Growing tropical-looking plants in the Phoenix, Arizona area. With a wiener dog.

August 11, 2015

Growing tropical-looking plants in Phoenix, and Los Angeles

Although I call my backyard the Tropical Paradise, it's just an illusion. This is the Sonoran Desert, after all. There is so little rainfall that it's a great place to play golf, just like Los Angeles. In the tropics, you know, it rains a lot. So no, you can't grow tropical plants here, or in Los Angeles, the way that you can in the tropics. But you can create an illusion. Here are some of the things that work here.

• Water with a low-pressure "drip" system. Water is precious in the desert, and expensive. The water that I apply to the plants in my garden is very carefully measured out. It's an ordinary drip system, with risers that spray to very precise areas. If a plant isn't growing somewhere, no water goes there. At all.

• Amend the soil. Here in the Phoenix area, I like to say that my plants aren't planted in Arizona, they're planted in holes in Arizona, in potting soil. And that potting soil is the kind that you use for indoor plants, with moisture control polymer in it. The polymer expands to hold water, and releases it slowly. You can get it in Miracle-Gro "Moisture Control" potting soil, and you can also buy the polymer itself. I do both.

• Plant cycads. If you don't know what they are, take a look at the plants in the photo there that look like kind'a ferns. Those aren't ferns, those are cycads. And they use very little water. In fact, if you overwater them, you'll kill them!

• Plant aloes, agaves, succulents, that sort of thing. These are fascinating and beautiful plants that use very little water.

• Use artificial turf. No grass. No. And if you're tempted to pour concrete all over everything, or pave it all over, please stop. Those hard surfaces not only get terribly hot, but also they reflect a lot of heat, making your garden even hotter, and drier. I've had artificial turf here since 2007 and it's great. Best investment I ever made. Yeah, it'll cost you some bucks to have it done right. And do have it done right - if your brother-in-law says that he can do it himself, change the subject, and put your hands over your ears and hum.

• Use mulch. I get all the mulch that I want free from the trees that I have. I scoop it up, or blow it onto the garden. Mulch holds in moisture, and keeps the roots of your plants cooler. That's a very good thing in the desert!

• Shade. Shade is precious in the desert. Don't even think of cutting down your trees! Find where the shade of structures, like your house, is. That's your prime real estate for plants. In the photo you are looking at the east-facing wall of my house. That's the very best place.

So there you go. I think it would surprise people if they knew how little water my Tropical Paradise uses. It's an illusion, after all. All good mirages are, you know.
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