Adventures in desert landscaping, volume 2

A few of you expressed interest in watching how my Tucson landscaping project develops. Here’s a quick summary of changes to date, including some just completed plantings from last week.

As a reminder, here are a few photos from August —December 2018, showing how the yard looked just before, and after, I bought the place. You may remember that besides location (east side, closer to Saguaro National Park), the feature that really spoke to me was the big, quarter-acre, near-blank-slate lot, just begging to be turned into my own little biodiversity hotspot. Click the photos to enlarge.

That begging back yard, August 2018. Panorama, so perspective is skewed :-)
Note the African sumac (Rhus lancea), a non native and invasive exotic (foreground), and Oleander (far corner, to left of utility pole and right of prickly pear). Both have now been removed.
Front yard. Not bad; saguaro (yay!), Opuntia sp. and yucca. That tree throws some shade, it’s true, but it’s also nonnative Argentine mesquite (Prosopis alba), commonly planted around Tucson.
September 28, 2018 — after I became the owner. Ground cover has advanced since the summer monsoons.
December 2018. Fighting back the Bermuda grass, which I emphatically do NOT want…

Since these photos, I have had some new earthworks created (shout-out to EcoSense Sustainable Landscapes). This involved the creation of basins with higher ridges, to passively contain and channel what little rainwater comes during the summer monsoon season. The basins are connected to roof runoff rainwater collection (gutters coming!), which will channel the water, via popups, into the three basins:

There are three basins now in the back yard. They’re difficult to see because of the uniform soil color and lack of contrast, but believe me. Highlights include some strategically placed Catalina boulders.
Panorama of the entire back yard.

For foundation trees, I selected several species with the assistance of Tucson Audubon’s fantastic “Habitat at Home” program. I’ve added two velvet mesquites (one front, one back), two Ironwoods (one front, one back), a blue palo verde and a desert willow (both back yard):

Blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida). Masses of yellow flowers will support a frenzy of pollinators.
Ironwood (Olneya tesota). Its super dense, hard wood is beloved by woodcrafters.
Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina). This is the single most valuable tree for the Tucson area, with regard to supporting native food webs. Its leaves feed caterpillars and other insect biomass, that in turn are food for bird nestlings, such as those of Lucy’s warbler (formerly called “mesquite warbler”).
Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), which isn’t a willow at all, but a member of the Bignoniaceae. I love its tubular pink flowers. Nectar and seeds will support many birds and insects.

Perhaps you’re wondering about those little clay lids. Those cover underground ollas (clay pots), which are periodically filled with water to help support establishment of these saplings during the heat of summer, and encourage stable root growth. I learned about this technique for the first time when consulting with EcoSense. I also had some irrigation intalled, for emergency use, and only for establishment. My ultimate goal is little (preferably zero) reliance on municipal water for the landscape, with the exception of gray water.

I couldn’t add many other species now, during the baking heat of summer. Following advice, I chose a few cacti and succulents to get started, because they are dormant and can be planted now:

Clockwise, starting top left: Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens); blue agave (or American agave, century plant; Agave americana); Parry’s (Huachuca) agave (Agave parryi var. huachucensis); Mexican fire barrel cactus (Ferocactus pilosus (stainesii)).

Shout-out to Desert Survivors Nursery, which you should definitely patronize if you live in the area! So, what was my thinking (I hear you asking) in choosing these species?

First, I do have a focus on selecting as many plants native to the Tucson area as possible. After that come plants of the region (Sonoran desert). Very few Tucson-specific agaves are available at the moment. One is Parry’s agave (the smaller one above). My other choice, the blue agave, is native to Santa Cruz county, just to the south of Pima, and mostly in Mexico. I hope to see its giant flower stalk some day, which will be a real boon to pollinators — mostly bats, but moths too!

There are also few local native barrel cacti available now, so I chose an ornamental native to Mexico that I find very attractive — the Mexican fire barrel, lower left. The red spines are pretty cool, don’t you agree? I’ll add some more local barrels and other cacti (chollas, another(!) saguaro, more prickly-pears) to the back yard later.

Finally, I’ve always really enjoyed ocotillo, whose annual red flowers emerge to match the arrival of migrating hummingbirds.

Here’s a photo of baby ocotillo in the ground, along with Parry’s agave, protected from the blaring sun by a bit of shade cloth:

And now for something really fun. To anticipate the coming summer monsoons, and thanks to a local seed donor, I spread some seeds in the bottom of those basins, front and back. Here’s a list, each linked to images if you click on the name. Once the summer monsoons flood through those popups, there should be some nice things emerging that I hope will create an annual seed bed.

Bowlesia incana (hoary Bowlesia); Delphinium scaposum (larkspur); Gaillardia pinnatifida (red dome blanketflower); Penstemon parryi (Parry’s beardtongue); Rafinesquia neomexicana (desert chicory); Setaria macrostachya (large-spike bristlegrass); Thymophylla pentachaeta (golden dogweed, parralena); Xanthisma spinulosum (lacy tansyaster); Yucca baccata (banana yucca); Zinnia peruviana (Peruvian zinnia).

Here’s a photo of the landscaped front yard, which now has new ironwood and velvet mesquite saplings:

You’ll notice another job I managed to start, which is adding wood mulch to the basins. I’m not done with that yet. A good source in Tucson is Tank’s Green Stuff. I got two cubic yards, bulk, small wood mulch from them at $25.00/yard.

Excellent tarp technique that I learned from my Tucson Audubon consultant.
Sealed up for the trek home!
Rear basins mulched! (partly)
Good thing I’m about done, as the sun rises higher on my last morning. Hot!

All right then friends, those are my landscaping adventures to date. Follow my “exploits” here on Medium if you’re interested in future volumes.

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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