Why Prune? – The Vitex Version

An ex-architect client once asked me that, after their staking 2 new office mesquite trees failed, one attempt injuring the soft, young bark. “After all, no one prunes trees in the wild”, he followed.

Chaste Tree / Vitex agnus-castus* this 5/2015:

My account is too common, and I’ve heard even more unrealistic ideas on pruning. Somehow, he didn’t question how noone stakes trees in the wild, overwaters trees in the wild to watch them flop over or die, or cuts them down to replace with bamboo, japanese maples, lollipop trees, etc.

As usual, I restrained all I thought and did my best on a simple, educated answer; I’ve probably shared the same in past posts.

Flash forward 5+ years, new town and new office with better air conditioning. Our city street department replaced failed honeylocusts over a year ago, with something reliable and no drinking problem. My office landlord noticed the lack of care; I took 30 minutes to show how it can be done.

Notice it’s a low-breaking tree (this species and most desert trees are multi-trunked, shading with limited water). It’s not a lollipop tree. The horticultural old guard really disagrees using the former, ignoring the basics of selection and pruning in favor of that 1960’s Des Moines look.

It will take more light, thoughtful pruning, but that’s easy and less necessary as it matures. I can already see a little more that might be removed when it cools down at the end of summer, filling in better than before.

Soon, that Chaste Tree will shade people walking under and near it.


Do you wonder why there’s so much bad pruning and maintenance, when most people want pretty plantings around them?

After 26 years, it’s mostly about the wrong people in the right places. Property owners with money demand such work, people doing maintenance but lacking horticultural / design training, and lazyness / poor excuses from others. Such folks should be written off, but until then, we work around them. Plus, there’s plenty of copying bad work.

At least some do it right, even if they forget a tree or two.


*This tree is also called Monk’s Pepper Tree, or more often in New Mexico and Texas, Vitex. It’s in more landscapes than I can count in high desert towns, well-adapted and xeric but not native – it’s native to the Mediterranean region.  And like some other well-adapted plants in the high desert, it can become invasive in arroyos or even nearby yards.

So, it’s best to not use Vitex near natural open space; it’s best to use them in the middle of town, just pulling out a few unwanted volunteers.

Patio: Finally

It’s been 2 years since I last gardened anything of my own. Remember the containers I bought last winter, and the recent plant sale at UTEP?

Photos from 5/14 and 5/16/2014 –

A section of my patio gets direct sun in the late afternoon and evening – late April through August. All of it gets indirect light. It’s covered, and from my thermometer readings, it rarely exceeds 100F or goes below 25F…the cover tempering it to a sort-of zone 9a – assuming this holds decades longer than I’m staying.

Still, less of a challenge than _____.

Some plants I know from experience, but some theoretically, since I haven’t been blessed to be in arid, 3800′ elevation parts of this zone before. The grower was of little help, from the same zone 7 and an hour from my former home, but one of our local kaktus experts advised well (Peter Beste).

container #1

container #1 fills in with agaves

(1) Squid or Spider Agave / Agave bracteosa (from David R. in DFW)
(1) Artichoke Agave / Agave parryi var. truncata (plus 3 pups from my aunt)
(1) Yellow Bells / Tecoma stans var. angustata (maybe not, I hurt the roots)


container #2 (L), container #3 (R)

container #2 (L), container #3 (R)

container #2 gets a bit more sun, so it’s filled in with cactus:

Astrophytum myriostigma (no common name)
Astrophytum nudum (ncn)
(4) Copiapoa esmeraldana (ncn)
(2) Echinopsis grandiflorus (ncn)


container #3 fills in with softer plants:

(1) Twistleaf Yucca / Yucca rupicola
(3 2) White Rain Lily / Zephyranthes candida
(5…2 if a few don’t recover) Yellow Rain Lily / Zephyranthes citrina

All (3) large containers are anchored by the coarse, west-of-the-divide native, Beargrass / Nolina microcarpa. I normally don’t make adjacent containers too different, but here it’s me trying out some new plants, so more variety than a more unified design for clients. The beargrasses can adapt to the water needs of that range of variety.

Lowes had some large, healthy camellias that would have made an impact, but not be of similar cultural needs as 2/3 pots, so I went with the decent impact of the beargrasses. No other native plants available had enough size to provide this much impact as that Nolina, and for this light…not one.

I might topdress each large container with a layer of crushed rock, but perhaps not this type and probably smaller. Both pots brought from my old house, each with a different agave, were topdressed with “locally-sourced decomposed granite”, i.e. 10 feet away; a good look that keeps soil in place during our periodic high winds.

You’ll soon see what grows or doesn’t! Given limited lateral rooting space, my miserly watering, and light, it may very well stay uncrowded. Even if all that’s left is the beargrass (native in the sunny open foothills or shaded by junipers and oaks), the yucca, and a few rain lilies or agaves, I’ll call it a success. Success out here isn’t how close it resembles a Mann / Monet-esque Victorianascape :-)

Of course, after I cleaned my place, I settled in for a drink, then a grilled-up dinner, admiring a very modest garden. Gardens aren’t just to sell a property or meet code to get the permit, though the latter pays my bills.

A divine 80F and 20’s dewpoint, the breeze perfect, and I must have been out there over 2 hours relaxing. A good reason to have a garden.

Riding Down the Canyon: Ocotillos and Beyond

There’s something intoxicating about how the air feels in the desert, just like how the light hits.

Morning light is my favorite and most inspiring. Now that it’s warm, I’ve shifted my afternoon hike and mountain bike ride workouts to the morning. I could add sounds to the morning, since not only is wildlife more active between the hot and cold extremes, but mornings seem especially active.

