Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a vase shaped cactus like plant with spiny canes that are covered with small green leaves typically after substantial rains and have a reddish orange tubular shaped flower at the tips in Spring. But most of the time, they are deciduous and look like a clump of thorny dead branches.  Sedona native Ocotillos are also found in the lower deserts and into Mexico.

When I first moved up to Sedona from the Phoenix area, I was surprised to see Ocotillos growing among the pines and junipers. At an elevation between 4200-4600 feet Sedona is probably at the upper level of its range. When in bloom – and when I say bloom, I mean the leafing out period where the green leaves cover the canes, they are striking sculptural features that add an unusual accent to any landscape where you want a bit of a desert flair. Ocotillo is often said to “bloom” due to its on and off leafing out cycles due to the amount of rain. However, some Ocotillos hold their leaves for longer periods between seasonal rains. Otherwise, they take on their deciduous persona which is not the Ocotillo that most clients are looking for when they request a Sedona native Ocotillo in their garden.

Sedona Native Ocotillos

But being patient is what we can learn from them

As a landscape designer and contractor, I am reluctant to suggest the idea of Ocotillos in a design for a few reasons. One of which was recently articulated in an article by the Backyard Gardener, Jeff Schlau of the Arizona Cooperative Extension Yavapai County titled, Native Ocotillos Require Patience. 

Ocotillos are native to Sedona and are useful as sculptural elements in the gardens

Ocotillo is known for its upright slender spiny canes covered with small green leaves.

Most people expect their Ocotillos to look just like the picture, but that’s not what they look like when you buy them at the nursery. Most all Ocotillos are harvested bare root from their native habitat, wrapped tight with wire for easy transport and handling. The roots are severely cut to sometimes to the point where there is not much to go into the planting hole and you wonder what is going to keep it from falling over. The process of taking a native plant from its habitat and putting it into your garden is considered transplanting Ocotillos and what Mr. Schlau is referring to as “patience required” is that some Ocotillos can take anywhere between 6 to 24 months before any signs of blooming or leafing out. Presumably because of the severe root pruning during harvesting from the desert.

I tell clients who are interested in Ocotillos that they will be planted bare root and will not have any leaves. I then tell them it could take years to look like what they expect. I also say they are unpredictable as to when they will leaf out and to be able to appreciate them in their deciduous state because that is what they will look like most of the time. I have had countless former clients complain that their “Ocotillo is dead” or “When is it going to leaf out?” I tell them to scratch a branch with a knife and if its a pale green, that its still alive and to be patient. The problem is, I am the guy with the great idea to plant the Ocotillo which is constantly under performing expectations and makes me look not so cool.

The point of this blog post is to forewarn anyone considering planting Ocotillos in their yard. Not that they should be avoided but to fully understand why they may  not meet your expectations. Ocotillos are great specimens that symbolize the southwest and provide a sculptural element that provides instant vertical height and looks great when lit at night. The otherwise brown deciduous state should be considered as the predominant look most of the year.

Many a garden writer who delves into the more deeper aspects of gardening will tell you gardens can teach you about yourself. Those inner aspects of your being are often reflected in the garden if you pay close attention . Patience is a virtue that can be learned through gardening. The Ocotillo is a wonderful teacher to instill patience. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to one day notice the buds on your Azalea that hasn’t bloomed for three years than to come home to a bountiful display of riotous color in your container garden every day.

There is a common request I get from landscape clients: they want low maintenance, lots of color and don’t want to spend very much – and they want it now, not have to wait three years for everything to look great. Usually after I get a little introspective talking about patience, being in the present moment, allowing things to be as they are, people come back down to earth.

Yes, Sedona native Ocotillos do inhabit our surrounding national forest and is perhaps the best way to appreciate their beauty and elegance. Walking in silence, being at one with nature, not thinking about anything in particular, and then as you come to the top of a crest, you are greeted by an Ocotillo in full bloom as if it was waiting for you.

If you do buy a bare root Ocotillo on your own, check out this publication from the Phoenix Botanical Garden.


