In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2005
Regional Report

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Blue euphorbia blooms with unusual chartreuse flowers.

Making Plant Wish Lists

Spring plant sales are happening at botanical gardens, nurseries are brimming with fresh stock, and gardeners are eager to dig their trowels into the warming soil. But what to plant? Possibilities abound and may even seem a bit overwhelming. A bit of time spent planning will help you make good choices that will thrive in your yard.

I jot down a list of likely candidates before I head out on a plant-buying excursion. It doesn't prevent all impulse buys. My head still twirls about like Linda Blair in The Exorcist when I'm at the Desert Botanical Garden plant sale in Phoenix or the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior. Hundreds of desert-adapted species, many of which can't readily be found elsewhere, spread out before plant buyers like a delicious smorgasboard! Two basic design tips help narrow the choices.

Determine Sun Exposure
How much sun hits each area in your yard? Does a particular site receive full sun year round? Is it an eastern exposure with morning sun and afternoon shade? Or a southern or western exposure that receives afternoon sun, which can be particularly intense during summer? Maybe there's filtered light beneath a tree's canopy, or harsh reflected light from walls or driveways. What about northern exposures near buildings, which are in full shade during winter, but may receive direct sun during summer? It helps to make a sketch of your landscape with the sun exposures. As the sun's angle changes during the seasons, track how that affects the exposure in different areas of your yard.

Determine Available Space
How much space does a plant have to grow to its mature size in the spot you'd like to plant it? Think in three dimensions: width, depth and height. Go outside and look overhead. Visualize a particular space filled with a spreading plant. Make sure towering tree canopies won't bump into utility wires or eaves or drape across the neighbor's fence. Many desert plants have sharp thorns, spines, or spiky foliage. If planted near sidewalks or areas that people and pets use frequently, these poor plants tend to get pruned back, which ruins their spectacular appearance.

After you've figured out sun exposures and available space, match them with the growing requirements of plants you are interested in. Check desert reference books and nursery tags for this information. Visit botanical and demonstration gardens to see mature plants in natural settings to get an idea of what they look like.

Realize that the scraggly looking "sticks" you see in 1- or 5-gallon nursery pots will grow much larger! Devoting time to planning will help you ensure healthier, longer-lived plants that take less of your precious time for maintenance.


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