Low Desert Light

In the low desert, there’s more atmosphere to hold in moisture and absorb heat than in the high desert, such as my home at 4,100 feet elevation. And in adjacent areas, most know that increasing elevation generally lowers the temperature.

There are other effects on the garden from elevation, too.

Bright, sunny days have more glare with more atmosphere to scatter light and dust. That’s in contrast to days with dense cloud cover and lower or heavier cloud bases than in the high desert, with less light available to scatter. It would be interesting to study and document this more scientifically.

Here it is in a public garden by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects in Scottsdale, the elevation about 1,300 feet.


The yellow blooms on the Parkinsonia trees do a good job of brightening an otherwise gloomy afternoon, including the gray Leucophyllum shrubs and dark gabion walls.

But there’s no mistaking the day’s moody light in that space.


At this park, a talented design team used gray and brown but with skill; they also understand the art of plant massing and pops of color. This showcases water harvesting, uses desert succulents as more than curiosities, and uses boulders well.


The fleshy, bodacious, and blue foliage of Agave spp. really pops with the golden blossoms already fallen or still on the branches, to enliven the grays and cloudy light.


Do you have your own list of plants that take advantage of low or special lighting? If not, I recommend creating such a list, or finding a good one showcasing native species.

For 15 years, I enjoyed the moon garden I designed at least monthly, created in my former courtyard.


Morning Anti-Rush Hour

In search of places to take morning walks before it gets too warm, or after dark, the Desert Botanical Garden is a good choice. Planning to go at least once weekly, I took advantage of my membership.

The light and shade were amazing, and as some of you know, that’s important to me.

DBG-Wall_AM Light_Desert Plants-SML


On my last visits, I missed this massing of lower Chihuahuan Desert native Candelilla / Euphorbia antisyphilitica (arid z 8a), with Bolivian native Caripari / Neoraimondia herzogiana Cardon / Pachycereus pringleii (arid z 9a). As usual in Phoenix these days, there’s Elephant Food / Portulacaria afra (dry z 9b) trailing over a wall.


Across the main walkway was this wall, which really uses graphics and embedded tiles well, providing grade retention and some sitting. Or at least a place to let your water bottle or camera bag to rest.

The agaves and Bunny Ears Cactus are “massed to great effect…”

DBG-Wall_Tile Desert Plants-SML

Speaking of massing, it’s Tamaulipan Shrubland native Queen victoria-reginae Agave victoria-reginae (z 8a). I must use that compact rosette plant like this, somewhere.



Onto their Herb Garden area, the colored walls pulled me in. More reason for plant massing of Mediterranean native Dusty Miller / Centaurea cineraria (annual or z9b) and Chihuahuan Desert native Spineless Prickly Pear / Opuntia ellisiana (z 8a) with some randomness of the Cereus cacti (z 9b).

DBG-Herb_Garden_Desert Plants-SML

Inside the walls, more massing of gray Dusty Miller, green Trailing Rosemary / Rosmarinus officianalis ‘Prostrata’ (dry z 7b), and the purple buttons of Globe Amaranth / Gomphrena globosa ‘Firework‘ (z 8).

DBG-Herb Garden_Entry Plant Massing-SML

That potted Aloe adds structure like the wall does; without them, this would be less powerful and settled into the space.

DBG-Herb Garden_Gomphrena-SML

Artichoke in bloom and dancing is almost as striking as spikiness…

DBG-Herb Garden_Artichokes-SML


Finally, leaving after our walk, it’s southern Africa native Desert Rose / Adenium obesum (z 10a). It’s really a great container plant for the low desert, such as here in the Valley of the Sun.


The Desert Botanical Garden reveals so many more paths and planting areas, which I hope to explore during my months of living nearby.

Unlike some public gardens, the effective design of plant communities rules here. Also appealing is how most areas incorporate a variety of hardscape ideas with plantings from the Sonoran Desert, plus other arid and dry areas of the world that can survive in Phoenix.

That’s a plus among many other pluses.


6/6/19 weather:
101F / 77F / 0.00 or 38c / 25c / .00

Wright On

Since I was a college sophomore in OU’s “intro to design” course, I’ve enjoyed the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. (FLW)

FLW was ahead of his time.



I also enjoyed his followers’ works in the prairie / woods settings of central Oklahoma (Bruce Goff), and other different ecologies around the country. But seeing his work in the desert, where I’ve recently learned of his students’ outdoor learning conducted on-site, I gained a new appreciation.


