Flower Garden Ideas In The Drought with Noelle Johnson

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Flower Garden Ideas in the Drought


Noelle JohnsonNoelle Johnson is known as the “Arizona Plant Lady”.  She is a landscape consultant, horticulturist, freelance garden writer and a busy mom.  Noelle loves helping others to learn how to grow gorgeous gardens.

How challenging is it to garden with triple digit temperatures? Is it really a dry heat?  What grows besides cacti and scorpions in the desert?  Noelle answers these and many more questions in this episode!


In This Episode You Will Discover:

  • the harsh extremes of zone 9a
  • the wonders of Malabar Spinach
  • why we should all stop buying plants that are not suitable for our zone
  • how to kill hydrangeas by accident
  • flower garden designs for any budget even in the driest zones



Resources Mentioned

Dave’s Garden: http://davesgarden.com/

American Horticultural Society: http://ahs.org/

This is the book Noelle mentioned on the show:


Our Guest’s Links

Follow Noelle Johnson on Twitter:  http://twitter.com/azplantlady

Visit Noelle’s brilliant gardening blog: http://www.azplantlady.com/
Free Report Reveals … The 5 (Dirt Cheap) Tools I Use To Grow 22 Types Of Heirloom Tomatoes (Including My Secret Soil Booster)  Click Here To Read


Watch the Podcast Interview Here:




Dave:  Welcome to another episode of Back To My Garden.  Today a tremendous guest is joining us from Arizona.  She’s a professional landscape consultant, horticulturist, a freelance garden writer, a busy mom, with a passion for helping others learn how to grow beautiful gardens.  She’s a garden blogger for Birds and Bloom Magazine, and a new hat to wear, Houzz.com.   We’ll talk a lot about the social media and the websites and the connections.  But please welcome to the show Noelle Johnson, hi Noelle!

Noelle:  Hello!

Dave:  Big introduction.

Noelle:  I loved it!

Dave:  For those of you just joining us I actually dropped my notes on the floor, I know you couldn’t see it because we’ve been in the editing studio cleaning this up.  Noelle, I want to get to know you and the listeners want to hear your story.  Take a minute or two, tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about how you got into gardening.

Noelle:  Well I grew up in southern California and that’s an area where you can pretty much throw a plant on the ground and it will grow without any help from you.  And one of my earliest memories in the garden was as a child, my father gave me my own little plot in the backyard and he let me plant whatever I wanted.  And I remember planting Cosmos from seed, and little Johnny Jump-up Violas, and I just loved the miracle of seeing those little plants push up out of the ground.  And then I added some vegetables, the carrots and radishes which all children should grow in the garden because they’re so simple.  After that I became a teenager and I didn’t really think about gardening at all.  Wasn’t until I moved to Arizona and we had bought our first house which was an older ranch-style home.  I had a lot of space to garden.  I had a garden filled with mature citrus trees, I had these gorgeous old rose bushes.  I even had a fig tree!  And I had no idea what I was doing.  You know that’s when it really started it, I had this space, I wanted to grow things and I had the space to do it, so I was excited to get started.

Dave:  Fantastic!  We’re going to talk a lot about your space because Arizona is one of the most unique places to garden in the world.  Those of you driving please keep both hands on the wheel, I’ll put Noelle’s links in the show notes.  Check her out on Twitter @azplantlady and your website is tremendous Noelle!  It’s www.azplantlady.com  You’re a fantastic writer, by the way congratulations on a tremendous site.

Noelle:  Thank you!

Dave:  I noticed on your blog my notes said “Growing ropes in the closet” it’s actually “Growing Roses In The Desert”.  Can you talk about, and I know you guys are having a horrendous drought, some of the challenges, compare and contrast that with California, what’s it like trying to garden in Arizona right now?

Noelle:  It’s a very unique space to garden in.  California is also an arid region.  The big difference is they don’t get quite as hot as we do here in the desert.  In terms of growing roses specifically, we have two growing seasons.  We’ve got big beautiful roses in bloom in the spring, and in the fall.  They do get somewhat dormant in the summer because of the heat.  The biggest obstacle I think for any gardener at the beginning is learning how to garden, but when you live in a unique climate, whether it’s one that experiences extreme cold or one like this one where you get extreme heat, is understanding.  You have to take into account the region and the different challenges that brings, and how you have to meet them.  In the desert, yes.  

