Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2008
Regional Report

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White flower clusters of little-leaf cordia provide interest in a sustainable landscape.

Sustainable Landscapes

A "sustainable" or "enduring" landscape is designed to live through periods of drought after root systems have established. Sustainable landscapes can survive mainly on rainfall, with an occasional deep watering during lengthy dry spells to keep plants looking their best. The key to sustainability is choosing well-adapted plants for each location. Landscaping professionals refer to this concept as the "Right Plant for the Right Place."

A Better Plan
It is tempting to fill a nursery cart with whatever catches the eye, and then try to make those impulse purchases fit in the landscape when we return home. I have more than one such impulse purchase in my garden! However, it is a better plan to determine in advance what function plants will perform in your landscape and choose accordingly. Do you need shade from the western sun, herbs near the kitchen door, fragrance by the patio, screening for an unattractive view, food sources to draw native birds, or play areas for kids and pets? Decide which plants will fulfill these needs.

Next, determine what your landscape has to offer plants in the way of sun exposure and space. It is essential to select plants that will take the sun (or lack thereof) that varied locations in your landscape receive. Make a simple sketch of your existing landscape, and mark sun exposures in the different seasons. Remember that the angle of the sun will change during the year, influencing how much sunlight plants receive. For example, the patio area near my front door is a northern exposure. In winter, when the sun is lower on the horizon, it receives full shade; in summer, when the sun is directly overhead, this same area is blasted with direct sun.

Also consider reflected heat near hardscape and stucco walls. These planting spots can be much hotter than other areas. Some plant references and nursery signs will label plants that withstand reflected heat. They tend to be the toughest desert survivors and good choices for a sustainable landscape.

Next, determine how much space each planting area offers, both vertically and horizontally. Watch out for roof eaves, utility wires, swimming pools, play areas, walkways, roadway lines of sight, and the neighbors' property lines. Choose plants that won't outgrow their allotted space when mature. This saves you (or your landscaper) time spent trimming to keep overly large specimens in bounds.

Plants that are appropriately sized contribute to sustainability in a number of ways. It is much better for a plant's long-term health not to endure frequent pruning. A pruned plant is suddenly "starved" when its foliage is removed and photosynthesizing capability is reduced. The plant's reaction: immediately put out a flush of new growth. New growth requires more water! Without sufficient moisture, the plant is stressed, and a stressed plant is a target for pests and diseases, which may require intervention on your part. Also, stressed plants tend to look unattractive, as leaves turn yellow, then brown, then drop; plus flowering may be reduced.

Sustainable landscapes make sense on many levels. Not only are they easy on the environment -- requiring less water and few, if any, fertilizer and pesticide applications -- they are also easy on the homeowner -- requiring less time and money. And who wouldn't like more time and money?!

In my next report I'll include a list of plants well suited for low-maintenance, sustainable landscaping.

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