There are a number of challenges to overcome to create a lovely landscape for human snowbirds since they leave it untended for half the year. But it can be done. The three key factors are: establish, go native, and selection.
Establish. It is important to remember that plants from a nursery, native or not, will need TLC while they become established. Time to establishment is at least one year, and up to three years in some cases. During the establishment time, plants will need extra water. They will especially need extra water during dry times, like April until monsoon season.
If you arrive in the Old Pueblo in September to mid-October, you can try to establish your landscape with drought-tolerant plants. A drip irrigation system for the months you are away is a must, even with low water plants. Extra water will especially be needed during the first summer to insure plants become established, and some irrigation will be needed in subsequent years as well.
Even the newest and most modern irrigation system is subject to Murphy's Law. You may have to replant a time or two to get your garden established.
Plant desert natives. Planting native plants is always a good idea, no matter where you live. But here in the Southwest you want natives because they can endure our summers. Desert natives is not necessarily "Sonoran Desert" natives. Many plants from the lower Sonoran desert will not survive local winters. The Explorer readership area includes middle and high desert areas.
Selection. Get the right stuff. While succulents appear to be the easy solution to a trouble-free snowbird landscape, even they need extra water to become established. Besides, while many succulents make pleasing accent plants, a garden entirely of accent plants will not be visually appealing. It will be like too! many! exclamation! points! in! your! landscape!
Blend some succulents together with low water shrubs. Underplant the area with the winter flowering perennials mentioned for containers (below). While the winter plant palate is limited, there are a number of perennial native and low water plants that provide winter color.
Succulents that provide winter color include the bulbines, available in both yellow and orange (Bulbine species); two Sonoran native milkweeds, highly attractive to winter butterflies, threadleaf milkweed (Asclepias linearis) and desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata); and hummingbird attractor "red yucca" (Hesperaloe parviflora), a member of the Agave family with coral pink flowers.
Shrubs that offer winter color and are low water users include woolly butterfly bush, (Buddleja marrubifolia), plus three shrubs great as hummingbird attractors: pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla), Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), and chuperosa (Justicia californica). All of these will need irrigation for their first year.
Container gardens are always an excellent option. Containers full of plants can provide color, texture and dramatic accents for the winter season. Then the garden can be left to pass into the great compost heap in the sky when the human snowbirds fly away for the summer. When you return, you get the fun of selecting new plants and designs. The cost of new plants is roughly equivalent to a summer water bill, without the headaches of possible irrigation malfunction.
Ideally, select some native desert plants for your containers, they may seed out into the rest of your landscape and pleasantly surprise you in years to come. Colorful native perennials that may spread into the yard include: verbena (Verbena tenuisecta), paperflower (Tagetinae cooperii), desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa), desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), golden dyssodia (Dyssodia tenuisecta), damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana), angelita daisy (Hymenoxsis acaulis), and bladderpod (Cleome isomeris). Note that some of these are considered shrubs by garden books, even though they are not very woody.
If all else fails, you can simply select non-native winter annuals for your beds and containers. There are a number to choose from, including: bachelors button, calendula, carnation, clarkia, cottage pink (Dianthus plumaris), cup flower (Nierembergia), dianthus, English daisy (Bellis perennis), farewell-to-spring, Flanders poppy, floss flower, forget-me-not, Johnny-jump-up, lobelia, nasturtium, nemisia or buffalo flower, pansy, shizanthus or butterfly flower, snapdragon, stock, sweet pea, sweet alyssum, toadflax, and viola.
Jacqueline Soule has been writing articles about how to garden successfully in our area for over two decades. She makes house calls to help you with your landscape design. She can be reached at 292-0504.