Luckily in Arizona we’re in a very unique situation because we get rain in the summer.  We get torrential rainfall in the summer time which is kind of exciting to see.  We have the most native plant material growing in any desert in the world here in Arizona.  But most gardeners will look at gardening and what they can grow in terms of what the USDA Planting Zones, what’s the minimum cold temperature that you reach and what plants will survive that.  In the desert you also to take that into consideration as well as the heat.  Some plants can only take so much heat.  So you have to work that out too.  We also get cold winters.  We can get down into the low 20s.  So you put that together with temps over 100 in the summer and low 20s.

Dave:  Big extremes.

Noelle:  Yes!

Dave:  Now we have a lot of people listening who live in 4 season climates.  When you say hot what’s hot?

Noelle:  Hot is for a person who’s lived in the desert for any length of time, hot is when the temperatures hit over 108.

Dave:  108.  For my metric fans that’s like 45 Celsius!

Noelle:  There you go.  The dry does make a difference.  I have to tell you that I travelled to China awhile ago in the middle of summer and I thought I’d have no problem with the 90 degree temperatures but I just about died!  I just don’t handle humidity very well at all.

Dave:  A little moist was it?

Noelle:  It was.  I just didn’t think I’d survive.

Dave:  You’re not moving too fast in those climates.  I want to talk to you about what it was like when you started gardening as an adult.  We have people who never gardened as a child, and you and I both kind of poked around the garden growing up.  But what was your first garden like when you were a “grown up”?


Desert Rose


Noelle:  Back to that first home we bought in Phoenix.  I was so excited to have these beautiful old rose bushes.  And I killed them and it wasn’t on purpose!  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I relied on the USDA planting zones, the minimum cold.  I bought plants based on what gardening books told me would grow.  However these gardening books were written for more temperate climates, not for the desert.   And this was back in the late eighties early nineties. And there really wasn’t much regional gardening material out there to help me with that so I killed a lot of things.  I ordered plants from catalogs, from companies in the mid-west and east coast that assured me they could grow in a zone 9a garden, which is where I lived.  But they didn’t tell me was they don’t like it when the temperatures get over 100 degrees.  So that was a real problem with me is not knowing, not having those resources.

Dave:  Having citrus trees from your first day gardening, was that intimidating?  You had roses and then you start vegetable gardening as well.  Was there fear involved?

Noelle:  No!  I never really got afraid of that.  First of all, no one else was watching.  You know, my husband was fine with what I wanted to do with the garden and nobody was there to really check and see how well things did.

Dave:  Nice.  I love that.  A little bit of fearlessness, caution to the wind.  Make mistakes.  And today, can you talk to the listeners a bit about what you get from gardening.  I know some people grow gardens just for the beautiful flowers or the vegetables, but for others it’s deeper than that.  What’s it like for you?

Noelle:  Gardening to me is an opportunity to connect with nature on a very basic level.  And it really helps you to take joy out of the simple things in life.  Whether its the unfurling of a new leaf, or a single bloom.  It helps the other things that we get so consumed with in our society.  It just takes all of that away.  Gardening is … anybody can do it.  I don’t care whether you think you can or not.  It’s just sticking with it.  I spoke before how I didn’t have a whole lot of fear about it.  But I didn’t give up either.  When you have the obstacles in your way you don’t give up, if it’s important to you go forward.  In my case I needed to figure out how to grow things here in the desert and at that time there was no internet.  There was no easy stuff at the touch of my fingertips.  I went to the library which at the time was the only source of regional garden information for me.  And at that point I was really hooked.  I was a mom, I had finished some college but I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do when I grew up so to speak yet, so I still did not have my degree yet.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do I was at a crossroads.  And because I was really enjoying gardening and learning what I could, that’s when I decided I knew what I wanted to be, I want to be a horticulturalist, and that’s when I went to school.

Dave:  You really developed an entire career from your passion, which a lot of people don’t get to do.  Can you talk a little bit about the horticulture side, the landscape consulting side?  A little bit about what’s involved in that for you?

Noelle:  Well first of all, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I have made a career out of my passion.  People talk to me for any length of time they say “you really like this gardening don’t you?” and I say oh yes!

