Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
October, 2008
Regional Report

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Observe plant combinations and sites in nature to duplicate in your landscape.

Observing Mother Nature in the Chiracahua Mountains

This is Part 2 of my report on choosing landscape plants for the Chiricahua Mountains region at Arizona's southern border. Wherever you might live and garden, copying Mother Nature is an entertaining, instructive, and practical method to create landscape design vignettes.

Hike or drive out into the country and observe what plants are naturally growing where, and in what combination. It is a helpful learning exercise to understand what plants look well together and the growing conditions they prefer. Take notes or photos, including the plants' surrounding conditions (at the base of boulders, on a north- or south-facing slope, in a crevice with minimal soil, morning sun, afternoon shade, extra moisture near a wash or rock wall, along disturbed roadsides). Such observations can stimulate ideas or save you from costly mistakes.

Chiricahua Plant Combinations
For example, hiking creek-side in the Chiracahuas beneath the shade of oak and juniper trees, I saw oversized clumps of four o'clock (Mirabilis longiflora) paired with nearby angel's trumpet (Datura innoxia). Masses of white, fragrant flowers from both species at dusk encouraged me to linger. Four o'clock foliage was deep green and lush, about 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide. They seemed to be growing in more shade than the angel's trumpet, which also grows in full sun in the low desert. Caveat: Also called sacred datura, this plant is toxic and sometimes considered weedy or invasive. Knowing that my landscape doesn't provide similar shade or moisture, I also consulted Summer Forbs of Southeastern Arizona. It states: "Mirabilis longiflora prefers rich soils in partly wooded areas." Okay, knowing those characteristics, I can choose to admire this combo from Mother Nature, but not reproduce it.

Another plant grouping I admired appeared along a path skirting a rock wall and numerous boulders at about 7500 feet. The location benefited from extra moisture accumulating around the base of the boulders after rain, warmth retained by the rock, shade from intense afternoon sun, and likely some protection from wind, creating an effective microclimate. (A microclimate is a specialized pocket of growing conditions). There were about 10 species growing within 10 feet of each other. I particularly liked the look of this threesome:

Deergrass. I'm not sure which bunchgrass species this was, but their attractive wispy seedheads added delicate movement to the scene. It may have been Muhlenbergia emersleyi or M. rigens. Grasses of Southeastern Arizona states: "Although both of these grasses are rather showy, neither is particularly palatable." Such information from references can help you choose plants less likely to be browsed by critters.

Scruffy prairie clover or whiteflower prairie clover (Dalea albiflora). Tiny white flowers cluster around a cylindrical cone, starting at the base and moving upward through the warm-season bloom period. Many flower spikes appear on a single plant. This native perennial is a nectar source for butterflies and a larval host for dogface butterfly.

Golden crownbeard, butter daisy (Vebesina encelioides). Displaying deep green foliage covered with yellow, daisy-like flowers, this plant seemed to be growing everywhere I visited in Cochise County, always abuzz with pollinators. One reference notes that it has weedy or invasive tendencies, but there are many LYD (little yellow daisy) plants that could substitute for similar color.

My next report will examine microclimates and other plants for Chiricahua Mountains area landscapes.

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