DIY Adobe: Boxwood, Dwarf Tree Pruning

Photos from 10/31/2019, an unusually early hard freeze (20F low)

To do: prune existing boxwood, maintain new boxwood, relate both

Sometimes due to factors out of my control (nurseries, ecoregion), no native shrubs exist to perform a design’s necessary functions.

Robertson Res-New Old Box1_2019-10-31-SML

I use common but tough, adapted, and slightly-mesic species such as – sarcastic gasp – India Hawthorn or Boxwood. There in part shade, it’s Winter Gem Boxwood / Buxus microphylla var. koreana ‘Winter Gem’.

Robertson Res-New Old Box2_2019-10-31-SMLRobertson Res-New Old Box3_2019-10-31-SML

Sometimes regional or local evergreen natives like Vauquelinia, Nolina, or Dasylirion species don’t have characteristics to create the desired effect in a garden. And very-tough juniper and rosemary are not always leafy enough with their needle-like foliage.

Boxwood works, especially since a duo of boxwoods exist nearby. (right, in the shade by the patio arch)

The new and existing boxwoods will be pruned as they grow. Soon there will be continuity, to fulfill the design intent.


Done: prune existing and new Desert Olive / Forestiera neomexicana plants.

These dwarf trees are native to floodplain bosques and even a few upland arroyos. Like all trees, they require training to grow properly – especially their first few years.

This is especially true for multi-trunk, arid-region trees, which those without their desert eyes on refer to as “shrubs.”

This starts with gentle thinning and lifting of the canopy towards what a mature Desert Olive develops into, only much faster than geologic time. Before and after, from 3 directions…

From the west / front walkway:

Forestiera Prune-Rob W1-SMLForestiera Prune-Rob W2-SML

Arborists recommend removing no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the live canopy or branching each year, so keep that in mind each time pruning. Pruning maximizes plant health by balancing structure, growth, and function. The effect is often subtle but noticeable – not timid or extreme.

First, remove dead and crossing branches…this is much of the work in pruning a live tree in the right place. Second, consider the individual tree’s form for the species and landscape it’s located. Third, correct any poor branching angles to minimize future problems. 

Did you notice all that in the previous photos?

Look again, then continue on to the rest of this blog post. I didn’t show the other 2, smaller Desert Olive trees recently planted, but similar work was done to those.

From the north:

Forestiera Prune-Rob N1-SMLForestiera Prune-Rob N2-SML

From the east:

Forestiera Prune-Rob E1-SMLForestiera Prune-Rob E2-SML

Balanced and subtle, the pruning is complete for 2019.


A skilled arborist is needed to do work on larger trees, once they grow too tall for the rest of us – including for issues other than pruning. Here’s an excellent Instagram feed from a different ecoregion, showing how a municipal arborist approaches tree pruning (similar principles but different tree species):

Low Desert Light

In the low desert, there’s more atmosphere to hold in moisture and absorb heat than in the high desert, such as my home at 4,100 feet elevation. And in adjacent areas, most know that increasing elevation generally lowers the temperature.

There are other effects on the garden from elevation, too.

Bright, sunny days have more glare with more atmosphere to scatter light and dust. That’s in contrast to days with dense cloud cover and lower or heavier cloud bases than in the high desert, with less light available to scatter. It would be interesting to study and document this more scientifically.

Here it is in a public garden by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects in Scottsdale, the elevation about 1,300 feet.


The yellow blooms on the Parkinsonia trees do a good job of brightening an otherwise gloomy afternoon, including the gray Leucophyllum shrubs and dark gabion walls.

But there’s no mistaking the day’s moody light in that space.


At this park, a talented design team used gray and brown but with skill; they also understand the art of plant massing and pops of color. This showcases water harvesting, uses desert succulents as more than curiosities, and uses boulders well.


The fleshy, bodacious, and blue foliage of Agave spp. really pops with the golden blossoms already fallen or still on the branches, to enliven the grays and cloudy light.


Do you have your own list of plants that take advantage of low or special lighting? If not, I recommend creating such a list, or finding a good one showcasing native species.

For 15 years, I enjoyed the moon garden I designed at least monthly, created in my former courtyard.

Prepare for a Yucca Explosion

With all our moisture until spring set in to scorch it all, our local yuccas seemed primed to go into full bloom. That they did.

My first year in this house, I only pruned a few of the huge, dead flower stalks off, without a truck to haul them to the dump and also enjoying the interest of “dry arrangements”.

This year, seeing all the new flower stalks forming, I cut off all the old stalks so the better blooming year could shine and knowing I would find a way to haul.


The large, dead stalks are bold to look at, plus some smaller birds perch on them.

Of course, birds have plenty nearby to perch on. For a garden to look better in less than geologic time, we can do simple, beneficial maintenance practices.

I’m finished with some Yucca elata clumps, their dead stalks bundled.


One of many vigorous flower stalks that will soon shine.


All done, looking back to the N.



I’ve met some hobbyists, a couple architects, and others, all with a belief system that won’t grasp maintenance and pruning. Yet the same often switch and then regard gardens whose staff knows what, why, when, and how.

Have you met any people like that?

Now, to pull all those weeds and mooch kindly ask to borrow someone’s truck for a delivery to the dump!

5/15/17 weather: 88 / 53 / .00