This mid September morning, I sat outside on my patio and enjoyed my morning coffee. The temperature has finally fallen below 80 degrees at night. I did not break out in a sweat as I drank the hot brew. I made it through the whole cup before I returned inside my air conditioned house. Can it be true? Can I finally return to my much-loved routine? No patio misters for me. Misters emit a fine mist of water from spray nozzles installed around the perimeter of one’s seating area. I am trying to use the precious water that we have responsibly. This limited resource is already over allocated. I prefer to sit beneath the shade of an umbrella or under the canopy of one of our desert trees. But for months this summer, even at 5 in the morning, it was too hot to do anything.
This summer, my family and I spent much of June and part of July overseas. We left Italy just as a heat wave crushed much of Europe. Rome broke heat records while we wandered around the Colosseum. Of course Arizona has been hot this summer too. When hasn’t summer in the Sonoran Desert been hot? But summers are getting hotter just about everywhere on planet earth. It’s even dangerous to be outside here in the Phoenix area for extended periods of time. We did get some monsoon relief in August. But putting human beings aside, how did your garden cope this summer? Has climate change shown up in your backyard? Did you give up on trying to keep plants alive and think I’ll just start over in the fall?
June 2021 was the hottest June on record for Phoenix with an average recorded temperature of 95.3 degrees. The record for warmest average low temperature for June 2021 was also broken at 82.5 degrees. Who would have thought it could get worse? I counted 25 days of 100 degrees and above in June 2022. We know temperatures are rising. We feel it. So do our plants. Urban development has also created sprawling islands of heat that traps heat noticeably at night.
Darkness in the summer offers little relief from the paralyzing heat. It’s not unexpected now to hit a night-time low of 90 degrees (5 this June) and many nights in the 80 degree range (19 days in June). If you’re a runner as I am, these temperatures can really kill a morning run. Not to mention a morning coffee routine. And our beloved plants.
Summer heat is a hot topic, no pun intended. Now that desert communities are finally moving toward more reasonable daytime and nighttime temperatures, we can’t forget about the awful heat. Because it’s going to happen again and again and again every summer. Everywhere. Possibly worse every year. Here are some recent headlines:
Summer in America is becoming hotter, longer and more dangerous -The Washington Post
Extreme Heat is Making the Fastest-Growing US Cities Unlivable -Mother Jones
As Phoenix swelters, the nights are even worse than the boiling days -The Guardian
Climate Change is Ravaging the Colorado River: There’s a Model to Avert the Worst -The New York Times
Scientists Studying Earth’s Trees Issue a Stark Warning to Humanity -Science Alert
During the monsoon in August, in less than one week, three mature trees on my street fell over during heavy rain and severe blowing winds. Nothing like this had ever happened in my neighbourhood in Gilbert Arizona. Of course the occasional tree would go down but 3 in one week? The wind was so strong one evening that the solar panels on my neighbour’s roof also came off. Their impressive mesquite was at least 15 years old. It fell on a 15 foot saguaro. When the cleaning crew came the next morning, the homeowner decided to have them remove the perfectly healthy mesquite on the other side of the driveway, too. I took a closer look at the plants that had fallen. The emitters were near the base of the tree. They should have been moved regularly out to the canopy line. But this native desert tree would have been happier with no emitters at all. It takes a few years for a tree to become established but these landmarks of the Sonoran naturalize. An occasional deep watering may be required but not a constant shallow drip at the base of the tree. The palo verde at the other end of the street that blew over was rotten at its base, too. A massive branch broke from the Chinese elm in the front yard beside ours. That tree has never been pruned. Now it is lopsided. We have to give our trees a fighting chance when severe weather comes to our neighbourhoods.
Trees are pivotal in the fight against warming suburbs and cities. The EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) says that using trees and vegetation helps to reduce the heat island effect, “Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20-45F (11-25C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials.” https://www.epa.gov/heatislands/using-trees-and-vegetation-reduce-heat-islands
Proper maintenance is essential to extend the life of your tree. This includes watering practices (over watering is common) and pruning. Education (choosing the right tree for your space) and a little effort go a long way towards longevity and creating healthy neighbourhoods. Everyone benefits from the presence of trees in the urban environment. People, other plants, and animals. There are certain streets in Gilbert that are lined with mature trees. I love running down these streets. I get an immediate emotional boost from their beauty. The street that I live on has very few trees. It can be rather depressing at times. It feels like something is missing. Greenery rising into the lower sky has a calming effect on one’s mood. What desert dweller doesn’t enjoy a drive north on Highway 17 towards Flagstaff? It’s not like the dense forests of the Canadian Shield where I grew up. But, the changes in the landscape are fascinating. The very diverse Coconino National Forest just south of Flagstaff contains red rocks, Ponderosa Pine, and alpine tundra. Magnificent. We humans are organic with the world. At once our inner lives mould and are moulded by the environment around us.