From late last week –

When a freeway was a block away, I had my own enclosed desert oasis and miles of foothills open space beyond my block, so I slept with my sliding door open every night I could…most of the spring and fall.

Now, I still have the mornings on the trail, not as inspiring or serene, but maybe another form of those?

For we who have eyes to see and feel, let’s get in some natural inspiration and solace. Are there places you can go that get your creative gears going, to celebrate your place?

Tour: Late to the (Garden) Party

Fashionably late is how I roll! Starting the garden tour 1 hour late, I didn’t even make it the three gardens 15+ minutes away from the others. Garden tours are like designs or conferences – extra time spent paring down only improves.

This home’s garden was all out front and around the block from two others I posted on, so I did what I usually do – the unofficial view!

From 4/11/2015 –


imagine the crunching sound to-fro the car

Some understated touches were made here. Tearing out what was probably a decaying, old concrete driveway and making that permeable, lessening storm runoff, is a good one.

In front, are grays: low Dalea greggii and bushy Leucophyllum spp.

Other good touches include letting plants retain their natural forms, and letting native wildflowers reseed in between and over gravel.


the struggling (riparian) Arizona Ash is all that’s out of place…future firewood

I have to overlook the lack of planting design at this garden, like most Albuquerque gardens I’ve seen that venture into the realm of xeriscape and native plants. Some good parts, regardless; just add modest maintenance and a couple sculpture / spiky plants.

But unlike garden tours in my former home, this committee did good. I didn’t see one token gesture to inappropriate – much cooler and/or wetter – zero Taos or Tokyo :-)


a Desert Marigold / Baileya multiradiata volunteered here


a prime Beargrass / Nolina greenei (or is it N. texana)


about to pop into the blue, Chilopsis linearis limbs high above

“Punctuality is the virtue of those who have very few appointments.” – anonymous. So true. A smallish person in my field whom I once knew didn’t like my quoting that, giving me flack as I unknowingly flew right over the target. That was back in the darkest of days when I had a Facebook account. No wonder… :-)

I may be late, but if you only knew what I have to work with, or work around.

Proof most can do more but relaxed is good, like this garden…and the clock is often not a good thing.

Tour: The Art of Kern Place

Next stop on the garden tour, an artist couple’s gardens. At least 6 spaces around their abode, front and back, make for excellent outdoor living in our enviable climate.

Humidity? Mosquitoes? Ha!


aloes, santolinas, primroses, mesquite


perfect…I could sit there hours


one of the owners being funny

The ubiquitous El Paso and southern New Mexico rock wall and arched gate, but done up with character like they deserve. Even potted Yucca elephantipes out for the summer


no wonder they call their home “Casa Paciifica”

In this case, pacifica means peaceful and tells of the owners originally being from the LA area, I think Pasadena.

And what’s down the axis, along the shade ramada?


so relaxed, just overgrown enough


paving insets in the middle of the driveway


the back also game for paving insets


this river rock inset looks like moving water

It seems to resemble shimmering, moving water down a creek, flowing down between iceplant masses. Having lived 23 years and counting away from creeks, except the one most years in Tijeras Canyon, I still feel what I remember from the mountains in Colorado.


imagine this on a warm afternoon…each and every one #siesta

There can be plenty of dust in the air here, but that same dry air almost ensures no dew most mornings and nights when it’s warm.

Espresso and Yuccas

Hoping all the yuccas were in bloom, I detoured to Crazy Cat enroute to my office. Only a few started blooming, but others are getting close.

Photos from 5/2/2014 –

still not many flowers on yuccas

still not many flowers on yuccas

Chrysactinia mexicana about finished...what's the yucca root-sprouting

need Chrysactinia mexicana seed?

I’m curious about the yucca that’s root-sprouting inside the damianitas. Is it a once-existing Yucca torreyi? The leaves seem too thick for juvenile leaves of the yuccas that were planted.

some yuccas in bloom

some yuccas in bloom

Yucca rupicola, blue and bold

Yucca pallida, blue and bold

The espresso was amazing, by the way. Robert, Crazy Cat’s owner, made me a mean cup while I finished looking around.

We had already talked, him avidly sharing how his garden spaces are coming along, me throwing in about that and what can be done, pruning of his encinos starting in late August.

sitting on the shady wall was nice

sitting on the cool, shady seat wall was nice

I designed it to soak up coolness or warmth, depending on when the stone does its thing. The Saturday I took this photo, we were in the midst of a warm spell, many places’ nearby had 90-92F highs and 65-68F morning lows…highs or lows about 10F warmer than average. By the end of May, that will be average or even cooler.

There’s an advantage to getting out to enjoy your handiwork at the right time. Stone walls are cool in the morning shade!

Of course, cool, crisp mornings are now back, our highs a few degrees are below average once again – and the sun and dryness just is – most always.

so was every last drop of my espresso

so was each last drop of my espresso

Drive-by Ocotillos

And a few more plants deserving attention.

I left my camera at my place when I drove to my first mountain bike ride in weeks. Tragedy, on both accounts. But when I returned and stretched (which I also forgot to do), I grabbed my camera and retraced my route.

Do you know any place that grows so many ocotillos in the stature they reach in El Paso or Las Cruces? In my travels, the Las Vegas, Nevada areas does, too.

Since the early to mid-morning light is better, when I started my ride, I’ll return to Arroyo Park, and show you the ocotillo forest in full bloom. Stay tuned…