Not sure one could have such a boulder nowadays, anywhere in NM and AZ. I wonder what the local Salt River-Pima-Maricopa people think of this located here.

I hope they at least get free admission here at any time, and have it closed on days they want to revere what their ancient works are about, and wander in the desert to their heart’s content, just like the pueblos finally get to do at Petroglyph National Monument in ABQ.

As a first generation American, I am quite serious about the first people’s place here.


The wayfinding signage is quite good.



He used extensive turfgrass on one side. I’ve heard mixed things on his landscape designs, but when you see this entire property, then it makes sense.


Great steps leading to another sculptural petroglyph boulder.


The concrete / imbedded rock bands are a nice touch.


Chihuahuan Desert and Madrean yuccas used…now I feel at home.


I liked the narrow paving bands while there; writing this I’m now unsure. #hypercritical


The moon gate for the kids…he had 7+.



My visit was on a pleasant, relatively normal 90F Sunday afternoon in late spring. With AC inside, knowing the third “Mrs. Wright” waited 10 years to get indoor bathrooms and AC installed.


From their bedroom and fireplace (no central heating) to the bathroom. This is about 1/4 the size of my master bath at my home in Las Cruces, but then again, I don’t have stainless steel wall-to-wall.


I do have central heating, which makes Nov-April post-shower drying pleasurable, right to my warm towels.


An outdoor water feature / shallow pool



Then there’s the grand finale to me: a huge, wood-burning fireplace inside the massive, shaded cavern from the low desert sun and glare.


And this view out…


Now change the focus and light exposure, to see that distant view…



His work proves his careful study of form with function, not just form’s dominance.

FLW was apparently a “chick magnet”, not lacking some negative traits that comes with that. Yet, he also seemed down-to-earth, teachable, and approachable, unlike some of the unapproachable divas / divos populating some ranks in architecture and art.

Not that I have had the temptation of offing a few of the above; my former career was just dandy with so much fair, respectful treatment, always both ways. <sarcasm>

In some circles, LAs included, the practice of rubber-stamping a design onto totally different landforms or climates is the bottom of the barrel. Like uppity-hippie contrians who luck into influence in horticulture, please do us a favor before you expire…retire and write fiction, not fiction as fact.

There! I’m more onto you than what you fear others see.

Others who’s works I’ve seen over the decades, actual architects or designers who somehow had the word “architecture” applied to them yet without registration to use that title / act, often miss critical parts of their designs like the land. (think Donald Judd in Marfa or Robert Irwin) They and their teary-eyed disciples miss what any desert designer worth their salt considers as a given: passive water harvesting, habitat, durable materials, economy, and native plant species, especially lower water-use ones.

Dear G*d they miss the importance of the actual land!

FLW got site before site savvy was cool. Compare Falling Water in wet, continental, and mid-latutude forest western Pennsylvania to Talliesen West in arid, southwetern, and subtropical desert Scottsdale.

I can’t wait to read up on him more, including the book on his relationships with his wives over the years. Three Mrs. Wrights may make up for some wrongs?


His foundation preserved this vast foreground of Sonoran Desert perfection, though the new development to the right and far beyond looks much like my part of Las Cruces, houses all with broad porches peering out into the desert valley.



Imagine what FLW would have altered from the above with siting and outdoor environments in arid, warm-temperate Albuquerque and Las Cruces…or sub-humid, subtropical Austin…or semi-arid, continental-bipolar Denver…or arid, continental Reno or Boise…and so on.

I doubt it would be a grid of lollipop trees or succulents in cor-ten in front of an off-white adobe, bought at $30K in ruins then being sold a decade later post-renovation at $750K in minimalist iconagraphy.  (nothing personal, nouvelle Marfans)


Better yet, what would you do? Ponder that whether it was your money, or it was your design expertise with someone else’s money.


Polka dots of palo verdes, everywhere



No turfgrass used anywhere else…brownie points from Dave!


Without the constantly overt desert southwest imagery, his own sculptures are great. I assume they are all his design, as were placement of his boulders with petroglyphs, and he designed many of his furnishings, possibly down to his clothing for all I know.

His sculptures are very influenced by the southwest, yet his own style, too.


Yes, my old friend Opuntia engelmannii




So, there’s yet another semester course digest, and another perfect weather day to savor, before “it” arrives soon enough!


5/1/19 weather:
83F / 60F / 0.00 or 28c / 16c / .00