Balancing precariously on a rock, I held both hands in front of me, fingers forming a box. In the universal sign of film directors and photographers everywhere, I panned slowly across the sky in front of me.
Dropping my hands, I contemplated the sprawling vista before me, then adjusted my stance. Bringing my hands back up, I looked again.
Hands up. Adjust stance. Hands up. Hands down.
“Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.”
The desert is a place that makes the most sense with its expansiveness. The sky has placed an indelible claim on the landscape and it shows. As anyone who has ever seen the Sonoran Desert at sunset knows, this is a very good thing. An awe-inspiring thing even. But, when attempting to scale down the sight for a photograph-or a .2acre suburban garden-it can be a very inconvenient thing.
When planning a Georgia style garden, each element is planned and blended the way you would paint a watercolor painting. Soft or bold sweeps of color, each blending and enhancing each other to create a coherent pictures. Daylilies, peonies, hyacinths, coneflowers….all of these increase their appeal en masse. Not so with desert plants.
In a desert landscape, resources are scares and plants stake out their territories jealously. It is a space where the eye is made to drift through. Because of this, attempting a literal translation of a desert vista can result in a garden that looks truncated and awkward.
In addition, Southwestern plants tend to have bold, sculptural forms. It is as if nature says, “Well, if there is only going to be one plant here, it is going to be a plant worth looking at. Desert plants are the prima donnas of the plant world. You may be able to add a backup singer or two, but there is only one star of the show.
Desert plants can be blended, but not massed. In this bed, agave is clearly the focal point with Gregg’s mistflower, autumn sage, and a salvia adding complimentary notes without overpowering.
Consistency is another really good way to increase the amount of plants in a bed without looking chaotic. In the top photo, a meadow mix of grasses and a few flowering plants add texture and movement while framing the prickly pear. More agave adorn the bottom photo. In this case, cohesion is achieved by choosing a variety of plants with similar colors.
Repetition is another cool way to cheat the eye (and fit the rest of your must-have plants in your yard). Because both of these photos contain plants that repeat themselves (totem pole cactus and cholla) you could add a variety of low growing flowering plants. The taller cacti would draw the eye up, adding the room the eye needs in order to move around in the desert, and the consistency of the cacti forms would balance out a mixed flower bed.
Then there is the option of just taking the “empty space is gardening partner” concept and just rocking it. I mean, if you have a Van Gogh on your hands, you’re not going to waste time thinking “now, if only I could find ten other masterpieces for this one wall.” No, you let the Van Gogh take its rightful place as the centerpiece of the wall. Using plants strategically as focal points and you can get along with a lot more empty space. In the top photo, palo verde blooms dust the ground-and the cacti- making a perfect vignette. In the lower photo a twisted mesquite trunk steals the show and the scattered plantings along an otherwise bare expanse of ground are a perfect compliment. It would be a gorgeous natural patio for group gatherings.
Planning a desert garden is well worth the change in perspective. The trick is to embrace what makes the desert unique. When designing for the land, you must first take into account the sky.by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with 2 comments
Like most Phoenicians, I consider November to be my personal reward. It’s like the desert itself is saying: “Remember that time this summer when you stood on a pothole in your brand new sneakers and the rubber soles literally started melting? And you didn’t run screaming, even though no one would have blamed you? Yeah, good times. Anyway, because you stuck it out through both summer seasons (blast furnace and humid blast furnace) here is the light at the end of the tunnel: gorgeous November days. When the rest of the country is suffering snow storms, you can party like a rock star through cool days filled with flowers.”
And that, dear readers, is why I love November. Phoenix kind of skips past autumn, going from summer to a winter-spring combo and then back to summer. The flowers go crazy blooming and, if you get up early enough, you can even justify wearing a light jacket. Since I don’t have a garden of my own yet, here’s a look at what’s blooming around Phoenix.
Yellow Bush Daisy Euryops pectinatus has pretty ferny dark green foliage and bright yellow flowers. It blooms pretty frequently and makes a nice 2ft border plant.
Gregg’s Mistflower Conoclinium greggii blooms in sun or shade here. The purple flowers visually cool down space and attract a ton of butterflies.