Newcomers to Sedona who plant Bougainvillea or Lantana in the fall go through a learning experience and then realize why they don’t see them planted all over town like in their former towns. The reason is freezing temperatures. Subtropical plants cannot withstand temperatures much lower than 32 degrees. But plant materials are not the only concern when it comes to cold weather. Irrigation systems, masonry and fountains are also concerns for Sedona landscaping in winter. Here I share some winter weather lessons learned for your Sedona landscape.


Sedona has a USDA cold hardiness zone of 7 or 7b, which means the average lows can reach 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Some subtropical plants can tolerate an infrequent dip below freezing, but a series of cold nights below 25 or so can be deadly, especially if the root system is not established as in newly planted. The best thing to do to deal with our cold winters is to choose plants that can tolerate Zone 7 and treat others in higher zones as annuals, or expect them to lose their leaves during winter.

Lantana is a colorful plant that is widely planted in the Phoenix area which is Zone 11, but I have seen some Lantana around Sedona as well. The difference is they lose their leaves after the first frost even though they are considered an evergreen shrub. They should be cut back in late winter to trigger new growth in the spring.

Plants that can tolerate our winters are ideally planted in the fall when the soil temperature is still warm enough to allow for some root growth before winter. Planting during winter is okay for some plants in containers, but don’t expect any growth till spring. It’s better to wait and not risk losing these newly planted shrubs especially if they are small 1 gallon containers or came directly out of the greenhouse at the nursery.

 Arizona Municipal Water Users Association How to Prune Frost Damaged Plants


People who come from harsh winter climates know how to winterize their homes. Exposed pipes can burst when frozen water expands, even a copper pipe can burst. That is why all exposed piping above ground should be insulated. Pressure Vacuum Breakers (or PVBs),  are those devices near your water meter and keep water from back flowing into the municipal water system. PVBs have an internal plastic part that can freeze and break, causing a major leak to occur under pressure. They must be above ground to function, and thus vulnerable to the elements.


Protect them with specially made thermal insulated pouches.





PVC piping that feeds your valves or sprinkler system is also at risk if it is holding water during a freeze. It’s best to have a bleed valve at the lowest part of the system to drain all the water from the pipes. If your site is level, you can dig a dry well to create a low spot for the water to drain. Also shut off the water supply that feeds the irrigation system, so in case a leak does occur, the system will not be under pressure creating a significant waste of water until you discover it in the morning.


Our climate is not cold enough to be concerned with soil freeze thaw conditions as in the Northeast. Hardscape such as concrete, masonry stone and tile is more susceptible to water penetrating their surfaces, freezing and then expanding and causing cracks or lifting of the top surface.

Care must be taken with certain installations during winter so water is not trapped underneath freshly laid tiles or stone. If gaps and crevices are present, these are areas where water can accumulate. A tile job for example should be laid, grouted and sealed without water infiltration and without freezing.

Drainage is also very important so that the surface does not collect water or snow.




It is recommended that pumps be operating during freezing conditions, otherwise water inside the pump may freeze and damage the pump. Flowing water also helps keeps the water from freezing in the plumbing. Sometimes, however it is best to shut down the fountain for the winter depending on the kind of fountain or water feature you have.

A fountain with relatively shallow basins such as a shallow bowl like a bird bath will freeze solid if cold enough at night. If the material is prone to crack due to the expansion of the ice, the vessel itself may be at risk, so it would be better to drain the water from the vessels and turn off the pump.

Since there are so many different kinds of fountains, it is best to ask, what if the pump stopped running and all the water in the basin and the bowls froze solid. Could the fountain otherwise remain intact without cracking? Is the material reinforced? Or is it made of fiberglass or resin? How easy would it be to remove the pump and bring it indoors? These questions should be asked when designing and installing a fountain whether its custom built or prefabricated.


This urn style fountain to the left if filled with water and froze, may expand and crack the vessel because of its shape. However, these wok style bowls to the right, have a very large surface area of water that if expansion occurs would simply rise in the bowl.





