Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
April, 2006
Regional Report

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Angelita daisy fills in to act as an effective ground cover.

How Low Can You Grow?

A board member from my neighborhood homeowner's association mentioned there was a plan for gradual plant replacement. I replied that we should be replacing oversized plants with species whose mature size would fit the space. This is standard operating procedure for plant nerds like myself, but it was a new concept for him, so I took the opportunity to explain.

My community's common areas were originally planted with species that are too large for the space they occupy. For example, areas where plants must be no higher than 3 or 4 feet tall (for security reasons or roadway line-of-sight) have shrubs that mature at 6 feet or more. There are wickedly thorned bougainvilleas planted in front of utility boxes and garage doors. Homeowners are stabbed if they need to throw a circuit breaker switch, and autos would be routinely scratched if the bougainvilleas were allowed to grow their normal 15-foot sprawling branches. Instead, everything is whacked back regularly and never gets a chance to bloom. Bottom growth is woody and unattractive, while a silly little fringe of topgrowth resembles a crew cut.

It's not healthy for plants to endure constant pruning, so they tend to die out over time. Of course, when this practice is multiplied hundreds of times throughout a development, the cost of labor for all that trimming, as well as plant replacement, becomes prohibitive. I shudder when I look at our HOA's annual landscape expenses!

I suggested to the board member that as we replace dead plants, we select species that grow no taller or wider than the space they occupy. I gave him a copy of Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert: Guide to Growing More than 200 Low-Water-Use Plants, published by the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. When my neighborhood was planted in the late 1980s, the available plant palette wasn't so extensive. But now there are hundreds of colorful, low-maintenance, water-thrifty plants from which to choose. There's a plant to suit just about any location and requirement. This publication includes plant sizes, making it a snap to make smart selections for the available space.

Here are some of my favorite choices for low-growing, colorful ground covers, perennials, and succulents. They'd fit nicely in some of the small spaces mentioned above without constant intervention in the form of severe pruning. Their flowers would attract birds and butterflies. They aren't lying in wait with wicked thorns. Seems like a win-win for all concerned!

Low-Growers for Sun
Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana)
Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
Lantana sp.
Verbena sp.

Low-Growers for Sun or Partial Shade
Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris (formerly Hymenoxys) acaulis)
Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
Dawe's aloe (Aloe dawei)
Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri)
Partridge breast aloe (Aloe variegata)
Penstemon sp.
Saltillo primrose (Oenothera stubbei)
Slipper flower (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)
Turfed evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa)

Low-Growers for Sun or Full Shade
Elephant's food (Portularcaria afra)
Yellow dot (Wedelia trilobata)

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