Out Of My Hands

I work for every penny I’m contracted for in the “Construction Observation” phase of my design work, but there’s rarely enough money left to complete that phase. Sometimes I do that work anyway.

Plus, things are out of my hands ultimately, no matter how clear I make my designs and plans. So much falls through the cracks, yet I survive.

All comments are based on my plans, notes in plain, modern (brief) English, graphics per industry standards -


1) pots were all in line, for a stronger effect…not installed that way; 2) winter annual plants never changed from project close-out in January, but it’s bordering on infernal in mid-July, winter annuals never changed

Not northern 88F heat, or eastern humid heat with 30″+ of rain / year…but it’s also not 4 months of Phoenix hyper-summer. Blessed!

There’s a balance between paying one’s mortgage (for 21 years), or rent that’s now 25% higher for less (with 1 and not 2 incomes), then not selling out.


boulders not buried 1/4 into grade, just set on top of mulch…or even with mulch fudged up to boulders……….

This installation was during an unusually cold period in the coldest month (December) of a mostly mild winter, with more than one day;s high at 32F. And a few nights near 0F…yes, they used pick axes in some areas to do work, to meet the big restaurant opening.

boulders installed after they were specified – during finish grade and before planting…

see anything other than far-off storms during the monsoon or “rainy” season?

anything? Buhler?? Buhler-rrr??? (#80’s)


Greek Germander was sneaked into the middle of specified Trailing Germander…the clay loam soils will have the final say…

Some excuse such things as, “well, David, …”, but that’s lame. I wonder how many of them do the same? Would their client$ excuse it with their real money expenditures? Many of us know how / the amounts of money and time are divided among any project team.


1) the development entry monument is still not constructed, hense the sparse look; 2) weeds…could be worse, but…

no water harvesting basin…summer downpours will run off more…

I’m just happy when the contractor on one of my projects gets 80% a project right; with all my work over 8 states, it hasn’t always been that great. So, 80% is like awarding them with an A+ to me. But that’s my 25 years in the field, and I know others who have it easier.

Luck does not come from working harder. It just is, or is not.

Client – “David, you forget that it rained and was humid all week”…

mold…why the Zephyranthes were not establishing – 3x / week irrigation

Me – “you don’t realize that monsoon season humidity and rain means no irrigation”. Maintenance guidelines were swiftly sent a 2nd time…no response. My fault to be sure – not!

Am I blessed? I sure am, at some level.
– – -
Even though an unusual amount of humid weather lingers and for so long, it actually turned into real rain…3.5″ last week, doubling our 2014 rainfall.

And the Sooners won a football game they might normally choke at in WV. It could be worse!

Surprises and Not So Much: Part 1

People have asked me about what it’s like in my new town, many less familiar with it here than they even were with where I last lived 21 years.

Part of that involves “what kinds of plants do you have?”

Since I had seen a number of plants over a year ago, that I never photographed, I set out to capture those: some usual, expected, and surprising plants for El Paso. Photos from the last 2 weeks -


I spotted this a few times on work errands…

Crape Myrtle is common here and other high desert towns; I’ve seen countless ones here. But many, even in more heavily irrigated situations, look stunted at best.

They lack the lushness in foliage and flower that they do in, say, New Orleans or North Carolina. Crape Myrtle is native to the steamy summers of southern and eastern parts of Asia (analogous to the US southeast, including Austin, Jacksonville or Memphis), not the dry heat of a desert.


Crape Myrtle / Lagerstroemia indica – common, though not so much as in Abq


nice bloom, and this is on a hot south-facing aspect…

It seems success here is by choosing a proven, superior selection or cultivar for here, plus deeper soil, a less dry microclimate and similar companion plantings. (not one sage and one yucca, with 10 feet of landscape gravel between them!)


I spotted these happy crapes on many trips towards Las Cruces and points north…


also on a hot S exposure, yet fine…

Jeff Anderson, the Doña Ana County extension horticulturist in nearby Las Cruces, showed me his own ‘Natchez’ and ‘Muscogee’ selections, and they looked much more full and lush than the norm. I hear there may be a couple more, that can handle our high desert conditions.


a few crapes  in a a densely planted landscape…they were planted at 10’+ tall several years ago…


still looking happy…not a clue on their varieties…

Now for something unusual:


Ponderosa Pine / Pinus ponderosa – very uncommon here

I spotted that tree on a couple mountain bike trips, returning from the trail another way. This one is actually not bad – about how the exceptional ones mostly grow in miles of Albuquerque – short of expensive spray applications for pine tip moth, favored cooler parts of town, or possibly with lower elevation selections.

