiteyes such as ‘Bluebelle’, ‘Southland’, and ‘Tifblue’.  In Northwest California and the American South, where there’s higher rainfall, try the southern highbush varieties ‘Jubilee’, ‘Misty’, ‘O’Neal’, and ‘Southmoon’.

    While many cultivated blueberries are self fertile, pollination and yields are increased by growing different varieties with the same bloom times. Blueberries are pollinated by native bees and honeybees, so it also pays to plant extra spring-blooming bee plants to increase pollinator density at blueberry flowering time.

    Siting Blueberries

    Like rhododendrons and azaleas, blueberries are ericaceous plants that originate from woodland environments with well-drained, acid (pH 4.0 to 5.0), sandy loam with a shallow layer of organic matter, called the “duff layer”, which lies just below the tree litter.  This is why they grow best with some shade and have wide, shallow root systems that favor low pH soils.  Even if you get a blueberry stipulated for warmer climates, they still require this universal soil condition.

    BGPeatMoss2.2cu Front-WEBThis makes blueberries the perfect edible plant for those properties with good soil drainage and high tree canopies. While most other edibles need direct sun, blueberries do exceptionally well under tall shade trees that provide substantial filtered light and morning sun exposure.

    Choose an upland site with low soil moisture and good drainage—sandy to average loam soils are best. If the soil quality is not suitable, be it too alkaline or too rich in clay, be prepared to amend your soil.

    Cultivating Blueberries

    Peat moss is the best source of organic matter for acid-loving plants like blueberries. Dig a hole three times as wide as it is deep and mix the native soil with 50% Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss. Then add a high-acid fertilizer contain ammonium sulfate or sulfur-coated urea (apply using package recommendations) and back fill. Finish by adding a  3″ mulching layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to help keep root zones cool and moist. Providing an organic-rich, fertile layer of acid soil around the new plant stimulates rapid lateral root growth and helps protect against periodic heat and drought.

    Blueberries also grow well in large patio containers filled with OMRI Listed® Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which is approved for organic gardening and ideal for keeping roots from drying out in the summer months without using excess water.


    In warmer winter climates, southern blueberries ripen earlier than late-blooming northern varieties.

    Because blueberries fruit on newer stems, refrain from pruning them in the first couple of years to help them become better established.  [Click here to learn how to prune established blueberry bushes.] In fact, it is best to strip off the first-year flowers and blueberries to help plants invest all their early growth towards sturdy roots and stems.

    Blueberries are long-lived shrubs that will bring yields to your landscape for years to come.  They will also allow you and your family to enjoy the bounty of home-grown organic fruit in just about any landscape or garden.