The Desert Garden

It may seem rather obvious, but gardening in the desert is very different to what we’re used to in the UK.

Sonoran Desert Museum

I’ve just returned from a trip to Arizona, where I’ve been taking in the delights of the landscape and plants of the Sonoran desert. I’ve seen more than a few cacti.

I also saw some rain, as the weather was (disappointingly) unseasonably cool and wet.

Eschscholzia, Wild Lupin, & Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica)

On the plus side, by the end of my trip the desert was beginning to really ‘green up’, with many of the plants coming into flower. Some of these would be  quite familiar to us temperate climate gardeners. I did a hike up a mountain which was just beginning to flush yellow with Californian poppies. I also saw quite a few lupins – smaller, more dainty than the blowsy affairs we tend to grow in our gardens, but very pretty.

I was particularly interested to compare the domestic gardens out there with the natural desert landscape. I did see some patches of lawn, but not many – grass takes too much precious water to keep it green. The locals were a little more indulgent when it came to water features and swimming pools, which was surprising, bearing in mind the level of evaporation in such a dry climate, and the scarcity of water – it is the desert, after all! Apparently there’s a lot of water available from aquifers, and much of the water used flows in from other, wetter areas. Just as well, as Phoenix is reputedly the sixth most populous city in the US.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix

What’s it like to garden in the Desert?

I have a few customers that I work for once a week. Most, I visit fortnightly. People I spoke to in Phoenix said their gardener visits just four times a year! Whereas our quiet time is the winter, in Phoenix there’s least to do in the summer, when it’s just too hot and dry for anything to grow.
Gardens in Arizona generally involve a lot of gravel, with isolated specimen plants, or small groupings of plants, typically involving some cacti. The range of plants grown is, as you might expect, somewhat different to the UK, although some herbs, such as Rosemary, do well. Whilst some plants could survive without watering once established, most gardens seem to have irrigation systems, with a pipe delivering a steady supply of water to each plant. Without this, the front gardens you can see in the picture above would be considerably less verdant.

Totem Pole Cactus (Pachycereus schottii monstrosum), Unidentified Prickly Pear, & Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantean – the name says it all)

Using gravel as a mulch has become much more popular in the UK in recent years. Whereas we often put gravel over a water-permeable membrane, in Arizona, typically they don’t use a membrane. Weeds are controlled by spraying (yes, I know – I winced too!) hence the four visits a year scenario. Shrubs are typically trimmed over at the same time. The cacti, I suspect, generally look after themselves.

Coral Aloe (Aloe striata) & Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora)

Most of the gardens I saw had what looked like dry river beds running through them – meandering channels lined with larger stones. These are apparently bioswales – most of the time they are purely decorative, but when the monsoon rains come, they help to divert excess water into the washes. Bioswales can also be used to trap pollutants (such as herbicides?) and stop them entering water courses.

Maguey (Agave avellanidens), plus an unidentified Yucca

As you might imagine, there are pests. Ground squirrels can be a problem – they’ll eat plants, and burrow under them. ‘Cotton Tails’ (rabbits) are everywhere, and we know what damage they can cause. But hell, they’re cute! And a fabulous example of natural selection too – a creature that has, over millions of years, evolved very effective camourflage, along with a bright, white tail that bobs up and down as it runs, so that it can be clearly seen by predators. There are insect pests too, for instance, a cochineal insect that attacks prickly pears, causing their leaves to turn purple. Useful if you want to make some red dye though.

There are larger, more dangerous animals. Owls that will happily take a small dog for instance – pampered pooches can’t be left out in the yard. There are coyotes and Bobcats, and even the occasional mountain lion in some areas. And gardening becomes more of a high risk occupation when you know there’s a chance of encountering rattlesnakes and scorpions. I’m guessing that business insurance for gardeners is more expensive than in the UK.

Unidentified Agave, & Chihuahuan Snowball (Thelocactus macdowellii)

When I first arrived in Arizona the landscape, the gardens and the utility planting schemes all looked a bit sparse, a bit dry – a bit mean and uninteresting. But the longer I stayed, the more interesting they became – the more I began to appreciate it all. So many of the plants – particularly the cacti and the agaves – provide very interesting structural, architectural shapes and textures. And there are some wonderful flowers too. Many of them, such as the agaves, are rich in nectar and attract humming birds and butterflies. There’s a plant called Ocatillo, which looks like a rosette of large, dead sticks, until the rains come, when it sprouts fresh green leaves and, at the tip of each stem, a bright red flower. The cacti produce some very impressive blooms too, though I was there a bit early to see many of them do it. And in the spring the ground, which for much of the year has been dry and barren, becomes carpeted with wild flowers. There may not be a cold season (except in the mountains) but Arizona does have distinct seasons, albeit in a different way to the UK.

I love travelling to different parts of the world, particularly because I love to see the different plants that grow in other climates and habitats. Arizona may be a difficult habitat to love at first sight, but it certainly grows on you.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix

Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2017

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