If, like me, you moved to Phoenix from a cooler, wetter climate, adapting your ideas about what your front yard should look like to the Sonoran Desert can be challenging. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to help you in the transition from a water-hogging bluegrass lawn and perennial flowerbeds to a beautiful desert adapted landscape. The first place to look for help is your big backyard, or the natural landscape that surrounds your neighborhood. The native plants that grow here are your best allies in designing a colorful, year round, low maintenance, and water efficient landscape.
The Deem Hills is home to over one hundred species of native plants, including six kinds of trees, twenty different shrubs, eight different types of cacti, five species of grass, two vines and more than sixty annual and perennial wildflowers. While some are more suitable for suburban landscaping than others, many favorites are commonly available at local nurseries, and are easily blended with other desert adapted species from the greater southwest deserts. In our own yard, I’ve established over eighty different plants that are native to North American deserts, two dozen of which are common in the Deem Hills.
A few good “pairings” will help you create a landscape that harmonizes with the surrounding desert and won’t croak when droughts take over or the drip system malfunctions!
Ocotillo and saguaro: The unusual architecture of ocotillo makes an excellent frame for the equally dramatic saguaro cactus. Little to no extra watering is necessary to keep these two desert icons thriving. Following spring rains, ocotillos will produce a fresh crop of green leaves and bright red flowers. If you don’t have the cash for a mature saguaro, you can still find a place for a young one anywhere from four inches to a foot high for less than twenty dollars. Saguaros also pair nicely with palo verde trees, which serve as their “nurse plant” in nature.
Brittlebush and barrel cactus: Soften the robust and spiny barrel cactus with a background of velvety blue-green foliage with brittlebush. The hearty native shrub will produce abundant yellow flowers in even the driest of years, and is easily pruned by snapping the stems.
Fairy duster and Parry’s penstemon: Put these together in place of a sugar water feeder and you’ll be sure to attract plenty of hummingbirds! Both bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall, adding bright red and hot pink to the garden palette.
Globe mallow and purple three-awn grass: The drought resistant globe mallow displays a range of sunset colored flowers from pale pink to deep orange. Purple three-awn is a graceful bunch grass with deep purple flowering heads and bright green leaves. Both of these natives are great alternatives to fountain grass and African daisies, both non-natives that tend to invade wildlands.
Poppies and lupines: Look for a desert wildflower seed mix that includes Mexican gold poppy (Escholtizia californica ssp. mexicana) and arroyo lupine (Lupinus sparsiflorus). Both are abundant in the desert islands of Phoenix. Be sure to sprinkle the seed in the fall (late October-November) so that they will germinate and bloom by February or March. Once these get established, they will seed themselves for future spring displays.
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.