But I did have those obstacles in the way.  You can grow beautiful things here in the desert.  But you have to know a few things about it.  You have to know to avoid certain obstacles.  Things that I made mistakes with.  Because most people in this area, most of them aren’t native.  Most of them haven’t grown up here, they come from cooler climates.  And they come here and they want to garden but the strategies they used where they used to live don’t work here.  And so I love to visit with people, I visit with my clients, learn what they want to have, what kind of landscape, what kind of garden and then help them get to that point.  And a lot of times it’s just very simple guide lines and avoiding those common mistakes.  And then the best part of it is seeing their joy and delight when they can achieve the garden of their dreams.

Dave:  Nice! A lot of our listeners are in big cities on 30th floors of apartments, and they’ve got a couple of container pots on the window sill.  Can you give the dream a little bit to our urban gardeners a bit Noelle?  When you say there’s a lot of space to garden in Arizona, what sized gardens are some of your friends and clients playing with?

Noelle:  Well, I would say the majority of my clients have a quarter of an acre to half an acre generally.  But some people like you said, they have a small space, they may have a townhouse, a balcony or just a little bit of space and you can garden in that situation.  One of my favorite new passions within the garden is edible gardening in container pots.  You can have containers and you can grow vegetables in your containers.  I love to plant vegetables in containers and I also put in some annual flowers to dress it up and they’re really beautiful.  But you can have a whole small garden yourself.  Balconies don’t have to limit you.

Dave:  Lovely!  Are you kind of the “garden doctor” when you’re around friends and family?  Do they come up to you and ask you for free advice on stuff that isn’t growing?

Noelle:  All the time! I have people texting me pictures, “what’s wrong with my plants?” or “my friend wants to know what this is, can you tell me?”.  I have people visiting my AZPlantLady facebook page and they’ll send me a picture, “what is this plant”? Or can you tell me what’s wrong and what do I have to do to take care of this?  So yes I feel like a doctor and sometimes like a diagnostician to figure out what’s wrong with things.

Dave:  If you’re listening and driving in your car keep both hands on the wheel, but I’ll have links in the show notes.  Noelle’s got a Facebook, what do you call it, a fan page?

Noelle:  Yes, it’s just a Facebook page and I post 2 or 3 times a day, different things on there, and it’s not just limited to desert.  I can garden all over the country though I’m sure I’d find it a little challenging up there in Canada, I’d have to learn a little bit.  But there’s something for everybody.

Dave:  My zone is pretty much like Cleveland Ohio, slightly warmer than Wisconsin.

Noelle:  Really? OK.

Dave:  We’re in Ontario which kind of dips south, closer to Detroit I guess as my major American city.

Noelle:  Ok, I was just in Michigan a couple of months ago.  Speaking of Michigan, I do love to travel.  And I like to visit different country and see the different gardens and the gardening practices and things like that.  You never stop learning.

Dave:  I’m going to go off notes a little bit because of your experience, you have a pulse on the gardening community, what’s really trendy right now, and what’s coming up for trends in gardening?  What are people talking about?

Noelle:  What people are going away from is formal gardening.  With formally pruned hedges, just planting regular annual flowers, people are tending to stray a little bit away from that.  It’s focusing more on allowing plants to grow, especially flowering shrubs, to grow to their natural size and shape which is beautiful on its own.  Enjoying the flowers, low maintenance is a big thing but low maintenance while still having a beautiful garden and that’s very feasible.  Also people are tired of spending unneeded dollars in terms of plants that don’t grow well, paying for landscaping for formal gardening, not planting things that need fertilizer or a lot of attention.

Dave:  That all makes common sense too, you see how busy people are.

Noelle:  They do.  And edible gardening is another trend that has really exploded, my old garden is evidence of that.  I keep taking out areas with ornamental shrubs and things and I now have three edible gardens in my backyard.  I just love it!  And people are very excited about being able to grow fruit trees and vegetables and there’s that simple joy to be able to harvest something whether you have a small backyard or a balcony with a pot.


Vegetable Container Plants


Dave:  I love it.  Edible container gardening.  It’s always in motion too.  You can move it around if you get bored of it.

Noelle:  You can!  Or if an area gets too sunny in the summer you can move it to a slightly shadier.

Dave:  Let’s talk about your garden today because you’re busy with your career, and you have a family.  What’s growing well for you this year that you’re proud of, and what’s frustrating you?

