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for the garden
desert gardening basics
July, 2014, Page 46
The courtyard pond lures hummingbirds that like to dart into the waterfall. In summer, the homeowners suspend a sail cloth over the pond to help cool the water and shade its fish.
Liz Mantsch’s unique Chandler landscape provides peaceful respite and tasty treats
Liz Mantsch knows firsthand that gardens are a work in progress. After moving into their Chandler, Arizona, home in 2001, she and husband Mike continued to make changes to the landscape as their needs evolved and desert gardening expertise grew. “We’re always willing to try something new,” comments Liz.
The home’s peaceful entry courtyard is an example of successfully reworking a space to obtain the desired look and feel. Both husband and wife appreciate the minimalism of Japanese design. They had originally installed bamboo, sissoo trees and a small water feature that trickled onto a bed of black pebbles, replicating a Japanese garden they had visited in San Diego. Unfortunately, the desert’s salty water covered the rocks with white deposits and the plants’ aggressive roots ran wild in the moist surroundings. Eventually, the roots invaded irrigation lines and dislodged a wall. “Digging out those plants was a real lesson for me,” recalls Mike.
Home gardener Liz Mantsch organically grows fruits, vegetables and flowers in compost-enriched soil.
The couple then sought makeover advice from their friends, Ardie and Mike Apostolos, owners of Green Concepts Group, a Scottsdale design firm specializing in Japanese gardens. Based on the Apostolos’ advice, they replaced a huge post that supported the house with a cedar-wrapped steel beam and added a cedar transom along the portico sheltering the front door. Such architectural transoms are known as ranma in Japan, and often are placed above shoji screen doors at an entryway or between rooms to provide air circulation.
To enhance the ambience of a serene Japanese garden, the Mantsches covered a stucco block wall with bamboo fencing that they purchased in rolls. Replacing the original water feature is a shallow pond that now flows gently across much of the courtyard, with a flagstone bridge traversing it to provide access to the front door. “Ralph Biezad, owner of Pondscapes, installed the pond and explained that a flexible liner covered with rocks, rather than a concrete pond, would offer the natural appearance we wanted for the courtyard,” notes Mike. “With fish, plants, turtles and rocks, the pond develops its own ecosystem of sustainability and raises the humidity around our home.”
Photos - From left: The front-yard rock garden holds colorful blends of seasonal flowers, vegetables and herbs that thrive in the filtered light beneath palo verde trees. Cacti and succulents also are tucked among its boulders. Dense foliage near the wall is sky flower (Duranta erecta). • Homeowner Liz Mantsch allows flowers to go to seed and self-sow; she seldom has to replant. Some of her favorites include purple lobelia, basil, white snapdragon, chrysanthemum daisies and Parry’s agave
The backyard also has undergone transformations with hardscape design by Troy Bankord, a Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest. Although the swimming pool was in place when they purchased the home, a natural-gas sunken fire pit was added. Queen palms and grass were removed, and edibles took their place. The backyard holds fruit trees, ‘Red Flame’ and ‘Thompson Seedless’ grape vines and raised vegetable beds.
With little space left to plant in the backyard, the couple expanded its growing options by repurposing the front yard. Typical of many desert suburban developments, the small, flat space was covered with decomposed granite and held two palo verde trees and varied agaves, aloes and cacti.
Liz, a Master Gardener with the University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, knew that its southern exposure, combined with the position of the existing tree canopies, would provide an ideal venue for the garden she envisioned. “When the trees are leafed out, they offer filtered light in summer, so understory plants can really benefit from the protection,” she tutors. “In winter, the trees drop leaves and allow full sun through.”
Supporting a sustainable ecosystem of plants, fish and turtles, the pond meanders across much of the courtyard. To create a serene backdrop that would blend with the existing hardscape, the homeowners added a flagstone bridge. Block walls covered with rolls of bamboo fencing and Japanese stone fountains impart a tranquil Zen atmosphere. Asparagus fern scrambles across the pond’s rocks, providing year-round lushness.
Liz admired cactus and succulent rock gardens at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and chose to create a similar planting, although with a more diverse palette. “I wanted a rock garden blending flowers, vegetables and herbs with some of our existing cacti and succulents,” she explains.
The Mantsches started this front-yard project by removing decomposed granite and existing cacti and succulents. Mike, assisted by Mike Apostolos, selected boulders and placed them using a front-end loader. “We chose boulders with coloration that would add to the garden’s appearance,” he notes. Careful placement of the boulders created slight elevation changes, which provided definition and visual interest to the once-flat space. Adding the rock helped build sufficient depth and growing pockets to fill with soil.
With the new garden’s backbone in place, the Mantsches sifted leftover soil dug for the courtyard pond and mixed it with compost from Singh Farms to create a rich planting medium with good drainage. Liz replanted some of the cacti and succulents and filled the remaining spaces with a mix of vegetable and flower transplants from nursery six-packs and seeds. A sprinkling of spring-blooming wildflower seeds was the final touch. The result is a unique front yard blending lush foliage, cheerful flowers and tasty edibles that gives fresh meaning to the term “curb appeal.”
The rock garden has been growing strong for three years, demonstrating that it is possible to have incredible diversity in limited space with the right sun exposure. Depending on the season, edible harvests include artichoke, asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, eggplant, kale, lettuce, spinach, sunflower, sweet potato and varied peppers and tomatoes. Interspersed herbs include basil, chamomile, chives, cilantro, dill and parsley. Most of the flowers grown in the rock garden—such as alyssum, lobelia, pentas, pansies, poppies and snapdragon—self-sow easily from Liz’s original planting.
Liz, who tends three backyard compost barrels, credits her planting success to regularly adding composted organic matter to the garden. “Every year the soil becomes easier to work, and it’s so exciting to dig and find worms,” she reports. “It’s wonderful to make something so valuable from food scraps.”
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