As I'm reminded whenever I go shopping in the summer and pull into a vast expanse of near-bubbling asphalt to park the car, shade is a precious commodity in Las Vegas!
Fortunately, we can plan our yards a lot more thoughtfully than some of these oppressive parking lots I tend to rant about this time of year! Using plants and/or structures to create cooling shade makes a difference both in our yards and our energy bills.
First, let's consider the quality of shade desired. The shade along the north-facing side of a house, for example, differs significantly from the filtered shade provided by a desert tree, which is cooling yet allows enough light through for many types of plants to thrive beneath its canopy.
And while the permanent shade from evergreen trees may sound good now, keep in mind that an olive, sumac or pine won't let in the sun's warmth and light during winter like a deciduous tree does.
Of course when it comes to selecting the right tree for your situation, it is crucial to keep the tree's mature size in mind. Planting too close to the house, within the realm of overhead power lines, or where the tree may encroach upon the neighbors invite avoidable maintenance headaches I've seen all too regularly.
Still, in the desert home landscape it's not always practical to rely solely upon plants for shade. In the vegetable garden, for example, shade cloth would be best utilized to provide edibles temporary protection from direct sun during the summer months, then easily dismantled in the fall.
Pergolas add structure and airy shade when used to shade hot south- and west-facing patios. With climbing plants added to soften the supports and to grow over the 'ceiling,' otherwise sun-baked outdoor living spaces become welcoming oases.
Your planting design is going to help you (and/or your landscaper or gardener) with the prep. How? Because a well-thought out design takes the guesswork out of your project. You have your square footage, you know exactly what's going in and what's coming out. Plants are sited in the best situation. Structural and hardscape elements are installed first.
Irrigation is an important part of the preparation phase. Using your custom planting design you and/or your gardener can easily configure and install the irrigation system.
If renovating, existing plants or rock may need to be removed. Planting areas will likely require preparation with soil amendments.
Why waste time and money constantly replacing plants that fail or never really look right? With your well-thought-out design and customized plant list in hand, feel confident that your efforts will yield the best results not just now, but also in the years to come!
Desert globemallow Sphaeralcea ambigua
Flowering perennial used as a small shrub (about 3' X 3') with flowers in shades of orange and pink. Cut back after flowering (but wear gloves to protect skin from fine leaf-hairs that could be irritating).
Firecracker penstemon Penstemon eatonii
With bright red tubular flowers in early spring, firecracker penstemon is a must for those who enjoy hummingbirds in the garden.
Creosote Larrea tridenta
A medium to large shrub that brings the fragrance of desert rain right into your backyard! Deep, infrequent watering is the key to growing this tough, beautiful plant.
Desert milkweed Asclepias subulata
The perfect vertical accent for sunny hot spots, and like all milkweeds, supports monarch butterflies!
Apache plume Fallugia paradoxa
The flowers are pretty on this medium to large shrub, but still more interesting are the feathery seed heads that follow. Blowing in the breeze, they seem to glow when backlit by the sun.
I advocate for the use of native plants in home landscapes partly because one couldn't ask for more carefree and beautiful plants than the trees, shrubs, and perennials already adapted to our extreme summertime temperatures and lean, alkaline soils here in the Mojave Desert. By opting for native desert plants instead of thirsty lawns and non-natives, homeowners save not only water, but time and money as well.
When is the best time to put in my garden?
If you want the best chance for a successful garden, summer is probably the least optimum time to put in your plants. A few exceptions include heat-lovers such as bougainvillea, orange bells, and bird of paradise.
Even cacti and succulents—when newly-planted during the summer months—need some afternoon shade to avoid sunscald.
Planting in spring and fall yields the best results. Fall planting allows plants to establish healthy root systems over the cool winter months. Trees, shrubs and perennials all benefit from going into the garden September through November, and once established, they better withstand our summertime heat and dry conditions.
Planning ahead is key for a beautiful , thriving landscape. Now is the time to have your yard professionally evaluated if you've been thinking of making changes to your yard!
What does "designing with plants" mean?
Put simply, each plant serves a purpose in Perennial Garden Consultants' thoughtfully-created designs.
Designing with plants means using the right plants to frame views and screen views. It means using plants to achieve effects, such as making a small space seem larger, or creating intimacy in a large space, or giving a particular “feel”—for example, tropical, Mediterranean, desert-cottage, etc.
We also use plants for seasonal interest. Not just spring or summer flowers which bloom and harmonize with other colors and textures in the garden, but shrubs and trees that offer something in the fall and winter months, when forms and branching patterns become exposed, and colorful foliage and berries can be appreciated.
