Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Garden Designers Roundtable: Dangerous Gardens

I wasn't always a desert rat. But learning can be dangerous!

Over time, I came to appreciate the desert aesthetic, starting when I first saw what to many is the prototypical desert - the Sonoran Desert. I was going into the 6th grade, as our family car zoomed towards Gila Bend, seeing my first roadrunner trot through open areas (negative space - void), between creosote bushes, palo verdes and saguaros (positive space - mass).

Then, I didn't know those terms. Now I do - join me in this month's "Dangerous Gardens" on the Garden Designers Roundtable!
To my amazement, not all see beauty in "danger". A saguaro vista, near the "ironwood forest" NW of Tucson, May 2005. That day may have set a daily record high of 111F. (my house in Abq the same day was a relatively cool 98F) Intense, dangerous.




Fewer get the deserts other than the Sonoran Desert, especially in the higher, cooler, and less dry desert grasslands. Paraphrasing a blog from Tucson, "I didn't move to a desert, I moved to a garden!" Same here.
The Eye of the Sandias - you can "google it".

I moved to Abq in 1992, to be in the desert. I soon discovered that most here who I thought were peers didn't like the desert.






My move to the Desert Southwest was signaled by the steep and jagged outlines of the 
Sandia Mountains (Arizona-New Mexico Mountains), compared to the larger but less 
dramatic Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north (Rocky Mountains). Even the smaller,
spreading live oaks here have spiny leaf margins. Many insects have venom.

That is the Sandia Tram at the east edge of Abq, that many see who use our Sunport but are
insightful enough to not immediately rush to Santa Fe. In winter, I've worked AM, skied in the
afternoon, to drive home and hit a bucket of balls at the golf course driving range...same day.

One enters the dangerous Desert Southwest - here, the Chihuahuan Desert - at the bottom of 
La Bajada Hill, as I-25 plunges downhill about 1500 feet in elevation into central New Mexico.

That's at least 7F warmer over the year than Santa Fe, only 60 miles away. Big differences.

Yes, that sign reads correctly.

This is what the Chihuahuan Desert becomes at many of its' foothill edges - high chaparral. Home to western diamondback rattlers, scorpions, and rugged plants. A dangerous land - until you know it, embrace it, and learn how to be of it. It was 105F that early July day, as I took family from PA around and then upward on the tram - a much cooler 75F at the 10,600' summit!

Sometimes that's how we need to be of the desert; get out of it for a while. But we always return.






A fellow desert rat and I stumbled upon this cool building in Las Cruces during a conference. We guessed it was similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, helping those with some life-stealing addictions to better conquer them. Perhaps there needs to be a 12-step program for the folks I referred to earlier, our HOG (horticultural old guard), so they lose their addictions to landscapes with a drinking problem. Imagine that as a mandatory course, before one can buy, sell, specify, or install plants? A privilege-to-garden-in-the-desert license, upon seeing the beauty in desert danger!

Perhaps the HOG will learn to not be such animals, embracing great ideas that like it here and were here long before them, and to be nice to those who promote such? Instead of being so threatened.



This is dangerous, but it isn't the plants' fault.






Here's my progression, in what turns myself and others onto our powerful place - the dangerous garden.
Dangerous gardens are only dangerous until you get to know them, and bask in their potential.

A former desert resident, once again living on the green side of the world, Daphne takes in the chilly morning light. Her thorny companions include Ocotillo / Fouquieria splendens (L), Velvet Mesquite / Prosopis velutina (above), and spiky tree aloes (background). She's enjoying the Tucson Botanical Gardens a week ago during a GWA conference.







Before I started my solo design practice in 1995, I was at a firm with non-like-minded folks at the helm. I designed the structural and background plantings at the Albuquerque Rose Garden in the NE Heights. In 1994-1995, it was radical to specify Chaste or Monk's Pepper Tree / Vitex agnus-castus, desert willows, Arizona rosewoods, sotols, live oaks, etc in any quantity, let alone in a public or commercial landscape. No matter that they were proven long ago in homes all over town.

But I didn't come here to be a lackey. And thorny roses are not dangerous, radical or sharp...yeah, right.

