At the sight of the cloud of purple blooms adorning the front of my apartment the other day, I stopped dead.
“Oh, no. Oh no no no no. Not now. Not yet.” Passers-by slowed, then stopped to gawk at the crazy woman grieving over a beautiful tree, but I was far too distraught to pay them any mind. Desperate, I cast my eyes around for a second opinion, but at each glance of unwanted beauty my heart sank farther. Saguaro blossoms held sway over hoards of bees. Mesquite flowers shyly unveiled their first blossoms. And, most telling of all, golden Palo Verde blooms float in gossamer clouds above the sidewalk.
There is no denying it. The double edged swords of spring have arrived.
Every year, before the unforgiving heat of summer stampedes over us, plants put out a final Hail Mary profusion of blooms to entice pollinators. Spring flowers dig in their roots and hang on just a little longer. Then in saunters the late spring bloomers with the seductive promise of a gorgeous woman with a dangerous secret: marvel at the beauty but beware of the trouble trailing behind. Inevitably their arrival heralds more heartbreak. Ready or not, summer heat is coming. Might as well just embrace the floral shows that precede it. So, for the first of my series of southwest plant recommendations, I chose one of these double-edged swords of spring: the Palo Verde tree.
Even in an environment that twists and shapes its plant life into otherworldly sculptures, the palo verde tree, with its olive trunk and buttery flowers, stands out. The distinctive green limbs are more than an accessory. The palo verde tree has chlorophyll in its bark which allows it to drop its leaves during the hottest months and breathe through its trunk and branches.
Don’t let the thought of a bald tree scare you, though. Since another way that the Palo Verde trees conserve water is by having very small leaves, the general effect is of a haze of green rising above the ground. Often, it is difficult to tell if a palo verde tree has dropped its leaves until you are a hands length away.
Gardenwise, the Palo Verde is a very well-behaved tree. It tends to have a very small footprint; most of the ones I see out and about are around 15 feet (although they can grow up to 30 feet).The breathtaking sight of a line of Palo Verde trees in full bloom combined with small size make it the perfect plant to line driveways or fences for a mass effect.
After the bloom is over, yellow flowers rain down and cover the ground below, making a gorgeous vignette. Green seed pods follow the blooms and are eagerly devoured by wildlife. Gardening is one of the only places where it is good to litter. Leaf litter enriches the soil, helps it retain moisture, and suppresses weeds. Even as the tree drops its flowers and pods, the ground eagerly reaches out and absorbs it. Songbirds nest and sing from their boughs. Quails roost and forage in their branches and rabbits and other wildlife devour their seedpods.
The Palo Verde makes an excellent nurse tree for the plants that flinch from the unrelenting sun of the Sonoran Desert.
Because of its airy nature, the ground underneath it is more “dappled sunshine” as opposed to the “heavy shade” of say, a mesquite. This allows flowering plants underneath it to get the sun they need to bloom while getting a much needed break from the heat.
“This reminds me of the cherry blossoms in Washington,” my youngest sister says the first time she sees the Palo Verde tree in full bloom.
“While I was senate page. All of a sudden cherry trees were in bloom all over the town and for a while it seemed like the whole city was covered in pink.
“Really.” I have never imagined Washington, D.C. as a particularly natural place. In my mind it is a city of white houses, statues, and asphalt, with the faint soundtrack of schoolhouse rock’s “How a Bill becomes a Law” in the background. I say as much.
“Yes, really.” I can feel her eye roll without looking. There is a shiver of wind and flowers rustle upward with an agitated murmur. For a moment the world is lost in a golden haze and her words echo in the fresh-hay scent of dried flowers.
“Hmm.” I say again. Sitting on a nearby rock, I stare up into the dizzying spectacle of green and yellow above me.
This is how summer comes to the desert.
Nature stands. Unfurles the blanket of spring from the earth, shakes it, and settles it over us as summer. And in that paused moment where the blanket hangs suspended-neither spring nor summer-Palo Verde trees bloom in rivers of gold.
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.Read More
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.
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.
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.Read More