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desert-landscape

“How much water do my plants need?”

I am often asked this question by desert dwellers and my answer is always, “That depends.”

desert-landscape

There are several variables that determine how much water plants need, along with the frequency of watering.

Variables include:

  • Type of soil (clay, sand, combination)
  • What kind of plant (native plants, higher water use flowering shrubs and ground covers, succulents, etc.)
  • Recommended depth of water
  • Desert region (low-desert, mid-altitude, high desert)
  • Efficiency of irrigation system
  • Water pressure (can vary between neighborhoods)
As you can see, there is no universal watering guideline in regards to how long to water or how often.

Let’s look into the variables a little more closely to help you determine what yours are:

 

SoilClay soils hold onto water longer than sandy soil. They take longer for water to permeate to the recommended depth. The result? Clay soils need irrigation less often than sandy ones but need to be watered for a longer length of time. Phoenix area soil tends to have more clay in them while those in the Palm Springs area are sandy.

Plants – Native or desert-adapted plants need less frequent irrigation versus those that come from tropical climates. Cacti and other succulents do well with infrequent irrigation.

Water Depth – Trees need to be watered deeply while ground covers and succulents do fine at a more shallow depth – shrubs fall in between the two.

Desert Region – Where you live in the desert matters when it comes to water and your plants. The differences include rainfall amounts, when the rain falls, high and low temps, and more. Residents of low-desert cities like Palm Springs and Phoenix need to add water to their plants more often than those who live in higher elevation regions such as Tucson.

Irrigation System – The older your irrigation system, the less efficient it is. This is due to mineral build-up within the system, which affects the amount of water that comes out. Also, old drip irrigation systems tend to accumulate leaks. The average lifespan for a drip irrigation system is 10-15 years. 

Despite these differences, what is a shared characteristic is that the vast majority of desert residents water too often and not deeply enough. This is usually due to lack of knowledge and thinking the ‘more is better,’ especially in the desert.
Landscapers are generally not a reliable source when it comes to scheduling irrigation – most recommend irrigating far too often.
 
So what is a desert dweller to do?
Thankfully, there is very useful information available for homeowners to help them figure out when and how much water their landscape needs.
 
Major metropolitan areas throughout the Southwest have excellent watering guidelines available for residents. The guidelines include the regional variables we have discussed so far.
Here are helpful links based on major desert cities (click the link for the city closest to you):
Watering guidelines are just that – guidelines. Circumstances may mean that you need to water more or less often, but these guides are a useful baseline to work from.
*One final note – before you implement a new irrigation schedule, it’s important to gradually wean your plants to the new one over several weeks. The reason for this is that it allows plants to become accustomed to the new schedule.

Yes, it does take a little work to figure out how much and often to water your plants, but these guides are incredibly helpful and will guide you along the way.

Have you ever moved to a new area with no clue what type of plants you have or how to care for them?  Well, your plight isn’t unusual – people find themselves in this situation often.

Thankfully, there are steps that you can take to learn about your landscape, the plants in it, how to care for them and what types of new plants will do well.  

Believe it or not, it doesn’t matter what region you live in – the steps are the same.



In my last post, I shared about my daughter’s move from Arizona to Michigan.  She and her husband became new homeowners the beginning of this summer and were faced with many questions about their landscape.

I invite you to join them in their garden journey, learning helpful tips finding out about their new landscape, what plants to choose, and how to care for them.  

Even if you live in a completely different climate than Michigan, my hope is that you’ll learn what steps to take when you find yourself in a new place with no clue how to take care of your garden.


1. Take stock of the existing landscape.

We walked around the entire landscape, including the areas up against the house and further out.  The front of their home had a combination of shrubs, perennials, and flowering bulbs while the outer areas had a number of different trees.


Lilac shrubs were in full bloom and peonies were just beginning to open…



 I must admit to being slightly envious since my Arizona garden doesn’t get cold enough in winter to be able to grow these lovely plants.  However, I was fortunate to be there when hers were in bloom.

2. Take pictures of large areas as well as individual plants – particularly those that you don’t recognize.


 While I knew what most of the plants were in my daughter’s landscape, she didn’t and there were a few that even I couldn’t identify (plants from more temperate climates aren’t my specialty).



If you see something that you think is wrong with your plants, take a picture of that too.  I wasn’t sure what was growing on the surface of the maple trees.  (It turns out they are leaf galls, which are fairly common and don’t seriously impact the tree.)