Noelle:  OK!  My garden, I do live in Arizona, I like cactus but I don’t really like lots of it in my garden so I have maybe two.  I have a handful of succulents but I love flowers so I have flowering trees.  I have green Palo Verde trees which are those lovely desert trees with the green trunks and the yellow flowers in spring and it provides a beautiful light filtered shade.  I also right now have Desert Willow in bloom which looks like a willow, it’s got huge pink blossoms.  I also have looking out the window right now, flowering Bougainvillea, we can grow that here.  I have Texas Sage which has flashes of purple, Yellow Bells, Orange Jubilee I love that!  Then again my edible gardens I have apple and peach and citrus trees.  Vegetable gardens, I have to be honest, when July hits it’s hot and we also get rain and it’s also a little bit humid for us.  Humid for us is 30 or 40 percent!  And I tend to, because I can garden twelve months out of the year, sometimes it’s nice to take a few weeks off.  So right now in my vegetable gardens I have pumpkins growing and peppers and that’s just about it.

Dave:  Amazing!


Yellow Bells


Noelle:  It is.  Blackberries, I didn’t get to them on time before the birds did, so that was kind of frustrating this year.

Dave:You really have hit my ah-ha button!  It’s so different region by region.  You garden year round. It’s extraordinary.  By September, that’s it over here.  And the first sunny day in February people are shovelling off their garden beds, the snow is 4 feet deep and one sunny day that’s all it takes to start the gardening frenzy.  What’s frustrating you?

Noelle:  What frustrates me, and it’s not in my garden, but there’s a practice here that we call “Poodle Pruning” in the trade and it’s when people take beautiful shrubs that flower, and they prune them into these anonymous green blobs.  And as a result they never flower.  And it takes all the beautiful characteristics of an individual shrub and it just takes away and strips all the character and beauty from it.  That really is starting to bother more and more people.  They don’t like the way that looks. Landscapers its seems that is their default button.  They seem to automatically prune like that.  And for example, I was driving down the road the other day and there was a flowering Lantana which is a lower growing shrub with beautiful flowers that had just started to produce yellow flowers and there was the home owner there shaving off all the flowers!   People don’t think, they think green and round instead of fighting nature.  It’s counter intuitive.

Dave:  In Arizona, what’s your bee situation like?  Is it part of the conversation?

Noelle:  It is part of the conversation.  It is.  When I meet with clients I try to point out the benefits of the bee population and of having certain flowering plants in place.  There’s times of the year when fruit trees are in bloom and even native desert trees and you hear that hum of bees. I like to promote teaching them to appreciate that and why it is important and also the growing of native plants because there’s also native bee populations.  And that’s a very exciting thing to see in place.  A lot of times people who just want to have a nice garden and maybe aren’t really plugged into the whole garden community don’t even know there’s a bee problem.  

Dave:  This is why I love bringing it up just to raise the consciousness.  We’re actually going to plant some milkweed this fall just for the butterflies.

Noelle:  Oh see, and milkweed grows here too, that’s beautiful!

Dave:  A year ago I didn’t really know about it.  Shawna Coronado said, “you gotta plant milkweed”!  I’m doing it.


Bee & Milkweed


Noelle:  And that’s a good point you make too Dave is there’s so much we can learn from each other and I’ve been gardening for years.  I have a degree in it.  But I don’t know everything.  I’m constantly learning and if you meet up with someone who says they know it all, well they don’t. It’s a never ending process of discovery, and that’s one of the things I love so much about the garden.

Dave:  For those of you jogging with your earbuds in, I’ll put the links in the show notes, head over to Noelle’s site at www.azplantlady.com, Facebook group is the same AZPlantLady and on Twitter.  Join the conversation and share it with the world.  It’s such a supportive gardening community.

Noelle, I just looked at the clock and our time is fast moving by and now it’s the time in the show when we get to play my favorite game called Five Quick Questions!  This is where you get to share your wisdom and experience with rookie gardeners, are you ready to play?

Noelle:  I’m ready!

Dave:  Question number one, in your opinion, what do you think stops most new people from trying gardening?

Noelle:  They kill a plant.  And any gardener, I still kill plants unintentionally, it’s a learning experience.  But most of the time it’s not necessarily their fault.  Nurseries, I hate to say this, sometimes carry plants that have no business growing in that particular climate.  So people plant them because they’re beautiful and in bloom and they’re dead six weeks later.  And they think it’s their fault and it’s not.

