Pool Planting Tips from Hollywood’s Heyday

A Palm Springs mid-century modern was restored for climate change using artificial turf and some agaves. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

In Hollywood’s heyday, stars drove from Los Angeles to the desert resort of Palm Springs to party and tan in the quiet comfort of desert living.  The swimming pool came of age here as the focus of every landscape where its year-around usability became integral to backyards.  Whether you had a pool or in-ground spa, those in the business of pool maintenance discovered what not to plant, so the poolside amenity remained a blessing, not a curse.

Time and experience helped guide poolside landscaping standards in Palm Springs, and these standards remain in practice today. Here are some of the most important pool planting tips gleaned to keep you safe and your pool clean and happy.

Problematic Poolside Plantings and Wind

Small palms become big threats to the swimming pool shell and plumbing as well as water quality. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Beware of anything you plant upwind from your pool.  Every time it blows, the litter goes straight into the water.  If the leaves are large and resist rapid decomposition, such as those of magnolias, they are easily removed.  Fine, compound leaves, like those of jacaranda or honey locust, disintegrate into millions of tiny fragments that must be vacuumed out of the bottom.

If you want grasses and other fine-litter plants, reserve them for the downwind side of the pool, so their litter is blown away from the water.  This is important in late summer and fall when the ornamental grasses are releasing their seed to the winds.

When it blows, palm trees shed their litter far and wide.  This is augmented by the large sprays of small flowers that fall like snow flurries, and finally, the pea-sized black seeds that stain pool pavement or decking.  This is the reason that fan palms in this area are annually trimmed back significantly. It prevents flowering and removes last year’s dry fronds. If not, they all end up in the pool. If your beautiful old palm is giving you problems with litter, hire a palm trimmer to remove flower stems before they mature each year.

Also, make sure trees and shrubs do not shed problematic fruits and berries that stain pool spaces. Fruiting species also tend to attract local birds that sit and feed around the pool and surrounding patio, spoiling the water quality and pavement.

Bees and Poolside Plantings

Flowering trees and shrubs look pretty around pools, but they attract bees, which are a danger to bare feet.

Because everyone goes barefoot around the pool, and stepping on bees is a common way of getting stung, avoid planting bee flowers around pools.  This is one place they should not congregate. More aggressive Africanized bees make it even more important to create planting designs that don’t draw bees.  Therefore, save your bee-pollinator flowers for the front yard or further away from the pool area.  When you plant at the poolside, strive for plants with colorful foliage, interesting forms, or those with flowers that attract specialized pollinators, such as fly-pollinated succulent carrion flowers or moth-pollinated yuccas.

Prickly Poolside Plantings

Plant sharp, succulent plants but keep them well away from the pool decking edge. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Succulents, the most popular plants for pool areas, have one drawback, they have spines.  With common agaves, each species has a different sized tip point on the end of each leaf.  They’re so sharp they’ll hit the bone with little pressure and can do serious harm.  When agaves are already there, or you want to plant some further out, always do what desert folks do: trim the spine. Understand that the spine grows much like a dog’s toenail and comes out of a living quick.  So you can give it a manicure and cut off the sharp point so long as you don’t cut into the living part.  If the living cells are damaged they will die back to brown at the tips, permanently spoiling the agave’s natural beauty.  Remember, everyone slips and falls, so keep these and all cacti well away from the edge of pool decking.

Poolside Planters

These paloverde trees were reluctantly removed, due to aggressive roots and messy compound leaves and flowers, leaving suites of beautiful planters and less messy plantings. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

The beauty of using lots of large containers around the pool is that the plants become portable and interchangeable.  If one doesn’t work out, replace it with another.  Move them around with the seasons.  In the hot, dry desert, potted plants appreciate a good, moisture-holding mix like Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix to ensure the roots remain cool and moist when placed alongside the hot glare and cool blue of a legendary sparkling poolside.