Note all the heavily irrigated lawn, and a crammed-in Southern Magnolia to its right…poor thing!

Still, P. ponderosa would be best enjoyed in cooler places, above 7500′ in elevation. The taller Italian Stone Pine, which I cropped in front of the ponderosa, are far more suitable here. Even far from the “bucolic hills of Tuscany” which I’ve seen several times in person.


Arizona Cypress / Cupressus arizonica var. glabra – very common, always happy…even in that gravelscape front yard


Piñon / Pinus edulis – uncommon but many here grow well


a hedge of Creosote Bush / Larrea tridentata – common in the wild, but there are more in Albuquerque landscapes than here


Velvet Mesquite / Prosopis velutina – unusual here, common just to our west


bluer leaves, smaller leaflets…more delicate than honey mesquites….


a tough, old-fashioned standby found across the US…


Rose of Sharon or Althea / Hibiscus syriacus – unusual here


Littleleaf Cordia / Cordia parviflora – unusual here


the way the large, floppy blooms dot the plant, it reminds more than I of someone’s front yard getting teepeed, at least from a distance…


a locally native trio of Fouquieria splendens, Tecoma stans var. angustata, Yucca torreyi – very common

Even the expected here look amazing, and rarely grow this well anywhere but the 3000-5500′ elevation belt, a few hours either side of I-10…which happens to be the sweet spot of where chiles reach their pinnacle.

What are your favorite common and uncommon plants? Or reasons you think they are that way?

Renting Mid-Century San Diego

Just inside USDA Zone 10a [coastal Southern California] / Sunset Zone 24 [room temperature often], lies this apartment complex. I often drove by it when I lived in San Diego 25 years ago, going to my nearby aunt’s / uncle’s home, or a friend’s bachelor pad. I never paid it another look, except to get through Clairemont and their often marginal areas quickly.

How I’ve changed my thinking about Mid-Century Modern architecture, which I mostly disliked then. Or anything that fell into disrepair in need of renovation. Now I see the great bones – including plants.

Plus, I was born near the end of the Mid-Century period, and I’m heading towards a mid-century age. How time flies…

Photos from my vacation in mid-January 2014 -


the original sign…nice detail on these walls…

This is where minor pruning of the tree, to see the sign better, would make all the difference in the world. I think it’s a Carrotwood, but I may be wrong…if so, that’s an invasive in some areas.


Yucca elephantipes and Tecoma stans var. stans…blooming in January!

Such flowering, but they had a warm winter. It was also a dry winter, and the media has covered their uber-drought. That part of San Diego, though not as hot as further inland, only averages 9″ of rain / year and most in winter – they are up to 2.90″ for 2014. They depend on water from the few watersheds in the mountains to the east, plus the Colorado River.

All are good reasons to renovate using low water-use native and adapted plants, while protecting the existing palm root zones from drying out.


but on the ground, we have some issues, starting with red lava rock mulch…

A neutral-toned mulch, inorganic or organic depending on additional plants desired, would really go further. Then again, so would some additional, suitable plantings.


a general lack of upkeep, large rocks that need to be re-set…


wood railings very nice, but replacing with steel in a similar pattern would last indefinitely…

In some markets, this type of place with such architecture, but add interesting hardscape to existing planting bones – and 10 minutes from legendary beaches and countless local amenities – would be renovated and priced into the stratosphere. Not that San Diego is cheap, but somehow this spot is escaping such gentrification.


gentle re-grading could allow the edges along the stepped walk to go away, allowing a cleaner look…


mini-jungles using palm groves always make a lush interior space…

It would be great to form a quality design-build team, then get paid to renovate a number of details on this property – architecture to the site, grading, water harvesting, and landscape! But in a way that present renters are not priced out of their homes. I would certainly be game.


no clue what this is  a mature Finger Tree / Euphorbia tirucalli looks like an undersea plant…that blue sky… (thanks for the ID, Forest and Laurin!)


one of a few Cereus peruvianus…


quite happy…so was I, that perfect last day in San Diego…


the grand finale…the interior space…what bones to work with

That grouping of stately, huge “cacti” looks like yet another Euphorbia for milder places than mine…but there just perfect to work around. (yes, I said work-around:-)

This space implies some low walls, part paving and part sandy beach to relax on in more style. I’m also picturing complimentary plantings, mostly a mix of xeric flowering plants – including locally native species – and varying heights of succulents.

