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Sunset"Full of the kind of seasoned, practical information that comes from two decades of firsthand experience."
—Sharon Cohoon, Sunset, July 2006
Drawing upon her vast knowledge of perennials and how they perform in the arid Southwest, Mary Irish has produced the definitive guide for gardeners who want to create lush, colorful gardens while keeping artificial irrigation to a minimum. This book will help Southwest gardeners meet the challenge of growing perennials successfully by providing inspired, practical information on how to design dry-climate gardens and an A–Z guide to 156 proven plants. Each entry includes the plant's scientific and common names, ...
Drawing upon her vast knowledge of perennials and how they perform in the arid Southwest, Mary Irish has produced the definitive guide for gardeners who want to create lush, colorful gardens while keeping artificial irrigation to a minimum. This book will help Southwest gardeners meet the challenge of growing perennials successfully by providing inspired, practical information on how to design dry-climate gardens and an A–Z guide to 156 proven plants. Each entry includes the plant's scientific and common names, distribution, cultural needs, drought tolerance, and ornamental characteristics. Written in a clear, reader-friendly style and profusely illustrated with sparkling color photographs, this invaluable volume makes Irish's expertise available to every gardener.
—American Gardener, May/June 2006
I get immensely frustrated with the notion in the Phoenix area that a garden that uses a healthy dose of native and/or desert-adapted species must be planted in a naturalistic style. It certainly does not, and although that is a fashionable and certainly pleasing style, it is only that — one style. Style is a personal statement in your garden with a nod to the peculiarities of the local area, the house or surrounding buildings, and occasionally even the neighborhood. Gorgeous gardens can be created with desert and arid-adapted perennials in a wide range of styles, perhaps in styles yet to be thought of.
Without a doubt, the most widely used style of planting perennials is in a bed that borders a lawn. Usually it is conceived with species that bloom over a long season and not all at once, but occasionally it is put together to form a living prism of plants on either end of the spectrum, with hot shades of red, orange, peach, and yellow giving way to cooler pinks, mauve, blue, lavender, and purple.
Nothing prevents the planning of a great perennial border using the type of plants in this book — it's just that such a border has never been done to my knowledge. And why must it border a lawn? Why not a graveled path or a beautifully laid stone walkway? A long sweep of perennials can look wonderful against a long wall or as an invitation along a walkway, but is probably disastrous when the background is a native preserve or unaltered natural area. Formal, even austere, houses may be most congenial to gardens that glean their interest and excitement from minimalist plantings, using texture and form more than color. Vivid color can light up a monochrome landscape where a judicious use of a few colors creates drama. With a cozy cottage of a house, a riot might look sensational, providing a rumpled, frumpy mass of varying perennials that is comforting in its randomness.
Finally, as you are ready to plunge in and begin selecting plants, making decisions, and setting your choices in the ground, don't forget about time. You must give your perennials and the garden that they inhabit time to grow and develop. Particularly in the deserts, perennials do not spring forth in a giddy burst of growth to make a perfect garden in one season. It routinely takes two or even three seasons before perennials native to deserts and other arid regions are at their peak. Accept the fact that time is required and savor the time it will take to have your perennials fill in and become the garden in your mind.
Never forget that you are tending living things that will grow, change, and die. Static gardens are hideous and boring, dull and pitiful in their sameness and small expectations. Gardens that mutate, shift, and adjust are glorious creations, changing with the seasons, enticing us always to come back and find out what is going on.
I hear the plea all the time — "I just want a nice-looking garden with color year-round." It sounds so simple — and certainly a generous dose of perennials is a great way to meet such a demand — but it takes some planning. In most of the Southwest, the climate is mild enough and the sunshine sufficiently abundant that gardeners, particularly those from more temperate areas, are moved to crave consistent flowering in their gardens.
While year-round color poses no special challenge in most of Southern California, especially outside the Coachella Valley, it requires much more careful planning elsewhere, particularly in the deserts. In whatever part of the region you garden, it will mean devoting your perennial selection to as wide and as diverse a suite of plants from congenial regions of the world as you can to satisfy the hunger for year-round color displays.
In temperate zones, winter is a time of climatic rigor and gardening bondage; flowering is stymied and color in the garden comes from sturdy evergreens. Summer is the glorious release from all of that, providing an abundant blitz of color. But that is far from the case in most of the American Southwest. Summer is not the joyous return of the carefree time of our childhoods and the release of the garden into extravagant growth and glory. Summers in the low elevations of the Southwest are hot, in many areas astoundingly so, dry, and long lasting. Along the eastern margin of the region, summers are less severe and summer-flowering species are much more abundant.
Look carefully at the bloom times for the perennials in this book when making selections; however, a few general guidelines may help. In the Sonoran Desert, an area of mild winters, winter and summer rainfall, and intensely hot summers, most perennials flower in winter or spring and nearly all are finished flowering by June. If your garden is dominated by Sonoran Desert natives, your chances of summer flowering from your perennials is drastically reduced; in fact, it is sunk, with desert senna (Senna covesii) the glorious exception. A few species repeat bloom in the fall, and a few others will continue through the summer if given extra water. Some of the species typical of this flora include desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), and some penstemons (Penstemon parryi, P. eatonii).
