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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. How and When to Plant Trees

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    Plant trees in spring as soon as the soil warms.

    Springtime is tree planting time. Planting trees early in the season, as soon as the soil warms, gives new trees a whole season to set deep roots and top growth. (This is especially the case with marginally hardy trees.) But tree planting is only as good as your planting method and summer care. Here are seven steps for planting trees right!

    Step 1: Select a Good Tree

    First, choose a tree that is hardy to your growing area. Then choose the most perfect specimen you can find. A tree is a long-term investment, so buy yours at a quality garden center or nursery. Choose a tree free of any signs of bark damage that could invite pests and diseases to enter. The tree’s form should be perfect without oddball branching that could spoil its beauty.

    Step 2: Dig a Hole

    Dig a hole roughly twice the diameter of your tree’s root ball.

    Dig a hole roughly twice the diameter of your tree’s root ball. Dig it deep enough so that when the root ball is set into the hole its surface is level with the surrounding soil. If the ball is set too deep, you risk smothering the tree and introducing trunk rot. It it is shallowly planted, its surface roots will die and it will be slower to establish. Make the bottom of the hole flat, and then dig a deeper band around the edges. This keeps the root ball on a pedestal, allowing water to drain off into the recessed band. Keep the pedestal soil undisturbed, so it won’t settle later on.

    Step 3: Amend

    Your goal is to encourage that tree to root beyond the container root ball into the surrounding soil. Give roots a reward for being adventurous. Enrich your excavated soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. This encourages more rapid and widespread root development. If your soil is heavy clay or has poor fertility, then this sweetened backfill provides what the tree needs in those first few years as it adapts to its new home.

    Step 4: Mix and Plant

    Thoroughly mix your Black Gold Soil Amendment into the pile of soil you excavated from the hole you dug. Then return it to the hole in layers, packing each one down with the end of the shovel handle to collapse any air pockets.

    Step 5: Fashion a Well and Mulch

    Use the leftover soil to fashion a healthy berm on the undisturbed ground around the outside edge of the planting hole. This will hold water directly over the root ball until it has time to percolate down naturally. Then cover the planting circle with a 3-inch layer of mulch, being sure to keep the mulch away from the tree’s trunk. (Excess mulch around the trunk can smother trees.)

    Step 6: Water In

    Use the garden hose to fill your water well, then wait for it all to percolate down into the ground before you fill it the second time. Thorough saturation is key to preventing transplant shock. Repeat every few days, particularly if the weather turns hot or windy.

    Mulching trees will help hold soil moisture and protect trunks from mower and weed wacker damage.

    Step 7: Stake and Protect

    Stake your tree for additional support during storm winds and rains. Always stake trees on the windward side, and use ties that will not girdle the tree or cause abrasions on the bark.

    Provide a protective sleeve of chicken wire around the young trunk because hungry rabbits and other wildlife may damage the bark during the winter. Come fall, when temperatures begin to drop, apply additional mulch around the base of the tree  to protect the root zone and hold moisture through cold winter days.


  2. Growing Carrion Flower: Nature’s Flycatcher

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    Just imagine if you could grow a drought-tolerant plant that may actually reduce fly populations. One group of South African succulents, carrion flowers (Stapelia spp.), does just that. Unique carrion flowers have evolved very exotic starfish-like blossoms that kill the most ubiquitous insect in Africa: the fly. But death does not come until these insects have first pollinated the blooms. Prey are always prevalent and active, keeping these curious succulent flowers well pollinated.

    Carrion Flower Fly Catching

    Desiccated maggots (fly larvae) dot the center of this meat-colored carrion flower.

    So just how do they kill flies? Let’s look at Stapelia gigantea, which thrives in the high heat and low humidity of the desert. When flies peak in late summer, it comes into bloom with buds like pointed balloons and unique leathery blossoms that actually look like starfish road kill. The largest can be dinner-plate-sized. Some are creamy yellow (puss colored) with hairs while others have smaller flowers that are the color of red meat (these are more commonly available to gardeners). Both share the fetid odor of rotten meat and death that originates at the center of the flower where flies of all types may be found vying for a place to reproduce.

    Such activity ensures flower pollination and fly death. Convinced there will be plenty of carrion for their larvae to thrive, female flies lay their eggs beneath the central pistil, where the scent is strongest. But when the larvae hatch out, they have no food and quickly starve to death. Over the life of each flower, hundreds of flies will leave their progeny, the accumulating corpses highly visible to the naked eye. Growing lots of them around the chicken coop or dog run may prove to be helpful biological fly control where it’s too dry for other options. Where it’s cold, grow carrion flowers in pots to move indoors before frost and bring out for the summer.

