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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Desert Landscape Design is Combination of Art and Science

Q. We recently moved into a new single-story home and want low maintenance, desert hardy plants. The plan called for 4 Japanese Privet trees and we became suspicious. My husband and I know nothing about ANYTHING that grows and so went to Springs Preserve to ask questions. The designer there assured me they would be, "Just fine". The landscaping was completed at the end of March followed by horrific winds and the trees looked pretty battered but I figured that they would recover. But then...the heat!

Fast forward to now and we have one tree completely dead, two are looking rather ghastly and one seems to be okay. We are following the watering schedule outlined by the landscape company, 7 days a week, 2 times a day for 15 minutes each. 

We could use some guidance as to what happened and what my other possible plant choices could be?

A. You should have trusted your instincts. You're instinct was spot on when something didn't seem right to you. Let's see… You are putting in a desert landscape and using plants native to Japan... Are there deserts in Japan? Oh yes, the desert Japanese privet, I forgot about that one!

Again, I have to thank Sunset magazine for letting me use these pictures that appeared in that magazine over 20 years ago. I used them many times in classes that I taught over the years.This is an example of the Prof. Jones minioasis concept of desert landscape design. It emphasizes three watering zones; high, medium and low.

Of course, I'm joking with you and I hope you can appreciate a little humor at your expense. I have about 8 posts on my blog about using Japanese privet in landscapes in the Mojave Desert. About 4 or 5 of those are how they do not tolerate dry soils and they perform much better growing in lawns.

You did the best you could. You checked with who you thought were knowledgeable people and they assured you everything was going to be okay. Well, they were wrong.

A slide from a PowerPoint presentation I used in my classes.I am not a landscape architect nor am I landscape designer but my classes focus on water and energy conservation through exterior design.
I don't like to get involved in plant selection. It is my least favorite topic in horticulture. But the majority of these plants, and the most expensive plants on your plant palette, should come from dry climates not from places like Japan. I will forward this email to a knowledgeable person who loves this topic and she can respond to you.

But I would tell you this:

  • The first question a landscape designer should ask is what your activities are outside now and what might they be over the next 10 years. This lays the foundation for creating exterior livable spaces. Plant materials are secondary to the design and used to enhance these livable spaces.
  • Your landscape design should include a high, water use area, a medium water use area and a low water use area. The irrigation design reflects the landscape design and helps sustain the plants growing in it.
  • High water use areas are used to help lower energy costs such as for AC and to create pleasant environments for people to use these outside spaces.
  • High water use areas should concentrate on plants that shade your south and west walls. You do not need trees or plants that get above 20 feet tall for a single-story home. Plants much above that height just waste water.
Minioasis design concept and Hydro zoning rely on irrigation systems designed for plants having high, medium and low water requirements. Red is high, green is medium and blue is low.Again, thank you Sunset Magazine.

This type of landscape design concept is Dr. Warren Jones minioasis landscape design concept developed over 40 years ago at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It is talked about in his book, “Plants for Dry Climates”. This is still a valuable resource to use when deciding on a desert landscape design and plants to grow in it.

I attached some graphics for you to look at. I also included a finished desert landscape design that has a pool and lawn area. Yes, desert designs can be anything but should lower water costs, energy costs and use desert or desert adapted plant materials for the majority of its landscape.

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