Planting Design for Dry Gardens

Design ideas

Book Review: Planting Design for Dry Gardens by Olivier Filippi

With summer slowing down I have been gazing longingly at my yard. When I saw this book at the library, I grabbed it and have enjoyed browsing through it.


Image from Amazon

This book has amazing photos. I love being able to see what he describes. Mr Filippi has a fascinating introduction that talks about how lawns came to be so incredibly popular and why it is time to explore some landscaping alternatives. He then describes a variety of groundcover options that encompass everything from lawns and meadows to gravelled areas and shrubs. I love how he states the advantages and disadvantages of each landscape. Here are his categories:

  • Lawns with warm-season groundcovers
  • Green carpets: plants you can walk on
  • Flowering carpets: a mixture of groundcover plants
  • Mixed grassland “lawns”: the art of cultivating weeds
  • Flowering steppes
  • Gravel gardens
  • Terraces, paths, and steps: the greening of stone surfaces
  • Perennial and shrub groundcovers for large areas
  • Pioneer plants for slopes and wild gardens
  • Flowering meadows in dry climates

The best part about this book is the step-by-step instructions for executing the design. The second section of the books describes how to prepare and plant each type of groundcover. I didn’t know that heavy clay soil has to be “decompacted” in order for most plants to establish well. You must break up the clay so that roots can spread throughout the soil. He recommends digging to a depth of 30 cm, but I don’t think I am strong enough to dig Arizona soil that far. :/  I also learned that a gravel mulch 6 cm deep is thick enough to suppress germination of most weeds. The hands-on landscaping expertise makes this book a valuable resource.

I like how Mr Filippi encourages us to embrace plants in all seasons and plan for summer dormancy in dry areas. A summer dormant landscape in Arizona conserves water and requires less care when it is least comfortable to be outside.


Demonstration garden in spring


Same demonstration garden in summer. Images from

This book has a disadvantage of using plants for European landscapes. While some of the plants may be available here, the goal of xeriscaping ideally uses plants from the same region that are most ideally situated for the climate. The concepts in this book can easily be transferred to a palette of southwestern plants.


If you like reading landscaping books, I definitely recommend this one.


DIY burnout


I haven’t posted in awhile. I was considering why not, and it occurred to me that a Do-It-Yourself-er saves money by working on projects themselves. But when all the work is done by you, projects compete with your other priorities for your time and just don’t always come in first.

For all you DIY-ers who are going strong this spring, I just added a new page on backyard landscape design ideas. It includes ideas for planning your dream backyard.

This past year I haven’t put yard improvements at the top of my list, but I still have been able to enjoy my landscape. Many of the plants I added when first moving here are reaching mature sizes. I enjoy walking around the yard and seeing the flowers and new growth during spring. This is the part of landscaping that I find rewarding: a beautiful space that complements the surrounding desert and inspires me.

So, when a landscape is in stasis, what do I do to maintain everything? So far this year we’ve harvested citrus fruit, pruned trees and bushes, sprayed pre-emergent on all rocked areas, weeded around plants, planted a small garden, and added a few new plants. Spring is a good time to check that all irrigation emitters are working properly. The seals on the irrigation valve near the house get old and leaky, requiring replacement every few years. A xeriscape landscape is easier to maintain than many others because many of these chores are only done once a year.

This year my garden included lettuce, sunflowers, and zucchini. The lettuce is already bolting in the heat and the zucchini will die off in another month. The birds love the sunflowers.sunflowers_arizona

I added a couple of new native plants this year that I found at the Black Mountain Nursery in Cave Creek. I found Mormon tea, goldeneye, and desert milkweed there. I have better luck finding native plants at independent nurseries than at chain stores.

In the future, I still have plans to do some big projects in the yard. I would like to build a ramada-style porch extension, add crushed granite on all walkways, install flagstone pavers on the back porch and some artificial turf immediately off of that, and finish landscaping one area with some more shrubs.

Whether you’re starting projects or enjoying what you have, hope you enjoy your landscape this spring!

Southwestern Christmas decor


To get the Christmas spirit before I had set up my tree, I made this branch arrangement from Mesquite branch trimmings. The branches sat in the yard, awaiting our next evening by the fire. Instead, I rescued them and arranged them in a sturdy vase. I had to make sure the stems were long enough, and tried to arrange without getting too close to the spines. I filled the vase with some rock from my yard to keep it stable. Then I hung some inexpensive ornaments. I like it!


