This Phoenix Garden Flourishes in Every Season
A well-planned arrangement of native plants results in a landscape that wows year-round.
By Nancy Erdmann
For as long as she can remember, Phoenix resident Anne O’Brien has loved to garden. Growing up in southern Ohio, she was surrounded by farms and family plots filled with flowers and vegetables. When she moved to Arizona in 1965, a love of desert flora turned into a passion. Several years ago, she and her husband, Rich, bought a house in east Phoenix; its main attraction was its big backyard. Equal in size to the 2,100-square-foot abode, the rectangular-shaped space, which at the time consisted mostly of a pool and paving, was a blank canvas to create whatever she chose. “I wanted something really unique with a plant palette that echoed the Valley’s four seasons,” she says.
Anne collaborated with landscape architect Mary Estes on a design that would change the face of the yard. After removing the pool and hardscape, Estes used steel retaining curbs to create elevation changes and define distinct planting spaces, including a raised garden that represents the desert and a sunken area reminiscent of Arizona’s wetlands.
“The landscape honors the fact that there is a lot of open space in the desert, nature’s way of supporting only the strongest plants when there’s not a lot of water. The yard has voids that reflect that open space,” notes Anne.
No matter the time of year, the landscape offers something of interest. “Anne is a gardener, so she enjoys getting her hands dirty and experimenting with plants,” Estes explains. “We concentrated on flora that flourishes in the extreme native heat and blooms in fall, winter and spring, as those are the seasons when you want to be outside.”
We take a look at Anne’s ever-changing greenscape and find out what plants thrive in each season.
TIP: When selecting vegetation, consider its blooming cycle and what it looks like when it isn’t flowering. Even when blooms turn to dried stalks, when backlit by the sun, they can be quite striking.
—Anne O’Brien, homeowner
This is probably the most prolific season, when just about everything is in bloom. The palo verde is covered with yellow blossoms, and ‘Firecracker’ penstemon are very showy early in spring (and also in late fall). Two kinds of hesperaloe, funifera (giant) and parviflora (medium-sized), produce flowering stalks this time of year and stick around most of the summer.
Summer is a surprisingly active time in Anne’s garden. ‘Sierra Starr’ red fairy duster, which attracts pollinators, especially bees, blooms nearly year-round, although it looks best in late spring and summer. ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ coral fountain plant draws pollinators, as well, with its orange-red blooms. Chuparosa, yellow bird of paradise and bougainvillea thrive in the heat, while ‘Outback Sunrise’ emu bush provides an attractive groundcover, even when its yellow blossoms are taking a break. The yellow orchid vine, which climbs up the ramada, flowers most of the year, later producing light-green butterfly-shaped papery seed pods that turn brown against the dark-green leaves. Desert marigold thrives in the hottest days of summer, and ‘Desert Diva’ desert willow tree bears wine-colored blooms.
TIP: Make sure to adjust your irrigation system throughout the seasons, as the water needs of plants will change with the weather. Also, it’s better to have more water valves than less. This will allow you to fine-tune your system and ensure that the amount of water is not too much or too little for specific plants.
—Anne O’Brien, homeowner
Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’) is the star of the garden. As summer fades into the short autumn season, the dense tufts produce billows of pink seed heads that turn the plant into a dramatic focal point. By early November, the color will have gone nearly purple before turning pale. When the muhly grass is cut back into small attractive haystacks in February, the hesperaloe growing behind it suddenly appears, sending up its own stalks and blooms.
TIP: For an interesting garden no matter the season, get to know a plant’s bloom cycle, mature size, texture and foliage color before purchasing it. In many ways, blooms are simply a bonus.
—Mary Estes, landscape architect
In winter, the garden is replete with an amazing variety of greens, grays and blues, especially in the agaves. Fountainlike green sotol grass contrasts with clouds of whitish muhlenbergia that lies like a fog as it winds down its blooming. The leafless desert willow emulates the bare branches seen this time of year throughout the Midwest. Cherry blossom euphorbia (Euphorbia xanti) produces tiny white flowers that turn pink when it’s cold but go back to white when the sun shines on them. Potted annuals add color and variety to the landscape.
TIP: Don’t over-prune. The most beautiful specimens often exist where there is little or no maintenance. Understanding when not to trim and how much to remove is key to plant health and longevity and makes for a believable natural landscape.
—Mary Estes, landscape architect
Visions of Verdure
Homeowner Anne O’Brien enjoys year-round evergreen color from such background plants as Agave desmettiana, A. ovatifolia, A. parryi var. truncata, green hopseed, hesperaloe, ‘Outback Sunrise’ emu, toothless sotol and totem pole cacti. “Consistent shades of green around the perimeter of the property, which includes a synthetic putting green, make the seasonal color stand out and enhances the forms of the sculptural plants, foliage colors and textures,” says Estes. Here are some additional offerings that can be found in the garden and their bloom periods.
- Spring: Foothills palo verde, palo blanco, ‘Firecracker’ penstemon
- Spring into summer: side-oats gramma grass, rosemary
- Spring through summer: ‘Desert Diva’ desert willow, yellow orchid vine
- Spring through fall: Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou pink’
- Spring into fall: bougainvillea, chuparosa, ‘Desert Flamenco’ red yucca, desert marigold, ‘Sierra Star’ fairy duster, ‘St. Elmo’s’ firecracker plant
- Summer: Hesperaloe funifera, H. parviflora, palo blanco trees (for its papery bark)
- Fall: ‘Firecracker’ penstemon
- Winter: ‘Sierra Star’ red fairy duster (seedpods), yellow orchid vine (seed heads)
- Year-Round: Mexican bird of paradise
Click here to see a full schematic of Anne O’Brien’s garden and a full list of plants in her landscape!