    Caring for Carrion Flowers

    Stapelia gigantea is a fine garden plant for arid, warm winter regions of the American Southwest

    In general, carrion flowers like dry heat. Wait until they show wilt before watering, unless they are growing in a very fast-draining pot. Beware watering at all in humid heat, during rain, or under any conditions that don’t allow pots to dry quickly. Moisture trapped inside pots is what usually kills them. That’s why they do very well in low wide pots with large or multiple drainage holes. This provides room for them to grow and spread. Ensure superior drainage by planting them in pure Black Gold Cactus Mix.

    Carrion flowers bloom on new growth. If you keep them actively growing through summer, and don’t trim, they will bloom far more prolifically. Once blooming season ends,  cease watering through the winter.

    Propagating Carrion Flowers

    The blood-red variety of carrion flower is popular for dry gardens with shade.

    Experience proves carrion flowers ask for different means of propagation than other succulents. After they flower is the best time to take cuttings. Take cuttings at the natural joints. (I like to let them break cleanly at the weakest point.) Don’t sever a stem or cut it in parts as open wounds invite fungal exposure and potential rot.

    Stapelia cuttings are highly vulnerable to fungi in the soil, so burial is not advisable. Instead, lay a cutting down onto damp Black Gold Cactus Mix, and snug it into place. Do not cut the stem or cover any part of it because that’s what kills cuttings.

    Set the pot in a warm, dry place with bright shade, and roots will quickly form during the fall. Check occasionally for signs of rooting all along the bottom, then transplant once they are deep enough to support the cutting.

    Buying Carrion Flowers

    You can buy carrions online, but many succulent growers include them in small flats of inexpensive mixed plants. Once you learn to spot them, buy them up. They are great fun to experiment with; each is a surprise when it blooms.

    Let carrion flowers remind us that flies are pollinators, too. Curious floral adaptations for fly attraction can become useful, if we collect and cultivate these maggot tricksters.

  3. Gravelscape and Green your Front Yard

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    Gravel can make architectural plants stand out like sculpture. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Nowhere are water-needy lawns disappearing as fast as in arid southern California and the American Southwest. This is the proving ground for a lot of alternatives to traditional turfgrass. A big problem is always the front yard, where your property value is rooted in curb appeal. What you do there will have a big impact on the future marketability of your home. This is why unconventional front yard solutions, no matter how sustainable, may cost far more than you realize, but desirable low-cost options do exist.


    A border of colorful succulents stands out against a gravel patio.

    The most versatile and affordable replacement material for lawns out west is gravel, due to lower cost, availability and color range. Spreading gravel takes muscle, but it’s an easier DIY project than precision placement of precast concrete units. Gravel can be raked and walked on, leaving a beautiful blank canvas to envision your dryland planting ideas.

    All manner of bold cacti and succulents look great against a gravel base. You can even color coordinate your gravel colors and textures with regionally appropriate plantings for a sharp, clean, low-water landscape your neighbors will appreciate. Just be sure to consider plantings as you plant your gravel lawn, so you can establish them as you lay your gravelscape. Increasing soil fertility, with enrichments such as Black Gold Cactus Mix and Just Coir, will give your low-water plants a head start.

    Replacing Lawn with Gravel

    Here are eight rules we have learned in the desert to guide your lawn replacement with gravel:

    1. Use proper edging. Where your gravel ends, problems begin. Use a solid edge boarder (metal, wood, plastic) that is at least 1 to 2 inches above grade to ensure no spill over onto adjacent beds or paving.
    2. Lay dividers between gravel colors. It’s fun to use more than one color to create just the right look, but if you don’t divide them well, they eventually merge together resulting in a visually muddy colored mess. Make plans for a substantial divider within that great crisp edge you created.
    3. Insist on professional-grade weed barrier. Landscape suppliers provide thick, heavy-grade weed barrier fabric that is easy to install and long lasting, though a bit more expensive than consumer grade. It stays put, won’t tear and most importantly, resists decomposition far longer.
    4. Be sure all the lawn is dead. Failure to kill all of the grass and weeds that once grew in your lawn can doom your gravel to future infestation. Even with weed barrier fabric, Bermuda grass can travel many feet underneath to find light and water, if not properly eradicated before-hand.
    5. Choose the right gravel from the start. Though weed barrier helps keep gravel from your soil, some gravel will always make its way in. If you bring in gravel that’s in high contrast with your soil color, it’s there to stay. In the future, some of it will mixed in to forever speckle that ground.
    6. Avoid dark gravel in hot climates. Dark gravel colors absorb heat quickly, then radiates it back into adjacent spaces after sunset. Conversely, white gravel is coolest but causes glare. Neutrals are ideal.
    7. Grade and ensure adequate thickness. Gravel should be laid from 2 to 2.5 inches thick on a uniform surface. When adding gravel to critical junctures with paving, the ground must be dug out so all grades are even. Too often the gravel layer is thinned to meet the patio surface grade, which always results in bald spots at these high traffic areas.
    8. Pedestrians first. Round river gravel is great to walk on, but it rolls easily, so it cannot be used on an incline. Crushed gravel has sharp edges and points that dig into moist earth for anchorage but is not easy on the feet. Always consider gravel texture on walkways in your design, especially with respect to senior citizens and small children.

