Front Yard Arizona Landscaping - Fresh Start With Images & Plan

luckycharmz336April 25, 2012

My wife and I are trying to landscape our front yard. This is our first new house and we are extremely timid about our decisions. We wanted everyone to review the landscape ideas we came up with - especially the plants and trees we chose.

First is a picture of our house so you can get an idea of locations of plants and trees. Pretty much all the plants and trees get full sun all day.

Eventually we are going to have a fountain at the larger circle #3 higher on the image. (there are three #3's which are agave's - the fountain will go in place of the top one near the paver sidewalk.). We were a little timid because our house is a spanish style home - and we aren't going desert - however; there aren't any homes in our neighborhood with all desert landscaping - so we are trying to make it "fit in" better.

You can't see the right side of the home in the house image, but it's basically a 2 car garage and a 1 car garage.

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Should plant some hardy plants.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 11:43PM
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Being far from Arizona, I don't often see this type of architecture. But it has some very attractive qualities which seem to be well put together in an a serene, elegant and handsomely simple way. Sorry to say I don't care for your landscape proposal. It looks unrelated to the style of architecture. It's somewhere between Victorian and Art Nouveau. The house and yard are a dichotomy and I can't see them getting comfortable with one another. I have no doubts that such things are probably done there all the time, but it seems like it would be better to have a yard and house that are of the same "flavor." Sorry. That's my take on it. It looks like you're building in some unnecessary maintenance chores, too. Your presentation is nice though.

What do people use for grass?

What's does the grey area (next to drive) represent?

What are the wiggly stripes far (left and right) that look like liquid running down the plan?

Arizona has many planting zones. What known city are you near?

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 1:04AM
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Hey Yardvaark - We went to a local nursery that recommended all desert landscaping, but then we ran into a dilemma because the neighborhood called for 65% grass. The right and left squiggly lines were larger rock beds. We are having the hardest time deciding what to use. We feel weird if we use all desert landscaping when we are forced to have 65% grass - since they contradict each other. All of the grey areas are simply gravel - which we haven't decided upon yet. We are in the Phoenix valley - next to red mountain - but basically phoenix climate.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 1:14AM
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Do you see what I'm talking about, though, with the two very different styles?

I don't necessarily think that "desert" landscaping and grass are impossible to combine is a pleasant way. Are you fluent in the neighborhood's landscape requirements? Do they allow any grass substitutes? (Which are becoming the rage because of ridiculous water bills and maintenance expenses.) Do they require certain types of grass? Speaking of grass, some ornamental grasses could look very nice in this setting.

Do the squiggly rock beds serve a purpose?

That is the strangest Bougainvillea I've seen, but it's handsome and I like it. I wonder what it does with age. Here, they're big sprawling monsters.

What's happening at the left with the grade? Looks like house is on raised area. Is the area at left side something in particular? It looks like a skinny driveway.

Your plan has different walk than the photo. You plant to re-do?

Your dirt is such a pretty color!

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 2:10AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I agree with Yardvaark.that there is a disconnect stylistically with the quite attractive house facade and the landscape plan. I also find it hard to believe that any HOA in Phoenix, Arizona would even be allowed by your local water district to mandate a 65% landscape footage be installed as turf, it just doesn't make sense these days, if it ever did. I'd seriously look into what leeway you might have to use a lower water using ground cover instead. Your wallet will thank you. If it has to be turf, I'd even suggest artificial turf over the real thing, or investigate whether a truly lower water use turf type such as Buffalo grass would be an acceptable alternative.(it won't look as lush as the typical hybrid Bermuda grass, but it will use far less water).

The lawn configuration has edges that will be both awkward to irrigate and mow/edge, it may appeal to you in plan, but doesn't really function in reality; simplify shapes to maximize irrigation efficiency as well as mowing.

Some of the plant types and locations aren't ideal for your climate; such as the Sago palms in full hot sun, and the Bougainvilleas will tend to look ratty in winter if they get frosted, personally I feel they work better massed behind evergreens where
poor winter appearance won't be as
obvious, or used as a vine/espaliered shrub against a wall, where they are also less likely to get freeze damaged. Your tree choices reflect desert appropriate culture, the shrub choices less so.

