By Kathleen Ferris
MYTH 1: A desert garden means replacing grass with ugly gravel.
Plants, not gravel, dominate the loveliest desert gardens. Gravel is a low-maintenance ground cover, or rock mulch, that reduces evaporation and cuts down on weeds and dust. Gardeners can get the same conveniences with decomposed granite. Unlike the traditional chunky rocks, this gravel is ground to less than a ¼-inch size and packs down so it is easy to walk on. It comes in a variety of colors and can be screened to give it a cleaner, more manicured look. Stone suppliers also offer smaller sized “rip rap”, which are stones cut in flat and uneven shapes that look more like natural desert.
MYTH 2: A desert garden doesn’t give kids and dogs a soft, shady place to play.
Plant more low-water-use trees in strategic parts of the garden to offer plenty of shade to your house, pets, children and guests. Keep a small grassy play area close to the house where it can be most enjoyed. The outer edge of the yard can ease out of turf, but still offer water-efficient trees, plants, vines and ground cover safe for children and animals. Shade structures, flagstone paths, walk-able crushed gravel, and benches can help to entice visitors and kids into this area of the yard. AMWUA has a searchable database of more than 200 desert plants that thrive in the Valley and tips for maintaining a healthy lawn with minimal water.
MYTH 3: A desert garden doesn’t have showy, fragrant blossoms.
Plants with fragrant blooms that attract humming birds and surprise your visitors can thrive in desert gardens. Nurseries offer desert-adapted plants from around the world. Scented flowers grow on water-efficient plants, such as Lady Banks roses, and there are desert plants and trees with fragrant stems and leaves, such as salvias and sweet acacia trees. Valley cities offer free water-efficient gardening classes. You’ll find a list of these classes at AMWUA.org every fall and spring to help homeowners create showy, blooming yards for every season.
MYTH 4: A desert garden is expensive to create.
Think of each section of your yard as a room. Plan the groundcover as your carpet, the vines as your window dressings, your trees, bushes and cacti as furniture. Plant one room each spring and fall. Some plants will produce offspring to transplant, so each room grows a little less expensive.
You don’t have to buy big. A University of Arizona study shows that with the same care a 5-gallon tree and a 15-gallon tree can reach the same height after five years. Many Valley cities will pay homeowners to replace grass with a desert garden.
MYTH 5: A desert garden saves water and money.
Studies show that many homeowners over-water desert plants and trees. It’s an alert desert gardener, not a desert garden, that saves water and money. If the gardener sets the automatic watering timer based on the maturity of the plants, the time of year, and the weather, a homeowner can reduce water use by 50 percent to 70 percent over grass. That kind of reduction can help homeowners save money and cities save drinking water for your tap. AMWUA offers a guide to help you design, install and maintain a desert garden that will fit your home and family.
For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.