Southwestern Christmas decoration: Mesquite branch in a vase

Here’s a sunset enjoyed from our driveway. Jojoba in the foreground and Queen Palm in back. I love our winters and feel just as Christmas-y with warm days and light strand-wrapped saguaros.


Arizona sunset in December

We put up our tree, a live pine cut here in Arizona. We’ve enjoyed some Charlie Brown style trees in our time here in Arizona, but each tree has been truly beautiful in its unique way. I like this ornament, and the message to remember Christ. Thinking of our Savior and feeling His Spirit brings Christmas to me.


Seek Him

So…Merry Christmas! May you feel joy and peace in this wonderful season. For more inspiration, see what a Savior means to me at

How to water desert trees


Desert trees anchor a xeriscape. Such important plants need proper care to look natural and avoid damage. Amazingly one of the best things you can do for a desert tree is NOT water it all the time. Over watering encourages fast, weak growth. When summer windstorms come, a spindly tree loses main branches, potentially ruining its form. My neighbor had an entire tree disappear in a windstorm!


This Mesquite is nearly full grown, yet has been severely pruned to prevent damage from wind. Watering less frequently would give a better natural form without the need for pruning.

When I plant a young desert tree, I build a basin with edges about 2 feet away from the tree’s trunk. I’ll start by watering the tree every few days for the first week or two while it recovers from transplant shock, then I fill the basin once a week while the tree gets established, about the first year. After a year, a desert tree can live with watering once every 2 to 4 weeks. If the tree seems to be growing slowly, you can increase the water frequency to no more than once per week.

Baby Palo Verde basin

A lush baby Palo Verde tree with a 2 foot basin.

As the tree grows, expand its basin. Once a year in spring you can rebuild the sides of the basin farther away from the trunk. The basin around the tree allows you to give a large drink with each watering, penetrating farther into the soil and allowing the trees roots to grow deeper. Shallow watering encourages shallow roots, which allows the top of the tree to become heavier than the root strength. In order to allow the basin to fully fill, turn a hose on at a trickle and set a timer for an hour, monitoring to make sure your basin doesn’t overflow. Or if your tree is on your irrigation system, you can add the number and flow rate of emitters needed to fill the basin in the time scheduled for your system.


A larger basin on a more mature desert tree. This basin measures about six feet across and is doughnut-shaped to encourage roots to spread away from the trunk. This tree blew over a few times while young and needed stronger roots.

Once my desert trees have doubled in size or seem well established, they can be watered even less frequently. A few of my trees border a low spot in my yard where water pools when it rains. These trees are not on my irrigation system and I hardly ever water them by hand. The winter and summer rains give them deep drinks which keep them healthy. They usually keep their leaves all season long, so I know they are getting enough water.


This Foothills Palo Verde has been in the ground about 5 years and no longer needs any irrigation since it borders a low spot in the yard.

When watered appropriately, desert trees grow slower with more proportional shape and stronger branches. Over time they can still grow to mature heights of up to 30 feet, and much more quickly than they would in the desert.

Ironwood leaves die in spring?


This spring, all four of my young ironwood trees lost their leaves. The leaves turned yellow just as spring growth happened all around them. I thought somehow my trees were dying, though I didn’t see any reason why. About a month after the leaves started dying, I saw new growth. All four trees have now grown new foliage.

While I’m not sure why this happened, I’m glad the trees are still healthy. I found this information at
“Branches that produce flowers often drop their leaves during bud formation, and re-leaf when summer rains begin”

My young trees have never flowered, but perhaps their leaves had remained on the tree long enough to need to be replaced. Ironwoods remain my favorite desert tree due to their size, leaf color, wildlife habitat, and shade. Some day I hope to have a large wildflower area with three mature ironwood trees as the backbone. I’m glad these trees are okay. They grow slowly and would be hard to replace.

Rose varieties for Arizona

Plant selection

Now is the time of year to plant or prune roses. Although roses are not native to the southwest, they can survive the heat. They are also an all-time favorite plant.


Peace rose

If you would like to include roses in your landscape, they will need a more frequent watering schedule than native plants. If you have an irrigation line already on a more frequent schedule, that may determine where you put a rose. Also consider planting it in the shade and on an eastern or northern exposure.

HGTV posted an article about growing roses in the southwest here.

University of Arizona also published an easy to read introduction to roses here. They include a list of favorite varieties for the southwest. If you’re shopping for a rose, consider these:


Mr. Lincoln rose

  • Mr. Lincoln – a deep red tea rose with fragrant blossoms
  • Saint Patrick – a yellow tea rose with a hint of chartreuse
  • Marilyn Monroe – a pale apricot shrub rose
  • Julia Child – a butter yellow floribunda
  • Peace – a classic tea with creamy center and pink edges
  • Fragrant Cloud – a coral orange tea
  • Double Delight – a dark pink and white multicolored tea
  • Rainbow Knock Out – a pink shrub rose
  • Sally Holmes – salmon to white climbing rose
  • Gemini – cream and pink multicolored tea rose with well-shaped blossoms

Fall landscape chores


I’ve caught up on my pruning and done some weeding. One downside of having a native wildflower garden is that I have to weed it by hand. Sprays would kill the plants I am trying to keep. That garden tends to look more overgrown and natural, which I like. If I wanted it to look great for an event, I would clean it up and add some annuals and potted plants. Some day I’d like to add an archway or trellis.

One chore I had was to rebuild the basins around my cacti. The summer rains washed them away and then when I water the water won’t stay around the plant. Some of the newer cacti grew less because they didn’t have adequate basins.

Plant basins

Plant basins

A pair of cactus wrens built a nest in one of my cholla. First they practised in one cholla, making quite a mess of pine needles, dead grass, and stuff. I assume they’re new to this nest business. The second nest they made was quite pretty–round with a round entrance. I’ve tried to leave them alone so that if they lay eggs they will feel secure, although previous nest attempts in my cholla haven’t been successful. I think a predator was able to reach since the cholla aren’t very tall.

Cactus wren nest

Cactus wren nest

Native plants increase wildlife habitat

Plant selection, Wildlife

I’ve discovered a bonus of creating a native landscape: wildlife! I love wild animals. I think of them as low-maintenance pets. I enjoy sitting on the porch and watching birds visit my landscape. In the back yard, I covered the drainage holes in my block fence with grates, which keeps out snakes, rabbits, and gophers, while allowing birds and lizards in.

Here is some of the wildlife I’ve experienced.

Native bee house

House for native bees

Quail roam through my yard at will. This summer a young quail hen practiced laying eggs in a Wildlife_bannerpotted plant on my front porch. I love it when I see quail chicks in the spring. Quail use various native bushes for food and cover. They love eating wildflower seed before your flowers can sprout.

White-winged doves visit frequently. They like drinking from water puddles in the yard.

Hummingbirds love fairy duster flowers. The neighbors next door had a hummingbird nest in one of their trees. There are three birds that constantly fight over my yard as territory.

Migrating birds. Many more kinds of birds travel through Arizona during migration. I’ve had lots of bird nests in trees in my yard. I enjoy watching the eggs hatch and babies grow.

Butterflies visit my garden and flowering plants. I’d love to add a few more like milkweed to increase butterfly habitat in my yard. Here is a list of native plants used to create a butterfly garden.

Native bees are welcome visitors. I learned at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum you can build them homes to encourage them to visit.

Lizards and geckos. This year our yard has tons of baby lizards. They are only about two inches long and they are so cute! The lizards keep the outdoor cricket population under control. In order to avoid poisoning our lizards, we have not sprayed our home (outdoor foundation) for bugs for the past two years. I haven’t noticed any more bugs inside than before. If you are outside at night, you may also see western banded geckos.

Tortoises. To complete your native Sonoran desert habitat, why not add a tortoise? Although desert tortoises are not available for sale, did you know you can adopt one?

Snakes generally aren’t welcome in your yard. But if you see a non-venomous snake kindly escort it out without killing it.

Rabbits can be pests. They are welcome in my (unfenced) front yard, but not in the back. I put 1/4 inch wire cage around young plants to protect them from bunnies. My veggie garden is in the back yard.

Round-tailed ground squirrels aren’t welcome in my yard (even if they are native). These guys eat roots out from underneath cacti when they get hungry and dig tunnels everywhere. Rat poison has worked to keep them from colonizing my back yard, and our neighborhood population isn’t high enough to decimate any of my front yard plants.

Ants can bite, but they are termites’ mortal enemies and will keep them at bay. They also provide food for other wildlife. I prefer to allow a healthy stable number of ant colonies remain in the yard.

Termites hide underground and aren’t seen often, but they are there. Rock mulch seems to make the ground more hospitable to termites and less to ants.

Black widows love the cracks in the block wall fence. The easiest way to control them is to go out at night and squash or spray them.

Scorpions love to hide in organic leaf litter and grass thatch. I believe that having a native landscape instead of a lawn decreases scorpion habitat. One more reason to plant native!