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.

demonstrationgarden_spring

Demonstration garden in spring

demonstrationgarden_summer

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.

DIY burnout

Seasons

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!

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.

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.

Acre landscape design for front yard

Design ideas

Enjoy this free design for a large front yard

DIY Landscape design

Landscape design for large front yard

This Christmas, one of your gifts could be an update to your landscape!

I’m sharing this sketch I made for a friend with a one acre lot. Her and her husband wanted to landscape around the existing plants in the yard, and include a large circular gravel drive.

The focal point of the yard is the home’s entrance, so the plants should lead your eye toward the front door. A visitor approaches the home from the bottom left, so the drive leaves a nice opening to look through. Low bushes around the front porch area outline a space that can be personalized with favorite plants. Perhaps a woman would like some roses or the shade from the house may work well for a succulent garden.

To the left of the entry, a graveled path leads to a gate in the block wall. Next to the path is a grouping of three citrus trees. Their location by the wall allow irrigation lines from the back to send a spur through the wall to the citrus. This way the citrus can be watered on a more frequent schedule than the rest of the xeriscape. (My friends want to plant non-native pine trees in their back yard to shade the house. These would need to be watered on the same schedule with the citrus.)

The rest of the trees in the front yard are Mesquite. This provides a cohesive theme to unify the rest of the landscape. One Joshua tree provides a focal point near the driveway’s entrance, but it will be quite a few years before it is large enough for that role.

The island created by the driveway features prickly pear and barrel cacti, clusters of xeriscape bushes, and a few grasses. A dry riverbed winds through the island and reappears across the drive for interest.

Off to the right of the pictured area, a straight drive leads through a gate in the block wall to access the garage.

This landscape design could easily be adapted to a similar yard. Or you could use the principles I did to create your own.

Design idea: update your small front yard landscape

Design ideas

Quick front yard redo (small yard)

Thinking about changing your landscape? Summer is a great time to plan a new landscape design. Let’s say you want to redo your front yard landscape by adding a bunch of plants without changing your current drip irrigation system.

Here’s my hypothetical small front yard with one mesquite tree and three Texas sage. I drew my idea on 1/4 inch graph paper. 1/4″ equals 1 foot. The yard area is 30 x 15 feet.

Small Yard original design

First, map existing emitters and a rough idea of where your drip line runs.

Next, add plants. I had three goals in this design: increase color, add plants without adding emitters, and pick plants that are commonly available.

Here are the plants I picked: 4 red fairy duster bushes, 3 Santa Rita prickly pear, 3 green desert spoon, 7 golden torch cacti, 4 fire barrel cacti, and 2 bunny ears prickly pear. The desert spoon are functioning like a grass in the design, but you could substitute Mormon tea or ocotillo.

Here’s the new design, colored so you can imagine the end result.

Small Yard new landscape design

Small Yard new landscape design

Notice I didn’t just space everything evenly around the yard. I also NEVER use just one of a plant, use multiples. Even though space in this yard is very limited, I used small and large plants. A bigger yard would allow more variety and more empty areas or plant groupings. You could also add some hardscape features such as boulders.

The best part of this design is you might not have to add any emitters to your current drip system. If the mesquite has a basin around it that fills up when it is watered, the fairy dusters can share. The golden torch, barrel cacti, and desert spoon should do fine if they are hand watered every 1-2 weeks their first year in the ground. The prickly pears may have to get added to the drip system, depending on how they do. Hand watering them every two weeks in the summer would make it possible to leave them off.