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.

Planting_Design_for_Dry_Gardens_bookbyOlivierFilippi

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.

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Demonstration garden in spring

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Same demonstration garden in summer. Images from mediterraneangardensociety.org.

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.

Surviving Arizona Summer

Seasons

August felt blisteringly long this year. With the nuclear heat, I didn’t go outside much. Just enjoyed the view of my landscape from indoors. Now that it’s September and the nighttime lows are coming down, it’s time to get outside and see how my plants survived.

Most of my established plants made it through just fine. The front yard irrigation timer shorted out and nothing got watered for about a month. Things started showing signs of stress, but I hand watered and got the system running again. The Spanish dagger and yellow bells showed the worst stress, along with a young slipper plant.

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Spanish dagger showing signs of heat stress. This yucca likes regular water.

Slipper_plant_burned

A young slipper plant has brown at the base of each stalk. It may be too damaged to survive.

In the back yard, I should have watered my smaller/younger cacti to help them through. Many showed signs of sunburn at the end of August. I didn’t notice any sunburn in mid-August when I looked at the yard, but at the end of the month, BAM! The summer rains washed away most of the basins around my plants, so last week I rebuilt them. Now I’ll be able to give them larger drinks. A little attention and everything will flourish.

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Baby Cardon with yellow and black sunburn. A cardon is a cousin to the saguaro.

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Parry’s agave losing lower leaves

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Small hedgehog cactus with sunburn

Golden_barrel_cactus_baby

Small golden barrel cactus sunburn

Some heat stress is normal for this time of year. The brittlebrush and penstemon go dormant the entire plant may appear dead. My rose bush looks seriously neglected. We have a row of bell pepper plants in the garden that amazingly survived (with daily water), though the peppers roasted on the plants before we could eat them. I’m hoping the plants will be able to produce better through the fall, to make it worth keeping them alive.

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Brittlebrush and jojoba

Bell-pepper

Bell pepper in the summer garden

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Blue agave that died from an agave beetle. Since I don’t treat my plants with insecticide, all of my blue agaves will eventually die and be replaced by the pups.

Our neighborhood experienced some saguaro carnage this summer as monsoon winds ripped through our street. A five foot saguaro broke off near the base. It had previously developed cracks from overwatering and couldn’t withstand the wind.

Dead_saguaro

Fallen saguaro

A reminder that even tough native plants can succumb.

The contracted pleats of my young saguaros indicated they need a drink. I’ll water them weekly until they plump back up. Remember that a saguaro will absorb all of the water its roots allow, so watering when the ribs are expanded can lead to the cracking that killed my neighbor’s plant.

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Baby saguaro with contracted ribs. I put a paper towel over the top to shade the sunburn.

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Baby saguaro with expanded ribs.

Design a garden that doesn’t need an irrigation system

Plant selection

It sounds like a challenge from a reality show: design a desert garden that can survive without irrigation. Obviously you need to use low-water plants. (Native plants make sense.) Utilize the runoff from your roof to provide water for your desert garden. You can sculpt berms and basins to guide the flow of water around your planting area. Plant in fall or winter to give everything a chance to get established before the heat hits. The first year or two you can water by hand with a hose to supplement the rain. My yard has areas on a drip system and areas off–it is interesting to experiment and see how the plants fare (once you are confident enough that you won’t kill them!).

Here are some plant choices suggested by Scott Calhoun:

Next to a basin

Trees

Ironwood, Western Soapberry, Desert Hackberry. I would add Foothills Palo Verde.

Shrubs

Baja fairy duster and pink fairy duster, Bee bush, Chiltepin, Desert honeysuckle, Desert lavender, Globemallow, Southwest coral bean

Other plants

Desert milkweed, Prairie zinnia, Sundrops, Trixis

Almost all cacti and agaves do well above a basin where their roots won’t ever sit in the water.

In a basin

Trees

Desert willow, Velvet mesquite

Shrubs

Apache plume, Arizona wild cotton, Limber bush, Mariola, Oreganillo, Wolfberry, Shrubby senna, Tarbush, Yellow bells

Other plants

Deer grass, Flattop buckwheat, Goodding’s verbenia, Penstemon, Sacred datura, Wright’s goldenrod.