How to water desert trees

Plants

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!

Severely_pruned_mesquite

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.

Desert_tree_basin

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.

Juvenile_Palo_verde

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.

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Ironwood leaves die in spring?

Plants

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 desertmuseum.org:
“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.

Free xeriscape plants — or how to landscape as cheaply as possible

Design ideas

Xeriscape doesn’t have to be expensive. A xeriscape landscape can be cheaper to build and maintain than a regular landscape. Do you want to change your landscape but have no money? Well, you may be surprised at how much you can do for free. Try these ideas.

Check craigslist

freelandscaperock

typical photo for free landscape rock

Craigslist has a free section where you can find landscape rock regularly. If one ad doesn’t provide enough for your project, you can collect a few types and try mixing them before spreading. Be aware that if you mix multiple types you will never be able to buy more that will match. That might not be a big deal as landscape rock tends to sink into the dirt over the years and you can add rock on top that is similar in color with no problem.

cactusforfree

Prickly pear, cholla, and agave — all easy to take starts from for a free cactus

You can also get free plants on craigslist. Prickly pear can be propagated easily. One free prickly pear plant on craigslist can provide enough starts for your yard. If you make prickly pear the major theme plant of your landscape, you may complete your entire landscape for free.

I don’t recommend trying to move a mature tree or saguaro cactus. Mature trees are too large to move without construction equipment. You will only be killing it and providing free tree removal. Moving saguaro requires permits, so even a “free” saguaro isn’t really free because you need to hire a saguaro moving company to get it to your yard.

Be creative

Do friends or neighbors have a mature landscape? Chances are they have volunteer plants they could give to you.

baby_palo_verde

this baby palo verde is about three years old and still only about three feet high

Many agaves make pups that can be dug and replanted. Texas sage bushes sometimes have small seedling bushes growing around their roots. Grasses can be divided into smaller clumps. Baby creosote bushes can be transplanted if you are careful to not disturb their roots.

I have also transplanted seedling palo verdes and mesquites. If you truly have no money and want trees, these will work. But in my opinion they are not worth the effort because they take so long to reach mature size.

Keep it simple

Xeriscape allows you to leave a large percentage of your yard empty while still achieving a landscaped look. If you can’t afford to buy a large variety of plants, do something interesting with a mass planting of one kind of plant that is easy to get for free.

Creosote and cholla can be grown without an irrigation system. Consider going ultra-low water and designing a landscape that doesn’t need an irrigation system. For a mass planting, grasses especially look modern. Try a row of grasses with a few clumps of prickly pear.

Mexican feather grass planted in a row for a modern look.

Fall landscape chores

Seasons

 

With the weather back in the beautiful range, I’ve spent a lot more time in the yard lately. I pruned my desert trees (mesquite, palo verde, ironwood)–since it is better to prune during the warm season than in spring. I sprayed the cochineal scale off my prickly pears and pruned a few pads. I have been setting out some of the small cacti that I bought and repotted in the spring to let them get more direct sun. Hopefully I can plant them this fall.

Baby desert trees

Top row from left: texas sage, mesquite, palo verde. Bottom cluster of three are creosote.

The late monsoon caused a lot of baby trees to sprout in my yard; both mesquite and palo verde. I tried potting some of them along with some seedling creosote. My survival rate is low. The baby trees that are the smallest dry out easily in pots and die. The larger specimens are hard to dig up because they already have long roots. Creosote bushes transplanted into pots easily die from over-watering. My best success with creosote was with two small seedling bushes that I transplanted to another spot in the yard. I was able to scoop their entire root system up with the shovel and after they were transplanted it was overcast for a few days.

During the summer I helped a friend make a landscape plan for her front yard. It included a circular drive, mesquite trees, lots of bushes, and cacti. Her husband has already started adding some hills to their landscape in preparation for planting. I’ll try to get some photos to share.