In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2012
Regional Report

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This palo verde tree was sited to create a filtered light planting area so the homeowners could enjoy color near the patio, but its branches do not not interfere with driveway access to the backyard.

Xeriscape Part III: Plant Selection Basics

Xeriscape design includes a set of seven principles to guide you in the creation and long-term maintenance of a colorful, earth-friendly landscape that suits your unique needs. Previous reports covered design, site analysis, and whether to install turf. This report covers the basics of plant selection.

An adult plant buyer in a nursery is akin to the proverbial kid in a candy store. It seems difficult to pass up showy blooms, exotic silhouettes, or just something you've not seen before. Into the cart they all go!

However, when you arrive home in a vehicle brimming with such choices, they may not be the best assortment for your needs. It's okay to play with a few experiments, but impulse as your primary selection mode will result in wasted time and money. Before you head out to the nursery or botanical garden plant sale, create a list of plants suited to your needs and your site. In the horticultural field, this smart practice is known as "right plant for the right place."

Stick primarily with native or desert-adapted plants. They create fewer maintenance hassles and are less likely to require replacement due to early death! Native or desert plants have adapted to not only tolerate, but thrive, in intense sun, alkaline soil, and low rainfall. Desert temperature extremes that swing from baking hot to freezing cold in limited time don't disturb them. Native plants are less stressed in our challenging growing conditions. In turn, these plants are less likely to suffer from pest and disease problems. (Pests seek out stressed plants.) Well-adapted plants require less water and seldom, if ever, need fertilizer. Equally important, native plants provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for native and migrating creatures that have adapted their life cycles over the ages to specific plant species.

Right Plant for the Right Place
Review your site analysis and design wish lists for basic types of plants required and then research which species best suit your needs. First, determine how much space you have for each plant to grow, both horizontally and vertically. (Be especially careful about planting beneath utility wires.) Check out references and plant descriptions to determine how big the mature plant will be. Those often unimpressive looking sticks in the one-gallon pots grow quickly once in the ground, so choose plants based on their mature size and site them appropriately. This is especially important with trees, which can become hazards if poorly sited. This will save you from regularly pruning just to keep them from encroaching where they don't belong. Eliminating unnecessary pruning saves time, expense, and green waste sent to the landfill.

While researching mature plant sizes, also make note of each plant's preferred sun exposure and cold hardiness. Most native and desert-adapted plants will take full sun, but some do better with filtered light or afternoon shade. Others may have originated in warmer deserts that don't get freezing temperatures. If you live in an area that regularly freezes, avoid cold-tender plants that will need protection unless you are able to plant them in a warmer microclimate, such as near a block wall that retains heat.

Mature size, sun exposure, and cold hardiness are the basic characteristics to check out during plant selection. My next report will cover other characteristics to help you choose among the hundreds of beautiful desert species awaiting you at the nursery.


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