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Landscaping in the Southwest with Tina from The Desert Botanical Garden, Ep 176



Many of us might think of deserts as barren wastelands, but in reality, the desert is a planty oasis within itself! There are towering saguaros, rosette aloes and agaves, and pollinators flitting between prickly pear flowers. To walk us through this underrated environment, we have a very special guest: Tina Wilson, the Director of Horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. We take a closer look at the amazing vegetation that thrives in the desert, and how you can create your own thriving desert landscape. Tina also shares her expertise on how to cultivate a lush desert landscape that is heat-tolerant and drought-resistant, perfect for those living in the Southwest garden zones.

In this episode, we learn:

  • [04:58] How Tina Wilson became Director of Horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden
  • [06:13] Tina's duties as Director of Horticulture
  • [08:04] Unique vegetation in Arizona
  • [10:02] What is desert landscaping? (and its 3 characteristics!)
  • [13:08] Gardening zones in the Southwest
  • [14:06] Key factors to consider when landscaping in the desert
  • [14:42] Right plant at the right location!
  • [15:51] What are the plants recommended for desert landscapes?
  • [16:46] The impact of the southwestern sun on plants
  • [18:17] Protecting plants from sunburn with shade cloth
  • [19:16] What is a plant palette?
  • [21:08] Where to find the best bamboo bedding for health and comfort?
  • [23:36] Want to grow fresh berries in your own garden?
  • [25:09] The importance of water conservation and irrigation in the desert
  • [26:22] Why reduce grass/turf in desert landscapes?
  • [29:24] The process of renovating a yard: soil profiling and testing
  • [31:07] Why are native desert plants so well-suited to desert conditions?
  • [33:34] An overview of desert plants' root systems
  • [34:17] How a Saguaro cactus stays upright despite its shallow root system
  • [35:53] Exploring water harvesting techniques
  • [37:02] What are some of the drought-tolerant plants?
  • [40:20] Tina's favorite pollinator-attracting plants
  • [42:04] Maria's experience at the New York Botanical Garden
  • [42:39] Join Desert Landscape School now for an exceptional learning experience.
  • [45:26] Is there a season for growing food in the desert?


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Who is Tina Wilson?

Tina Wilson is the Director of Horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona. She began her horticulture career in Kentucky, then went into education for horticulture before landing in Arizona in 2005.

Tina has experience in formal teaching and the industry, and she loves getting people excited about horticulture. This has allowed her to adapt to the desert environment and ask the right questions.


What is Desert Landscaping?

Desert landscaping is a unique approach to gardening that focuses on the natural features and challenges of a desert environment. When it comes to desert landscaping, there are three key characteristics to consider:

  1. Low Precipitation: Deserts typically get less than 10 inches of precipitation per year, which means that plants must be able to survive on minimal water.
  2. Temperature Extremes: The desert is known for its extreme temperatures, with a 30-degree difference possible within a 24-hour period. This means that plants must be able to withstand both hot and cold weather.
  3. High Evaporation Rates: Due to the high rate of evaporation, any rainfall that does occur in the desert will not last long. Plants must be able to quickly absorb and utilize any moisture they receive.

By selecting native or desert-adapted plants, you have the opportunity to bring life and vibrancy to your desert landscape. With a bit of courage and creativity, you can turn your yard into an exciting oasis that is uniquely yours, plant friends! 


Understanding the Sun in the Southwest and Its Effects on Plants

The sun in the southwestern region can be intense, making it crucial to understand its effects on plants. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Native and desert-adapted plants are better suited to handle the southwestern sun.
  • When purchasing new plants, look for a north-facing indicator on the pot to ensure proper sun acclimation.
  • New plants may require extra care, such as shade cloth, to protect them from the sun during their first summer. Shade cloth can be used to provide filtered shade for plants that require it, especially during summer storms.
  • Plant selection should be based on the available sunlight in your garden, and supplementing with shade plants may be necessary in some areas.


Evaluating Challenges for Desert Landscaping

When it comes to assessing what plants to put in your landscape, there are unique challenges to consider, especially if you are living in a desert area. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Get to know your microclimate. Assess the amount of shade, potential for flooding, and exposure to wind or light in your yard.
  • Choose the right plant for the right place! By selecting plants that thrive in your specific conditions, you'll set yourself up for success.
  • Consider using desert-adapted or native plants. These beauties are not only gorgeous, but they also conserve water and promote responsible landscaping practices.

So don't be afraid to dream big! From trees and shrubs to bulbs, grasses, and succulents, your desert garden can be a diverse and lush paradise. Get ready to watch your yard bloom!


Water Conservation in Desert Landscaping

Water conservation is essential when it comes to desert landscaping, especially in times of drought and water restrictions. On average, 70% of household water is used for landscaping—but it doesn't have to be this way.

To reduce water usage while maintaining a beautiful desert landscape, installing a smart controller and drip irrigation system is recommended. Drip irrigation systems deliver water directly to the plant's root system, providing maximum efficiency. Smart controllers can regulate the system based on data, weather, and other factors. Selecting low-water plants like cactus, agave, and yucca can further reduce water usage.

If you want to take your water conservation efforts in desert landscaping to the next level, consider enrolling in Desert Landscape School. Their courses will provide you with the knowledge and expertise to make the most of your landscape while minimizing water usage.


Native Desert Plants

The desert is an unforgiving environment, but native desert plants are incredibly well-adapted to thrive in this harsh environment! These plants have specialized root systems and other fascinating adaptations that help them to survive and even thrive in the desert.

  • Cacti: Succulents that are able to store water for long periods of time, enabling them to survive if it is not raining. Many cacti also have pleats or ribs that allow them to expand when they acquire water and contract when they don’t. This helps to prevent the plant from exploding.
  • Palo Verde Trees: These trees have bright yellow blooms and interesting green bark. This green bark is due to the fact that it has chlorophyll, enabling it to use photosynthesis to create its own food. In order to conserve water, the trees will drop their leaves, and the bark then takes over photosynthesis to keep the tree alive.


Drought-Tolerant Plants

The desert is full of amazing plants that can survive and thrive in even the harshest of climates. To help you create the perfect desert oasis in your own garden, here are a few of Tina’s favorite drought-tolerant and low-water plants:

  • The Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa) is a beautiful evergreen shrub that provides a lush backdrop to any garden. It has a tropical feel to it that can bring life to your garden even in the driest times.
  • Agaves are a classic desert plant, and the Agave Victoria is a favorite for its variegated leaves and compact size. The dark green leaves are lined with white and brighten up any garden.
  • Palo Verde trees are iconic desert trees, with a bright lime-green bark that can light up a garden.
  • The Saguaro cactus is the icon of the desert. These tall cacti can reach heights of over 40 feet and are home to cactus wrens and Gila woodpeckers. The holes they leave don't harm the cacti, but instead, provide a safe home for many animals.

These are just a few of the amazing plants that can thrive in the desert. With a little research and care, your dream desert oasis is within arm’s reach!


How to Grow Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs in the Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert may be a challenging place to grow food, but with the right know-how and resources, it can be done. One great resource for desert gardening is the Desert Landscape School Hub, which provides a free calendar that tells you when to plant different types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs in the desert. The calendar also includes information on the best varieties to grow in the desert climate.

As an example, many people are surprised to learn that they can grow tomatoes in the desert. According to the Desert Landscape School Hub's calendar, the best time to plant tomatoes in the Sonoran Desert is in February.

Plant friends, you can have a successful and productive garden all year round. So don't let the harsh desert climate stop you from growing your own food!


Mentioned in our conversation:


Thank you to our episode sponsors:

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