3. Visit a local nursery.


You will find most of your answers at a local plant nursery.  Show the nursery staff pictures of your plants.  They can help you identify what you have and can often tell you how to care for them. 


Often, you will find the same plants at the nursery, where you can check the labels for the names along with instruction on how to care for them.



We found that the shrubs alongside the house are ‘dappled willow’.


During your visit, take pictures of plants that you like along with a clear photo of the plant label.  But, avoid buying anything at this point.

Be sure to show pictures to the nursery professionals of any suspected problems of your plants.  They can often tell you what it is and how to treat it, if needed.

Local nurseries often have free (or inexpensive) guides on a range of gardening subjects.  Be sure to ask if they have any.

**I advise against going to a big box store for advice on plants.  Not all the staff is particularly knowledgeable and you’ll often find plants for sale that aren’t always suited for that climate.  Local nurseries are best.


For example, I found this Texas sage for sale at the local big box store.  The problem is that this shrub can only handle temperatures as cold as 10 degrees F.  In northern Michgan, winter temperatures can get down to -20 degrees.  Unfortunately, this isn’t isolated to just this instance – it happens everywhere.  So, visit local nurseries for the best advice and plant selection.

4. Contact the local cooperative extension office.

If you’ve never heard of cooperative extension services, you are missing out on a valuable resource.  They are an “educational partnership that offers numerous programs implemented by county field faculty and supported by university-based specialists”.  

Master Gardeners work for the cooperative extension office in your area, which is usually divided up by counties.  

They have many resources for homeowners, especially in regards to their landscape, that is specifically tailored for that specific region.  Often, much of the information can be found online and/or you can talk to a master gardener on the phone.  

Here are some helpful questions to ask:

– What USDA planting zone do you live in?

– What type of soil is present in the area?  Acidic or alkaline?  That’s important to know since certain plants do better in one or the other.

– What is the average first and last frost date?  In other words, how long is the growing season?  For my garden in Arizona, the growing season is 10 months long while my daughter’s is only 6 months.

– When is the best time to prune roses, trees and shrubs?

– What are the planting dates for specific vegetables?

– Are there any insect pests that are particularly troublesome?  How do you get rid of them?

For a listing of cooperative extension services, click here

5. Take pictures of local landscapes and plants that you like. 

When you are walking your dog or taking a stroll through the downtown area, grab your phone and take photos of plants that you like.  



If it’s growing and looks healthy, than it will probably grow in your garden.  You can take the photos to your local nursery to help you identify what they are.

6.  Wait 6 months to a year before making dramatic changes to the garden.

A garden undergoes several transformations throughout the year as plants bloom, change colors and fade.  It is helpful to observe the plants, to see what you want to keep and those that you went to remove.  

In addition, this is also a period of time to see how functional the design of your garden is.  If plants are struggling, it may be because they are planted in the wrong exposure, get too wet from storm runoff or don’t have enough room to grow.

Once you have lived with your new landscape for awhile, it’s time to make changes.


BEFORE


I invite you to come back to see the changes that we undertook in my daughter’s landscape.  We took out some plants while adding some new ones.  I’ll also provide some helpful planting tips.

See you next time!

Last week, I was finishing up a landscape consult with a client, when I noticed the saguaro cactus growing in his neighbor’s yard…


At first glance, you may have trouble seeing what is wrong.

You might think that it is a little on the ‘fat’ side and you would be right.

But look closer…


Do you see the two horizontal cracks?
There is one toward the top and one near the bottom of the photo.

These cracks are signs of an overwatered cactus.

At the base of the saguaro are 4 drip emitters.

You may be surprised to find that drip emitters around a cactus isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But ONLY IF the irrigation line is used for cactus exclusively.

Cactus do like a good drink of water once a month during dry, summer months and a dedicated drip-line can provide that.  When the summer rains arrive, turn off off the water.  In fall, winter and spring, your saguaro does not need any supplemental water.  

*Keep in mind that they survive on natural rainfall out in the desert.

For the saguaro above, it is obvious from the size of the saguaro and the cracks, that the drip irrigation is probably being turned on too often.


The other 2 Saguaro cacti on the property also are being overwatered.  They are too ‘fat’.

The Desert Botanical Garden has an excellent article on how to grow Saguaro cacti, including how much, if any, water they need.

**I told my client about his neighbor’s ‘fat’ Saguaro cacti and he said that he would mention it to them 🙂