Right plant, right place. Roses are a fine oasis plant in the desert, and ours' can rival the same anywhere on earth. I like them. I also knew how that Vitex species grows into a 15'+ tall tree in Abq, as could be observed in older residential neighborhoods, while the HOG were calling them shrubs. Logic can be radical, too. Dangerous!

Back to Tucson - how about this gorgeous collection of potted plants under the shade ramada?

Our morning light hinting at the danger later in the day, if not used to the dreaded dry heat and not
properly hydrated. But gorgeous now; sip that strong cup of French Roast coffee!
Espinillo / Acacia caven at the Desert Legume Program near the U of A Extension farm in Tucson. It hails from the Monte Desert and nearby areas in South America, which are much like the Chihuahuan and higher Sonoran deserts. Those are spines!

Dangerous means beauty, too. 
Another type of beauty, descending from the Mojave Desert of Sin City - Las Vegas - into the broiling Sonoran Desert near Laughlin, Teddy Bear Cholla / Cylindropuntia biglovii begins to dot the sandy, baked landscape.

You don't want to get near those fallen joints. They are a way for this species to reproduce, but it's painful to remove them.

I mountain bike. And this chilly winter's sunset had me getting in an hour spin on the Sierra Vista trail E of Las Cruces, with dangerously beautiful riding through the Chihuahuan desert grassland, among their taller form of Datil / Yucca baccata ssp. thornberi (AKA Y. arizonica) and a few Fishhook Barrel Cactus / Ferocactus wislizenii.
Ever exit the freeway to see what the backroads have to offer? On a cool July afternoon with monsoon storms trying, but only bringing evaporative cooling and little rain, this is Allthorn / Koeberlinia spinosa SE of Truth or Consequences NM.

Like roses, be careful near these. (couldn't resist...and it's true!)

Got art? Well, this art gallery in Marfa TX used Desert Candle / Dasylirion leiophyllum as art...like a row crop. Nice!

I advise not wandering into these to take out a stray paper or burger wrapper, to get that primo photo, while wearing shorts.

A light, damp winter snow in Abq at my tiny home garden - just enough to remind you it's definitely winter. But danger is revealed even with that soft blanket of the white stuff on my late Rough Agave / Agave scabra.
I design larger projects, too, such as Central New Mexico Community College. Note the typical form of Datil / Yucca baccata on the first level of the wall, and the bluish Sotol or Desert Spoon / Dasylirion wheeleri in front and in the ground. My red walls were built, to contrast the ever-present blue skies of the west mesa, as a contrasting backdrop to the above plants.

Only 3 years after installation when I took this photo, the spiky, dangerous plants are still there. The usually-tough, flowering desert perennials also designed were already gone.
An oddly-underused meditation garden and entry that I designed at Calvary Chapel ABQ. Native Sideoats Grama / Bouteloua curtipendula designed to line the low glass wall, low seat wall I added to both sit on with morning joe and provide additional structure and architecture.

The balance of the church landscape was the usual cross of Mediterranean, Midwest, and Mountain. Some good and some inappropriate to a desert city. Some whitish "Jerusalem Stone" was used on the building renovation , so that was a cue.

I was asked to do something different. So, I combined the Mediterranean ruggedness of specimen-sized Chaste Tree / V. agnus-castus, with regional natives Sotol and Deergrass / Muhlenbergia rigens. Dangerous of me not using habitual-blah Karl Foerster, Russky Sage, Italian Cypress, and Potentilla. And more successful on less water.

At sunset, the Sandia Mountains turn watermelon-red. Spikiness now silhouetted, before the landscape lighting comes on.

A small, intimate area. All scales and types of spaces can be for vibrant outdoor living. "Danger is my business", Jeff Spicoli - Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Back to Central New Mexico Community College, but another campus - the CNM Workforce Training Center.

I designed in mounds of native Desert Prickly Pear / Opuntia engelmannii into this large parking island among the feather grasses and beargrasses, so people would use the sidewalks to go into the building. And for winter interest. It did the job and looked great for over a decade!

On the other side of the same CNM Workforce Training Center, Sotol / Dasylirion wheeleri provides
verticality, like rockets firing into our cobalt winter skies. It also provides dangerously appealing
winter evergreen, unlike fleeting flowers that the HOG might use. And cacti, with desert willows.

