Clean Desert Plantings

Borrego and the Art of Hot Landscapes? I’m not sure.

Back to the art institute / former-grocery store-reuse, in the serene desert town of Borrego Springs. This time, more of a look at their landscape design, recently implemented. Photos from 1/14/2014 –

a mass of Agave parryi ‘Estrella’ (arid z 8a, at least) welcomed me, in the morning light…a distant mass of golden barrels


The palm in this landscape is California Fan Palm or Desert Fan Palm / Washingtonia filifera, native in the canyons just west of here, and for some distance north and south near water seeps (or wet-winter runoff flows).

A surprise: neither this nor any other palm is native to the LA basin, San Francisco Bay Area, or San Diego. Their legendary palms were all planted.

many locally-native plants, including Justicia californica between the fan palm and another agave…
Totem Pole Cactus (?) alternates with softening, late-winter blooming Aloe spp.

That’s a refreshing change from the often-too-minimalist xeric gardens in some southwestern mid-century-modern gardens. Do others try too hard to be minimalists? The difference in forms and textures here helps.

Justicia californica / Chuparosa (arid z 9b), blooms play against shadow and light on a boulder…

With our sere atmosphere, there’s little like light and shadow in the desert.

Chuparosa = Spanish for hummingbird, and hummers do frequent this species!

looking back to Christmas Circle, through a mix of native plants, dormant ocotillo soon to don it’s radiant red tips…here in the low desert…

In high desert areas, those red blooms pop two or more months later.

Lady Slipper Plant / Pedilanthus macrocarpus (arid z 10a, damage at 30F)
rows of protected Pachypodium lamerei mimic the distant row of Washingtonia filifera…facing Borrego Palm Canyon, by the way

This man’s take on Borrego is as enjoyable and humorous as his others in the Golden State – here.

their Hispanic Month meant local art inside – the favorite bird in all the southwest? – but as a horticultural post, it’s back outside…
Madagascar Palm / Pachypodium lamerei (z 10a, damage <32F) starting to bloom…do bats pollinate this one?

Probably best in warm spots near the rarely-frosted So Cal beaches. Much is written on this one in lower coastal Florida. Time to drive home…10+ hours.
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Some final things to consider –
A number of the plants in this post are low desert plants – arid, some light frosts most winters, and a hard freeze every few years – below 28F. Often never below 15-20F – ever. Borrego, much of Phoenix, Laughlin, Palm Springs, Yuma, etc.

Not me, or Las Vegas, or Albuquerque, or…

So, some of this post’s plants may not take to the crazy zone-pushing (to warmer climes) that I’ve watched in recent years in some locales.

But zone-pushing isn’t bad in moderation, with some thought. I’ve seen more than a few intersting, xeric plants naysayed for a given locale – especially from a place 5F or a touch warmer – become pleasant surprises, then staples, taking all extremes.

So, how do I handle using a new plant in a design for a paying client?

I go online to quickly learn documented temperature and rainfall where I’m working – averages and ranges of extremes – and the soil type. Easy. Then, I compare to where I’ve seen something I like growing. I filter out and ignore uninformed biases, though that’s not so easy. Then, I go for it!

This might help, from my links page near the top of my blog – here

Some readers have had a run of 10+ years of unusually mild winters, but just got hammered with a harder winter – actually closer to averages than those recent ones. Yet, still not close to infrequent but record lows near 0F.

What can you do when you see extremes that exceed the plant’s documented ones?

1) One can favor perception, then ignore facts and wonder about any failure.

2) One can verify information and have good fun with confidence. Then, if a plant is small enough at maturity (i.e., not a tree or plant too large and heavy to affordably haul off), and there are few such plants, precautions can be taken within reasonable extremes (a 20F difference from your garden to a plant’s documented extremes = not reasonable). Placing in containers that can be brought inside, or covering, during extremes, are an alternate to enjoying that plant somewhere else.
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I’ll get back to more posts of my own work, as well as other trips where I took too many photos. But there’s so much inspiration out there!


Cram-it: La Jolla Edition

Let’s return to a small, but well-designed front garden in La Jolla CA…while I don’t pretend to know all the plants, I’ll treat this as a design exercise, since for most of us, we don’t have a prayer of growing some of the plants. It’s z 11a / Sunset Zone 24, a couple blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

Yes, I took quite a few photos on my several day trip to see my aunt in San Diego! This is a “cram-it-style” garden.

Photos from 1/9/2014 –

the whole front area is treated…a quick study on how this works…


My thoughts (I won’t pretend to know each plant)

a) wild forms mix with warm-region architecture, overstory and understory
b) xeric species, for most part (except Miscanthus spp)
c) function – walk through front to front door, scaled for space
d) plants in scale with space, architecture, and eventual size
e) using color (roses, succulents) as splashes, bones elsewhere
f) roses, which can get mildew in this damp, mild coastal climate, are limited
g) some plants pruned tightly, others allowed to grow naturally or spread (echoes of Philip Leveridge’s work and own home garden)
h) assymetrical balance (San Antonio Shirley)
i) so much variety, nicely composed and unified (Tucson Chris, Austin Deb)
j) small infill lot, making it all count – somehow serene
k) the Yucca rostrata skirt of dead foliage was left (more stately this way)

now my close-up, where more detail is evident

Do you see what makes this front garden work, or that you might do differently?

Since I failed to get some closer shots of this place, you can bet I’ll post more on it after my next San Diego trip.

A Garden’s Teen Years

A garden goes through it’s awkward teen years right after it’s terrible twos. I think that’s when everything is soon to be revealed as incredible, or to fall apart.

But that beats the fate of all too many landscapes, merely designed to live for today. It’s best to have fun and thrive for the long-term. Part of why I embrace place and local native plants from my ecoregion and elevation. That’s staying power.

Photos from Albuquerque at the 2 year old Robertson Residence, 7/18/14 –

a small space, yet eclectic among a trace of simplicity…about to fill in some more…


gray velvet and orange of Buddleia marrubifolia, massive adobe, and powder-blue Agave neomexicana, intended to surprise behind the higher planting…
in front, more powdery blue but shade-loving Yucca pallida, Rhaphiolepis umbellata ‘Blueberry Muffin’…

It’s all made intimate by an original tree, Piñon / Pinus edulis. Some shade isn’t bad in that part of town, either.

plants on ledges – Agave bracteosa among Zinnia grandiflora, and much more…

Ledges are made of rock outcroppings in the wilds of the desert and nearby mountains. This time, it’s working with the same-old exposed aggegrate concrete, there long before my design, but departing from the original planting, into something more regional and textural.

There’s enough plantings, so the rabbit-ravaged cosmos used as a “seasonal wow” by Bill’s bell sculpture are not too noticeable. At least to me.

Bill shifted a couple plants with his metate, and voila!

Looking good as intended! The drip irrigation tubing needs more pinning down and additional gravel mulch on top, though. Twos and teens…

off to a few more places, golden containers of golden Thymophylla tenuiloba, green Nolina texana

The background Chilopsis linearis is a graceful but structural native symbol of the Chihuahuan Desert, even if overused at the expense of other native trees.

Shooting into the setting sun, with such a tough native plant scene, is part of what makes better xeriscape less zero. Even between two and teen!