Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2008
Regional Report

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Hot pink flowers of Lemmon's sage stand out amongst other plants.

Using Microclimates in the Landscape

This is the third and final report on choosing plants for Chiricahua Mountains area landscapes. However, the basic concept of planting within microclimates may help you better understand choosing and siting plants wherever you live and garden.

First, figure out what microclimates exist in your landscape. A microclimate is a specialized pocket of growing conditions, such as an area next to a wall that retains heat, filtered light beneath a tree's canopy, or an area underneath roof eaves that receives extra moisture from rain or protection from wind. You can create microclimates by copying nature. For example, a grouping of boulders can retain heat, provide shade, and collect water at its base. Trees provide protective canopies; rainwater harvesting swales direct and retain moisture on your property.

For example, if you want to try a plant that is marginally cold tolerant for your site, the concept of microclimates comes in handy. Native Agave parryi var. huachucensis is cold hardy to 12 to 15 degrees F. If your average minimum cold temperature drops to 0 degrees, try planting this agave in a spot that retains heat, such as tucked amongst boulders in sun, as agaves often grow in nature. (Planting an agave that is cold hardy to your minimums is a better way to go, although sometimes we fall in love with a plant that isn't "perfect" for our conditions. Then we can try to enhance the likelihood of its survival with an appropriate microclimate.)

Keeping rainwater on your property during the summer monsoons offers you the opportunity for fabulous late summer/early fall color. I was amazed at the wildflowers blooming in the Chiricahua National Monument after the summer monsoons. I hiked a trail that rose from about 6600 to 7300 feet and my head was swiveling like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, trying to keep up with all the color. Following are just a few of the plants I spotted that could work in a landscape situation.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pringlei or A. pungens). I love the smooth rusty-red bark of this evergreen. In one area, I noticed a clambering vine covering the ground beneath manzanita. It jogged my memory of a photo of Indian root (pipe flower, Aristolochia watsoni) in Summer Forbs of Southeastern Arizona. This native trailing vine has unusual arrowhead-shaped leaves that may have a similar reddish-brown color as manzanita bark. I'd like to see the two paired for an eye-catching combo, although finding Indian root for sale might be difficult. Another option would be an oversized container in the same color as the bark, filled with unfussy cacti or succulents.

Lemmon's sage (Salvia lemmoni). Deep pinkish-rose flowers jumped out along the trail, and looked magnificent paired against white flowers, including fleabane and some type of pussy toes. Many salvias need protection from hot afternoon sun or slightly cooler, moister conditions. Their blossoms lure hummingbirds.

Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa). The common name refers to its whitish-pink, feathery seed heads that cover the shrub from summer to fall. This drought-tolerant native grows over a wide elevation range of 3000 to 8000 feet. Apache plume is a fast grower, reaching 3 to 8 feet tall and wide and is cold-hardy to minus 30 degrees. It is good for wildlife, erosion control, and screening.

Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea spp.). The same trail offered the orange flowers of globe mallow, an incredibly vigorous perennial that also thrives in the low desert. The native is orange, but many varieties are now available in pink, white, red, and lavender. 'Papago Pink' is cold hardy to minus 10 degrees.

Penstemon (P. barbatus, P. pinifolius, P. linarioides). Penstemon are one of my favorite perennial wildflowers, and wherever you garden, there should be a penstemon or two that will thrive. I spotted these species blooming here and there throughout the Chiracahuas. When not in flower, their low-growing foliage doubles as an attractive green ground cover. Penstemon are usually easy to start from scattered seeds, they self-sow, and hummingbirds love the flowers.

For trees, natives that have adapted over eons to local growing conditions is a good starting point. Consider alligator juniper and oaks, including Arizona white, emory, Mexican blue and silverleaf.

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