The goal at Dare To Be Desert is to help you, the desert dweller, choose plants that will survive the summer heat and look good while they do it. Putting plants and trees in your landscape is a state of mind. We want our outdoor spaces to look good when friends and family visit. We should enjoy being in those spaces on a day to day basis. Isn’t it a benefit to everyone in the community when individual yards are connected through good landscaping practices? Homeowners choose native plants whenever possible and desert adapted drought tolerant varieties that help sustain pollinators and other living creatures. Collectively neighbourhoods reduce the amount of water they use on the landscape. Children walk home from school on healthy streets lined with mesquites, palo verdes, ironwoods, and desert willows. Can you imagine a line of homes whose front yards are filled with flowering desert perennials? Say ‘Good-Bye’ to front lawns and ‘Hello Gorgeous’ to interesting living yards. Choosing desert native trees and plants is a desert state of mind.
All of the plants in my front yard were not watered - not once unless it rained - the entire time I was away in June and July (3 weeks). The plants in the backyard were watered once during that time by a friend. I have curated a selection of native and heat tolerant plants in my yard that can endure (like a long distance runner) long hot summers with as little water as possible. Summer isn’t a watering competition. Or is it? Is the goal to get as many plants to survive the summer sun and heat as possible? Every season has its role. Maybe we expect too much of our plants in the desert summer with our constant demands for blooms. Perhaps the aim should be serenity. Ok - dust storms and monsoons are not calm. But, the long spaces between them certainly are. I think the well-known saying ‘calm before the storm’ must have originated here in the desert. Step outside at sunrise. It may be hot but it is peaceful. (Until the jolting roar of gas blowers destroy meditative moments and obliterate any life at ground level.) Desert summers are about conservation of resources. Yet, daily we submerge our lawns with water from the rapidly declining Colorado River. We stress ourselves out trying to maintain outdated and harmful ideas about what a yard should look like. These practices have become established habits that homeowners rarely think twice about. We trust what garden centers sell us. Not only is it the foundation of every human virtue, trust is the foundation of every relationship we have including with the environment. Nature does its part. We have to do ours. I think we live at a time when everything we do, every purchase we make, must be thoroughly vetted.
Do you agree that we should start planning for next summer now? A recent client of mine told me she wanted advice on appropriate plants for her desert landscape, plants that have the best chance of surviving a desert summer. She wanted to stop spending money on plants that she says are just going to die. My top 3 tips for what you can do now to have a positive impact on your landscape are:
1 + Remove the front lawn and replace with a mix of cactus, agave, and native perennials and shrubs.
2 + Plant a desert tree.
3 + Visit a local botanical garden to get more ideas for your own yard.
What else should be on the list? I hope you enjoy the fall and winter while making choices for the betterment of your landscape next summer. #survivetheheat
The other night I dreamt I was in my Grandmother’s kitchen. She passed away almost 30 years ago. My mother was in the kitchen, too. She recently celebrated her 92nd birthday. In the dream, both were wearing bucket hats. You know, the deep hat that covers most of your head and has a downward sloping brim. I can’t say I’ve ever seen my Grandmother in one, but I wear a bucket hat all the time in my garden. The future of the desert has been on my mind a lot lately. Healthy sustainable desert gardening practices have been on my mind, too. I trace my love of gardening to these 2 outstanding gardeners who tended to their landscapes in healthy and sustainable ways.
I actually enjoyed spending time in my Mom’s garden in September. It had been 2 years since I had been home to Canada. The ground in northern Ontario is completely different from the ground here in the low Sonoran desert. I pulled weeds and helped prepare the area for planting in the spring. What an unexpected treat! When I was a kid, I never considered “working” in the garden something to look forward to. But, I was always an eager participant when it came time to eat the tomatoes, peas, radishes, raspberries, and all the delightful home-grown edibles. I think I took for granted the colorful perennials that came up in their beds every spring and the layers of plants throughout our yard that took their turn in the spotlight throughout the summer months. I learned to appreciate gardening more and more, especially after I left home. When I was in university, I spent a few summers planting trees (with the bears!) in northwestern Ontario along the border with Manitoba. I have to attribute my love for gardening to my Dad, as well. He was the one who effortlessly demonstrated a sincere love for nature. He is now 88. He took me camping, canoeing, cross-country skiing across frozen lakes, and shared stories of wolves, bears, and moose like they were our rightful neighbours. I would collect leaves in the fall (who hasn’t done that, eh!?), try to find all the different coloured wildflowers, and my sister and brother and I would build forest fortresses. It’s been a process. My love of gardening has grown over time. When It comes to desert gardening, I am all in!