Ever(blue)green trumps tapestries of gray and brown every time. Dangerous!

Back to the CNM Westside campus - repetition of everything, since it's a large space. But the distant Giant Hesperaloe / Hesperaloe funifera widely spaced for now, stands out. Sandstone walls with green spikiness in front. Distant danger.
Another angle of those giant hesperaloes, plus a few volunteers of the remaining Gooding Verbena / Glandularia goodingii escaping the maintenance people's Roundup applications, of the many I designed in at key areas. I try...
I haven't used giant hesperaloes as much as I used to, but this shot at Explora, conceptualized by me but the working drawings completed by another firm, shows them in an autumn light, in the overly-irrigated grama grasses I envisioned.

The photo is thanks to Dan Goodspeed, former Phoenix plantsman-extraordinaire, before we knocked down a beer and dinner.
Speaking of which, his Strava handle for his cycling adventures is Danger Dan! Prophetic. And how 'bout those Chainfruit Cholla / Cylindropuntia fulgida? So Sonoran of a ride last April that we did, just N of Mesa AZ.
Even danger for elementary school kiddos on the Navajo Reservation - here, Banana Yucca  / Y. baccata at the first
LEED project in NM, the Baca / Dlo'ay azhi Community School in the northwestern Land of Enchantment. Spaced
at 9' on-center from the paving edge, those should be safely back at least 5', once mature.
The horror! And junipers too - native, but those produce pollen! Never mind this is downwind of 450 miles of junipers.

(back-handed slaps to the HOG...anyway, they should like the flowering plants interspersed along that row of yuccas, at least before the maintenance people kill them)
Now, even a smaller garden space - the narrowest part of my property. Got 95% compaction of granite and clay soil? It's dangerous gardening, baby! Ocotillo / F. splendens, assorted Opuntia spp., and Gooding's Verbena love this. Aspens don't...
Not so dangerous, even to our slow-to-catch-on HOG. But each plant in this mass of Twistleaf Yucca / Yucca rupicola has sharp leaf margins. They stand guard along the cool, north-facing microclimate at Aliso, an infill project with narrow planting areas, which I designed as part of an architect-led design team. A spring view.

And in one of the past seasons of the TV series Breaking Bad, filmed here in the Duke City; you may have already seen this! And that show's concept...believable and dangerous.
Dangerous desert rocks...Giant Hesperaloe stands guard behind Powis Castle Sage at a Corrales residence's front gate. I had to personally prune that Chitalpa tree, since the previous landscaper didn't know how, and the owner was afraid to. Yep...
Now, it's almost fall, and the opposite side of that same gate. A greener form of Zoyate or Beaked Yucca / Yucca rostrata and Desert or Engelmann Prickly Pear / Opuntia engelmannii screaming out along with my courtyard wall / gate design, "welcome to the desert southwest - but watch where you walk - peligroso!"
But don't misinterpret me...flowers are fine...right plant, right place. And in the fall, the red ones are primo throughout the southwest, Albuquerque to Anaheim, Tucson to Tucumcari. (is that a song?) Presenting California Fuchsia / Epilobium canum, planted in mass, between walls, Arizona Rosewood, tree yuccas, and more Powis Castle.

And if one prefers a catalog that adds "hardy" in front of some plant names, or writing "prairie grassland" over "desert", just call it "Hummingbird Trumpet". That C-word may be as dangerous as the D-word. I don't really care that much, anyway; I only design dangerous gardens that dare to be of sense and place!



Can you imagine the musical accompaniments to dangerous gardens?

(Got one! Stone Temple Pilots, Wicked Garden w/ quick high desert shots between all the 90's mosh pit scenes)

While I cue up my stereo and crank up some appropriate songs, please join me in reading what some of the ladies and knights of the Garden Writers Roundtable have to say - 

40 comments:

  1. Knew you'd have some dangerous pics. Very enjoyable!

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    1. Glad you liked...it was a tough task narrowing down!

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  2. While I love every one of these photos the Acacia caven really jumped out at me. I recently bought one at the Cistus 'tough love' sale...and I had NO IDEA the spikes got that long. Amazing1

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    1. I wondered if you might like that acacia, but never guess you would own one as well! Silly me...