Mexican Tarragon Tagetes lucida is beautiful, to be sure, but its best quality is culinary. For those of us who love tarragon (which should be everyone because it is awesome) but can’t grow the French kind, which is finicky in general but especially in the desert, Mexican tarragon offers the flavor from a relatively trouble free plant.
Desert Milkweed Asclepias subulata comes into bloom just as Monarch migration hits the desert. Out of flower, it is a relatively unassuming plant and I recommend planting it with some kind of airy flowering plant which can spill among the stems and add additional interest. Milkweed is of course the only host plant for Monarchs, so plant milkweed save a (butterfly) life.
Blackfoot Daisy Melampodium leucanthum I am a huge fan of flowers spilling around cacti. They provide a softening effect but when out of season, cacti or succulents provide awesome structure. Blackfoot daisy, with its profusion of cheerful flowers is one of my favorites.
More flowers spilling among cacti…
First photo agave ‘blue glow’ and autumn sage Salvia greggii , which is a hummingbird magnet. Second photo, agave and some type of verbena. Not sure what the yellow flowers are.
Desert Broom Baccharis sarothroides is generally a plant that people tend to want to set a blowtorch to. It grows fast and unruly, it flowers and sets seed profusely, and it is extremely hard to get rid of. But. I like it. It has a kind of blowsy charm with its cottony flowers, it attracts birds and butterflies like crazy, and it is a native.
California Fuscia Zauschneria californica Mexicana. It is pretty and red and attracts hummingbirds. Need I say more? And speaking of pretty, red, hummingbird attractors…
Baja Fairy Duster Calliandra californicais also in bloom. The native fairy duster is pink and blooms in spring, but the Mexican red fairy duster blooms in fall.
Aster’s are the quintessential fall flower. Not sure what variety this is. And last but not least….
Queen’s Wreath Antigonon leptopus. This Mexican native can be invasive in more tropical climates, but it’s safe here. It is a gorgeous vine that offers pink flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees.
Well, that’s all for now. I highly recommend these plants if you need to brighten your winter garden. And, if your winter garden happens to be buried in snow…Well, enjoy your white Christmas but we earned our green one.
by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with 2 comments
I have been a fan of Pam Penick’s blog, Digging, for some time now. So when I heard she had a book out, my first thought was, about time! Followed by, where the heck did I put my wallet?
I was not disappointed. Ms. Penick disdains overly manicured, high maintenance gardens in favor of the kind of offbeat, interesting gardens that would belong to your cool neighbors down the street. This was a wise decision because many of the people who may be interested in minimizing their lawns do not necessarily identify themselves as “gardeners.” Choosing gardens that are gorgeous in that slightly lived in way of real people’s gardens made the process seem less intimidating.
There were plenty of examples of gardens used as creative “problem solvers” in places where grass is impractical or difficult to grow: moss gardens, slope gardens, dry streams, and deer and fire resistant gardens abound. Water gardens are also mentioned, both in ground and above ground ponds. Rain gardens are briefly mentioned, although I wish they had been expounded on a little more. I also wish bog/wetland gardens had been mentioned for perpetually soggy soil.
Once the types of gardens have been covered, the discussion moves to removing grass and installing said gardens. The chances of me operating any kind of power tools without maiming myself are pretty much nil, but I do appreciate having all the steps laid out. DIY-ers will eagerly dig in, while the rest of us can plan out what we can do ourselves and what we need to outsource. There is an extensive section on dealing with neighbors and the HOA (or as I call them, the natural enemies of free thought and self-expression). Like it or not, your front lawn is as much the property of the neighborhood as it is yours, and learning how to deal with community opinions is a necessity.
Generally, when I read gardening books, I have to use an anywhere-else to Southwest converter for plant recommendations. Ms. Penick lives in Austin, and while not as arid as Phoenix, her sensitivity to Southwest concerns is obvious. She does not limit herself to this region however. There are examples of gardens from all over the country. Her plant recommendations stretch across 11 regions.