When spring comes and the weather warms up, its easy to forget about frozen pipes and plants that died during the first freeze in November. The best strategy for Sedona landscaping is to plan around the worst season of the year — winter and its freezing temperatures rather than the heat of the summer.



What exactly is a Feng Shui garden? What does a typical Feng Shui garden look like? The same elements that are essential to good design are the same used in designing a Feng Shui garden.  Feng Shui principles are as subtle as basic design principles. They don’t jump out at you with overly thematic elements. Let’s look at a case study of a remodel of the front entrance of a contemporary southwest custom built home that was in need of some curb appeal. Or, contemporary southwest meets Feng Shui in the garden.

The subject property was built about 15 years ago and as such, the front entry evolved to fit with the needs of the owners. Recently, a large native pine tree that graced the entrance died and was removed leaving a large empty spot near the front entry. Not only did it soften the architecture of the home it gave the entry a woodsy feeling – the type of energy recognized in Feng Shui as that coming from living creatures including trees and shrubs. A form of good Chi, or beneficial energy.

Without that tree, the entrance felt bare and lost its vitality. Focus was also shifted to what remained – a 6 foot high iron fence that was installed to keep deer out of the owner’s small collection of roses. But now the fence seemed more like an afterthought, certainly not intended when the home was initially designed. The area inside the fence was rather small, filled up with a mixture of shrubs that became overgrown, further affecting the flow of Chi.

The owners knew their front entrance needed some help. They agreed the fence took away from the potential of a newly remodeled entry and were willing to see it go away. They also wanted to be able to sit out and enjoy perhaps a small fountain. I was then called in to prepare a design. With that background and basic criteria, I began to further study the front yard area. My criteria however, is a stealth one, that is, to blend in Feng Shui principles into all of my designs whether or not the owners request it. Of course, I knew in the end, the new entrance would not “look” like a Feng Shui garden, but would have that certain attractiveness that is hard to put into words.

In addition to creating a more Feng Shui friendly entrance, the secondary focus was to create a remodeled entrance that did not appear as an addition, but rather, that it resembled the original architectural design and features. The result is a more inviting entrance, with excitement and drama, a small patio space to sit and enjoy and a mix of native and low water use plants that are not as attractive to deer and wildlife.

With the fence out of the picture, I could literally open up the entrance and let the Chi pour into the front door and circulate around the entry, the sitting area and the new plantings. Here was my approach:

1) Remove the psychological barrier of the uninviting fence.
2) Use deer resistant and native plants that obviate the need for a barrier to wildlife.
3) Add a fountain to improve the flow of Chi and prosperity and abundance to the entrance and the occupants. Also serves as a focal point and a reason to pause and admire the space before entering the home.
4) Remove a portion of the existing concrete and replace with paver stones to delineate the entrance area from the driveway and to allow for more useable space.

5) Create a small patio space to enjoy the view from the north side of the house, previously where there was simply a walkway.

6) Use the Chinese 5-Elements Theory to create a balance among the elements.

The vision was a low key, low profile contemporary style fountain that was based on the strong strip-stone style flagstone used on the veneer of the house. I created a two tiered set of pedestals that were elongated and set perpendicular to each other, each with a wok bowl style fountain that created a double series of pouring scuppers. The lower wok bowl poured into a submerged basin covered with red polished river stones.

 Here are the solutions that incorporate the 5 Elements Theory:

Earth: Use of low profile horizonal lines, natural flagstone stripstone

Water: A flowing fountain

Fire: Red Sedona flagstone colors, spiky grasses, Agave

Wood: The proportional use of plants to balance the hardscape.

Metal: Steel agave sculpture and the circular shape of the wok bowls


This contemporary style front entry landscape remodel shows that you don’t have to create an Asian style garden when using Feng Shui principles. So we now have an example where  contemporary southwest meets Feng Shui in the garden.

