In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2006
Regional Report

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A barrel cactus grows in a microclimate created by surrounding boulders.

Creating a Rock Garden

I was inspired by a recent stroll around the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix to renovate my rock garden. Years ago I had piled native soil dug from other planting areas to build up a small, three-tiered rock garden in a corner next to the perimeter block wall. I pushed and pulled and prodded large rocks and small boulders into place to define the levels and hold back the soil.

Next, I went a little goofy at the DBG plant sale, buying an overabundance of cacti and other succulents. I knew what was going to happen but I just couldn't limit myself. Have you been to one of their sales? Such abundance! For plant addicts, it's like going to the grocery store when you're hungry. The cart just fills up and you get home with a trunk full of stuff that you don't remember buying. So, in later years, I looked the other way as some of my impulse buys wildly outgrew the space.

Periodically, I pulled out bigger, more wicked plants so I could step over the tiers to weed. At some point, a pink globe mallow wildflower reseeded there, and within a few years its offspring completely covered the tiers. It looked glorious in spring, when a cloud of pink rose up in the corner, but the original plants couldn't handle all that shade cover.

Turning Over a New Leaf
After my recent visit to the DBG, I decided my rock garden needed sprucing up, so pulled some of those globe mallows. (It hurt to do it. I'm a terrible thinner.) I left a couple next to the wall to help reduce heat reflection. Globe mallow is an incredibly tough plant. I never water mine and yet they continue to thrive. And we haven't had a drop of rain in Phoenix in over 140 days! (Although as I write this, the forecasters are predicting rain for the weekend, and gardeners have crossed fingers.)

Next, I removed all of the remaining plants and set them aside in the shade temporarily. I used a soil fork to loosen the soil for a new round of planting and added a few more rocks to create shady microclimates for plants that don't take full summer sun. I replanted small sections of some of the plants and I'll give the others away.

The Desert Botanical Garden showcases a variety of rock gardens. Some are filled with specific genera. I like the beautifully constructed boulder garden in the wildflower area, with cacti situated in protected microclimates just like they grow in nature. These nooks collect extra drops of rain and provide shade.

Public gardens are wonderful places to gather ideas and inspiration for projects in your landscape. Head out to a garden near you this spring. It's a good time to visit while wildflowers are in bloom and plant sales are taking place. I know that's where I'll be, loading up a cart with new choices for my rock garden. I'm taking a list this time, and my mantra is "Do Not Overbuy, Do Not Overbuy."


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