    Everyone can have a beautiful gravel front garden the neighborhood will love. Make it broad and beautiful, in any style, so your property values are maintained while conserving water.

    Gravel Style Guide

    A selection of different types of gravel.

    Different gravel textures and colors yield different looks and offer different functionalities. Here are some of the most common design styles using gravel:

    Earthy: Fine, sand-colored gravel can be swept to visual perfection to make architectural plants stand out like sculpture.

    An earthy, sculptural gravelscape. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Modern: Warm-colored, 2-inch gravel is easy to clean and rake around and sets the stage for bold planting options for mid-century modern homes.

    A modern, warm gravelscape. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Parterre: Replace a sweeping front lawn with gravel and creative flowing paths and beds lined with edging pavers.

    A creative gravel parterre. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Urban: Postage stamp urban yard becomes a sleek modern space with just gravel, a few trees and grasses.

    A small, urban yard with clean gravel base. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Transitions: This fresh edge between green and rosy gravel (below) is not sustainable without a strongly defined divider to keep it crisp; rose gravel already too thin at top of concrete slab where grade is much too high.

    Gravel transitions must be delineated by dividers to remain clean. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

  4. Little Aloe World: Discover Dwarf Aloes

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    Dense and colorful, Aloe juvenna (foreground) makes a great rockery subject or potted specimen.

    While we ogle big fancy aloes blooming in frost-free gardens, their sensitivity to cold winters limits their cultivation elsewhere. The plants in the same genus as Aloe vera, the popular Arabian species used for skin care, rarely survive the winters of sub-tropical zones. For everyone who cannot grow succulents outdoors year round, like we do in coastal California, welcome to my little aloe world.

    South African Beauties

    A grass aloe (center front) will fill a pot quickly for lots of easy offsets to divide and transplant.

    The aloes of southern Africa include some very small species that produce the most exquisite bell-shaped blossoms. They have always reminded me of a lady’s drop earrings because they droop from very thin wiry stems. Even the slightest breeze will send their blooms nodding and swaying. Like the big aloes, they bloom every spring, attracting hummingbirds to porch or patio, and light up a home and sun porch with early spring color.

    Most garden aloes hail from the maritime Cape Floristic Region or the east coast of South Africa on the Indian Ocean. These are soft, beautiful, and adaptable. The further inland you go, the larger and stiffer and pricklier the aloe species become, so that big game cannot browse upon them during drought. In the wide, treeless, grasslands of the African veldt the little grass aloes blend into big patches among the grasses.

    Collecting Aloes

    Most of the tiniest aloes have been collected at the Huntington Desert Garden to view.

    I began to learn about little aloes by collecting all that I could find, whether named or not. I purchased small ones from succulent racks (without labels), then tested each in my desert garden. I also started new plants from fallen pieces of rare grass aloes gleaned from working at the botanical garden in Palm Springs. Still, more offsets (also unidentified) were shared from friends’ mature aloes. I had a stone slab front entry walk edged with these tiny aloes, potted and in-ground, which provided the jewel box garden I had dreamed of creating.

    Planting Aloes

    Grass aloes, which are native to African grasslands, produce delicate bell-shaped flowers.

    For beginners, aloes are among the easiest succulents to start with because they aren’t finicky. Plant them in Black Gold Cactus Mix to make sure they have supreme drainage. Choose deeper pots for big aloes, because their roots are a lot like a daylily’s, thick and deep. Blend cactus mix with equal amounts of Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil at a 50-50 ratio to boost fertility and blooming.

    It’s easy to know when your potted aloe needs water during the growing season. It should be fully turgid, which means its cells are full of water. Squeeze one, and it should be firm. When they run short of water the cells loose turgidity, stems soften, lose color, and small wrinkles appear on the skin.

    Hand water your ground aloes sparingly as many become summer dormant after blooming. Bottom water your little pots by setting them in a pan of water. Allow them to wick up moisture for over an hour’s time, then drain and return them to their place. This will ensure their soil is fully saturated, while keeping water away from your potted aloes’ crowns, where rot begins.

    Aloe Sources

    Aloe brevifolia offers orange flower stalks that hummers just love.

    A great selection of little aloes is available at the California succulent nursery, Mountain Crest Gardens. Quality photos, accurate labeling, and excellent cultural information is offered for each plant. And, they will send aloes right to your door, if they aren’t available locally. Everybody can enjoy little aloes no matter where they live!

    Once you have your aloes, know that they will produce offsets or “pups”. This is how they reproduce in very dry climates. To keep a single tidy rosette, remove the offsets that will otherwise spread and change the shape of the overall plant as it ages. When dividing little aloes, it helps to remove them from the pot to surgically sever offsets (maintain stems or roots for better rooting). Root the offsets in a well-drained nursery pot of moistened Black Gold Cactus Mix and keep transplants in the shade until roots form. Then plant them in small pots, so they can grow through the fall before you protect them from frost.

