Springtime gardening tips for Arizona

Springtime gardening tips for Arizona

Episode 66 — Listen! The Angie’s List podcast
Interview with Dr. Jacqueline Soule of Tucson, Ariz. Soule is a horticulturist and gardening writer who writes for Angie’s List Magazine from Tucson.
Feb. 19, 2010

Angie’s List: Can you state your name, location and what you do for the record, please?
Jacqueline Soule: My name is Jacqueline A. Soule. Technically that is Dr. Soule, but most people call me Jacqueline. I’m located in Tucson, Ariz., where I write about gardening throughout the Southwest.

AL: Can you elaborate on why gardening is different in your area than in other parts of the country?
JS: What is unique about gardening here in the Southwest is first and foremost it gets hot in the summer, really hot — 100 degrees. North Dakota gets 100 degrees, but it won’t do that for 100 days in a row. The other big difference is our soils are alkaline. Most soils are more acidic. Plants prefer to be in more acidic soils. Even our desert native plants. They kind of cluster together out in the wilderness and share the acid they make by dropping their leaves. The big difference is the soil and the heat.

AL: If I had never gardened in your region before, what is one easy way to get started?
JS: The easy way to get started here in the Southwest is to visit an actual nursery, not an actual big box store, but an actual little nursery. Wander around and look at the plants. See what you like. Or maybe even take a walk around your neighborhood. If you see somebody out in their garden, talk to them. There are a number of gardening clubs throughout the greater Phoenix area that you could join or just even go to one meeting and see if you like it. It’s a great way to get your feet wet, see what’s out there and listen to some of the problems others have and find reasons how to resolve them.

AL: What are the planting seasons for your region? Is it all year-round or are there specific times when you should plant different things?
JS: The best time to plant plants, that are perennial plants, is in the fall. It will give them a good chance to get established as the weather cools down. Get their roots spread out through the ground. Then it’s at least six months before it hits 100 again. Fall is the best time for planting. The next best would be February and March. After that it’s just very hard for plants to get established. There is one exception to that. That is the cacti. Most of them are winter dormant and it’s much better to plant them in the spring in April and May. But most things prefer a fall planting.

AL: What native plants do you recommend for landscaping?
JS: I might recommend a little free booklet you can get online. It’s from the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association: amwua.org. The book is called Landscape plants throughout the Arizona desert. I was the technical writer on this book, and we wrote it several years ago, but it is still very, very valid for the Phoenix region. For trees, if you want a large shade tree, the mesquite trees work very well in our area. If you have a smaller yard and you want a smaller tree, the desert willow is very nice and has very gorgeous pink and purple flowers. However the desert willow should not be planted anywhere near a pool because it will drop those flowers constantly into the pool. For shrubs, it depends what color you like. Some of them flower in yellow and some of them flower in red. If you like red and you like hummingbirds the Baja Fairy duster is a very nice option. If you don’t like red at all, the Texas Olive with white flowers is a nice shrub. If you have rabbits that are eating your yard, the Turpentine Bush with yellow flowers makes a very nice addition. Other plants that do well in our climate tend to be plants from other desert areas. One example that is a plant from the deserts of China is the Lady Banks Rose, starting to flower in March and April throughout the valley. It’s not ideally adapted. You do have to add some water, because the Chinese deserts don’t get quite as hot as ours, but you’re not limited to native plants by any means.

AL: How do you recommend ridding your yard of weeds?
JS: To get rid of weeds in your yard, I’m reminded of what one of my plant science professors said: “No weed can withstand cold, hard steel.” Particularly in these days of hazardous chemicals and just how long do they last in the soul, the best thing is just to get to recognize what weeds are and just pull them. If pulling weeds is not ideal for you for whatever reason, there are a number of chemical products you can use, including pre-emergent herbicides. Pre-emergent herbicides can be used where you have rock mulch and your landscape is already established. They interfere with the oxygen uptake of seedlings and prevent them from growing. They also will stunt the growth of established plants. You would only do a pre-emergent in a landscape that’s already and fully matured.

AL: What are some other uses for mulch?
JS: One of the drawbacks of gardening in this area is the heat and the baking sun. One way to overcome that is by putting down mulch. A lot of people use rock mulch. Back in the ’60s and ’50s when the research was done, they said, “Oh this works!“ Unfortunately, newer research shows that the rock mulch makes it harder for some plants to withstand the heat. Now we are starting to say again – we, meaning the plant scientist community – really the best thing to put under that plant is the leaves that fall off that plant. We are going back to having tree wells around trees and letting the leaf litter accumulate in those tree wells. Unfortunately there are a lot of homeowner’s associations that don’t believe that looks very good. They like that gravel mulch in the front yard. In that case what you can do is plant ground covers under your trees. Help them cover the ground and that eliminates the need for a rock mulch. The problem with rock mulch is they heat up the ground. They also heat up the air. They release that heat into the environment around your home all night long. You end up running your air conditioner a lot more than you realize you otherwise have to.

AL: What are some methods you use to conserve water in your garden/yard?
JS: Water conservation is a big issue. Although the prices haven’t gone up in awhile. It’s still a good idea to conserve water. One of the easiest ways to do this is to harvest the water, so to speak, that runs off your roof. That is done by planting the higher water use plants by the house. That’s a very passive way of saving water. The rain waters them when it comes. Other than that, getting back to the mulch, planting ground covers that shade the soil actually help save water. Even though there are more plants in your landscape, they are saving water that otherwise would simply evaporate. One new system that’s been developed is a lot of people are putting the drip emitters if they have an irrigation system. You put the drip emitters about 6 inches under the soil. The water gravity will pull the water down and plant roots go down as well. So by burying your emitters is one big step you can take towards water conservation.

AL: Anything you would like to add? Any advice for new gardeners?
JS: For new gardeners or longtime gardeners in the area, or just people who want to take care of their yards, the thing to remember is you are paying the mortgage and the taxes. It’s your yard. If you really don’t like certain plants, don’t plant them. Don’t plant them because your neighbor has them. I see people do this often enough. If you really don’t like low-water plants, if they all just look ugly to you, then put your front yard where it will please your homeowner’s association but enjoy your background. An appropriate sized lawn is part of xeroscaping. You just don’t need the whole front yard in lawn. You don’t go out and play there. It is your land, do what you like with it. But if the water prices go up, you are going to be really happy to have some natives.

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