Since it’s San Diego, with Palomar Observatory not far away, dark night sky laws will negate the idea of uplighting of the palms can occur. But more modest changes are all that may be needed here?

What do you think?

Plants for Tough Spaces: 9/2014 Edition

Limited area for roots to grow: check. Exposure to heat, cold and wind: check.

We had the 5th hottest June on record, July stayed hot, but then came a mild August with decent rains. After a hot flash Labor Day weekend (it’s a dry heat:-) – bringing us to 30 days >100F for 2014 – September just saw a cool front set off light rain, then sharp cooling; tonight’s almost chilly.

And wild plants responded, though we’re only 50% of our average precip, year-to-date. Photos from my hike last week -

the dry, clean dawn light bursts over Arroyo Park…


a thick stand of ocotillos from far above, near my trailhead…


rocks and cactus, other plants…the mountain still casts its shadow…

A desert city’s garden celebrity once told me something like, “native plants are often less suitable to urban areas than many non-native plants.” I may still have the e-mail.

After initial shock or “what Einstein was that parroted from?”, my reply was something like, “actually, native plants and city codes or LEED are my friends, not plants from colder, wetter places.”

I got no response.

Prickly Pear / Opuntia — (L) and Mariola / Parthenium incanum (R)…

a very common plant, but I can’t find my e-mail with its’ ID…

nice, and many new buds ready to open…

Silverleaf Nightshade / Solanum eleagnifolium


it’s the nightshade I see all over…that day, my eyes and camera missed the tiny stand of unique white flowering nightshades nearby…

Skeletonleaf Goldeneye / Viguiera stenoloba

Plume Tiquilia / Tiquilia greggii w/ some lechuguillas…

spent blooms and seed ripening….

Fluffgrass / Dasyochloa pulchella AKA Erioneuron pulchellum

a very compact, tough grass found all over our desert ecoregion…

repeat after the expert, “native plants are often less suitable to…”


Plume Tiquilia front, Mariola back, rocks and creosote bushes…

Trailing Windmills / Allionia incarnata

these appear every monsoon season, the stems crawling over everything in sight…

When I hike or mountain bike, I sometimes wonder why any of these plants live in such a limiting environment…especially when it’s too hot or cold for me. Then I remember that they do and thrive, and I’m thankful they are here.

no ID on this white flowering plant, but these are also common…


reminds me of a gaura or evening primrose…even a #pollinator…

look how close our trails are to an urban area of 2-1/2+ million people…


the sun starting to light up the high spots…

what great massings: goldeneyes and mariolas below, a limestone outcropping, lechuguillas and ocotillos on top…

By now, you may also be seeing how this wild environment is every bit as hostile to plant life as any urban setting.

Sideoats Grama / Bouteloua curtipendula

it’s the our Texas state grass…

ocotillo leaves turn without moisture, nearing the end of our monsoon season…

The monsoonal flow is forecast to return this coming week, with mid or high-80F temps, so there may be fresh green again.

uplifting…an arroyo sweeps below the mountain…

This area is under 1 mile and 500′ higher in elevation from where I live.


main trail into an ocotillo forest, where I hike and ride 3X most weeks…


my favorite morning view here…mountain shadows, sunlit ocotillos…

But #dontmovehere :-)


larger goldeneyes low, where storm runoff soaks into the sandy arroyo…

Any place’s native plants are keenly adapted to that place’s exposures and extremes. Out here, add “low water-use” to “native” or “adapted”.

Whitethorn / Acacia constricta var. paucispina

a few flowers hang on this mostly spineless variety

Is there a place you can go, and just hang out or work out in, to see similar ideas to those you can embrace?


