Outside Chicago: Landscaping Tips for Desert Snow Birds

Many Chicagoans are snow birds. They fly south for the winter to escape the harsh Chicago winters at their second homes in the Arizona sun. If you are one of them, you have probably learned quickly that the gardening and landscaping techniques that work well in the Midwest cannot be applied to the Southwest. Keeping your winter haven looking beautiful and inviting requires that you learn a completely new approach to gardening and landscaping. After all, wet and windy Chicago is a world away from the hot, dry deserts of Arizona.

Coming from Chicago, with frequent rains and four distinct seasons, you might be confused and overwhelmed when you begin landscaping your winter home. It may seem impossible to get anything to grow in the dry, sandy soil and extreme heat. It will be impossible if you try to grow your Midwest favorites in these new growing conditions. Instead of battling against nature, try working with it. Native plants have adapted to the drought-like conditions and now thrive in the Arizona sun. Landscaping with native plants will make the upkeep of your yard much easier.

Landscaping in the Southwest

The most popular of the native plants are cacti and succulents. Nature has designed these plants to maximize moisture in the dry regions. Plus, they are a quintessential symbol of the desert and will give your winter home a local flavor that enhances the natural wonder of the Southwest. There are many varieties of cacti and succulents, so you should be able to create a look that shows off your style and personality by selecting your favorites and arranging them strategically in your gardens.

Each cactus and succulent has its own unique texture, too. Some produce spectacular blooms. Some are tall, while others hug the ground. Among the favorites in Arizona gardens are prickly pear cactus, golden barrel cactus, Mexican fence post cactus, candelabra cactus, claret cup cactus, and orchid cactus. All of these can be grown alongside succulents, such as agave, graptopetalum, dasylirion, aloe, dudleya, and echeveria.

Desert grasses may not be the lush, green carpet of lawn we are used to in the Midwest, but they are hardy and adapted to the desert environment. They can also be used in landscaping in place of the ornamental grasses common in Chicago gardens. Like cacti, the desert grasses are available in a variety of sizes, colors, and textures. Among the commonly-grown grasses are Mexican feather grass, pink muhly, verbena, skullcap, red yucca, and blue grama.

Trees and shrubs incorporated into your desert landscaping will benefit you by providing shade from the Arizona sun and will serve as a wind block. A number of small trees and shrubs thrive in desert conditions, including the desert willow, Chilean mesquite, Palo Verde, ironwood, and acacia. Shrubs such as Damask rose, chaparral sage, mahonia, cape honeysuckle, and bougainvillea, are all good choices.

If your eyes long for color, don’t despair. You can add splashes of color to your desert landscaping by planting annuals that are well-suited for the dry growing conditions. Coreopsis, cosmos, and begonias can be used, as well as lavender, vinca, and daisies.

Remember, however, that the desert is more diverse than many originally believe. Arizona has areas of high altitude and lower altitudes, therefore growing conditions vary from place to place. It is always a good idea to discuss your landscaping plans with a local greenhouse or nursery expert to ensure that the plants you select will thrive in your winter home.