I'd suggest you check out examples of lusher looking desert species landscapes locally that you like to get more ideas of lower water using choices. Also check out local resources such as the Desert Botanic Garden, nursery web sites such as forward thinking Mountain States Wholesale Nursery, and local designers such as Steve Martino's work. I am also sure there must be local public demonstration gardens with xeriscape style gardens that your local water district have designed for public information on reducing landscape irrigation use and costs. If you live in Phoenix year round, you'll already have a high utility bill in summer for air conditioning. No point in doubling down on a too high landscape water bill because of all that mandated HOA turf if you can get creative and work around it.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 12:09AM
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bahia and Yard - you have no idea what water attitudes are like in Phoenix. When I moved there from San Diego, I came upon a big apartment complex surrounded by lush lawns with irrigation running in the middle of the day. I assumed I had found a great deal on a high end community and signed a lease. Um, no, I was on the edge of the ghetto. Because PHX steals their water from the Colorado River via canals, water is CHEAP. So you have transplants from the Midwest who buy houses, get on the HOA board, and try to bring their slice of Decatur to the desert. Idiots.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 1:46PM
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Thanks for the enlightenment, Marcinde. Personally, I have no objection to anyone creating any level of lushness they're willing to pay for. The problem is forcing it on others. When conditions change and water is no longer cheap or easy to come by--pretty much guaranteed to happen eventually--others are forced to pay the price.

While desert landscaping can be pretty and interesting to look at--especially if one doesn't see it every day--it might not be the optimum thing to live in. In other words, if I were IN the desert and there was an oasis on the horizon, I'd be gravitating toward it for shelter from the heat and sun and for the promise of water. Collectively, desert landscaping adds heat, or at least does nothing to ameliorate it. Going from the shade of a tree to a roof or parking lot will convince anyone who's in doubt. It also seems that there are a lot of plants that that can grow in the Phoenix area that have low water requirements. I'd be thinking of adding as much lushness as possible (or the appearance of it) within the confines of the conditions. And I agree with Bahia that it would be worthwhile to explore alternatives to an outdated mandate. It would be good to get creative on several fronts.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 4:02PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I don't know how long ago it's been you lived in Phoenix, but Arizona's access to Colorado River water is subject to the same constraints as California and Nevada. The apportioned shares of water to each state don't match the actual supply in drought years such as we've had in the Colorado River basin the last few years. I can only assume that the cost of water to homeowners is subject to price increases and rationing to stretch the supplies further, and that the city of Phoenix is now actively trying to persuade if not mandate landscape water conservation in the interests of having enough to meet the demand. I would be very surprised if there were no incentives in place to encourage water conservation, but I could very well be wrong about that. If so, the city and state government are acting like idiots if they don't see the writing on the wall.

As to desert landscaping not providing the same benefits of cooling as more water demanding landscapes, it really boils down to appropriate design. Both can be equally effective, in combination with proper site planning and use of structures to create shade as well.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 8:41PM
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Yard - I can understand that perception, but if you ever get the chance to visit Phoenix - and you should, it rocks - you need to visit the Desert Botanical Gardens. We were members and even in summer, we'd go there to hang out. They really show that it's totally possible to have a low water use landscape that honors and respects the desert that still welcomes and cools you. What it comes down to, though, is thirsty sod and full-foliaged ficus trees look more familiar to transplants than mesquite and palo verde trees. At what cost, though? They're missing out on some of the coolest landscaping in the country AND setting themselves up for misery when the West is hit with a massive water crisis.

To the OP - I def agree with bahia on the sagos. One of the resorts by Camelback Mountain (don't recall which) has a line of sago palms in the median going up to the guard house. The ones that get shade from the windmill palms look awesome, the ones that don't look like heck. Unless someone's parking a semi trailer at the curb every day, yours will likely fry.