Dave:  Whoa!  That’s really good, there’s the wisdom folks!

Noelle:  Oh yea, my local big box store, I won’t say the name, has hydrangeas for sale off and on during the year.  There’s no way a hydrangea would grow out here though I wish they would.  And people see them and plant them and it doesn’t work.

Dave:  Powerful!  Number two, what is the best gardening advice or tips that you’ve ever received?

Noelle:  Don’t waste time fighting nature by growing plants that aren’t well suited for your climate.  It’s a waste of your money because the plants will probably struggle and end up dying.  It’s a waste of your resources, taking care of them.  And it’s a waste of time.

Dave:  Fantastic.  Number three fits right into that.  Making informed choices.  The internet’s a big place.  Other than your website, what are two good or favorite websites that you’d want to share with a rookie gardener?

Noelle:  I love DavesGarden.  DavesGarden.com  They have profiles on there.  What I love most is, they also have an area on the bottom with comments from people throughout the country, where they have grown it and how they like it.  And the second one is The American Horticultural Society.  AHS.org   They have a lot of information, but what I really love about it is they have the USDA zone maps dealing with cold, but they also have heat maps.  So it’s important to kind of figure in both of those.  And that’s an incredibly helpful resource.  

Dave:  I love it.  Susan Cohan said a lot of gardeners are living in zonal denial.  

Noelle:  (laughs)  I love that!  It’s true!

Dave:  Three mild winters, then a killing winter, oh, what a surprise.  DavesGarden.com  AHS.org  those will be linked up in the show notes.  Noelle, I’m a reader, and I’m growing my gardening library.  What is one book that you think I must read this year?

Noelle:  Well, I’m going to go more with regional gardening books.  Publishers are very interested in those right now, because as you said, people have zonal denial and these help get them over that hurdle.  Mine would be Gardening in the Desert Southwest Month-by-Month and that is by Mary Irish.  She’s a fabulous writer, she used to be a head horticulturist at the Desert Botanical Garden. Anything she has written is a fabulous resource.  

Dave:  Gardening in the Desert Month-by-Month by Mary Irish.  Brilliant.  I’ll have to link up there too.  Next year, what’s the number one thing you believe every gardener should attempt to grow next year?

Noelle:  Okay, you’re going to like this.  It’s called Malabar Spinach.  Have you heard of it?  

Dave:  Pretend I haven’t, but I eat it almost every day!


Malabar Spinach


Noelle:  There you go!  One of the hardest things is when you get the heat of summer and your leaf lettuce and your greens fail.  I mean they’re just not going to grow or they’re going to be bitter.  And Malabar Spinach is a wonderful plant … it’s not really a spinach, but it’s just like a spinach with some nice, fleshy leaves and they taste great, especially when they’re cooked.  And the plant itself is really attractive, it grows well, and it grows so easily from seed.  It’s one of my new favorites.  

Dave:  Noelle, my wife is now in love with you.  She’s grinning and nodding.  

Noelle:  (laughs)  I’m glad!

Dave:  We have one of those Nutribullets, and I use my Malabar in that.  It’s just big leaves, sturdy.

Noelle:  It is, and it’s a beautiful and a bit of a vining plant, it’s just gorgeous.  Mine came back up from seed from the garden this year.

Dave:  Briliant.  Malabar Spinach.  Our time is rapidly escaping us.  Everybody who’s listening, head over to AZPlantLady.com and follow Noelle on Twitter.  Noelle you’ve been an awesome guest.  I want to give you the last word to our listeners today.  Can you either leave them with a note of encouragement or a pearl of wisdom?

Noelle:  I would say spend a little time researching plants before you buy them.  Especially with the internet, there’s so many wonderful online searches.  Even if you just say google “how to grow” and then put in a plant and put where you live, it will let you know if that plant grows there and it’ll give you some really helpful guidelines.  A little bit of research goes a long way in saving you some headaches.  

Dave:  Noelle, we’ve barely even started, we could go on for hours.  Can we have you back in a couple of months for an update?  

Noelle:  Oh, I would love it.  That would be wonderful.  

Dave:  Thank you so much for being on the show.

Noelle:  Thank you Dave.

Listen To Noelle tell us about flower garden design ideas in the desert here: