Looking at Structure

desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, agave parryi

Learning which plants offer a good sense of structure for this garden has taken quite a bit longer than I anticipated.  I am sure that in a naive way I expected a one-to-one replacement from temperate zone gardens: (x)desert shrub = lilac, (x)desert tree = dogwood, (x)desert perennial = phlox, and so on.


Far from it.


The most confusing factor is simply learning the basic growth habits of a new set of plants.  An equally naive tendency leaves me forever expecting a sort of average habit: a bit bushy, a bit dense, medium sized foliage...  It's the imagination's three-dimensional version of those green circles one draws on a garden plan.  If I were familiar with the plants themselves, my mind could fill in the peculiarities of the plant habits; as it is, that's simply impossible till I've grown them a season or two.  Usually I at least manage to avoid moving them, relying instead on rebalancing with surrounding plants.  But it certainly makes me realize just how much instinctive knowledge we usually have when visiting a nursery!  With a whole new set of plants, I can't rely on that.


But of course, one can tell from the growth of the plant in the pot, no?  Umm... no.  Not with spindly little desert plants in 2.5 qt pots anyway.  They mostly look like scrubby little twigs at that stage.


So at two and half years into the garden, I am finding that the real workhorses of structure are often unexpected.  Here is a look at a few of them.

desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, euphorbia, sticks on fire, firesticks
The succulent stems of Euphorbia tirucalli "Sticks on Fire" create a strong sense of presence in the winter garden - in some ways as much as the Acacia above it.

In fact, the very hardy succulents are becoming some of my favorite choices for firming  up a border.

desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, agave, parryi
A sense of structure - effortlessly created by the cold-hardy Agave parryi
desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, agave, gypsophila
Agave gypsophila
desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, agave, angustifolia
Using Agave angustifolia variegata to bring some order into the chaos produced by wandering stems of Justicia californica - not sure this will work...
desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, cactus, trichocereus, spachianus
I've also begun bringing in columnar cacti, here the elegant Trichocereus spachianus. It has a long way to go to reach 6 ft tall!

As most lavenders seem to grow large and shrubby here, I find they supply a fine sense of bulk to the borders.

small sunny garden, amy myers, desert garden, lavender, lavandula stoechas, madrid

On the other hand, here is the very gentle form of my much-loved Eremophila hygrophana.  Many herbaceous perennials would have as strong a structural presence as this soft-stemmed shrub.  And yet E. maculata "Valentine" is emphatically shrubby, and E. x "Outback Sunrise" is a rollicking groundcover, woody only at the center.  How was I to know until I'd planted them?

desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, eremphila, hygrophana

And finally, a genuine shrub!

desert garden, small sunny garden, amy myers, garden structure, shrubs, senna nemophila, cassia
Not so unexpected, perhaps: the winter-blooming Australian beauty, Senna nemophila

P.S.  Unfortunately, I've just had to delete several days' worth of spam, so Captcha is now on.  I dislike having to use it, but so far it is taking care of the problem.  But I still want my genuine readers to feel free to leave comments!

Weather Diary: Partly cloudy; High: 73 F (23 C)/Low: 44 F (7 C); Humidity: 22%-72%

Write a comment

Comments: 12
  • #1

    Kris P (Sunday, 05 February 2017 19:33)

    I'm sorry you're having problems with spam, Amy, but it does seem to come with the territory, at least at intervals.

    Even though my last move only involved a distance of 15 miles, I've shared your experience with acclimating to an entirely new selection of plants. Seasonal temperatures and wind exposure in my current location are dramatically different from those in my former, tiny shade garden and necessitated a trial-and-error approach with a whole new collection of plants. And the drought complicated matters too. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect with respect to landscape design has been the difference in the timetable in which plants reach maturity in terms of size - many succulents take a LONG time to reach their mature size vis-a-vis the shrubs I formerly used.

  • #2

    Amy@smallsunnygarden (Sunday, 05 February 2017 23:10)

    You are so right about the timescale, Kris! I always try to take the long view, but I think sometimes it confuses my plans more than I realize. It's been helpful to see some of these plants in more mature stages from your garden.
    I've just shut down commenting altogether on older posts as a few spam comments were even making it through Captcha; grrr... Grateful to know that it's not just my blog, as it was a big concern when I moved off of Blogger.

  • #3

    danger garden (Sunday, 05 February 2017 23:47)

    Those evil spamsters find a way. If only they'd put that much energy into something good and worthwhile.

    Learning new math, never easy! I do hope to someday test my desert garden math skills...

  • #4

    Amy@smallsunnygarden (Monday, 06 February 2017 00:47)

    I hope you get the chance to, Loree :) You'll be much, much better prepared than I was! But I love the place and its plants, and all the rest is just learning curve... ;-)

  • #5

    Cathy (Monday, 06 February 2017 11:49)

    The Senna is glorious, as is the Euphorbia. Lovely bold colour for winter! I also like that upright cactus. I suspect they grow very slowly, but it is nice sometimes to know exactly what a plant is going to do! :)

  • #6

    Ian Lumsden (Monday, 06 February 2017 12:30)

    I have to do a double take when I see your garden, Amy. I keep thinking I am visiting one of the climate zones at the Princess of Wales Conservatory in London's Kew Gardens. I used to grow agaves but gave them up when my grandson appeared on the scene!

  • #7

    rusty duck (Tuesday, 07 February 2017 04:11)

    That Sticks on Fire is such a good plant, wish I could grow it. And everything else for that matter!!

  • #8

    Amy@smallsunnygarden (Wednesday, 08 February 2017 11:33)

    Cathy - I've been so glad for the Senna and Euphorbia as they are providing all the color in that border right now (must do some replanning!) And I'm starting to pay a little more attention as to which cacti grow quickly... ;-)

  • #9

    Amy@smallsunnygarden (Wednesday, 08 February 2017 12:03)

    Ian - Well, a unique climate zone I do have; but looking at the Conservatory photos mostly gives me plant (and planning) envy... ;-) Did you grow the agaves in the ground or in containers? Grandchildren and agaves don't seem like a good mix; even just with our dogs, I waited until I felt the borders would form some slight barrier on their own account. Opuntias remain generally banned from this garden for the same reasons, though I did finally succumb to a small-growing one with only a few glochids... Too bad,too, as they are excellent plants in this region!

  • #10

    Amy@smallsunnygarden (Wednesday, 08 February 2017 12:09)

    Jessica - The Euphorbia should grow well in a container if you can give it winter protection and good drainage. ;-) My "structural plants" are certainly bringing a more exotic note to the garden, aren't they...?!

  • #11

    Diana Studer (Sunday, 12 February 2017 16:45)

    My sticks on fire is getting swamped by Californian poppies.

    I close comments on posts after about 2 months, once I realised that I wasn't getting valid comments, just a heap of spam to moderate. Touch wood ... I'm not getting much spam on the current open weeks.

  • #12

    Amy@smallsunnygarden (Sunday, 12 February 2017 19:28)

    That is a problem I don't have! California poppies have simply not wanted to sprout this year - only a few from repeated sowings, and only a handful from last year's reseeding themselves. They should have been starting last autumn, and it wasn't for lack of try, but perhaps our excessively dry conditions kept them back.

    I agree on closing comments; it's rare that a regular follower comments on a post more than a few weeks old! And I'm apt to miss it on the few occasions it does...