Artificial turf is a great option if the HOA will go for it. When I lived in the area the up front cost was way higher (I think 5-7x the cost) but if you'll be in the house a while it'll pay for itself.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 8:57PM
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Wow luckycharmz, your hoa making you put in 65% grass seems so strange. Here in Las Vegas people are prohibited from putting in too much grass and given rebates from the water district when they convert existing sod areas into desert landscaping. I believe we just heard from the water witch (head of the water dept.) that we are using less water now than we did as a city ten years ago even though the population has grown a lot. That is how it should be in a desert city.

I had no idea phoenix was in such a state of desert denial. Personally I think a well done desert landscape is every bit as beautiful as any other more water thirsty kind and have found after over twenty years living in Las Vegas that the desert plants have a real advantage over non desert plants. They like it here! A happy plant is a healthy plant which makes for an attractive plant. So many non desert species really fold up in our hot dry summers but the desert plants shine.

I do understand though that you don't have a choice on the lawn and cactus and yuccas and desert marigold look out of place next to a lawn so I can understand wanting low water use but not really desert plants.

One thing I notice right off about your plan is the trees. The Mesquite and Palo Verde are thirty foot trees and I just don't think you have near the space for them. If you can map out a plan view of your yard drawn to scale and then put circles where the trees go at thier ultimate size I think you will agree. And both those trees grow very fast so they will quickly reach twenty five to thirty feet in diameter.

Also the alternating texas sages rangers and bouganvilleas is not a very attractive look, kind of stripey. There are so many different kinds of leucophyllum (Texas Ranger) that you could easile get a little variety without the jarring effect by grouping different varieties together.

Where you have your lantana behind your little johns they might be kind of hard to see as they are a shorter plant.

You do have a beautiful house and I hope you can give it a landscape that will add to that. Maria

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 10:17PM
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It could be a question of semantics and my terminology being off. I'm using "desert landscaping" to mean the absence of and cactus, agaves and the like. Where there isn't shade, the ground becomes a giant heat sink. I'm thinking much shade can be produced to counter the beating sun. I lived in south Texas for 3 years and the heat in summer was insufferable. Most people had little shade. But others had nearly total shade and the difference was phenomenal.

"The Mesquite and Palo Verde are thirty foot trees and I just don't think you have near the space for them." Maria, I don't understand this comment as most places I've lived, trees grow huge. The normal evolution is for the tree to grow large and provide some shade on the house. Currently, no sun reaches my roof as I'm under a monster live oak. (Nothing is near touching it.) I'd think that in the desert, this would be the desirable condition to attain, if possible.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 12:40AM
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Yardvaark, I am not suggesting that luckycharmz not have trees in his front yard or even not have these kind of trees but it just doesn't look like enough room for 7 large canopied trees. I don't know what landscapers do where you are at but here I see on a daily basis trees planted too close to each other, too close to houses, too close to the street, etc. The result is not good and usually results in a butch job that destroys the natural beauty of these fine trees.

All I was trying to suggest was to have the plan drawn to scale including the mature spread of the trees too see what will happen in probably less than five years time because desert trees tend to be quick growing. On paper it is easy to move trees around but much harder after they have been in the ground a few years.


    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 1:26AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Maria's advice about mature tree sizes and their placement reflects the discerning perspective that the entire garden will eventually be completely tree shaded with the proposed locations, while the planting understory reflects a full sun preference planting plan. The two
don't go together. The small circles
shown for the trees don't reflect their
actual sizes at a relatively fast rate.

From my travels in Arizona and Phoenix in particular, few landscapes there feature entire gardens completely shaded, it is desireable to have a bit of sun in winter, and those trees are all evergreens. It seems to be a common misconception that a desert landscape is blinding sun, gravel and sparse plantings of dry looking agaves and cactus. That may be one possibility, but I'd agree with
Marcinde that Sonoran desert natural
landscapes are some of the most
interesting and lush desert landscapes
in the world. The special climate of this part of Arizona with both winter rainfall and summer monsoon rains support a natural landscape that has to be seen live to fully appreciate it.

The only downside in my view is the intense dry heat makes it difficult to garden during the summer days; it's really only feasible in the early morning or late afternoon/
evening. Having done landscape design and supervised its
installation in equally hot and even dryer Riyadh, Saudi
Arabia,one learns to shift one's hours to work with the
climate. Even so landscape construction in summer in
Phoenix is just brutal.