Last but not least, the environmentally sensitive quotient. Today’s citizens are more sensitive to their impact on the ecosystems around them and even books that are not technically “green” gardening books still have to address green issues. On the whole, I feel Ms. Penick succeeded admirably. Water usage was addressed, as well as gardening for wildlife. She did caution against invasive species, although I thought an explanation of what exactly they are as well as why they are dangerous would have been well-placed. The one topic she didn’t mention was native plants, which disappointed me. Look to native plants first, then add exotics. It’s healthier for wildlife and generally more low maintenance for you. The only other complaint that I had was that the title “Lawn Gone” sounds like a sketchy 3am infomercial and belies the awesome amount of information inside the book. Then again, I have a collection of infomercial items in my house from knives to miracle cleaning systems so take from that what you will.
Overall, I totally enjoyed Ms. Penicks book and I highly recommend it. I can’t wait for the next one.
The first tomatoes I ever grew I grew in the desert. The plant was on sale for $5.99 at Wal-Mart. It had thick green stems with small yellow flowers curling from thick stems. It was too late in the year to plant tomatoes, heat already winding its way inexorably around the valley.. The heat was the kind of heat you ran from, darting into the first cool dark place you saw like a shadow flinching from light. It was not conducive to growing things.
There is a sensible way to grow tomatoes, even in the desert. Typical of Phoenix, the sensible way meant inverting all ‘normal’ gardening rules and turning tomatoes into a spring vegetable. Start when the morning is still cool enough your breath leaves your mouth in misty clouds but after the threat of frost has passed. Choose a fast ripening variety like ‘Early Girl’ that will be ready for harvesting before the worst of the summer arrived. And, since a beautiful April day in Phoenix closely resembled the East Coast during a heat wave, provide afternoon shade. I did not grow my tomatoes the sensible way.
For eight weeks I moved my tomato plant daily following the single pizza slice wedge of direct sunlight that moved across my shaded balcony in the early morning. For eight weeks I hand-picked green caterpillars off the leaves and moved them to the lawn below. I fertilized with liquid seaweed and sprayed each flower with a ‘completely organic’ blossom stimulator I found online. I may or may not have played ‘eye of the tiger’ on repeat days when the leaves were looking particularly wilted. And eight weeks later the sun lit silver sparks on the blade of my knife as I held it poised over…two mini tomatoes. The glossy red fruits, each the size of a large strawberry, was the total harvest of my hard working tomato plant.
Those two tomatoes, rolling around in the world’s saddest salad, taught me three important lessons. One: wanting something badly enough does not actually subvert the laws of physics and chemical ecology anywhere outside teen movies. Two: tomatoes need sun! And three: gardening, like life, is sometimes going to make you crazy. Just go with it.
by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with 1 comment
The beady yellow eyes glaring across the clearing at me, were a surprise.
“Ah-ha,” I crowed with the slightly deranged fervor of a satisfied birder. “Hello, sky island biodiversity.”
The bird, a yellow eyed junco, paused in its nest gathering long enough to spare me another piercing glance before taking off into the trees like a plume of smoke. It was a promising start.
In the bright summer morning, Mt. Lemmon rose above the desert below like a slightly tarnished crown. It was thirty minutes-and a lifetime-away from Tucson.
A recent fire had carved a scar across the face of the mountain. It left bleached white tree trunks rising from the ground like angry skeletons, clutching the sky with bony fingers. Beneath them, the forest had already started to regenerate, owl’s claws and penstemon and bracken fern springing to life at their feet.
I had been craving a visit to the sky islands ever since I heard about them. These seemingly enchanted mountain top ecosystems seem a half-step out of sync with the rest of the world. Montane forests rich with ferns and wildflowers, these cloud tethered crossroads mark the intersection of temperate and tropical zones and North America’s two major deserts.
There are more species of birds, reptiles and bees here than anywhere else in America. It is a place where elegant trogons, coati mundis and jaguars mingle alongside black bears and mountain lions. So, when the chance came to hike on Mt. Lemmon, I jumped at the chance.
“There may be hail,” Jeremy, my hiking partner cautioned.