In many commercial and home landscapes the rest of us design – without a lofty budget, horticulturists to maintain, not enough or too much irrigation, and other limitations – some design elements remain in spite.

Why not learn what those are? Then, before finishing the design, go back and edit it down to what’s necessary.

I hear this technique called reductionism, and anyone can do it.

the Dion’s architect provided me colors and finishes for building and roofing…

As this project was installed just over 6 months ago, and it’s been summer since the end of May, there are more plantings than obvious in the foreground on the slope and basin…just wait until next May.


Yucca pallida, in drivers’ eye-level raised planters, colored walls…

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Yes, that Antoine de Saint-Exupery, of The Little Prince.


Steve Martino’s term, “walls and weeds”…

An ordinary waste space of a drive-through lane; just add some thought.

After all, people sit in their air conditioned cars and trucks, idling in these lanes for several minutes, so why not a garden for them?

more room, more morning sun, same Y. pallida…and an overstory of a single Yucca faxoniana…brown wall for a backdrop…


flowering OK too, in the right place

We’ll see how long that mass of Orange Globemallow / Sphaeralcea munroiana lasts, or is tolerated, since it doesn’t yet have pop-culture appeal.

I figured since various, local globemallows grow in waste spaces against curbs or paving in sand and clay, no matter how hot, this South Valley spot might feel like home. Just in a prettied-up design version!

But that’s reduced, too. What can you reduce, to make even better?

Loose and Tight

Shirley in San Antonio brought up something to bring balance in this issue of over-shaping and over-pruning plants, especially shrubs.

Sometimes there is a good reason to prune. I spied this last week on a burrito run!

LooseTight-CordiaLeuco-EP East01-SML

Littleleaf Cordia / Cordia parviflora with white blooms *

Loose Littleleaf Cordia in the rear, on the bank property. A tight, green Texas Sage / Leucophyllum spp. in front, on the Taco Cabana property.

Accidental, perhaps. But this scene looks best maintained just like it is.

The Leucophyllum will probably flower less this way, but if not kept too severely tight, it will still have some blooms, as others all over town do.

The Texas Sages’ tightness pops better here beacuse of the Cordia, and vice-versa. Both pump up the impact of the other; each would be less if the other were pruned in the opposite manner it is.
*Littleleaf Cordia / Cordia parviflora is hardy in arid USDA z 9a, the probable zone at this site just inside the urban heat island-thermal belt combo of central El Paso. Littleleaf Cordia also combines well with lower water-use desert accents, cacti, not just lighter or darker contrasting walls and clipped shrubs.

Planting Shadows

Is the use of desert accent plants and the way light plays on their forms a happy accident, intentional, or some combination? For me, it’s the last.

First stop: my recent work at Sierra Providence East Medical Center -


young Texas Red Oak in new spring growth, grabbing all that light…

When I moved to my first desert southwest town of Albuquerque, I was disillusioned with the HOG’s messy cottage gardens posing as xeriscape, which left out native plants and bolder accents. Weak.

After a few months there, I was driving many miles through town doing bids, and I began to spot old, neglected landscapes – many with those accents, happily growing, and they looked like they belonged, even if not found in natural areas directly nearby.

Now, we’re onto something. I knew this was one crucial puzzle to more enlightened, more dramatic gardens up to the par of surrounding natural drama of light, form, and sky.

the right Yucca torreyi on the left, the wrong Yucca elata on the right, coarse vs. fine shadows…

Aware of their forms and the way they interact with our skies and views, I never fully realize all I am playing with by including them in designs.

Until they are installed, that is.

almost like an illicit lower-back tattoo or illegal substance graphic on my car…nope, just a Yucca torreyi shadow

Keeping existing specimens of such skyline accent plants in a new design shows far more sophistication than replacing them with matching Stepford wife trees on 30′ centers, too.

Not bragging, as it wasn’t just I who wanted a certain yucca to stay – just sayin’.

On to my work at Crazy Cat Cyclery -

isn’t the tropicalesque sky with a desert yucca / shadow great?

so glad we could keep this Yucca torreyi, and the subcontractors could work with it – the yucca is probably much older than me

And it’s been boldly playing in the desert sun for even longer than I.