Remembering Mary Oliver
Workspace Wednesday

Update: our modern desert front yard

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING
After years of dreaming about it we finally have a modern and water-wise desert front yard!

Here's what our front yard looked like before:

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING

Not terrible but to me there was no personality. Although we've been wanting to replace our grass and get trees for just about as long as we've owned the house (almost 10 years!), the cost of the project kept it from being on our priority list. But a couple of years ago we decided we were tired of watering grass that wasn't even that healthy looking and paying someone to maintain it. Plus, we felt eager to get some shade on our house. During the summer our western-facing house gets blazing sun all afternoon. Trees would not only add curb appeal but glorious shade that could help cut our energy bill.

A big challenge of the project for me was figuring out exactly what we wanted it to look like. I have very strong opinions (very strong) about what I like and don't like when I see it but don't have as much confidence (or experience!) in creating a look from scratch. We didn't have the budget to hire a landscape designer (which would have been $1,500 - 2,000 just for the design) so I took on my first landscape design project. Although I've never done landscape design it is something I'm interested in and notice. During a previous job as an environmental consultant I occasionally worked with landscape designers and gleaned some wisdom from them, such as being mindful of the heights, textures, and colors of plants when placing them. Books like The Hot Garden, which I checked out several times from the library, helped me learn about desert plants and groupings, as did visiting local nurseries, and looking at other people's yards. I saved ideas and inspiration to my Yard and Outdoors Pinterest board and a photo album on my phone for pictures I took.

Along the way I learned that drought-resistant plants from different parts of the world can grow well in Arizona. This includes plants from Australia, Africa (like aloes), the Mediterranean, and of course from the southwest, Mexico, and South America. I decided that in the front yard I want to showcase plants that are native to the southwest and Mexico. This includes agaves, yuccas, and cactus species. The typical landscaping here in the Phoenix area includes many plants that are not native and I'd love for our yard to highlight all the beautiful and interesting plants that naturally grow well here. (Although I did already have a couple non-natives growing in my front yard and those can stay for now.) Plus, over the years I've just fallen in love with these deserty plants!

My overall vision for the yard is a clean, modern landscape that celebrates desert-adapted plants of the southwest while supporting pollinators and wildlife (birds, bees, butterflies, bats). I'd like to eventually include enough elements for the yard to be certified as wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. For now we planted as many plants as our budget will allow. Each year I'd like to add a few more plants and will probably make adjustments as I see how everything grows.

Now our yard includes:

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING

+ Desert museum palo verde trees, a thornless variety of a fast-growing Arizona native tree that has bright green bark (the park photosynthesizes!) and beautiful yellow blossoms in the spring

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING
+ Ocotillo, an interesting plant that makes a statement with multiple long, thin, and thorny canes that can get quite tall. These look dormant (and kind of dead) much of the year, as ours does now, but they leaf out greet and have beautiful blooms of orange-red during the spring.

+ Regal mist, a clump grass that will grow a couple feet across; in the fall it produces gorgeous feathery seed heads. I planted these surrounding the ocotillo. In the fall and winter the grasses will be feathery and full while the dormant ocotillo will be a stark, sculptural contrast. In the spring the grasses will get cut back and the ocotillo will take center stage with green leaves up and down and gorgeous red flower heads punctuating the scene.

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING
+ Octopus agave, whose arms grow long and twisty

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING
+ Whale tongue agave, with beautiful grey-green leaves that grow close together

A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING
+ Banana yucca, an angular plant with white curly "threads" that produces edible fruit we hope to try!

+ Blue fescue, a smaller clump grass that has a blue-green tint and soft look. I tucked a few clumps of this around a boulder and near a whale's tongue agave.

I was the landscape designer and project manager for the yard update and it took me a while to make decisions, line up the right people, and source materials. I had to coordinate the grass/curbing/sidewalk removal with when the concrete for the new sidewalk could be poured. I had to make sure our landscaper would be ready to spread gravel soon after it was delivered. And I had to make final decisions on buying plants. For someone who can be indecisive it was a lot of decision-making! But I also learned a lot, like trusting my own preferences and knowledge.

Previously we had a sprinkler system for the yard and a drip irrigation system for the plants. We had that removed and now only have irrigation lines to the trees. Everything we planted should tolerate or even thrive under the intense Arizona sun as long as it gets some water. Once the trees are well established (a few years) they should get by without any water aside from rain. However, I will need to hand water the grasses and agaves during the summer months but it's a task I'm looking forward to. I love puttering in the yard early on summer mornings before the heat sets in and checking on plants.

For $5,000 we were able to transform our bland-looking and sometimes neglected-looking yard into a clean desert landscape that enhances the house. The final cost was about $1,000 over our estimated cost but we're still really happy with the price for this big change. A few years ago I got several quotes from different landscapers who would do all the design, etc. and they ranged from $10,000 to close to $20,000. Having the majority of the cost saved ahead of time also really helped (we saved $3,500 over the past couple years for the project). Here's how the project costs broke down if you'd like to see:

+ Removal of grass, curbing, sidewalk, and gravel: $1,800

+ Pouring a new sidewalk: $650 (we debated making this change for the amount of money but I am SO glad we did! I love the clean lines of our new sidewalk)

+ Two 24-inch box desert museum palo verde trees, delivered and planted with drip irrigation installed: $754

+ 14 tons of 1/2 inch palomino gold gravel: $759

+ 3 boulders weighing a total of 450 pounds: $45 (boulders win the award for being surprisingly cheap!)

+ Replacing a portion of our irrigation line for the trees: $100

+ Desert plants: $225

+ Labor to spread the gravel: $560

+ Labor to plant purchased plants: $125

Total project cost: $5,018

Before, my heart sank just a little every time I saw our yard (which was often!) because I thought of all I wanted to change. And to me it didn't reflect our love for our home. Now I love to see our yard! I'm looking forward to watching the plants fill in, adding more here and there, and seeing what birds and insects we attract. A modern water-wise desert front yard | RISING*SHINING