What Planet Have I Landed On?

Strangely shaped cactus

That was my first thought when I came out to Arizona as a young bride over 23 years ago.  Brown mountains, strangely shaped cactus and words like ‘javelina’, ‘dust devil’, ‘haboob’ and ‘gila monster’ that meant nothing to me were soon to become part of my new world.

Southern California

I grew up in Southern California.  I loved the beaches, the beautiful tall mountains, the rolling hills and the trees.  I had spent two years attending college in California and my dorm room had a view of the ocean and I could see the Channel Islands on a clear day.  My entire family lived in California and I was sure that I would never leave.  But, then fate intervened….I fell in love with an Arizonan.

Before I knew it, I was married and driving across the desert to Arizona.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I thought Arizona was pretty in kind of a stark, prickly way.  I mean, who doesn’t like how cool Saguaro cacti look?  But, I was homesick for the bright and dark green colors that had been a part of the landscape I had grown up in.  

What Planet Have I Landed On?

There were trees, but not as many as I was used to.  Areas of grass were more limited and were bordered by concrete curbing.  The rest of the ground was covered by small rocks, called gravel which came in different kinds of colors.  And people placed large boulders in the landscape on purpose.

Strangely shaped cactus

Strangely shaped cactus

Once my eyes had adjusted, I realized that the desert was quite green.  But the green colors were much more subtle with hues of gray and blue mixed in.  Coming from an area with dark green plants had made me temporarily blind to the green beauty of the desert.

My oldest daughter in our backyard

My oldest daughter in our backyard – 1992

I had dabbled a bit in gardening in California while growing up, but nothing serious.  What made me a gardener was the purchase of our first house in Phoenix.  We bought a home with a large yard which included 3 mature citrus trees, 3 roses and 10 California Fan Palms and I had no idea what I was doing.

My second oldest daughter

My second oldest daughter and friend playing in the irrigation water as DH watches. Berms along the edges keep the water from running out into the street. 

Even more interesting and this is an Arizona thing – our front and backyard was irrigated by flood irrigation.  We would open a valve in the backyard and water would fill the backyard to a depth of about 4″ high and then flow into the front yard.  My children loved playing in the water, especially in the summer.  I loved the price – only $56 for an entire year back in the 90’s.

My neighbor's garden

My neighbor’s garden.

With my newly inherited garden, I wanted to learn all I could and bought gardening books only to learn that they really did not apply to gardens in the desert.  For example, just because a book, (written and published on the east coast), says that a particular plant can be grown in zone 9, does not mean it can survive the heat of our summers.  I learned the hard way.  So, I decided to go to our local library and read all I could on desert gardening.  After that, I was hooked.  I took out some grass and planted a perennial garden in the front and also planted 40 roses as well.

My thirst for knowledge did not end and I was at a crossroads in terms of deciding what I wanted to do in terms of a career.  I had two years of college under my belt, but needed to figure out what to major in.  It was then that I decided to get my degree in Horticulture.  I have never looked back and absolutely love what I get to do.  And the rest they say is history…. 

Strangely shaped cactus

Hiking through the desert with my four youngest children.

They love the desert as much as I do.

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
26 replies
  1. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    It's so interesting to learn how you came to live in the desert Noelle. Isn't it funny how many of us get "transplanted?" I grew up on the East Coast and now live in Colorado. I can't say I made the transition as gracefully as you tho. Even after a number of years, the harshness of the climate still gets to me (especially in colder/snowier years like this one). That last photo is really nice of you with your children. Happy New Year! I'm going to be a "snowbird" some day and travel your way for the winter!

  2. Janet
    Janet says:

    It is like a different planet. I know when we moved to Texas after being on the East Coast or Europe I felt the same way. It is really cool to explore the different types of gardening all around the world!
    It is a very interesting way to irrigate!
    Love your desert pictures.

  3. danger garden
    danger garden says:

    Great post! For me it was love at first sight, the first time I landed in Phoenix, but definitely other worldly compared to the Pacific Northwest where I live. Of course my love affair with the desert is just from a far, no doubt if I actually lived there I would be waxing nostalgic for the green mossy PNW too.

  4. Christine B.
    Christine B. says:

    Having never heard of flood irrigation, at first when I saw the water covering your front yard in that picture, I thought a pipe had burst in your home or something like that. I'm wondering if they still do flood irrigation these days in AZ? Probably not for 56 dollars a year, eh? I can only dream about citrus trees growing in the backyard.

    Christine in Alaska

  5. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Thank you very much for your comments. In regards to the flood irrigation, they still do it that way in some areas of the Phoenix metro area. We moved from our Phoenix home 10 years ago and our new home does not have that type of irrigation. However, my sister lives just 5 minutes away from me and their entire neighborhood gets irrigation that way.