    While there are some hardier aloes, they are few and far between outside tropical and sub-tropical zones. If you live in prime time locations, grow them outside. Where there’s light frost, try pots on the patio. And in cold, rainy, totally unsuitable climates, create your own indoor collection for just $5 per plant and enjoy them year-round.

  5. Bold Waterwise Container Plantings

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    Pots of fine-textured Cape rushes define each tier of The Huntington’s California Garden. (Image care of The Huntington)

    Do you need a big accent container plant for patio or garden that asks for little water? In California, designs resulting from water cutbacks are changing the way we look at potted plants. Now they are a bigger part of the landscape, nestled in the planting or set at crucial spots to please the eye. These are valuable problem solvers for filling in spots where older plants have died. They also help to make gateways, and other focal points interesting in small spaces.

    Trendy southern California waterwise gardens show you how it’s done. Bold, waterwise plantings from top gardens have been hand-picked to show great design with these plants. Note how simple and dramatic each can be in the right setting, and how little care they require. So be inspired to create your own by these four stellar examples.

    The Huntington Containers

    Earthy green pots planted with single Cape rushes bring needed height to the garden. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Southern California’s botanical garden, library and art center, The Huntington, shows off some of the best planting ideas for the region. Their new California Garden features pots of fine-textured reeds to define each tier of the gradual grade change. Nestled among in-ground plants, is has earthy green pots planted with single Cape rushes (Condropetalum tectorum). They provide stellar vertical elements in an otherwise low-lying planting scheme. The South African reeds are grown in summer gardens or frost free regions to provide the dark green fine textured appearance rare among droughty plants.

    Palm Springs Container

    Cascading variegated elephant bush thrives in drought and looks spectacular in pots. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    In Palm Springs the newest darling of succulent pots is variegated elephant bush (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’). It’s a green succulent variant featuring cream-colored variegation. This gives it a light value against darker pots or backgrounds. Variegation causes this variety to be smaller, less sun resistant, and more pendulous. It’s become a favorite for nesting exotic-looking Agave.

    Balboa Park Container

    A simple purple wandering Jew adds bold color to a tall pot. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    In San Diego’s Balboa Park was a discovery for using an old-fashioned purple “wandering Jew” house plant (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’) as an outdoor summer annual. Fast growing, tolerant of extreme heat with a lush purple coloring and small pink flowers, this is a new trend for shaded areas of droughty gardens. Widely available at garden centers, the foliage is outstanding in this very tall turquoise pot. Over the summer the long purple tendrils will cascade down the pot edges for a delightfully Art Nouveau feel. Where there’s frost, dig and move them indoors for winter house plants.

    California Home Container

    A minimalist blue-on-blue pot brings cool elegance to an apartment patio. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    For apartment dwellers, another container find along the California coast resulted in an all blue creation. Blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens), a lovely cool-hued succulent makes the perfect companion for this blue Delft style pot. True blues are rare in the drought resistant garden, but with the cobalt glaze as an anchor, this blue plant is all you need for eye popping beauty.

    Every one of these containers can be created in a day for instant upgrades to outdoor spaces and for lighting subjects.

    Planting Waterwise Containers

    To maximize water retention, use Black Gold Waterhold Potting Mix for planting a rush pot provided the container is very well drained. This reduces watering frequency and leaves moisture deeper down for the reeds. When planting succulents, including the purple Tradescantia, variegated Portulacaria and blue chalk sticks, use Black Gold Cactus Mix to ensure adequate drainage. For very deep pots, don’t hesitate to keep your plant in a nursery pot and drop it inside the bigger one for quick seasonal changes.

    Hot pots can be made any time because they’re not dependent on flowers. Instead they are beautiful and useful on day one for that party, gathering or special event. Above all, they ask for little water while flourishing through the heat of the summer happy as clams.

  6. Sanseveria Reconsidered

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    Pots of Sanseveria planted into pots with annual color bring zest to shade gardens.

    Extreme South African drought consumed everything except curious green, sword-like plants rising from barren ground beneath giraffe-pruned trees. They survived because they are succulents. While browsers struggled to find food, they did not touch the swords, which contained unpalatable toxins.

    This is Sanseveria trifasciata, the old fashioned mother-in-law’s-tongue or sword plant. Its resilience shows why it is a no-brainer house plant; it’s tough as well as attractive. Take it outdoors for the summer, and it’s a game changer on porch or patio.

    New Popularity

    Succulents are the perfect match for Sanseveria because both demand similar watering conditions.

    The rediscovery of this Victorian drawing room house plant by lovers of the mid-century modern aesthetic has brought Sanseveria into the limelight again. Sanseveria trifasciata and its close kin are usually sold in the house plant department because they are cold-tender succulent house plants, until now. Where patios are quite shady, this is one drought resistant house plant that you can bring outdoors every summer.