Photograph contributed by client (name withheld for privacy)

Note: I want to give credit to the client/owner for many contributions and inputs that went into the details of this project including the idea and selection of the steel agave and planter and its night lighting, the off setting of the pedestal walls to reflect the angle of the home, the color of the basin pebbles, the choice of pavers and the styles of the planters in the background.


Sedona Second Home Landscaping Tips for Prospective Owners

You’re shopping for a second home in Sedona and will use it part of the year or perhaps move into it full time when you retire. Since you will not be there full time, how much effort should you put into your Sedona second home landscaping? The answer depends on the current state of the landscaping and whether you intend to live in it part time or rent it out.

second home landscaping tips

Landscaping is included when shopping for a second home

For instance, the home may be a foreclosure or bank owned with neglected landscaping. Or it may be fully landscaped in good shape and you will need to continue the maintenance. It may have been a rental with minimal landscape improvements.

Regardless of the type of property it was, you need to assess the current state of the landscaping. It could be anywhere from a landscape that was disregarded (yes, even in Sedona), to a high end outdoor living environment where the owners valued professional landscaping and invested in a custom design and installation.

The current state of second home landscaping falls into three general categories:

1) The Clean Slate (needs a complete landscape)

These types of properties are homes that may have never been landscaped except for a few trees and shrubs and gravel cover. They are homes where the owners did not value upgrading the landscaping by installing improvements such as a patio, nice fencing, or other elements. There may be a lot of native vegetation left in its natural state.

To some degree, these properties are like a clean slate because there isn’t much that you need to rip out and redo the way you want it or to correct mistakes in terms of taste or poor quality work. These properties include foreclosures, rentals and older properties.

2) The Remodel (needs repairs and a makeover)

Your new home may be equipped with a concrete driveway, block walls, brick patios, a barbeque island and would appear that it was installed as a complete landscape project at one point. It may have been installed by professional landscapers, or some of the improvements could have been homeowner built.

When a landscape needs a makeover or renovation, it’s often because it doesn’t work for the new owner. It may need repairs, it may lack certain elements, it may not have enough patio space, the front may lack any curb appeal, the barbeque island was placed in an unacceptable location and so forth.

3) The Acceptable Landscape (fully landscaped)

The home may have been fully landscaped with an irrigation system, drain lines, a lawn, a fountain, decking, nice trees and shrubs and was maintained either by the owner or a maintenance service. This type of landscape requires minimal improvements except for areas where you would like to customize or add something it lacks. While being an absentee owner, you will need to make sure it is maintained.

Now ask yourself these questions:

Will it be vacant while you are not using it?

If it is an Acceptable Landscape, you may not need to do much at all except engage the services of a maintenance service so it looks good when you do visit.

If it’s a Remodel, you may be compelled to make a lot of improvements so that when you are visiting, it will accommodate your needs and wants and allow you to enjoy the outside without being reminded of all the fixing and replacing it needs.

If it’s a Clean Slate, how enjoyable will your second home be if there is not much to the landscaping? You will certainly want to make some improvements and here is where you can start from scratch and design the whole yard the way you want.

Will you rent it out so its not a financial burden?

If you will not be visiting your Sedona second home on a regular basis as in the case of the vacant property, you will most likely view it as an investment property with the intention of either changing it from being a rental to an actual second home or moving in when you can retire and relocate to Sedona.

The decision regarding how much you should landscape the property will often be made soon after you purchase the property and the current state of the landscape will affect your ability to market the rental for the going market rent for the price range of the home. For instance, a high end Sedona property that rents for at least $2000/month will need to have decent and well maintained landscaping. A property that is either a Clean Slate or a Remodel will need its landscaping to be acceptable and comparable to the rental amount.

Being a rental, most landlords are not inclined to make improvements that do not make a return on the investment, so they tend to keep everything as is. They will wait until they move in themselves to make significant changes to the landscape.

If you are currently looking for property for a second home or investment, consider hiring a landscape professional who can give you a Sedona second home landscaping assessment of the improvements required to bring the landscaping up to the standards you require depending on how you are going to use the home.

