How to choose plants in the Southwest
The Southwest offers weather unlike much of the nation. For many cities in our region, winter is the time of year to get outdoors and enjoy our yards without sweltering heat. It's also a good time to plant some color. The only drawback is that many nationwide chain stores are not geared to respond to our Western region needs.
This is where locally owned nurseries and greenhouses can really shine. Use Angie's List to look up "Greenhouses/Nurseries" and you will discover a number of local options, complete with reviews.
"Plant shopping is unique. You are buying a living entity," say Beth Hargrove, owner of highly rated Rillito Nursery & Garden Center in Tucson, Ariz. "As the customer, you can really help us by realistically assessing how much care you want to lavish on your plants, how often you will fertilize or prune, and how much litter you will tolerate."
Lynnette Kampe, director of highly rated Theodore Payne Nursery and Foundation in Sun Valley, Calif., suggests buyers also do a site assessment of their yard. "First and foremost, we need to know the soil type," Kampe says. "One person can have sandy soil, while their friend three blocks away has clay soil. The two sites require entirely different plants."
Hargrove and Kampe also like customers to assess the space available. Both of them caution: Plants grow. A tiny 1-gallon plant can easily have a mature size of 5-feet tall and 5-feet wide. "Planted too close to a walkway, this large plant will mean more work for the homeowner and a stressful life for the plant," Hargrove says.
Plants need light to grow, yet our searing summer is always around the corner. "A clear idea of the light or exposure of a site is invaluable," Kampe says. "There are a number of Western native plants that prefer a partially shady site, under a tree or on the east side of a home."
Reflected light from a pool or picture window also can be too much for a plant, even those rated for full sun. "Owners should look at their yards from the plant's perspective before their purchase," Hargrove says.
The Western water wars continue among state governments, similar to the battle that plant roots wage for the water they need to grow. People need to be aware of which irrigation zone they will be planting in, Kampe recommends. Although "natives are great, it can take them up to three years to become established. They will need water throughout this period," she says.
The five parts of the equation for plant success in the West are: soil + space + light + water + your willing degree of care. When you get these components of the equation to equal the right plants, they will not only survive but thrive in your yard for years to come.
Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has been writing about gardening in the West for nearly three decades. Her latest book, "Father Kino's Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today," is available through the Western National Parks Association.