    Drought is also demanding new plants and varieties that don’t need much water. Sanseverias are not fond of hot western sun, so they prefer sheltered living spaces outdoors. Where lack of light precludes many less resilient species, these are real problem solvers.

    Potting Sanseverias

    A Sanseveria busts out of a red clay pot repaired with wire. (Frida Khalo’s garden in Coyoacan, Mexico)

    Sanseverias are slow spreaders, much like Iris with their thick fleshy rhizomes that grow into colonies. Green shoots are produced along the roots. These roots are so strong they can crack a pot if too crowded, which is why they are best grown in 1 gallon nursery pots that can be cut away with pruners when it’s time to divide them. When pot bound, simply remove the root ball, separate it into manageable sections, let the root ends dry out for a few days, then replant in Black Gold Cactus Mix. As succulents, they appreciate a porous soil mix.

    For a fresh idea, put your nursery sword plant in its plastic pot into a bigger pot of Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil, so its rim sits an inch above the soil surface. Then plant around it with other seasonal plants or succulents that grow under the same light exposure. This will give your sword plant a more well drained root zone than its companions in the same pot. If just planting companion succulents, use only Black Gold Cactus Mix to maximize drainage.

    Foliage Variations

    Sanseveria can come onto a veranda in spring, then moved inside before frost.

    Sanseveria varieties are all similar in form, but they have different leaf patterns. This allows you to brighten or darken a setting, depending on the color value of a certain variety. Unfortunately, varieties aren’t always properly labeled, so be sure to select by eye to ensure you get what you need for the space you have in mind. With forms just inches tall to 4 feet in height, size should also be considered when purchasing. Since these were grown in greenhouses, give them some time to adapt to the location at your house before repotting or dividing.

    A plant this neutral is a chameleon, altering its overall feel and character depending on the setting. When grown as a house plant, there is no better vertical plant to play off a white wall. Add greenery to a hot zone in the house or apartment, knowing that if you forget to water, it’ll be just fine. If Sanseveria can survive epic African drought, even the busiest mom can enjoy this oxygen-producing house plant. And, the most harried career woman will come home to a little bit of nature every day.

    No matter where you live, bring sword plants out for summer, to try a whole new way to garden with them, knowing they’ll come back inside with you at frost to wait out the cold winter days.



  7. Hummingbird Flowers for Hot, Dry Gardens

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    A female ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on littleleaf sage.

    All red flowers draw hummingbirds, and tubular red-flowers make hummers go crazy. The birds recognize familiar species that have co-evolved with them for eons for pollination, with flowers held in such a way that hummers can hover and feed freely during extended nectar flows. Many hummingbird-pollinated species originate in hot dry parts of the American Southwest and Mexico. These are the plants hummers fight over, guard jealously, and build their nests nearby. (Unless you’ve seen a rufous hummingbird in battle, you don’t know the territorial nature of hummingbirds!)

    Hot Hummingbird Flowers

    California Fuchsia

    California fuchsia is a rufous hummingbird favorite. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica, aka Epilobium canum var. garettii (USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10)), a native from New Mexico to southern Oregon, is one of the finest native hummingbird perennials for hot, dry gardens. Tolerant of full southern exposure and long, late-summer drought, this beauty, with its vivid tubular flowers, thrives in poor, well-drained soils. Hardy and rabbit resistant, this is an ideal plant for rocky outcrops, sloping properties, and perennial cottage gardens. Be sure to give it excellent drainage, and it will thrive.

    Firecracker Plant

    In striking contrast, is the best container plant of all for the summertime hummingbird extravaganza, firecracker plant (Russellia equisetiformis (USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11)). It bears bright red tubular flowers on long, slender stems like horse hair. What makes this the perfect weekend-container-project plant is that it’s well-adapted to grow in taller pots. Firecracker plant weeps and cascades, so when you put it in pots, its beauty is revealed.

    Frecracker plants arch and dangle freely in containers. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    This Mexican perennial has also proved itself in the low desert where it has become a popular landscape plant. When cultivated on slopes or raised beds, the weeping foliage will cascade off the edge. When grown in ground, the tips sweep the earth and build up internal foliage instead of growing longer.

    The fine-textured stems of firecracker plant bloom nonstop until frost. They remain permanent garden fixtures in light or no-frost zones but must be sheltered in pots in colder winter zones. Once recognized by the local hummer population, they’ll return time and again to your patio to feed on this prolific plant. Firecracker plant is now widely available in garden centers. Give it a try this year to bring hummingbirds to your patio every day.

    Use these planting tips for success: The most important thing is to find a tall pot that isn’t too big around. Consider knee-height the minimum. For a great contemporary look choose dark pottery, so the plant appears to float in space as the dangling foliage grows longer. Plant your firecracker in Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix, but leave at least 2 or 3 inches of rim at the top. This greater fill space allows more efficient hand watering.