      Now, I'm wondering if that is A. caven - it looked like it, but I will re-research.

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  3. The mysteries and danger the desert holds is magnetic in many ways. Your work captures that.

    Some very dangerous plants shown here, yet not so dangerous when used as the right plant, right place.

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    1. Thanks - sometimes I forget that I have created some impact in what I say we should do here. Yes, few plants are bad...but all plants deserve to be used in their best place!

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  4. You make so many good points (ha-ha) David, especially to be daring and buck the status quo, wherever you may live. My fav photo has to be the Sierra Vista Trail -- gorgeous!

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    1. I just couldn't help myself...countless times over (hence my tardiness in posting:)! Lately, that trail photo has made it to a talk and a post, people suddenly like it.

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  5. As always, I love your great perceptions--not just in design but nature's design and how to use danger in our gardens (safely). Also love your tour of places that I've never seen, aside from a too-brief look in Tucson. Wished I'd gone up the mountains with you!

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    1. Thanks so much - it all relates! Tucson - much more there, plus I have many more things to post on there in addition to the last post. Wish I went up this time, too...maybe next time?

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  6. Love the fun. I'm glad you got to see lots while you were here. The last set of pics are my favorites in the design category. Danger indeed. I place prickly pear where I don't want human people climbing walls....DANGER!! Texas Ebony also does wonders to a gardener not paying attention:)

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    1. So much in Tucson...a group from El Paso is going on a kaktus trip, and I wish I could go, but no dice. Your thoughts on how to use TX Ebony (or bougainvillea!), cacti are perfect.

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  7. Your appreciation and understand of the nuances of the desert is always enlightening, David. Keep showing that HOG how to do it!

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    1. That's great to hear, oh Death Star Dweller! You can count on it...already seeing some copying, which makes me :-)

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  8. Thanks for the tour. So many neat things to enjoy.
    A few years ago we went to the balloon rally and rode on that tram. YIKES, it just about did me in with my fear of heights especially those bumps. :)

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    1. I realized I had too many photos, but went with it! I rode a balloon somewhere years ago...maybe here...it was something else!

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  9. Now those are some WICKED pictures! Dangerous! ;) I love all the mass planting especially. The CNM Workforce Training Center you did is incredible, as are the other campuses you showed us. And Breaking bad...Walt's townhouse! Oh yeah! sooooo cooool! The cholla....WOW! It is way taller than your friend...ON A BIKE! Just love these pictures. Everything in the desert sure can hurt you that is for sure...but a healthy respect is important! So easy for ignorant people to just....whine!!

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    1. Thanks - CNM WTC came out OK, but I wished I would have designed water harvesting into it, including from all the paving. The budget was paltry!

      I thought you might like the chainfruit and teddy bear chollas...talk about other-worldly!

      Walt...so funny to see that. Healthy respect over whining - yes, or really anywhere?

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  10. I agree with Jocelyn...you certainly made your 'point'. Great photos.

    I especially like the Corrales design and the back of your house. Most of those things will work here in Central Texas, even though we're not technically desert. Great inspiration....

    We saw some of that Cholla in Joshua Tree, NP, this September. At least, I think it was that same kind. Not as tall, but just as dangerous. And, there were people walking around in flip-flops! Crazy.

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    1. Very true!!! Thanks, it's enjoyable to go back through old pics to remind myself that I need to get organizing, and where I've been that inspires. The purple Tubac Prickly Pear will probably do better there than in Abq. Many chollas; odd how people don't realize flip-flops are for limited use, not in the wilds.

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  11. I love the danger/beauty angle. Those Acacia Thorns were kool.

    When I first brought my Swedish wife & her two kids out to Anza Borrego State Park so they could see what the desert looks like, I was so paranoid and nervous that they were going to step onto or into something risky that I could hardly relax. People who are unaware are through no real fault of their own CARELESS and IGNORANT when it comes to things they don't know in the wilds. Same could be said of landscapes.

    I was at an Apartment complex here last week which has lots of kids. Some of the landscaping had Yew Bushes and Trees with those tiny raspberry looking fruits on them. WRONG plant in dangerous location. One bite and a child could be gone. Beautiful contrasting colours at the end there with the pretty manicured bright green against grey. The one shot of the yellow-brown bunch grasses and tree which was either dormant or dead looked more like a fire hazard. Over all beautiful scenes and settings.