“Hail? 30 minutes from Tucson,” I said dubiously. It was mid July. The temperature had hit one hundred, laughed, and kept going. The wallpaper in the sunroom had given up as the glue underneath it melted; yellow dripped like wax as the floral damask unfurled from the wall.
“It is different on top of the mountain,” he said with a shrug. “It will only be around 60 and this time of year hail and lightning could be a problem.
“Hmm.” Another drop of glue fell to the floor and another inch of wallpaper peeled free with a hoarse rasp. The sweat on my brow evaporated as soon as it formed.
“Hail sounds fine,” I said with the blithe assurance of someone who has never seen-or felt-hail. “How soon can we leave?”
The sky islands are a dreamer’s paradise, and you make your way toward them the way of all dreamers: start at the bottom and head straight into the clouds. Higher and higher we rose, as the desert unspooled around: us saguaros retreating into desert scrub and then forests.
We followed the well-worn path through a meadow of soft grasses and more owl’s claws until we came to bushes that appeared to be covered in thousands of red berries. Thousands of moving berries, I corrected myself as the “berries” shifted and resettled after a particular vicious gust of wind bent the bushes almost in half.
“What on earth?” Moving closer I saw the berries were actually thousands of ladybugs piled on every branch.
Ladybugs, like butterflies, go through a complete metamorphosis. In their larval stage, they are a gardener’s best friend, devouring aphids. After emerging from their pupae, they wisely flee the desert summer for the mountains, where they gorge themselves on pollen and hibernate. It is a pretty cool, if slightly unsettling sight.
Continuing on, we descended deeper into the forest, spotting some lovely wild columbines, before the sky was torn open by thunder and the promised hail came.
In case you were wondering, hail is not remotely “dreamlike”. It hurts. A lot. And lightning is much more spectacular and much less scary to watch from the bottom of the valley than it is from the top of the mountain, so we cut our hike short.
“Through the rabbit hole and back again” I mused as the first cacti came into view and the storm reluctantly retreated with an irritated grumble behind us. As wonderful and dreamlike as the day had been-ferns and hail in June! In the middle of the desert!-it was good to be home again.
a/n: special thanks to the awesome birders at www.birdforum.net who helped with my bird id’s. And to the awesome Beth Kinsey at www.fireflyforest.com, who helped me with my owl’s claws id when my naturalist guides and google failed me.by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with 2 comments
Water wise caveat: Above ground sprinklers are a very inefficient way to water plants especially in the Southwest, where 50 percent of the water can be lost due to evaporation. Drip irrigation is a lot more efficient and reduces evaporation loss. If you must have above ground sprinklers, water at night once the temperature cools and the sun sets.
That being said.
Backlit sprinklers are a beautiful sight on a sunlit day, are they not?by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with no comments yet
If summer in the desert is a breath held sharply in anticipation of rain, then fall is the first sigh of relief as the temperatures slowly inch below 100 degrees. As we revel in the cool mornings and evenings, the endless stretch of sunny days begins to feel like a blessing instead of a curse. Immediately, the siren call of the garden magazine sings to us and we eagerly peruse them in search of our next botanical loves.
We’ve all been there: eagerly adding armfuls of waxy leaves and lush petals into our carts and heading home. Only to watch as our dreams of botanical paradise melts in the sun or drowns with soggy roots or gets devoured by aphids. Before you fall victim to another alluring “plant of the year” or “bulletproof choice” take a moment to look behind the label and see what they are really saying.
Let’s start with drought tolerance. There is Savannah style drought, where it hasn’t rained for weeks. There is Portland style drought where it rains steadily a good part of the year and grows dry in the summer. And then there is Phoenix-style drought, where babies are born without a drop of rain falling between conception and birth. All of these are legitimate types of drought and there are plants that suit each of these climates, just make sure the drought tolerant plant you are looking at is suited for the drought you experience.