Designing with plants softens hardscapes, and plants in containers make wonderful accents.
Finally, when designing with plants, whatever we choose must fit within the scale of the property, which encompasses two rules: 1. We don’t recommend plants that will outgrow their space in a few years and cause maintenance woes, and 2. The plants’ ultimate size must harmonize with the size and scale of both the home and yard.
Carefully selected plants that unify a design are part of a cohesive plan that takes into consideration the home within its surroundings.
Will plants really grow in this dirt?
(Also see the Designer's Notebook Blog to learn how to plant for success: https://perennialgardenconsultants.com/blog-1/f/plant-for-success )
Plants grown in Las Vegas require soil preparation to look their best. Working in compost increases the amount of organic matter in the soil but as it decomposes and plants use up the nutrients, replenishment at least once a year is recommended.
If your soil has been the victim of compaction (most yards are), it needs to be loosened to a minimum depth of 8 inches before planting with larger rocks removed.
Ammonium sulfate is often added before planting time to temporarily lower the pH and provide nitrogen. However, remember that working with the soil by using plants already adapted to alkaline soil and high summer temperatures will save money, time, and effort in the long run.
When preparing the soil be aware that unhealthy plants can result when amendments are mixed into backfill soil or put only into the planting hole. You want your plants to develop an extensive network of roots into the surrounding soil, not remain in a sort of “comfort zone.” (This can be particularly detrimental to trees.) Thus, compost and other amendments should be mixed in throughout the entire planting area.
A vegetable and herb garden does best in a raised bed, where, once constructed, you can fill it with purchased soil, or (dare I imagine) your own fabulous homemade compost.
Quick word regarding fertilizer: Indiscriminately spreading fertilizer around does not benefit the environment or home garden. The type of plant, the time of year, and other factors determine what kind of fertilizer to use and when to apply it.
It's not that difficult to grow tomatoes in our desert climate—it’s just a matter of getting the timing right!
Most people associate these sweetly acidic, juicy fruits with summer, and if you’re a gardener or tomato-lover who has relocated here from another part of the country, you may have memories of enjoying tomatoes all summer long.
You also probably noticed summers here are a bit different--long days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees!
In our desert climate, timing is everything. The trick is to start early. Hot days, when temperatures reach the mid-90’s and above, combined with hot nights cause blossom drop in tomatoes plants. And since they take around 85 days to reach maturity (more or less, depending upon the variety), it’s easy to see that tomatoes planted in May will be fried by July.
Get your transplants into the ground (with well-amended soil rich in compost, of course!) by the end of February or early March. Tomatoes grown from seed should be started indoors in January.
The variety of tomato also plays a role. Early fruiting varieties do well. ‘Early Girl’ is readily available and commonly recommended; however, I think it’s fun to experiment with other short-season varieties available through catalogs such as Territorial Seeds (based in Oregon where the tomato season is short and cool). Growing from seed is easy and always offers a wider spectrum of varieties to choose from.
Beefsteak types struggle in our climate. Try the small-fruited varieties. ‘Celebrity' is a small but delicious tomato that is also a local favorite.
Cherry tomatoes, including the popular grape types, are easy and prolific, both in the ground and in pots. Provide them with some shade during the hot summer months, then when temperatures subside in the fall, apply a low-nitrogen organic fertilizer and your plants will resume producing fruit that usually continues well into November. One of my favorite cherry tomatoes, the heirloom ‘Yellow Pear,’ yields copious amounts of tasty fruit!
Even if you've never had your poolside umbrella snap like toothpick during a storm here in Southern Nevada, you know that we experience some very high winds from time to time.
The good news is, when selecting varieties of trees that stand up to the wind, it's not so much the kind of tree as it is how it's planted and cared for.
Avoiding the most commonly made mistakes, such as improper planting, staking, and watering, is fairly simple.
Preparation-- The recommendation is to dig the planting hole no deeper than the container the tree comes in and 2 to 3 times as wide. Why? This practice encourages roots to spread out as the tree grows and allows it to better anchor itself.
Please note, trees aren't meant to be staked forever. Remove the stakes within one year so the trunk becomes strong on its own.
Watering-- Desert trees in particular benefit from deep and infrequent watering once established. An overabundance of water encourages rapid growth and the resulting weak wood is more susceptible to wind damage.
Pruning-- Hiring a certified arborist to thin out the crown as needed helps prevent heavy top growth from breaking in strong winds.
What to do, when to do it, what to plant, when to plant it in the Las Vegas Valley garden, USDA Hardiness Zone 9, Sunset Western Garden Zone 11. Our free e-zine, 'Designer's Notebook,' delivered to your inbox 4X a year.