If your garden consists of chiefly Chihuahuan or West Texas natives, then your winter and early spring garden will be particularly lean in color from perennials. Species from the Chihuahuan deserts, and especially those that range into the Edwards Plateau region of Texas, offer the most choices for summer- and fall-flowering plants. This is a large region, but it has a more consistent rainfall pattern through the year, with assurance of at least some summer rainfall, cool winters with a moderate number of freezing nights but none with truly severe temperatures, and moderately hot summers that do not have the duration or extremes of the other areas. Here salvias (Salvia spp.), damianita (Chysactinia mexicana), pavonia (Pavonia lasiopetala), some penstemons (Penstemon baccharifolius, P. triflorus), and mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) offer reliable summer and fall flowering.
Species native to the Mojave Desert and most of the Southern California deserts grow in areas with colder, but still relatively mild, winters, receive almost all their rain in the winter, and endure intensely hot summers. These species also tend to be winter and spring flowering. At home here are chuparosa (Justicia californica), bladder pod (Salazaria mexicana), and most of the cool season annuals that we think of as wildflowers. Only a few of these species will bloom longer or out of season in this region.
Species that range into the California chaparral — the dry hills that block the Pacific Ocean from the deserts — tend to be extremely sensitive both to cold and to regular summer watering. Among these are white sage (Salvia apiana) and green brittlebush (Encelia frutescens).
In the warmest parts of the region, gardeners can reach into the tropics for summer-flowering choices. Yellowbells (Tecoma stans), cigar plant (Cuphea ignea), trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis), and moss verbena (Glandularia pulchella) anchor summer-flowering gardens in these zones.
In seeking year-round color for a perennial garden, remember that not all color is derived from the bloom. Leaf colors, whether variegated in shades of cream, white, or yellow, or simply the myriad shades of green, gray, and white, can carry a bed through a season as well. The striking deep green of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia), or desert plumbago (Plumbago scandens), or the soft billowing gray of mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana) or wormwood (Artemisia arborescens) can be just as pleasing as a huge splash of color.
Throughout much of the Southwest various succulents grow naturally in and among the native perennials, shrubs, and trees. Cacti find their homes next to brittlebush or deer vetch (Lotus rigidus), agaves and yuccas are intermingled with showy mirabilis (Mirabilis multiflora) or globemallow. This blending of such disparate forms and textures also can be copied in gardens in the region. The rigid forms, crisp textures, colorful leaves and stems, and often generous flowering of most succulents, not to mention their endurance of dry soils and heat, can provide a burst of interest in any perennial garden.
The first step in blending succulents with perennials is to understand the cultural requirements of the particular species you want to use. While all succulents by their nature are adapted to dry soils in arid climates, they vary greatly in their acceptance of garden conditions.
Most agaves, yuccas, dasylirions, and nolinas grow naturally in areas with more rainfall than the deserts of Phoenix or Southern California. Therefore, they have no difficulty adapting to the seemingly generous watering schedule for perennials in these regions. In areas with steadier summer rainfall, most of these desert species thrive on natural rainfall with only intermittent supplemental watering.
Cacti from the tropics and most prickly pears are tolerant of much more water than their relatives from the harsh deserts of southern Arizona and Baja California. South American cacti are even more tolerant, particularly the handsome, summer-flowering members of the genus Echinopsis.
Aloes are enjoyed throughout the warmer parts of the region for their winter flowering and attractive variety of leaf color and shape. The textural variety of sansevierias, dudleyas, and shrubby succulent euphorbias offers countless opportunities in gardens with warm winters.
All of these species want spectacular drainage, but then so do most of the perennials that thrive in this region. And as a rule, succulents are indifferent to the type of soil as long as such drainage is provided.
Shade may seem an odd specification for succulents, but in the hottest deserts of the Southwest, the sun's intensity is formidable and almost all succulents do best with at least a light or high, filtered shade. Many of these types of plants, particularly aloes and sansevieria, are unrivaled for their beauty in dry shady gardens.
Do not be afraid to experiment. Unless a species is rare and difficult to find or you value it above all plants in your garden, try it and see how it works. Great successes often come from the most unlikely pairings.
Undoubtedly the most difficult plants to put into mixed perennial plantings are those that have a strong and obligatory dormancy like boojum (Fouquieria columnaris) or the winter-dormant adeniums. They require special conditions that can make it arduous to find a workable combination.
Succulents in general do not appreciate consistently wet roots, and mixing them with perennials means noting not only their general watering requirements, but also the style with which you are watering. Few succulents tolerate the rainshower effect of a sprinkler or other overhead watering system. It is usually too much water, too frequently applied. Even when using soaker hoses or point emitter drip systems, it is best to place succulents a small distance from the water source. Roots will find what they need near these kinds of watering systems.