GARDENS FOR HUMANITY: Garden Planning in our Arid Landscape
May and June are the hottest and driest months before we welcome the first rumbles of thunder and fragrance of monsoon season at the beginning of July. It is so painful to watch plants struggling and dehydrating under relentless, rainless skies. Arizona is in drought right now, ranging from moderate to extreme levels. This causes soil dehydration, and we can see that even many native plants are dying in our surrounding forests.
Considering drought and possible sudden monsoons, how do we plan the space around our homes? Planning our outdoor spaces varies, depending on our specific local landscape. Looking at a profile of our region’s plant zones, we have everything from dry high desert landscapes to shady and wet riparian areas, with the Pinyon-Juniper ecosystem as a backdrop. Elements of each zone can inspire planning no matter our property type, adding beauty, interest, and comfort in our outdoor environment.
Imagine our home as the center of concentric circles, going to the edges of our property. The circle closest to our home is a natural extension of our living space, and is most used on a daily basis. The outer circle is the least frequented and may often be a largely unused space separating us from surrounding properties.
We can design the space surrounding our home to be a shady, damp, and cool zone. This creates a welcoming outdoor area, and keeps our home cooler. This can be where we focus some of our water use for a lush setting with ornamental shrubs and flowers, salad garden, some veggies, and herbs.
This space is like another room of our house for outdoor dining, entertaining, reading, or simply as a relaxing spot to connect with our surroundings. We can take advantage of the natural shading from our house, or plan more shade with structures or trees. Our cool, damp zone may use more water for greenery, but at the edges we can harvest rainwater off of our roof into our landscape to increase moisture. We can sculpt the soil so that rainwater can pool up and sink in the ground, which can keep the soil around our house cooler and damper. With thick mulch, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs or trees, we can have a beautiful garden, attracting pollinators and hummingbirds.
The zone midway between our house and the property boundaries can be planned for activities. Play areas for children or pets, a vegetable garden, orchard, or pathways make those areas accessible for our recreation, hobbies, or an outpost for observing nature. Here, plants that survive in tough conditions can bring beauty and variety to our garden. By using drip irrigation and timers we can adjust water use to accommodate the type of landscaping we want, or grow native plants that do not require much water.
The outer circle at the borders of our property can be maintained as a natural area with trees that provide privacy, shade, and windbreaks. By trimming the trees to make a canopy, the understory can be an accessible place for native shrubs, flowers, and groundcovers. With mulch or wood chips, that area can be low maintenance, low water use, and habitat for birds and other wildlife.
In planning our Earth-friendly garden, it helps to observe patterns in nature, and adapt our garden to its needs. It will help us give back to the land in a natural way, caring for what is already here, and using plants adapted to our area. These practices conserve water, energy, reduce garden waste, and make an inviting, livable space for people and animals. Water-permeable walkways of flagstones, pavers, wood chips, or living ground covers and perennial grasses further reduce the heat island effect, feel natural, and provide more water retention in our landscape.
To help consider your landscape design needs, priorities and options, Gardens for Humanity has a handy worksheet on our website gardensforhumanity.org. Click on the link that says, “Download a Garden/Landscaping Planning Worksheet.”
Richard Sidy is president of Gardens for Humanity, a founding member of the Sustainability Alliance and a member of the Verde Valley Food Policy Council. To reach him, email email@example.com .