The dirty truth gardening magazines rarely mention is that almost all perennials are sturdy perennials…when planted where they belong. The same saguaro that soars through 110 degree Phoenix summers without a drop of water would collapse under the weight of Minnesota winters. And the same tulip bulbs we dug up every year in Savannah to overwinter in our fridge naturalize effortlessly in their native Central Asia. Does this mean the only way to get a sturdy perennial is to stick to native plants? Not necessarily. Although looking to the natural areas around you is always the best place to start, you can also look to exotics that share a similar climate to yours. Sonoran residents, for example, can look to neighboring Mojave, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan Deserts. And even further afield to plants for South Africa and Mexico. As always, when choosing plants for your garden to make sure they are not so well adapted they become nuisances. Check any potential plants against local invasive lists.
I know plenty of people who love the summer heat in Maine, offset as it is by ocean breezes and Maine Lobster. And plenty of people who enjoy the 90 degree temps of the Southeast and Midwestern US tinged as it is by watermelon and coconut-scented sunblock. I have never met anyone who enjoys the 110 days a year Phoenix temperature is above 100 degrees. The same can be said of plant life. Heat in Phoenix is not enjoyed. Tolerated, maybe. Endured, certainly. But not enjoyed. And when picking out plants, it is important to keep this distinction in mind. Knowing that heat is a constant struggle in the truly hot parts of the desert, it is important to choose plants that are equipped with the defenses to fight that battle.
It may interest you to know that coastal, low country Savannah, Georgia and Valley of the Sun Sonoran Desert Phoenix, where I live now, are the same garden zone. It certainly interested me. That means that if I selected plants solely based on the suitability of the garden zone listed in gardening catalogs, I would order the same plants for my Phoenix yard that I grew in Savannah. This is because garden zones are based on how cold an area gets in winter and weather a plant can overwinter and survive to come back next spring. (Which is why most annuals are not listed with garden zone. They go through their entire life cycle before winter and are not expected to come back except through self-seeding.) Don’t get me wrong. Garden zones are one of the things that I take into account when looking for new plants. I list the zones beside all the plants I recommend on my blog. But garden zones do not take into account heat or rain, which means you need to when making your final decision.
Perusing plant catalogs is one of my favorite things to do. I fall in love with every page, and my plant lists begin to resemble plant novels. Still, while it is easy to allow yourself to be lured in and your debit card to be lured out, use caution. And, if after that, you still find yourself intrigued by the promise of “year-round blossoms on a heat-loving, drought tolerant, bullet-proof perennial”, by all means. What’s life without a little risk?
by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with 5 comments
Today, I want to write about how I never understood why bees become drunk on pollen until I smelled jasmine for the first time. Today I want to write about the cool burst of lime and coconut after the first bite of Thai food; how the moon rising of the Nile River presses so close you could reach toward the stars and pull back fingers dipped in silver. I want to write about an episode of Underground Cities where the host featured an apartment building standing above an ancient Roman city built over 1000 years before that. Today I want to write about seeing him standing there atop 2,000 years of history and wanting to be there so badly I lost my breath with longing. Today I want to write about the lure of the exotic.
Now, don’t mistake me. While I am not a native purist, I do think that native plants should be given priority for their benefit to wildlife and responsible water usage. Not to mention that with natural landscapes disappearing as fast as they are, native plants in home gardens may be needed to provide genetic diversity in the future.
Adding a touch of exotic to your landscape can add an extra touch of artistry to your garden as well as extend bloom times and compliment existing natives. And what exotic strangers most seduce my senses? Why, so glad you asked…
Pink Muhly Grass Muhlenbergia capillaris zone 5A-10B
Strictly speaking, muhly grass is more a ‘kissing cousin’ than a foreign romance. That is to say, it is native to the Southeastern US, so it is technically a native US plant. But you won’t see it growing naturally in any Sonoran Desert hikes, mores the pity. The compact 24″-36″ mounded shape adds a nice green touch to the garden year round before erupting with pink inflorescence in the fall. The grass adds an otherworldly glow and graceful movement to the fall garden. Best of all, it is unfazed by desert heat and sun and flourishes in full sun with little supplemental irrigation.