Ponytail Palm Indoors or Out

This ponytail palm at the San Diego Zoo demonstrates how graceful they become.

Many believe Dr. Seuss’ Truffula Tree was inspired by a curious cypress in a San Diego park.  But maybe this isn’t true at all.  Maybe it’s San Diego’s epic ponytail palms that were the real inspiration for the Lorax story.  These are botanically known as Beaucarnea (“beautiful flesh” in Latin), a name that refers to the broad, fleshy bases of these succulent trees.

Ponytail Palms for the Landscape

Young, one-gallon, potted ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11, 4-30 feet) are sold at affordable prices at florists, succulent nurseries, and most other garden centers. A native of Mexico, it is not a true palm but instead more closely related to lilies. It grows slowly and luxuriously, but in time will reach landscape proportions in mild climates where it will become a beautiful and long-lived specimen. Here in Palm Springs, this common house plant is an incredible landscape specimen that can reach 30-feet in height.

Ponytail Palms for the Home

Use Beaucarnea to create small architectural wonders with the right pots and stones.

Get the same miniature palm-tree look for your home or apartment with these evergreen “trees” for bright rooms. Its foliage grows longer and longer, just like hair, so ponytail palms become more feminine and elegant looking with time. They can be easily moved outdoors after the last frost in colder climates with little summer rainfall. Or you can place them on a dry, sunny porch where they will be protected from excess rain. Outside in the desert they tolerate intense sun.

Ponytail Palm Growth Habit

This grove of mature ponytail palms, in Pasadena’s Huntington Desert Garden, is a century old.

The wide base of this plant is a unique structure called a caudex. Its a drought adaptation found in many woody succulents. Inside the semi-woody caudex are succulent cells that take up water quickly and hold it for a long time. The foliage remains luxurious, even with minimal soil moisture.

When fully hydrated, the caudex is smooth and hard to the touch. As it dehydrates, during the depths of the dry season, it looks and feels like an overripe cantaloupe. Subtle depressions appear at the sites of maximum moisture loss. You might see wrinkles show up on the outer skin as the diameter of the drying caudex shrinks. These are all signs that a ponytail palm needs water.

This caudex is its most vulnerable part of the Beaucarnea. Its thin bark protects it from injury and infection, which is the most fatal problem for succulent species. Inside tissue is sterile, much like your own body. If the bark or skin is breached in any way (nicked or punctured), microorganisms are allowed to invade. Often they are carried inside by rain or irrigation water, which creates the perfect conditions for rot to flourish. A tiny wound can take down a huge specimen if it is exposed to excess moisture.

Ponytail Palm Care

Ponytail palm specimens grow best in pots with good drainage.

For best indoor results, grow these succulents in fast-draining Black Gold Cactus Mix to keep moisture under control. Use only pots with large drainage holes. More succulents are killed by heavily absorptive soils and over-watering than death by dehydration, so when in doubt wait a week and then maybe water. Ponytails need more water during the warm season. In winter, water very sparingly, and when you water avoid wetting the caudex!

With large, old plants caudex injury is a worst-case scenario. Once the caudex is breached, on a plant large or small, and infection takes hold, the only way to try and save it is to carve out all the damaged tissue. It’s a lot like skin cancer surgery where layer after layer is removed until the tissue shows no more discoloration. Then refrain from watering. It will heal with an ugly callused scar upon the beautiful flesh of the trunk, but at least the plant will be saved.

Use this same technique if you get rot spots on young, indoor ponytail palms. Do surgery with a razor-sharp knife, then allow all exposed tissue to dry out in the shade afterward. A dry callus will form to seal it off from infection.

Beaucarnea is one of the most underrated landscape plants for arid zones and house plants for contemporary homes. Affordable, architectural in form, adaptable, and requiring minimal moisture, its design possibilities are endless. Just remember, the ponytail palm is not a palm at all but a beautiful head of long green hair upon a most graceful body.