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desert gardening basics
September, 2014, Page 48
Photos by Tom Bean
To help prevent the spread of fire, Susan Lamb and Tom Bean thinned ponderosa pines and removed dead branches around their home.
Susan Lamb and Tom Bean create a firewise and creature-friendly landscape in Arizona’s high country
Natural history writer Susan Lamb and nature and wildlife photographer Tom Bean have lived on their 10-acre property near Flagstaff, Arizona, for two decades, surrounded by Southwestern ponderosa pines interspersed with sunlit grassy meadows. The couple’s ongoing observing and cataloguing of the area’s flora and fauna inspire their professional lives, as well as landscape projects.
“We frequently hike in the forest, and I’ve tracked wildflowers for years,” states Lamb. She has compiled photos and data on close to 200 species, including bloom times, pollinators and preferred habitat. Recognizing habitat characteristics helps her design planting beds filled with colorful natives, such as Arizona honeysuckle, cutleaf coneflower, golden columbine and Rocky Mountain penstemon.
“Our topography is rough and slopes to the south, so cold air flows down and pools in pockets on the north side of the house,” Lamb notes. The cool, shady and moist conditions on the northern side produce different growing conditions from the warm, sunny and dryer southern side—although they are only a short distance apart. “A one-degree slope toward the south is like moving 40 miles closer to the equator,” she explains. “We grow Arizona’s wild canyon grape on the north and yuccas on the south, but we can’t switch their places.”
In Arizona’s low desert, plants such as saguaro cacti begin life in the shady protection of a “nurse plant.” At high elevations, Lamb finds that many plants benefit from a “nurse rock” because rocks direct precipitation to plant roots and maintain soil moisture. They also retain heat from the sun, releasing it after sunset. In her garden, she positions nurse rocks near transplants to help the latter thrive
Photos - From left: To help prevent the spread of fire, Susan Lamb and Tom Bean (above left) thinned ponderosa pines and removed dead branches around their home (above). The native grasses are larval food plants for butterflies, so the couple cuts them back after the caterpillars are gone. • Plants here include partridge feather scrambling across rocks, prairie gay-feather, Mexican hat and banana yucca.
Potential wildfire in drought-stricken grasslands and forests in the high country is a serious threat, and Lamb and Bean practice firewise landscaping design and maintenance. “Our goal is to balance the importance of honoring the local plant and animal communities, while not letting the house burn,” quips Bean, who cuts dried grasses back annually. “Because the grasses are hosts for so many butterfly species, I try to time it for when the caterpillars have gone,” he states.
The pair also thins pine trees and removes low dead branches to inhibit “fire ladders.” Pine needles are raked up each spring. “We’ve noticed over the years that removing thick layers of needles actually enhanced germination for wildflowers because sunlight now reaches the soil,” Lamb says. Flowers making a comeback include Flagstaff ragwort, manyflowered stoneseed and pineywoods geranium.
“After the devastation of the Rodeo-Chediski fire on the Mogollon Rim in 2002, I decided to remove a juniper tree that was a little too close to the house for comfort,” recalls Bean. The tree had been a popular gathering spot for rabbits that evidently felt safe beneath its branches. Not wishing to disrupt their habitat, he constructed an alternative, dubbed the “rabbitat.”
At a home improvement store, he purchased a plastic utility box with plastic pipes running from it. The pipes are wide enough for bunnies, but too narrow for larger predators. Bean set the unit where the tree used to stand and piled rocks around and over it. Rabbits hang around the rock pile’s hiding places and run through the pipes to the box for shelter.
Photos - From left: A sombrero shape gives Mexican hat (
) its common name. • “I shot this just after a monsoon shower, and it shows how plants ‘green up’ after the rain,” observes photographer Tom Bean.
The couple met at the Grand Canyon when Lamb worked for the National Park Service (NPS) as a naturalist and Bean—a former NPS naturalist—was there on a photography assignment. They credit their experiences of interpreting and sharing information with park visitors as instrumental to their outlook. “Our professional approach is to celebrate what’s beautiful and unique about the natural world, rather than focus on what might be going wrong,” she comments.
Lamb and Bean put that philosophy into practice recently, collaborating to publish Flagstaff’s Wild Canyons: Canyons and Mesas of the Walnut Canyon Study Area. The land described in their book includes about 30,000 acres surrounding Walnut Canyon National Monument, with much of it within Flagstaff city limits.
“The area’s significance is appreciated, but it is difficult to determine how best to conserve it,” comments Lamb. “Tom and I felt that giving a book that showcased the area’s rich human history and plant and animal communities to community leaders would be more useful than writing letters.”
Plants spread naturally among the cool and moist nooks offered by “nurse rocks” of eroded Kaibab limestone that can be found throughout the property.
Attempting to influence “big picture” outcomes can seem overwhelming, acknowledges Lamb. “However, creating a resilient landscape that provides for local wildlife is encouraging and doable on an individual level.”
As an example of a small-scale project that any gardener can enjoy, she suggests growing native milkweeds for monarch butterflies. “Flagstaff is a monarch hotspot because at least five milkweed species are native here,” she states. Three of these species are usually available for sale at local nurseries. They are Asclepias tuberosa, A. speciosa, and one of her favorite flowers, A. asperula. “Commonly called spider milkweed, its unique flowers are sputnik-shaped,” she says. If transplants are not available, the naturalist suggests broadcasting plenty of seeds, which will find their preferred microclimate in which to germinate and grow.
While Lamb concentrates on wildflowers, her husband is intrigued by native grasses and has an extensive image portfolio of Arizona’s grasslands. They have identified 15 grass species around their home. “I took some of my favorite photos standing indoors in my socks,” jokes Bean.
Habitat Profiles of the Flagstaff Area
Susan Lamb’s lifelong interest in observing the natural world and understanding varied growing conditions has led to her current project, Habitat Profiles of the Flagstaff Area, an interactive website being developed in conjunction with The Arboretum at Flagstaff and the National Weather Service. Residents will be able to access information on their neighborhood’s soil profile, precipitation, temperature, weather patterns and much more. The goal is to help gardeners design landscapes and choose plants that offer the best chance of thriving in their microclimates. The launch date for the website
is set for this fall. A link will also be available on the Arboretum website at
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