  6. Linda/patchwork
    Linda/patchwork says:

    I've lived in Texas all my life. Mostly in the Dallas area. Gardening is a bit different, here in Central Texas.
    Our daughter went from TX to AZ a few years back. Our youngest grandson was born in Mesa. Now, a long story later, and via Idaho, she's in North Dakota…16 miles from Canada. She's had to learn many different ways to garden.
    You have some beautiful children there.
    Happy New Year.

  7. fairegarden
    fairegarden says:

    Thanks for this peek into your life, Noelle. It must have seemed so strange to you. Our first visit to Phoenix was similar, stark was the word, but still beautiful. I am so glad you learned to love it, and your Arizonan. What a wonderful and happy family! 🙂

  8. Msrobin
    Msrobin says:

    While we were in Arizona, I often did feel like I was on the moon, because it's so very different than the Midwest! What is the purpose of flooding your front yard? You lost me completely on that one! Is that how you water the lawn? I think of irrigation for crops, not lawns!

  9. Rebecca @ In The Garden
    Rebecca @ In The Garden says:

    Wonderful post Noelle! It's so interesting to read about your evolution as a gardener and your adjustment to AZ from CA. I am still adjusting to the semi arrid desert conditions around here, having grown up in Eastern Canada where it rained a lot and trees and plants grew everywhere. I still haven't fully adjusted, so all I can do is make my own little patch of the world as green & lush as possible.

  10. sweet bay
    sweet bay says:

    I'm sure if you didn't grow up in the Southwest, it must seem like a different planet! It was very interesting to read about your history and your first impressions of the desert.

  11. Carol
    Carol says:

    A wonderful post Noelle! Love the desert landscapes and the family pictures! I think you found your perfect match … working with plants! You write about them quite well too. Happy New Year to YOU! Carol

  12. Rosey Pollen
    Rosey Pollen says:

    I remember doing this on my grandmothers lawn with the irrigation water, it was a blast!
    I enjoyed all these early pics, you have surely adapted well to this desert life!

  13. Martha Z
    Martha Z says:

    I am now learning to garden for the fourth time. I grew up in West Hollywood, probably the easiest environment for a gardener. My own first garden was in the San Fernado Valley, Then Bishop and now the Sacramento Valley. They are all so different, each time I must relearn all I though I knew.

  14. teresa
    teresa says:

    That is so cool how you got to flood your own yard. Those were the days at those prices. And what fun the kids would have. We would be horrified to have all that water, it would fill our basebment right up. yuck. I am assuming you don't have basements there. Your photos as well as your story are just great!

  15. T Opdycke
    T Opdycke says:

    I so enjoy hearing the stories of how gardeners fell in love with the plant world. Like others, I'd never heard of irrigating the front yard like that. There's always something new to learn.

    Thanks for sharing!

  16. Liisa
    Liisa says:

    What a great story! It wasn't long ago that I didn't really appreciate the beauty of the desert. That was until I developed such a passion for gardening. The Cactus and Agave plants are now some of my favorites. I would love to tour some gardens in your neck of the woods, and see them growing in their natural habitat. But, for now I will gladly enjoy them in pots, too!

  17. Catherine@AGardenerinProgress
    Catherine@AGardenerinProgress says:

    I'd never heard of the flood irrigation before. I bet your kids loved it.
    I've gardened in the same type of climate and I've wondered what it would be like to move somewhere else and try to adjust to the differing types of plants and gardening. You obviously have learned how! 🙂

  18. Mary Anne
    Mary Anne says:

    Flood irrigation…well, this is why I started reading gardening blogs; you learn something new every time. The only time my yard looks only remotely like that is if a hurricane comes through!

    My favorite photo is the one of you and your children. 🙂

  19. Kate
    Kate says:

    What great photos. I appreciated your observation about how books tell us things will grow when actually they won't. I get that quite often, too. Living in the mountains is such an odd environment it doesn't translate at all to my actual zone.

    We're not as dry as you, but it gets pretty rough by July… Up here, I'd like to find a way to capture snow melt since we get no rainfall during summer…

  20. catmint
    catmint says:

    Hi Noelle, thank you for this brief place-oriented bio. I love the sea too and have always lived near it. I have never lived in the desert but the several occasions I have visited, I have found it quite an intense spiritual experience. We have flood irrigation too but never do it on purpose! (lol) cheers, catmint

  21. FlowerLady
    FlowerLady says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed this bit of your history and seeing your family. The flood irrigation is very interesting.

    Great photography as usual.

    Thanks for sharing ~ FlowerLady

  22. AZ DIY Guy
    AZ DIY Guy says:

    I just thought I'd leave a quick "hello" from a fellow AZ blogger. Although, I'm not a gardener, it looks like we've hiked some of the same desert; surely we've felt the same summer heat while working outdoors. I enjoyed exploring your blog and appreciate the photography. I'll be following.

    Regards, John from azdiyguy.com

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