    Autumn Sage

    Another arid-zone hummingbird plant that does well throughout the hot, dry west is autumn sage (Salvia greggii (USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10)). It is a super long-blooming, red-flowered native of Texas and Mexico. It’s been bred into many cultivated varieties to add a diversity of hues to your hummer garden. The comparable Southwest native, littleleaf sage (Salvia microphylla (USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10)), has equally lovely flowers, tiny leaves, and many varieties to choose from.


    A male ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on lantana flowers.

    Though technically adapted for butterfly pollination, the flowers of lantana (Lantana camara (USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11)) also lure hummingbirds. Lantana hybrids that are sterile and seedless, such as the pink and ivory ‘Pinkie’ and members of the Patriot series, prevent invasive volunteers and offer some stunning flower colors. Both creeping and upright forms of these shrubby plants are available. Where it’s colder, put them in hanging baskets so hummers visit at eye level.

    Attract hummingbirds naturally by avoiding feeders altogether; they are messy, a hassle, and flower nectar is healthier for these birds. If you plant properly, hummers will come, nest and return year after year without you having to lift a finger.

    Hummers love the red flowers of autumn sage. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

  8. Fight Fires with Garden Flowers

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    This garden features the best drought-resistant, low-fuel-volume flowers for firescapes. (Maureen Gilmer)

    You can fight fires with flowers. When landscaping around high-fire-hazard homes, the key is to think about minimizing fire fuel volume, or the amount of burnable material plants provide to oncoming fire. For example, a pine tree has a huge fuel mass, but a sage plant, with it’s lovely lavender-blue flowers, has negligible fuel mass.

    To further understand the concept of fuel mass, imagine the plant on fire. The overall flame produced is roughly three times the plant’s height; the greater the overall mass and size, the greater the fuel volume. (Chemical composition also play a role in fire susceptibility. For example, creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) contains many resinous, volatile oils that are highly flammable.) This demonstrates the problem with woody trees and shrubs that are taller and have enormous fuel volumes.

    Plants for Firescaping

    Native penstemons are timed for winter and spring bloom and gone by the fire season. (Maureen Gilmer)

    The good news is that annuals, perennials, biennials, and low-growing shrubs are all better landscape candidates for firescaping. Ornamentals below 2-feet in height are better choices for areas with fall or winter fire seasons. Early frosts often cut these plants back, or the heat of late summer makes them listless in the arid West. Many western natives are also fully dormant by fall, an adaptation that allows them to withstand the dry heat and drought of this season. Once the plants have died back, gardeners can cut them back to further reduce fuel mass around the home.

    Some flowers are also fire resistant, but are these the best for the arid West? Scientific research has yielded data on plant fire susceptibility and fuel mass with simple testing.  The tests are done by placing plant samples in a furnace and timing how long it takes for them to catch fire and burn. This makes no allowances for weather, wind, and topography, so in a real fire situation, the test results may be deceiving. All plants burn in catastrophic wildfires. The ” fire-resistant” plants may simply ignite a second or two later than non-fire-resistant plants, so gardeners should not worry about just planting fire-resistant plants.

    The key is choosing drought-tolerant landscape plants that also have a low fuel volume. What you can grow locally is dictated by your rainfall and winter cold. You must choose plants adapted to your growing region. Every elevation and geographic area will have its own list of suitable native and non-native herbaceous flowers and subshrubs that fulfill both the fuel height and drought requirements.

    Select Flowers for Firescaping

    Avoid shrubs and plant blooming succulents, like rock purslane. (Maureen Gilmer)

    Drought resistant, low-fuel-volume flowering landscape perennials:

    Botanical Name          Common Name           USDA Zone            Color

    Achillea tomentosa         Wooly Yarrow            3-7                         White

    Arctotis hybrids               Cape Daisy               9-11                        Many

    Cistanthe grandiflora      Rock Purslane          8-11                        Magenta

    Cistus ‘Brilliancy’             Rock Rose               8-11                        Magenta

    Penstemon spp.              Penstemon              Varies                      Varies

    Rosmarinus ‘Prostratus’ Rosemary                 8-10                        Lavender

    Santolina spp.                 Lavender Cotton      6-9                          Yellow

    These are just a few select perennials for starters. Any of these will grow best with drip irrigation in the arid West. You might also plant spring bulbs and wildflowers, which are already naturally adapted to survive fire due to their seasonality; they bloom and grow in the low-fire season. Succulents are also recommended, because they contain so much water, they rarely burn. In wetter areas, low fuel volume options include bearded iris (Iris hybrids), sea thrift (Armeria maritima), and many other beauties.

    To boost flower production in your newly planted low-fuel-volume flowers this year, generously work Black Gold Garden Compost Blend into the soil to increase water holding capacity, drainage, and fertility. This superior growing amendments is also OMRI Listed for organic gardening.

