Front yard desert bed—September 2014 update

This post continues the coverage of our front yard desert garden project.

At this year’s Succulent Extravaganza, Brian Kemble, the curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden and one of the country’s preeminent succulent experts, continued his tradition of leading folks on a walking tour of the Succulent Gardens growing grounds. Brian is one of the most unassuming yet knowledgeable plant experts you’ll ever meet, and I pay very close attention to what he says. One of his best pieces of advice this year rang very true: When designing a new garden space, it’s OK to use slower-growing plants as anchors and fill in with faster-growing plants that need to be taken out as they outgrow their allotted spot.

Instinctively, or by sheer luck, that’s what I did when I chose the plants for the desert bed we created this spring along the perimeter of our property. The backbone of this bed are the succulents—tree aloes like Aloe ‘Hercules’ and Aloe ferox, tree-sized yuccas like Yucca rostrata, an actual tree (‘Sonoran Emerald’ palo verde) and a score of slower-growing aloes and agaves. The infill plants were globemallow (Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’), gaura (Gaura lindheimerii ‘Snow Fountain’) and other low-water perennials as well as whatever came up from a packet of Dry Lands seed mix I sprinkled on the western section of this bed (plants like baby’s breath, bachelor’s button, blanket flower, and thread-leaf coreopsis).

In just six short months, some of the perennials had grown so quickly and so large that they were making the bed look unbalanced (another instance of the “I didn’t think it would get this big” syndrome I talked about yesterday). Time for some judicious editing, i.e. removing the plants that had outgrown their spot and adding others (primarily succulents) that will stay small for much longer.

Let’s take a look at the result:


“After” photo, looking east


The ‘Blace Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’) on the left needs pruning. It’s touching the Agave macroacantha and the Aloe ‘Moonglow’.


I’m keeping a close eye on this Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). It’s starting to engulf an Aloe cameronii and Agave gentryi ‘Jaws’. I do enjoy the flowers of the Mexican bush sage so I’ll keep it around for now, although carefully pruned.


Here I removed a globemallow (Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’) to the right of the Mexican bush sage and a brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) to the left of the Aloe ferox.


Look how much the brittlebush had crowded the Aloe ferox (photo taken on August 10, 2014)


In front of the Aloe ferox I removed a small Agave pelona offset that had been declining since I planted it in the spring. I have no idea why. In theory, it should have done well here. I replaced it with an Agave zebra which thrives in hot and dry spots.


The Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Compactum’) between the Aloe ferox (left) and Aloe ‘Hercules’ (right) needs pruning soon to keep it off the Agave parrasana to the left of it.


Angle view


The Aloe hereroensis (bright green in front of the Texas ranger) is a new addition


Wider view


Another newly planted Aloe hereroensis (foreground)


This globemallow is now gone


The ‘Sonoran Emerald’ palo verde (Parkinsonia ‘Sonoran Emerald’) received a gentle pruning to keep the branches away from the sidewalk


This Agave ocahui var. ocahui is a new addition in front of the palo verde. It will grow to 2 ft. over time.


The corner by the mailboxes looks cleaner now after removing both a globemallow and a gaura ‘Snow Fountain’ (see photo below). In their stead, I planted two electric blue sages (Salvia chamaedryoides) and two Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera var. pulcherrima).


A better view of the two Salvia chamaedryoides and two Ratibida columnifera var. pulcherrima


This is what this corner looked like in early August, with both the globemallow (Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’) and gaura (Gaura lindheimerii ‘Snow Fountain’) in place


Aloe ‘Erik the Red’ is an early summer addition; the Agave mckelveyana to left of it has been there since April and has produced a couple of babies already


Two new additions: Agave stricta (left) and Yucca baccata var. vespertina 'Hualampai Blue' (right)


Yucca baccata var. vespertina 'Hualampai Blue’, one of the plants Loree ‘Danger Garden’ Bohl bought for me at Cistus Nursery in Portland


Agave stricta, a silent auction plant from the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society


Standing near the mailboxes and looking west


Same view in early August. You can see how much I’ve taken out, not just the two gauras on either side of the palo verde, but also many of the seed-grown annuals further on the left.


  1. I really enjoy this kind of fine-tuning, and it sounds like you do too. I just found the 'Moonglow' aloe locally and can't wait to see some blooms. I once tried a supposedly dwarf version of Salvia leucantha. I think it's known as 'Santa Barbara.' Didn't notice much difference in size tho.

    1. Yes, I really do enjoy it. It's also a great way to find new homes for at least some of my potted succulents :-)

      'Moonglow' was in bloom when I got it. The flowers aren't pure yellow; more of a creamy yellow with just a touch of orange.

      Salvia leucantha 'Santa Barbara': I tried a couple of plants but they just languished so I took them out. They definitely didn't have the vigor of the species, which is fast-growing here.

    2. P.S. The Salvia leucantha in the photos above is technically a variegated selection but you couldn't tell unless you looked very closely. Plus, at least half of the plant has reverted. So for all intents and purposes it looks and acts like the regular leucantha.

  2. It looks much better having thinned out the plants that have quickly outgrown their space and crowded the others. That bed is bound to look spectacular in the near future Gerhard!

    1. Thanks, guys. I have high hopes for this bed. Give it another year or two...

  3. That bed looks great, and I really like your fence! I need to practise restraint like you and not plant close together so that it looks full now, rather than later. When they've all grown in to their spaces it's going to look fantastic.

    1. I try to find a happy medium. Some of the plants in this bed are so slow growing that the bed would look empty for years if I spaced them "properly."

  4. I admire your restraint which will pay dividends in a fabulous looking, well thought out garden! Would you come and edit my whole yard?

    1. LOL, usually people don't associate me with "restraint." Don't forget, this is just a snapshot in time. I'm sure I'll find a wait to stuff more plants in there in the months to come. What I really want are Mexican poppies interspersed with the succulents.

  5. You've been busy! I'll have to direct people to this post when I eventually share the photos I took of you garden during our visit.

    Brian Kemble is a treasure. I feel lucky to have met him on my first visit to the RBG. I would have loved to listen to him at the Succulent Extravaganza.

    1. Some of the plants I removed were 3 ft wide and tall, and yet all it took was a yank to get them out. Even the brittlebush, which had grown 4 ft tall, had a very small and shallow root system. In other words, not that much physical labor was involved. And putting new plants in the ground is ALWAYS fun.

      I always look forward to talking to Brian when I go to the RBG sales. Their fall sale is just around the corner, October 11. Do you need anything? If so, email me.

  6. Excellent progress on that area. It is fun to watch it evolve. A second adjustment will arrive in a few years when the tree Aloes have formed a trunk, leaving recovered space under them.

    I did that method also out front, my temporaries were flats of cheap big-box ice plant, volunteers of Limonium perezii, and golden poppy seeds. Those are almost all pulled out now. Some of the Aloes are starting to fight each other for space.


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