I'd emphasize again that the Phoenix Desert Botanic Garden is world class, and the collections of native Agaves, Dasylirions, Leucopyllums, Hesperaloes,Yuccas,
Penstemons, Salvias, just to mention a few interesting
genera; along with exotic succulents such as Aloes and
Echeverias and Hechtias can make for a fantastic garden. I'd also suggest looking up Flickr photos or similar for the
Huntington Botanic Garden in San Marino, California for
ideas and examples of how lush and exotic a desert
climate garden can be.


    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 1:45AM
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I didn,t interpret Maria's comment the same way that Bahia took it. Maybe she will clarify.

I spent a week in Phoenix and Sedona in March a few years ago and found that shade was possible. It's not everywhere, but a good many places... where people want it to be.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 2:05AM
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OK yardvaark they say a picture is worth a thousand words. The tree in the background is not a mesquite or a palo verde but it is of a similar size and growth habit. We planted it six years ago as a six foot tree in a fifteen gallon pot and it is now quite big. If you can imagine seven of these in lucky charms front yard it seems like they would fill it up with trees.

People do plant mesquites ten to fifteen foot apart all the time and it works well for a few years but ultimately they do grow up and quite quickly. Our twisted acacia casts a denser shade then the mesquite or the palo verde would but all the plants listed are sun lovers even in the desert and would resent even the filtered shade.

It also looks in the plan like some of the tree placements are close to the house which is going to mean some special pruning to keep them off the house and also on the edge of the yard which may be perfectly fine with the neighbors but is a consideration if the neighbors don't want a lot of someone elses trees hanging in thier yard.

I'm not saying this plan isn't a good one. Just that the mature size of all the plants involved should be taken into account.


    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 11:59PM
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Maria, thank you for the explanation. Even with the picture, it's little hard to grasp the full story as I don't see a whole tree, just it's low hanging branches.

I never view woody landscape plants as though they are allowed free reign. They're just subjects of the kingdom. They must pay pay their dues and comply with all of the king's decrees. With the wave a a scepter, those lower branches and their trailing foliage could be gone... encouraging growth above instead. If a tree can be 40' tall, why must it retain branches at the 15' ht? To me, it's just routine tree maintenance. Here's an example of a couple limbed up half their height and I think they look completely respectable. Keeping these same proportions means that at 40' it could provide a 20' ceiling. What's wrong with that?

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 12:37AM
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What's that TV show where they say is that your final answer? Well this is my final answer on this subject we are exhausting. That looks to be a blue palo verde which are my personal favorite but I think quite similar in size to the thornless (probably desert museum) that the op is going to use. Look how big that tree is!

Imagine 7 trees of this size in your yard even pruned up. If it is what the op wants and is willing to prune then great but what an attractive house to cover up with trees and the nature of plants under the trees might also need to change to plants that like the filtered shade.

About pruning up - here we may just have to aggree to disagree. Most of these desert type trees would be more large bushes that trees left to thier nature but we do prune them up so we can have "trees". The more we prune them up the less they look "natural". And the less I like the look but that is just personal preference.

Our dog is a saluki. She would be great to lure course with but as an agility dog she would not be a good choice. They are an independent thinking dog that only want to do what they want to do not what you want them to do. She is a great dog who will do the usual doggie commands in the hope of a reward at home but let her out the front door and she may just forget the simplest recall command. If agility was our passion then something like a border collie would be a better choice. Anytime you fight nature you have to work harder than if you just started out with raw material that fit the situation better.


    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 10:42AM
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Maria, if adding a single clarification is what you call "exhausting the subject," then I guess you've said all about it you're going to say!