    Planting to Reduce Fire

    Cistus ‘Brilliancy’ is a low-fuel-volume shrub with lovely magenta flowers.

    The commonly used term for firescaping, “planting for fire”, is actually an oxymoron. It should be “planting to reduce fire”. The less fuel there is, the safer you are, but homeowners in high fire zones should not be afraid to have beautifully landscaped gardens. Human beings want beautiful home landscapes with diversity and color, so the hyper safe fuel-free parking lot approach is not appealing to anyone. Instead think it through yourself, select wisely chosen low-fuel plants, then start flower gardening in your high-fire zone today.

    The final caveat is what’s lying on the ground.  Thick leaf litter and duff ignites quickly from embers, then smolders for many days afterward.  So, another key to fire survival is managing the property so these organic accumulations remain thin or absent. You can also reduce unnecessary top growth. Cutting back plants at the start of fire season should be an annual ritual for reducing overall fuel loads.

    There are no easy answers to the new wind-driven fires in the American West, and the future is uncertain. What we can do is realize that survival can rest in your landscape. Plant the flowers you love, explore new plant discoveries, and choose anything else with low fuel volume, so you are ready to fight fires after the flowers bloom.

    Arctotis ‘Louise’ is a tough, cool-colored perennial that’s good for firescaping.

  9. String of Pearls: Living Beads for Hanging Baskets

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    String of pearls is delicate yet tough, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding.

    They are living jewelry no woman can resist, the most coveted house plant, string of pearls. This tender succulent is feminine looking, delicate yet tough, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding. There are two species that can transform traditional or modern spaces, indoors or out. Hang them like living necklaces to bring awe to your home.


    String of pearls (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    The true string of pearls is a South African native from the maritime Cape of Good Hope, so it loves the humid coast. Dubbed Senecio rowleyanus, its leaves are like tiny grey-green peas on the finest dangling stems. Its cousin from drier inland is Senecio radicans, fondly called “string of bananas” due to its sickle-shaped leaves. These do better in hot inland climates. Both make great house plants.

    In the wild, both senecios grow as ground covers that root as they spread, so they rarely look like the hanging beauties we buy from the garden center. Yet, when planted to dangle in hanging baskets or raised pots and placed in a bright room, specimens almost look like living sculptures.

    In gardens where winters are mild these senecios can be grown outside, usually in raised pots or baskets that ensure perfect drainage. Indoors they are equally desirous of porous soils and hanging pots that are shallow and wide. Wide pots allow the ground-hugging plants to generate a lot of surface roots to hold soil tightly against the weight of their hanging strands.


    String of bananas (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    A key to success is rapid drainage in your container. The best hanging pots have many holes in the bottom to ensure plants remain dry at the root zone. When creating your hanging string-of-pearls sculpture, start with the right pot—perhaps a mid-century throwback with a macramé hanger. Once you’ve found it, buy your pearls or bananas and get ‘er done.

    You’ll need super well-drained potting soil to keep your plants from becoming too wet. When transplanting to your beautiful hanging pot, Black Gold Cactus Mix offers the ideal porosity. This fast-draining potting soil will make it much harder to over water your string of pearls.

    When you get ready to transplant these senecios, study the root ball that comes out of the nursery pot. Gently remove any potting soil that does not have roots on the lower half of the mass. This will allow you to better fit the root ball into your shallow pot.

    Set the plant, then lightly backfill with Black Gold Cactus Mix that has not been pre-moistened. If it sifts out of the drain holes, line the bottom with salvaged window screen before planting. Finally, tap the pot to help the plant settle into the potting soil, and wait to water. Allow a day or two for any damaged succulent tissues to callus over before you introduce moisture. This is essential to avoiding potential rot at the soil line.


    When you do water, plug the drain of your kitchen sink, add 2 inches of water, and put the whole pot in the sink.  Let it wick up water until you can see wet soil on top.  This means it’s time to drain the sink. Leave the pot to drain for a few hours before returning it to its hanger. This watering method keeps moisture away from rot-prone stems that are the Achilles heel

    Happy string of pearls can reach great lengths. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    of these delicate succulents. As strands grow longer, be sure to lay them along the counter on the sink’s edge to keep them from getting wet.

    A final key to success with all dangling succulents, particularly fine-stemmed ones like these, is avoiding wind. Continual swaying wears down the stems along the pot edge, causing injury that limits moisture transfer to the stem tips where new growth occurs.

    These senecios are easy to root, so if you find one that works well for you, propagate it.  Just take a runner and bend it up to the soil mass on top where it will root on contact quickly. Then sever it from the mother plant to start a whole new living sculpture of favorite pearls or bananas galore, without risk.

  10. Seven Mediterranean Food Plants for the Dry Edible Garden

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    Grapes have been cultivated in the Mediterranean since ancient times.