Mexican Tree Ocotillo Fouquieria macdougalii zone 9b-11
I was rifling through my bag in search of my binoculars for the bird walk when I saw it: A large, rounded shrub that seemed ablaze in the morning sun. The scarlet tips waving in the gentle breeze rivaled a sugar maple in full autumn glory. “What,” I said, stopping in my tracks, “is that?” That, my friends, is Mexican Ocotillo. Quite different from our native Ocotillo, which is tall and vase shaped and blooms profusely mainly in spring. One thing both of these plants have in common is attraction to hummingbirds: I saw 6 hummingbirds, 2 different species, visiting the shrub while I was standing there. In my opinion, every desert garden should have both species.
Basil Ocimum basilicum zone 9-11
Oh, basil. The well-crowned king of herbs. To anyone who has had a refreshing basil lemonade on a lovely desert morning or a basil Sangria on a lovely desert evening or Italian food (which is lovely anytime), the appeal of basil doesn’t have to be explained. To the desert gardener, however, basil offers much appeal beyond the culinary. With minimal watering and slow release fertilizer, basil thrives in the Southwest easily becoming a three foot shrub. Basil will grow profusely even in the shade here, although it will not bloom without at least some sun. With morning light and some shade during the hottest parts of the day, basil will bloom profusely; an aromatic and ornamental lure to many pollinators.
Pomegranate Punica granatum zone 7b-11
In Greek mythology, pomegranate seeds were chains keeping the goddess Persephone straddling the world of the living and the dead. Looking at the scarlet fruits dripping from the golden leaves like ornaments, it is easy to see why the sight of the pomegranate could tempt someone to leave behind the familiar and step through the door to something exotic. A plant of all seasons, in the spring pomegranates are green and lush, their flowers attracting hummingbirds. In the fall, the plant dons a raiment of gold and crimson. Finally, in winter, it drops its leaves and flaunts bare brown limbs, dropping fruit like ruby kisses on the ground where juicy seeds are devoured by wildlife.
Lion’s Tail Leonotis menthifolia zone 9b-11
Somewhere in South African, a Hottentot tribesman is carefully gathering lion’s tail to make into a medicine for fever. Further afield, jeweled flocks of sunbirds are perching to sip nectar from orange flowers. Somewhere in America, a teenager is rolling furled leaves to smoke as a marijuana alternative. And somewhere in the desert Southwest, I am watching Costa’s hummingbirds and honey bees chase themselves among flame colored blooms from a shrub taller than me and marveling at how many people in the world are seeking out Lion’s Tail this morning. Lion’s Tail appreciates full sun and little water, blooming from mid-summer to mid-fall.
Red Bird of Paradise
Caesalpinia pulcherrima zone 8a-11
You know how Starbucks has taken over some cities? Like how you look across the street from one Starbucks to find another Starbucks staring back at you? And somehow next to both of these Starbucks is a grocery store/restaurant/bookstore that also sells Starbuck’s coffee? Yeah, the red bird of paradise is like that. It is everywhere in Phoenix. But just like an overabundance of Starbucks doesn’t stop me from buying their coffee, the omnipresence of red bird of paradise would not stop me from planting it. The truth is, this Mexican native has a lot to offer. It grows tall, often between 6′-10′ here, with an appealing tropical lushness. It also loves hot and sunny weather and with supplemental watering, delivers showstopping blooms straight through the hottest summer months drawing hummingbirds and bees.
A garden looks best with a sense of place. And that sense of place should be an interpretation of the land around it. You don’t need to build an Italian villa in Australia; you don’t need a tulip field in Phoenix. That said, some foreign visitors can enhance your garden acting as living passports to other nations and cultures. When choosing which exotics to add to your garden, make sure they are a benefit and not a nuisance. None of the plants listed above are invasive in Phoenix, but the same may not be true in your area. As a best practice, every year I re-check to make sure no plants in my garden lists are listed as invasive. Check with local agencies for any plants you plan to add to your landscape. I use the “Alien Plant Invaders of Natural Areas” (www.nps.gov/plants/alien/factmain.htm). So, when it comes to adding exotics to your landscape, proceed with caution and an eye toward the wildlife and natural spaces around you, but by all means proceed.
by Larissa/LandofSunandSky with 2 comments