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Bring the desert home with a xeriscape
Yuma is the perfect spot for a xeriscape (zee-ruh-scape), which uses drought-resistant plants, native plants and gravel to create a desert landscape.
It works well for homeowners who live here winters and leave summers. Xeriscape plants are tough enough to withstand the rigors of our extremely hot summers and low rainfall and still look beautiful year after year.
“Coming from the north, it took us awhile to appreciate Yuma's native plants,” one garden club member said. “Now that we have a xeriscape in our front yard, we enjoy the Mexican bird of paradise, agaves and cacti that are growing. The hummingbirds spend each morning checking out the Mexican bird of paradise for nectar and give us lots of entertainment.”
When planning a xeriscape, start with the tallest plants and work your way down to the smallest. Usually, one tall tree is enough. A palo verde, mesquite, desert willow, Texas ebony or acacia is a good choice. Some homeowners prefer a tall saguaro, although the cost is much more.
Next, decide if you want vegetation plants, cacti or a combination of both to complete your xeriscape.
Shrubs that are drought-resistant include Mexican bird of paradise, red bird of paradise, creosote, desert broom, Baja senna, desert senna, emu bush, red fairyduster and wolfberry.
Select five to seven shrubs, depending upon the size of your yard.
Small plants that add color and texture include ruellia, dusty miller, Parry's penstemon, brittlebush, chocolate flower, desert zinnia, desert marigold, globe mallow and Mexican primrose.
Large boulders can be placed throughout the garden and plants grouped next to them to add interest. Often, a dry stream filled with river rocks meanders through the yard, as well.
When planting the above-mentioned vegetation, mix native soil with good potting soil and a little compost to make a soil that will drain adequately and provide good nutrition to the plants. Add time-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote, to feed the plants for six months.
If cacti are part of your design, there are three basic shapes: columnar, barrel and jointed-stem. Columnar cacti include organ pipe, totem pole, toothpick, Mexican fencepost, cardon, saguaro, senita and cereus. Barrel cacti include compass barrel, fish hook barrel, pincushion, mammilaria and hedgehog.
A few of the jointed-stem cacti are jumping cholla, teddy bear cholla, beaver tail prickly pear, cane cholla, Santa Rita prickly pear, Englemann's prickly pear, giant prickly pear and staghorn cholla.
Cacti soil mix should include 25 percent coarse sand, 25 percent potting soil, 25 percent peat moss and 25 percent perlite. Time-release Osmocote fertilizer and a cup of bone meal can also be added for extra nutrients.
The goal is to create a soil that is fast-draining. Commercial cacti mixes are not fast draining enough to make healthy plants. Standing water around a cactus' roots will quickly kill it. That is the main reason for not using 100 percent potting soil or commercial cacti mixes.
Along with cacti, desert-adapted succulents can also be used in a xeriscape. There are many varieties of agaves and yuccas to choose from, along with the ocotillo. Other desert perennials include desert spoon, hesperoles, desert milkweed and grasses, such as fountain or bear grass.
After choosing plants for your yard, draw your xeriscape design on paper, labeling each plant in its planned location. Then, if you are putting in a drip system, find a company to install the lines so that your plant design will receive water as needed.
With the drip system complete, planting can begin. Once plants are in the ground, keep vegetation plants moist with hose watering, besides the drip system, until they are established. Once established, the drip system will provide adequate water. Cacti will not need extra water.
Cal Kelly, Yuma Garden Club, described his drip system: “I have separate lines for my cacti and my other plants. During the winter, I can turn off the line to the cacti since they don't need extra water and continue watering my other plants. When summer temperatures arrive, I turn the line to the cacti back on so they receive water, too.”
To help maintain soil moisture and discourage weeds, a three- to six-inch layer of mulch should cover unplanted areas in your yard. Decomposed granite is the best groundcover and comes in a variety of colors.
Nothing is as discouraging as spending tons of money on plants and then returning to Yuma the next fall to find everything dead. Planting a xeriscape will solve that problem and create a long-lasting yard filled with interesting plants that can withstand Yuma's hot summers. If you miss the beauty and color of annuals, plant them in containers on your patio.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.