desert willow chilopsis linearis blossom, selective focus on the flower

The emerald green lawn in front of their new home seemed out of place in the desert, though.

“It looked like a back-east kind of lawn,” Carl said.

Jeanne was more blunt.

“It was ugly.”

In the last couple of decades, much of the Valley has shifted from grassy lawns to xeriscaping, Gilbert Water Conservation Specialist Haley Paul said. It saves water, and it shows an appreciation for the natural desert.

Knowing little about desert plants and xeriscaping themselves, Carl and Jeanne joined the Desert Botanical Garden. They also took a class from the City of Tempe, taught by Ron Dinchak, longtime Life Science teacher at Mesa Community College and designer of the award-winning Xeriscape Demonstration Garden on campus.

Under Dinchak’s guidance, Carl and Jeanne devoted a hot summer to killing their Bermuda grass lawn with herbicides. When they were sure it was dead, a contractor came in with a Bobcat and scraped it off. He also created small hills and contours to add interest and to collect rainwater.

A flagstone path bisects the front yard. A cascalote tree, which erupts in showy yellow spikes in fall-winter months, anchors one side of the north-facing front yard. A feathery sweet acacia presides over the other half of the yard.

With the trees set, Carl and Jeanne planted Southwest stalwarts such as desert milkweed, Arizona yellow bells, brittlebush, ruellia, bird of paradise and fairy dusters.

In the backyard, the couple kept a venerable olive tree and planted a fig tree. Creosote and hop bushes and other low-water shrubs provide a lush backdrop for accent plants such as candelilla and slipper flowers. In summer and prolonged periods of drought, a drip irrigation system keeps the plants in good health.

“There hasn’t been a day we haven’t been glad we did it,” Carl said. “It’s pretty. It looks like it belongs here.”

Over in the McCormick Ranch section of Scottsdale, Walter Thurber and his wife went through a similar xeriscaping learning curve when they moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1990s. After dumping the front lawn, the Thurbers landscaped specifically to attract birds.

Hummingbirds love their namesake chuparosas, while other feathered friends are drawn to desert hackberry, fourwing saltbush, little-leaf cordia, wolfberry and fairy duster. The Thurbers kept a small patch of lawn in the backyard, which their dogs enjoy, but also created a 425-gallon pond—another bird magnet.

Walter said he’s catalogued 70 different species of birds that have visited the garden. “And this is a very built-up area.”

The Thurbers’ garden has been a Tour de Bird stop in past years, the Desert Rivers Audubon Society’s popular East Valley garden tour. This year’s tour will be Nov. 5.

Do’s and don’ts of xeriscape planting

We think of these as Arizona plants; you see them everywhere.

But they are actually non-native to our desert and, surprisingly, don’t belong here. They don’t thrive as well as native flora and often require more water than is optimal, or are less heat-resistant than they need to be:

  • Queen palm trees
  • Ficus trees
  • Grass
  • Hibiscus
  • Gardenia
  • Cottonwood trees
  • Oleander
  • Agave
  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Ocotillo cactus

Here are plants that you may not realize require little water and are suitable for planting in the Valley:

  • Fruitless olive tree
  • Afghan pine
  • Shoestring acacia
  • Texas ebony
  • Wooly butterfly bush
  • Desert lavender
  • Wolfberry bush
  • Cape aloe
  • Beargrass
  • Slipper flower

Want to start xeriscaping your yard? Your city, such as Gilbert, Chandler or Mesa, might offer incentives and workshops that can help. Check with your city, or take the Your Desert Home class at the Desert Botanical Garden.

– Mike Butler, East Valley Tribune / Edited for Phoenix.org