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.