Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2012
Regional Report

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Leaving a stub is a bad pruning cut because it doesn't allow the tree's natural healing mechanisms to work.

Xeriscape Part VII: Maintenance

Xeriscape design includes a set of seven principles to guide you in the creation and long-term maintenance of a colorful, earth-friendly landscape that suits your unique needs. Previous reports covered design and site analysis, whether to install turf, varied plant selection subjects, effective watering techniques, soil improvement, and mulching. This report covers the last topic: appropriate maintenance, including feeding and pruning.

Many desert trees and shrubs are legumes, which are plants that manufacture their own source of nitrogen in a neatly symbiotic relationship with soil microorganisms. Even if not leguminous, desert plants have adapted to local growing conditions over eons. They can obtain the nutrients they need from the region's alkaline soil. Thus, supplemental feeding or adding amendments is seldom required unless your plant is showing signs of a specific nutrient deficiency. If you suspect a problem, consult with your County Cooperative Extension office before randomly applying fertilizers or other supplements that may not be needed.

The exception to this is non-native vegetables, flowers, herbs, and most bulbs. They do benefit from, and in most cases require, loose soil liberally amended with compost or other organic matter, as well as applications of a balanced fertilizer. As a general rule of thumb, if you are starting a new bed from scratch, layer 4 to 6 inches of compost on top of the bed and dig it in to a depth of at least 12 inches. Adding fresh organic matter and fertilizing needs to be repeated in both the cool- and warm-growing seasons.

Bad pruning destroys the aesthetic appearance of desert plants, many of which have loose, flowing shapes that don't respond well to being regularly sheared into tight cubes and balls. Regular shearing also eliminates flowering. Improper pruning cuts interfere with a plant's natural healing mechanisms and allow easy entry for pests and diseases to take hold.

Pruning topics could fill a year's worth of reports, and indeed, I have covered many of them in the past. At a general level for this xeriscape discussion, realize that you should always have a specific reason or goal when you prune. Don't wield the loppers simply because your neighbor is, or you think it's pruning season and all plants must be chopped back! Do you need to remove dead branches? Improve sight lines? Deal with a potential hazard? Enhance fruit production? Figure out what your goal is before you begin to cut.

If you are an inexperienced pruner, check with local garden clubs, Cooperative Extension, water conservation offices, and similar groups for pruning classes and demonstrations.

Remove no more than one-quarter to one-third of a plant's foliage in a season. Taking off more than that reduces its ability to photosynthesize and feed itself, which creates stress. And stressed plants are more prone to attack by pests and diseases.

Finally, never top your trees! You can find out why topping doesn't work in my previous report at

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