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For The Garden

Beauty in the Desert

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: March, 2013, Page 71
Photos by Art Holeman

Michelle Anderson enjoys views of the Mazatzal Mountains while tending flowers in her yard.

Michelle Anderson’s Scottsdale Landscape Showcases Mother Nature’s Beauty

When Michelle and Art Anderson’s north Scottsdale home was built in 1997, it was the last house on the road before an expanse of wide-open range and stunning views of Four Peaks and the Mazatzal and Superstition mountains. “After moving in, we awoke to see horns at the front window when eight cattle bedded down on our patio,” she recalls. “They wouldn’t budge until a neighbor’s sheepdog rather excitedly herded them away.”

As she began landscaping around their home, Anderson recalls that she didn’t have a good understanding of desert plant material. Although she was raised locally, held a master’s degree in agribusiness marketing from Arizona State University, and worked in this field, it wasn’t until she completed Desert Botanical Garden’s Desert Landscape School that “another world opened up to me.”

Shifting gears, she went to work for a landscape company, completed the Master Gardener course through University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, took landscape design courses at Mesa Community College and, ultimately, started ColorScapes, a garden design and consulting company.

Boulders and subtle elevation variations mimic the desert’s natural terrain. Painted walls and glass art provide year-round interest. The birdbath-shaped fountain is made of farm implements.
Anderson has learned a lot over the years, and when it comes to starting from scratch with a limited budget, she advises spending the money on boulders. “Boulders need no maintenance, water or pruning while providing a lot of Southwestern bang for your buck.” Over time, it’s easy to fill in with plants, but it can be difficult and expensive to position boulders with machinery after trees and other plants have matured, she points out.

In the native desert, succulent plants that store moisture in their tissues, such as cacti and agave, are often found growing tucked next to boulders, observes Anderson. “Rainfall hits a boulder, runs down the side and collects at the base, which creates a microclimate that stays damp longer than its surroundings.”

A bit of extra moisture can be the difference between life and death in the scorching desert. It’s easy to recreate these microclimates by situating cacti or other succulents near boulders to produce both a natural appearance and healthy plants, Anderson notes.

Ocotillo fencing, which can be purchased in rolls, forms a wall around the back of Michelle Anderson’s potting bench. The “living” wall allows sunlight in and air to circulate.
Many desert gardeners enjoy a plant palette filled with unusual succulent shapes. However, planting on a flat horizontal plane, which is typical in most landscapes, doesn’t showcase the geometry of agave, aloe, cacti and other succulents, says Anderson. “It’s when we are able to look down into the heart of an Agave parryi truncata, for example, that plant symmetry or cabbage-like layers are the most noticeable, she relates”

To better display her plants, Anderson reshaped her relatively flat front yard by adding mounds with very gradual slopes and digging a desert wash that varies in depth from about 6 inches to 2 feet. “When incorporating elevation changes,
be careful not to build up unnatural mounds that look like horses’ graves,” jokes Anderson. Instead, aim for the subtle equivalent of a plain, a peak and a valley. “A flat landscape is viewed from only one direction, but an elevated landscape, with higher and lower points, is more interesting visually, and forces the eye to move around to take it all in.”

With the aid of Mark Wdowiak, owner of Desert Foothills Landscape, Anderson embedded rocks and boulders in the wash and around the mounds to create planting areas for showcasing succulent shapes. Placing plants on a tilt on the sides of the wash, for example, allows their structures to be viewed from above, she explains.

A painted wall provides a vibrant backdrop for desert plants and a pot brimming with geraniums and bacopa.
“I like to be in my landscape, not work in my landscape,” Anderson emphasizes. “The key to low maintenance is to pick plants that will grow to be the right size for the space. We’re probably all guilty of buying cute little plants and installing them in front of a window or next to a walkway. Unfortunately, when they mature to be six feet tall and wide and block views and access, we’ve created work for ourselves.” A new landscape may look empty when appropriate plant spacing is followed, but desert plants fill in rapidly with appropriate irrigation and a little patience, she says.

“Desert trees love to have a big flush of water and then dry out,” observes Anderson. Her desert wash channels rainwater harvested from the roof into collection basins up to 3 feet deep and the water percolates into the soil to nearby tree roots. “If you can direct rain gutters to planting areas or retention areas, or dig shallow channels that slow the flow of water on your property to minimize runoff, your plants will respond,” she observes. “Everything looks green and refreshed after a good soaking.”

Over the years, the couple’s landscape has evolved as their needs changed and as full-sun exposures disappeared when tree canopies matured. However, vibrant splashes of color have always been part of the mix. “There are periods of time when the desert is quiet, and adding colorful pots, tile work or similar options can keep the landscape interesting year-round,” observes Anderson. “In my case, adding color is also an expression of my personality.”

Photos - From left: The homeowner punched drainage holes in the bottom of a red wagon before planting it with succulents. • A dried and painted agave stalk is “planted” in a pot filled with concrete and buried in the ground. Its sculptural shape pops against a bright-blue wall.

Anyone can compose stunning succulent containers, Michelle Anderson insists. Her landscape design and consulting business, ColorScapes, creates and maintains pots for homeowners. She shares these tips:
SOIL: “I use E. B. Stone Cactus Mix because it drains well,” says Anderson. “Overwatering and root rot are the kiss of death for succulents.”
If filling an oversized pot with a tall or heavy specimen plant that will be in the pot for two or more years, she blends one part E. B. Stone Cactus Mix and two parts quarter-inch minus gravel. “All potting mixes decompose and compress over time, causing heavy plants to sink and sit lower in the pot,” she explains. “Adding the gravel creates air pockets and reduces sinking, helping plants to remain in their original position so you don’t have to dig up and repot.”

SUN AND WATER: In winter, a sunny south or east patio is ideal. When days are short and temperatures cool, water once every two weeks. In summer, provide morning sun only. Water weekly until humidity increases during monsoon season; then again about every two weeks. In spring and fall, southern exposures are best, although an eastern patio with morning sun or filtered light beneath a tree is also fine. Water weekly when daytime temperatures are in the 70s and climbing.

PLANTS: Techniques for plant selection are the same as when designing a pleasing flower container. Include plants with height, plants that spill over the container side and plants that fill in the remaining spaces. “Aloes are fun to design with because they come in so many sizes and shapes,” Anderson comments. Her other favorites include:

Height: Euphorbia ingens; E. trigona; Kalanchoe beharensis; Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei); slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)

Filler: Crassula; Echeveria; firesticks (Euphorbia tirucalli); flapjacks (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora); Senecio serpens

Spiller: Donkey tail (Sedum morganianum); dwarf elephant food (Portulacaria afra minima; string of beads (Senecio rowleyanus)
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