    -

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    1. BTW, that top photo makes me want to go for a walk and explore!

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    2. It takes some putting on of one's "desert eyes" as Scott Calhoun said in a past book of his. I learned to dress differently, different sturdier shoes, etc after a few years in Abq. Borrego must have been a shock...looks so bleached there, but once on the ground hiking, it's desert heaven.

      That top photo was a fun trip - it was a cool spring to that day, so the ironwoods were not in bloom yet, but later we finished at the top of Mt Lemmon (most was burned though), only low 80's or so!

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    3. Mount Lemon has changed big time with so many fires from when I first saw it in 1979. The forest tree line keeps moving further up the mountainside just like all the other sky islands.

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  12. Miss the desert already. Beautiful, if dangerous...great photos, thanks!

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    1. Thanks. And I'm soaking it up for you as I write, even though it's a bit dangerous!

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  13. David, What a wonderful collection of photos perfectly illustrating the 'dangers' of gardening. Those HOGs seem to be popping up all over the place, glad you're working to educate the ignorant.

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    1. Thanks for visiting. Yes, our own brand of danger, and the folks who love it or don't:-) I try to empower those who might be victims of the HOG, which hopefully will indirectly help said HOG!

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  14. Dangerous or not, it would've been great to have seen more places like this during the Tucson GWA conference... Wish I had made more time to do some actual ground truthing while there via hiking or mountain biking. What little I did see was full of life. Yep... There's an awful lot of beautiful growing in the gardens of the desert. Thanks for showing us a little more insight beyond the thorns.

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    1. Like you, I wish we could have seen more in Tucson, especially for those who've never spent much time there. I'll definitely have to post on other things I saw. "Full of life" - so true about the Sonoran Desert and many gardens in Tucson. Imagine one event being a mellow hike into a nice natural area, led by Scott Calhoun or Greg Starr?

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  15. Fantastic view! And the designs are so beautiful!

    Landscaping Virginia

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    1. Thanks, and enjoyed your visit! (and enjoy green, not-so-dangerous VA)

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  16. I can relate to moving from mild to "dangerous", landscape wise! I moved from DC to the foothills above Denver a few years back and it took some getting used to. Now I love it! Recently found a wind scorpion among my cactuses. Dangerous but utterly exciting.

    Really enjoy your writings!

    Pam in CO

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts and visiting - I was a bit scattered this time! Wind scorpion - I've heard of them, and they sound common in the drier west to California. (we have vinegaroons here, AKA whip-scorpions) One of my sisters lives in Evergreen - always a great change to visit there. Keep checking back!

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  17. I love all the scary, dangerous looking plants! Being dangerous has helped them to survive in their tough environments for centuries. And a little dangerous plant or two in a garden is a good thing - it keeps you on your toes with their "look, don't touch" attitude! But you bring up a good point about people that transfer to the desert landscape, but don't embrace its qualities. In some way, I can understand wanting the landscape that is more familiar to them, at least initially. But each landscape has its own beauty, and understanding that beauty enough to work with the landscape instead of against it creates gardens that are superb. Speaking of superb - I love the small garden on the narrow part of your property. Not only great contrast in form, but the colors of the foliage and flowers -even the walls- are so very complimentary. Dangerous, perhaps, but lovely.

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    1. Very nice - you must have a dangerous gene in you with those wonderful roses in your palette! I really like your thought on having a surprise or two. Thanks - that side is fun to look at, but a steady ladder is also nice...keeps danger safe!

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  18. What an interesting post! So informative and the photos were amazing! Love that early morning vista--great light!! Thanks!

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    1. So nice to have you visit, Laguna - somehow I had to put you back into my blogroll, after some shifting around weeks ago! Thanks - the morning light is like fall - payment for mid-day and a reward for summer.

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  19. You said it right! Learning in some cases can be dangerous and it takes an awareness and knowledge to make a smart move but I must say for me that’s where the fun begins! I found this surprising to be honest and I’m looking forward for your next posts… Thanks for sharing!
    JeffWortham.com

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    1. Thanks for visiting - yes, danger is where the fun begins. That's why I'm frank, blunt and honest!

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