    The dry edible garden is rooted in classical civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians shared their ancient local food crops throughout the western world. Some of the best are grapes, pomegranates, date palms, rosemary, artichokes, cardoons, and figs. All are still vital to contemporary agriculture in deserts and dry places around the world and make great choices for arid-zone gardens.

    Growing Mediterranean Edibles

    Because most of these Mediterranean edibles are not very cold hardy, you need to know their tolerances before trying to grow any outdoors. Further north, grow dwarf varieties in containers that can be brought indoors for the winter. Water-holding, Black Gold Moisture Supreme potting soil is an ideal mix for contained arid food plants.

    One potential problem is that some of these plants, such as date palms, need long-term high heat for their fruit to ripen properly. Though fruits might appear in cooler temps, they aren’t nearly as sweet or just won’t fully ripen.

    If you live where they are hardy, grapes, pomegranates, date palms, rosemary, artichokes, cardoons, and figs make outstanding landscape plants that thrive despite limited water and high heat. Keep in mind that sufficient irrigation is required, particularly in porous, fast draining soils, if they are to produce quality fruit. Here are additional tips for growing each.

    1. 2. Artichokes and Cardoons

    Artichokes have naturalized in arid coastal California, proving their adaptability. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Out in the garden, the easiest arid vegetables to start with are artichokes and their close relative, cardoon. Both act as ornamental and edible perennials. The artichoke we eat is the flower bud, which should be harvested when buds are full-sized with tight bracts. For a big floral show, leave the buds to mature into huge, purple thistle-like blooms. This plant also bears fabulous lobed grayish foliage that’s exceptional for gray gardens. [Click here to learn more about growing artichokes.]

    Cardoons have flavorful stems that can be blanched and eaten. The bold silvery leaves also look great when planted in arid flower gardens, and are followed by large, purplish, thistle-like flowers.

    3. Date Palms

    Fresh dates on a date palm tree.

    Mediterranean date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) reach up to 100-feet and like heat and drought. They are hardy to USDA Zones 8b11, so they can only be grown in the hot and dry American landscapes of Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Florida. Full sun and well-drained dry soil are required for good growth. Male and female flowers exist on separate plants, so at least one male and female plant are needed for cross pollination and fruit set.

    (Editor’s Note: If space is limited, try growing the Southeast Asian pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii), which reaches 8-10 feet, can be container grown, and is hardy to USDA Zones 9 to 11. Its dark purplish fruits are are thin-skinned but edible.)

    4. Figs

    Many figs grow well in large containers.

    Dwarf forms of fig (Ficus carica) are specially bred for small-space areas. They grow well in containers that are fit for small city gardens or high-density neighborhoods in hot climates. Hardiness depends on the variety. Some are hardy to USDA Zone 6, as is the case with ‘Chicago Hardy’, while most others are hardy to USDA Zones 8-11. Here too, learn if their fruit cycle works locally by checking with your local garden center. You want the plant to thrive in a large patio container during summer, then plan for winter protection strategies. You may need wheels or a good dolly to bring pots indoors.

    5. Grapes

    The green hose marks the single watering point for this grapevine in the high desert. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Common grapes (Vitis vinifera) are amazing vines that provide both extensive shade and an annual crop of fruit grown for fresh eating or wine making. Grapevine covered ramadas were landscape fixtures in early California, and served as the first true “outdoor rooms” in the region.

    The beauty of grapes is that they have one stem per plant, making irrigation of single plants easy. Drip irrigation helps sustain vines that survive an average of 30-40 years and become enormous over time, even with pruning. Grapes offer more than fruit; the young leaves are easily canned for homemade stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) from scratch.

    6. Pomegranates

    A field of pomegranates growing in southern California.

    Today’s pomegranate (Punica granatum) trees come in a huge range of sizes, with smaller trees for city yards or larger trees for orchards 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.

    They grow well in poor, dry, rocky soils, but benefit from soils fortified with organic matter. (Commercial growers know that to achieve the largest juiciest fruits regular moisture and nutrition are needed.)  If 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. [Click here to learn more about growing pomegranates.]

    7. Rosemary

    A rosemary shrub in flower.

    The herb rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a large evergreen shrub that grows well in arid regions and tolerates intense sun.  It has many uses. Enjoy it as a culinary herb, cut flower, and or essential oil scent. The fresh stems also make great flavored kebob sticks and/or barbecue brushes. Plant potted rosemary in Black Gold potting soil and place on a sunny, west-facing patio or deck.

    Quality potting soils with high water-holding capacity are the best choice for growing edible plants with fewer irrigation demands. Good mixes rich in organics hold more water for longer than low-grade potting mixes. That means you can grow more with less water, and harvest fruit and veggies at a fraction of price of shipped fruit from grocery stores.

While we have made every effort to ensure the information on this website is reliable, Sun Gro Horticulture is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information. All information in this site is provided “as is”, with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or of the results obtained from the use of this information.

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