Desert Design

Summer monsoon rains help cool the desert during July.

When I tell people I’m headed for the desert Southwest in July, people look at me like I have a screw loose.  Let me mention that I am not headed for Phoenix.

The desert is hot in summer, and particularly hot and dry in June.  However, in July, the monsoon season arrives bringing with it clouds, cooler temperatures, and afternoon rain.  My travel companion and friend, Charles Mann (the noted garden writer and photographer) is shown here in White Pocket with a rain storm behind him.   This is the desert in July.  Scattered thunderstorms.  

Desert design is definitely xeric.   However, when plants are installed in summer in New Mexico or Arizona, they are likely to get some natural rainfall.   For us to mimic the xeric landscape here in Spokane, we must water/irrigate.   God plants seedlings and gets them to live on “natural” water, but He is willing to plant 2000 or more to get a single survivor.  When you purchase plants at a nursery, you want better odds. So water.   If you really want to get a handle on the role of rain and water in the desert, read Craig Child’s Secret Knowledge of Water.  That’s a very entertaining book and full of information.

This photo of White Pocket emphasizes contour lines in the landscape. This is a key design element, regardless of climate.

Desert design is often simplified, pure.   For example, this photo of White Pocket shows the effective use of contour lines in the landscape to define areas and add interest.   The same way that contours help this landscape appearance, well shaped beds with good edging or edging plants can provide definition for the home garden.

Repetition is also a principle that works equally well in desert design and in the home garden.   Here, the repetition of the ponds makes this landscape photo more interesting.   In the home garden, we repeat features, plants and containers in that same way.  

Repetition is important in garden design, whether it is repetition of plant material or these temporary pools after a rain.

Many of the plants used in the gardens of the desert are identical to ones we sell and use here.  Annuals in particular look familiar.   This container with Papyrus and Sweet Potato Vine is identical to ones that are put together here at the nursery.  We use these same plants seen in the town square of Santa Fe.  The combination of Centranthus ruber with Euphorbia is familiar, too.  And shown is a planter with ‘Bubblegum Pink’ petunia with Verbena bonariensis…both are Tower favorites.

Petunia ‘Bubblegum Pink’ and Verbena bonariensis…popular in both the Northwest and
Southwest.

Papyrus and sweet potato on the plaza in Santa Fe. Just like we use here in Spokane.

Finally, to address that loose screw, let me mention that when I photographed sunrise at the north rim of the Grand Canyon it was 47 degrees, and at 2 in the afternoon at a wildflower festival at Cedar Breaks National Monument (elev. 10,500′) it was 64 degrees.   If you know the desert, you know where to go when you visit, summer or winter.  At Cedar Breaks we find the Colorado state flower in a white form:   Aquilegia caerulea.

The state flower of Colorado, aquilegia caerulea, in a white form found at Cedar Breaks National Monument.