Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
October, 2008
Regional Report

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White prairie clover in this Cochise County, Arizona, garden attracts pollinators.

Chiricahua Mountain Plants Part 1

A gardener from the Chiricahua Mountains, in southern Arizona near the Mexican border, inquired recently what plants would survive in her landscape, as well as protect other plants from hungry critters. Always ready to seize any excuse for a weekend road trip, I headed south for on-site plant investigation in the stunningly wild Chiricahuas.

For those unfamiliar with the area, four different growing communities converge here, including Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert, Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. They blend to create one of the most biologically diverse spots in the U.S. At Chiricahua National Monument, a helpful Visitor Center staffer gave me a photocopy of Checklist of Vascular Plants of Chiricahua National Monument that had been compiled by their botanists. It lists 740 species and subspecies (taxa) found in the Monument and states there are 1,260 taxa in the entire Chiricahua Range. Thus, on a positive note for gardeners, if at first you don't succeed, there are many more options to try!

Plant List
Narrow those 1,260 options by downloading Low-Water Plants for Cochise County from Cooperative Extension at: It lists reliable landscape plants that are readily available in nurseries. Of course, in such a large county encompassing significant elevation change and challenging growing conditions, not all plants listed will thrive in all landscapes. However, many plants on the list were well known to me as a low-desert gardener, so they likely survive a range of conditions. The Web site also offers a shortened version of No-Water Plant List, covering tough species that survive on little or no supplemental water once established.

Plant Protection
Although an Internet search will turn up numerous suggestions for critter-resistent plants, if hungry enough, creatures will try anything. The only reliable solution is to protect plants until they establish with a barrier, such as a wire cage or fence. Surrounding an entire property with a fence, in addition to being expensive, isn't a wildlife-friendly solution, as it inhibits the natural travel corridors animals use to migrate and find food and mates. This is becoming a severe problem in once-wild areas when humans break up tracts of land into development-size packages and cut off animals' traditional routes.

A partial solution to allowing outdoor living/gardening that still remains wildlife friendly is to surround a limited area around the home with a fence or low wall of some sort, depending on your site, and leave the bulk of the property open and natural. A landscape architect I know did this, adding flowering native plants on the interior to feed birds and butterflies. The family often sits quietly on the interior side, observing all sorts of larger creature activity on the exterior. This design also keeps their family dogs on their side of the fence without confronting wild creatures.

As for preventing nibbling with a barrier of protective plants surrounding more vulnerable plants, I lump the choices into two broad categories: spiky, thorny plants, or strongly aromatic plants. I think the spiky notion is sometimes more of a deterrent in the minds of humans than to creatures, since prickly pear cacti are a major food source for javelina, bunnies gnaw saguaro oblivious to the spines, birds nimbly nest in the midst of cholla cacti, and so on! However, in the Chiracahuas, surrounding herbaceous plants with native agave, beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), sotol or desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri), and yucca might have benefit. Plus, the form of these plants creates structure and interest in your landscape design.

For intense scents that may discourage browsing, consider wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana), a native chaparral plant with sage-like aroma. It may deter bunnies, although it is said to be foraged by larger mammals such as deer and bighorn sheep. There are many wormwood varieties to try. True sage plants (Salvia spp.) are aromatic and don't seem to be browsed, and their flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. Salvia lemonnii is a native sage with deep pinkish rose flowers that blend beautifully with other flowering perennials.

Because of the diversity of growing conditions, the advice I received while chatting with local plant people in the Chiricahuas was basically "trial and error based on individual microclimates." That is good advice wherever in the world one gardens. My next two reports will cover some specific plant ideas I observed on my excursion to this unique high-elevation region of the Southwest.

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