Is there a scientific factor that categorizes one species of plant a tree and another a shrub? Or do those terms simply describe form and structure? It's more or less the case that any woody plant we generally call "a tree" (an Oak, for example) would naturally remain in the shrub form if it had sufficient light at the base of its sides to maintain the foliage. Naturally, it would have branches and foliage to the ground. It is only because of needs and constraints imposed by man that we remove a "shrub's" lower limbs and turn it into a tree. If we didn't, barely any of the "shrubs" that grow 20, 40 or more feet tall would fit into our yards. When Oak "shrubs" grow in a forest situation, their own crowding turns them into trees by limiting light at the lower reaches of the plant. The light starved foliage dies and rots off, naturally "limbing up" the "shrub" into the tree form. The conversion, whether by man or nature, is so commonplace that few give thought to the process of how it comes about. Creating and maintaining the tree form is NOT going against the force of nature. The fact of the tree's canopy producing shade below itself usually limits branch re-growth and prevents the tree from reverting to the shrub form. The process is merely a replication of a natural process.

"The more we prune them up the less they look "natural"..." It is the nature of man for him to continually alter the "natural" environment to suit himself. He bakes mud into bricks and builds them into a box in which he can live. He melts sand into glass and makes windows so he can see out of his mud box. He makes clothing of resin and forms minerals into machines. He turns wolves into Salukis... and crosses an endless supply of plant species into new hybrids. Sometimes man alters nature, not for practical reasons, but to create art. He arranges plants in a way that nature never would. I suggest that the tree in your own picture is not 100% natural and HAS been altered...simply into an art form that you prefer. If limbing up a tree to 35% of its height is OK, but to 50% is not, I suggest that is nothing more than one's personal preference about art. My taste in art and practicality say's limbing up a tree to 50% (as in the photos above) can work just great.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 12:16PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

It helps to have some personal experience with a different climatic zone and its plants/trees when discussing the pros and cons of how to use them and the extent of maintenance one is contemplating. I'm 100% in agreement with Maria on the preference to work with nature and choose plants that can be left to do their thing rather than fight them constantly by trimming and pruning. It helps to know that low dense canopies for desert trees are a natural response to conserve soil moisture and a reaction to climate and periodic strong winds. Limbing up such trees would require annual thinning, and may also destabilize them in high wind situations if the additional height catches the wind more. I fully realize that Yardvaark has a preference for limbing up all trees as well as controlling for height, but most homeowners don't want the work or expense, and should appreciate comments from someone who knows the trees and their habits, and points out the pros and cons. Other posters like to dig their heels in and make the case for why they are right, or how their approach works well if one is willing to do the constant ongoing maintenance. A difference in philosophy about gardening with nature or preferring to subjugate it...

If one is going to propose higher canopy shade trees for such a garden, it would seem to make much more sense to suggest taller growing trees with higher canopies that wouldn't require the constant pruning. Trees such as Ulmus parvifolia might be one alternative, or an evergreen such as Pinus eldarica, or palms such as Brahea 'Clara' or Brahea armata. Some of the evergreen Sonoran/Chihuahuan desert species of Acacias might also be worth looking into for narrower canopies and taller habits.

Ultimately I'd agree with Maria that the amount/type of trees as shown in the plan would completely obscure the view of the house
from the street, and could be cut by half. If the OP wants full

shade across the whole yard at maturity, all those full sun plant
choices will need to be replaced with shade tolerant plants at 5 to
10 years out. I'd think the OP would appreciate these sorts of comments on their design as presented and come to their own conclusions about degree os shade/coverage desired and amount of maintenance required before they finalize their design. From people who have actual experience growing the plants in question in a similar environment, rather than a discussion about semantics and discussion about how trees and plants are meant to be subjugated to design philosophy of man over nature. It's one thing to do that for yourself, another thing altogether to recommend it as an approach for others to follow. It takes time or money and certainly extra sweat and fuel and dump fees to constantly trim trees and prune back too fast growing shrubs that the design improperly spaced. More economical and sustainable to pick the right plant for the right spot, and minimize the maintenance to keep it all looking good...

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 11:40PM
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That is either one of your classic misinterpretations, Bahia, but more likely, with all the condescension, an artful, self-promotional piece... arguing against points that only you are creating. Don't pretend to speak for me or on my behalf or try to interpret my philosophy for others... especially when your comprehension of it is so dismal.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 1:00AM
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