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for the garden
desert gardening basics
August, 2014, Page 48
Photo by Richard Maack
The leafy canopy of a deciduous Chinese elm tree provides summer shade for the patio. After the tree’s leaves drop, the winter sun warms the space, which includes Adirondack chairs that he painted a Norwegian blue; they surround a glass-topped fire pit that glows with simple candlelight.
Tim Semans gets a lesson on frost protection while creating a place for neighborhood gatherings
Tim Semans’ landscape makeover arose from a stark blank slate. Located in the Cheery Lynn Historic District in central Phoenix, his post-World War II Ranch-style home was surrounded by a layer of gravel in the front yard and bare dirt in the back. “I didn’t have a master vision,” he recalls. “I wanted to create an environment for socializing, and it just evolved from there.”
The homeowner’s first project was to transplant shade trees, including a palo verde and ficus, in the backyard. “I chose ficus for its lush green foliage, but I didn’t consider that it was frost-sensitive,” Semans comments. Over time, he also discovered that winter temperatures in his landscape are sometimes up to 10 degrees colder than what the official weather forecast predicts. “I installed a high-definition digital thermometer to register daily minimum and maximum temperatures in my yard and compared them to the weather report, which uses temperatures recorded at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.” Realizing that his chilly microclimate required that he be ever ready to cover varied plant material, Semans devised several simple methods to perform this gardening task.
Tim Semans (pictured) chose lush but heat-tolerant plants to shade his brick house (top), thus reducing thermal transfer to the interior.
Spreading large expanses of frost cloth over plants can be awkward, especially in windy conditions. “I cut the cloth size for specific planting areas, and then staple the ends to two long pieces of wood, such as two-by-fours,” explains Semans. Not only is it manageable to spread the cloth over a bed—the boards provide weight to keep the cloth in place—it is quick and easy to roll the fabric up on the boards the following morning. “For my front-yard flower bed, I place one board in front of the plants and the second goes over the low courtyard wall that borders it. Then I hold the cloth down with a brick on the top of the wall, basically forming a tent over the flowers.”
In addition to covering his backyard vegetable and herb beds with frost cloth attached to boards, Semans lays strings of C9 Christmas lights on the soil between rows of plants. Controlled by a timer, lights turn on at nightfall and off an hour after sunrise, warming the air beneath the frost cloth. “It’s key that frost cloth is secured against the ground, so no cold air seeps beneath it,” he tutors. (See Protecting Cold-Sensitive Shrubs, Page 51.)
Semans credits a trip to California’s Napa wine region as the inspiration for his backyard grape arbor. “I wanted to recreate the feeling of having dinner overlooking the vineyard, surrounded by grapevines,” he recalls. A neighbor shared advice on installing concrete footers for the arbor’s support structure, which Semans built. He transplanted ‘Red Flame’ and ‘Thompson Seedless’ grapevines. In warm weather, the vines scramble across the arbor, providing shade for the vegetable beds planted below, as well as leafy ambience for the nearby dining and cocktail tables.
Heavy-duty plastic mesh attached to the grape arbor inhibits bird access. The homeowner rolls it up to tend the garden.
The sturdy arbor also does double-duty as a support frame for frost cloth and for heavy plastic mesh bird netting that reaches to the ground. “I just rolled up the mesh to access the garden, and it was initially very effective at keeping birds out,” reports Semans. “They would stand on the outside, looking in at the tomatoes.” However, over time, the vigorous grapevines pushed the netting up and out, creating access points for the relentless birds. “Without the vines’ interference, it works great to keep birds out,” he observes.
The homeowner remarks that he grew up in a Tempe neighborhood where families sat on their lawns in the evening. “I wanted to recreate that neighborly feeling I remember as a kid, and it has definitely worked,” he states. His front and back yards have small, easy-to-maintain squares of lawn, which he carefully sited to provide a cooling pop of green from his windows. “Friends stop by; we gather around the fire pit on the front patio; a neighbor comes home, sees us and walks over; then a few more neighbors and suddenly it’s mushroomed into a yard full of people.” An informal neighborhood gardening group also has sprouted, with folks sharing advice, harvests and labor.
Semans was on the first public Cheery Lynn Historic District Home Tour held in 2013. “It was gratifying to see people enjoy the garden and gain ideas. I do a lot of encouraging. If I can do it, so can you,” he insists.
The second Cheery Lynn Historic District Home Tour will be held March 22, 2015. For more info, see
Protecting Cold-Sensitive Shrubs
Shrubs in the popular Tecoma genus often suffer frost dieback around the Phoenix area, but Tecoma ‘Orange Jubilee’ shrubs in Tim Semans’ yard (pictured) tolerate cold with minimal damage. He puts strings of C9 lights at the base of their trunks and covers the shrubs with frost cloth. The combination of heat from the lights and heat radiating from the house warms the air beneath the frost cloth. Semans devised the following method for draping frost cloth over his 10-foot tall shrubs:
• Pound one nail into the end of a thin, 3-foot-long stick, allowing the nailhead to protrude slightly. Using wood screws, attach the sticks to the house eaves above the shrubs, at about 4-foot-wide intervals. The sticks extend outward at the same angle as the eaves, with the nail protruding from the end farthest from the eaves. “When needed, I drape frost cloth over the sticks, and the nails basically grab the cloth, so it doesn’t blow off in the wind. The sticks remain in place year-round and are not noticeable as the foliage grows around them,” he says.
• He also pounds 3- to 4-foot-tall rebar stakes into the ground among the shrubs. “I clip clothespins to the rebar, using them as a second method to secure the frost cloth to the ground.” In the morning, he releases the clothespins and pulls the frost cloth to the side, similar to opening a curtain. “If multiple cold nights are forecast, I can leave the cloth in place and just pull it back over the shrubs at nightfall.”
Photos - From left: Garden beds hold a variety of tasty vegetables and herbs. Depending on the season, the sturdy arbor can support bird netting, frost or shade cloth. • The homeowner groups thirstier plants, such as these snapdragons, to “share the water.” A yellow-blooming palo verde tree offers spring color. In the back corner, a stained-glass window and metal wine rack add no-fuss color and character adjacent to the cocktail corner.
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