Now is a good time to prepare and design your vegetable garden for planting. But before you get too eager and start sowing seeds, do some preparation of the soil first. Here are some Sedona landscape design tips and guidelines any good designer would tell their clients:

 Sedona landcape design tip #1
Check the condition of the soil.

Did the plants perform as expected? Was the soil amended properly last year? Does it have good drainage? Is it still too clayey? You may want to take a soil sample and have it tested by the local County Extension office.

You can have the Ph of your soil tested for free by the local extension office in either Prescott or Camp Verde.

Turn over the soil after folding in some organic matter, mulch or compost. If you do get a soil analysis, add the proper nutrients and other amendments necessary before you turn over the soil or use a roto-tiller. This will help compost any mulch or leaves you added and improve the tilth of the soil.

Sedona landcape design tip #2
Check your irrigation system

If you have your garden set up with an automatic irrigation system, Depending on the type of irrigation system you are using, make any changes you need such as fixing leaks, adding a spray head, etc. If you have underground pipes, know where they are before you dig. You may want to make a diagram of the piping so you don’t forget from year to year.

If you use above the ground drip tubing or soaker hoses, pull that all away so you can properly amend the soil. Were all the planting beds getting adequate water from your system? You will need to make adjustments as you put the irrigation back in place.

I use an overhead spray system after starting out with soaker hose tubing. I found the soaker hoses were not releasing the same amounts of water from the beginning of the hose to the end resulting in patches of the garden getting over saturated. The overhead sprays provide complete coverage of the soil. Although this is not considered the best method for water conservation, it suits my needs for vegetable garden irrigation.

Sedona landcape design tip #3
Plan your garden

Sedona is at the 4500 foot elevation level more or less, so we are right between the two ranges that differentiate lower Arizona from the upper elevations of northern Arizona.

Cool-season vegetables include beet, lettuce, broccoli, spinach cabbage, carrot, onion, pea, potato, radish, and turnip. Cool season plants are frost tolerant and germinate in cold soil so they can be planted in winter or early spring depending on location. These crops need to mature during cooler periods rather than in the heat of the summer, so getting them out early in the garden or starting them in a mini greenhouse indoors is important.

Warm-season vegetables include sweet corn, sweet potato beans, cucumber, melons, pepper, pumpkin, eggplant, squash, and tomato. These are not frost tolerant and need warm temperatures to set their fruit. Temperatures too high will reduce quality such as sunburn, discoloration and less than ideal size.

Compensate for the mistakes and lessons learned from last year’s crop. Did you plant too many seeds of one type all at once and ended up with too much at one time? Be patient and stagger your seed plantings. Plan out a schedule of when to plant what and mark it on a calendar. It only takes a few minutes to sow some seeds.

Planting from seed is a lot cheaper than buying little 4” pots already leafed out. Consider planting early even before it may freeze again. Who knows when the last frost will occur and if you get lucky, you will have a head start, if not, you will not have lost much in your investment. But do wait till after the last frost or say mid April before you invest a lot in those 4” pots and risk losing them to a late frost.

Here is the last Sedona landscape design tip:

Sedona landcape design tip #4
Container plantings

In the practice of landscape design, the use of pots and containers adds an accessory element to the overall design. Pots are useful to feature individual plants and to decorate a patio area. Pots are suitable for many types of vegetable crops, especially vines types. I like to group pots and place a trellis behind them. If you have a lot of empty pots that you don’t otherwise need for perennial or annuals plants, you may want to use them for vegetables.

Be sure that the pot is big enough to handle the growth of the root system regardless of what type of plants you choose. Too many homeowners have collections of small pots and never invest in buying larger sizes to transplant their plants. Use these smaller pots as transitional containers as the plants grow just like nurseries do with 1 gallon, 2 gallon and 5 gallon containers.

Every Sedona landscape design should have a garden of vegetables, perhaps sprinkled with some ornamental flowers and herbs. Adding colorful pots in strategic spots will make your garden look like you put some thought into the design and aesthetics.

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