In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2007
Regional Report

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Unsheared feathery senna adds sunny yellow blooms to the late winter landscape.

Copy Nature's Fuss-Free Gardening

If you've been observing what happened to landscape plants after the low desert's unusually hard January freeze, you may have noticed that most overly pruned plants suffered more damage than plants that had been allowed to grow into their natural shapes. As you start planning to replace frost-damaged plants this spring, consider how Mother Nature tends her plants and save yourself labor, not to mention the cost of replacement, when we next get hit with such extreme cold!

Long branches with plenty of foliage help insulate a plant's interior from extreme cold; even if the outer fringe of leaves is damaged, the plant will likely survive. On the other hand, plants sheared by humans into flat-topped crewcuts and gigantic bowling balls are brown and crunchy right now. Unpruned plants are already leafing out and even blooming if February is their normal flowering period.

Feathery cassia is a good example of this. A "volunteer" feathery cassia that popped up in my backyard last year has started to flower, while the flat-tops regularly whacked by the HOA are barren sticks, offering nothing attractive to look at.

My friend Tyler Storey, who is a gardening and landscaping coach, showed me how copying Mother Nature worked to great effect in his yard. Beneath an ironwood tree, he had interplanted golden barrel cacti, agave, and wildflowers. They all survived the freeze protected by the tree's canopy, which acted as a frost cover to trap heat radiating from the ground after sunset. His desert bluebells and toadflax have started to bloom. The same agave species planted elsewhere in the landscape, without benefit of a tree canopy, suffered frost damage.

If you hike through the desert, you'll see many examples of smaller plants clustered beneath native trees such as ironwood, palo verde, and mesquite. Even the mighty saguaro cacti start their young lives in the protection of these "nurse" plants, growing up through the branches as they mature, perhaps outliving the tree. Recreate similar planting designs in your landscape. In addition to frost protection, tree canopies provide filtered light or shade during summer, welcomed by understory plants and humans alike.


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