Front Garden in Rim

After my drive-by hospital visit, I made another drive-by visit through the attractive Rim Area neighborhood near the University of Texas at El Paso (which I didn’t visit). It’s great to return to warmer times.

Photos are from 9/20/2020.

Of the several plant forms that make up well-designed gardens or natural areas of the desert, this front yard uses at least three.

Seasonally-deciduous plants (Prosopis glandulosa, Artemisia x ‘Powis Castle’), CAM plants (bluish Yucca rigida, green Yucca aloifolia), and groundcover that’s also a CAM plant (Maleophora lutea).

The Powis Castle Sage smells minty, from the oils on the feathery foliage. Though in dry weather one must rub the leaves, as the scent just doesn’t carry in the air. The other plants provide short flowering for moths and butterflies with their ever-present, bold forms.

The hummingbird magnet Hesperaloe parviflora grows in the distance by the lawn, which is secondary to the other plants as it should be.

The repeated clumps and groupings of Nasella tenuissima / Mexican Feathergrass unify that entire front area. That single Prosopis glandulosa / Texas Honey Mesquite with other groupings of yuccas, shrubs, and groundcovers add punctuation.

Somehow, in all my years visiting and even living nearby, I’ve never been down this street. Perhaps it was planted after I moved away in 2016?

Zooming in, Maleophora lutea / Rocky Point Iceplant (or Pink Iceplant) softens the spiky form of tough Yucca rigida / Sonoran Blue Yucca.

Yet another win for good design of an appealing place!

It’s also a win for gentle maintenance to retain and remove some of those Nasella clumps, which usually get out of hand.

Sierra: Walls and Weeds, Spikes and Grasses

A quick fall visit to one of the hospital renovation projects I provided landscape architect services on, from a few years ago.

And what did I see?

I’m unsure why the grasses (gulf grasses – Muhlenbergia capillaris / ‘Regal Mist’ Grass) didn’t put on their pink flower show. They are staying smaller than I feared they might grow, though they somehow weren’t sheared either and they have drip irrigation, so they should be pink.

The hotter summer wouldn’t faze the Regal Mist Grass, given this muhley also thrives in low desert landscapes such as Tucson and Phoenix, plus this drip irrigation system looked to be functioning.

Got me…

The spiky forms of natives Dasylirion wheeleri and Yucca elata just truck along, elegant and shimmering in their eternally breezy or windy town. Their short-lived flowers earlier in the summer attract bees and small moths.

Can you see why I designed in the low garden walls here?

They stagger out from the boxy, actual structure, still parallel. I originally envisioned them a foot taller, but was glad they were adjusted down in height during field layout. The creamy color really helps the greens of the different plantings.

The native shrub behind the low wall closest to the building is Ericameria laricifolia / Turpentine Bush. Each was needlessly sheared, though it probably flowered the next month, in October. There’s a gold tinge to them when looking closely, and the waxy, needle-like foliage does smell like a clean take on turpentine.

When in bloom, it attracts various butterflies, and some bees, of course.

Hopefully this fall, I can visit when the different plants are in bloom, as well as in the morning, to better capture the different lighting at that time and the elevated, exposed terrain at the southern edge of the Franklin Mountains.

And hopefully, late summer 2021 brings us a solid monsoon season!

The Real McCoy

Staying at one of Tucson’s centrally-located lodging options, the Hotel McCoy was unique though limited in amenities. It also doesn’t charge resort fees to drive up costs, something important to consider.

There’s too much to enjoy nearby, to be cemented to the grounds of any one lodging choice.

Until you’re in your room, the tight spaces outside or walking to the pool mean mostly parking lot and paving. Both with local kitsch and many local touches.

Photos are from late May 2020:

Nothing fancy here, including the post-Covid breakfasts delivered by golf cart, instead of the original breakfast bar and food truck.

Gayle and I enjoyed hanging out in the cool part of both mornings, before leaving to some of Tucson’s many attractions, often focused on outdoors activities. Soon it will be too hot there, except at sunrise.

Scorpions and a potted Candililla

Local artists added vignettes between rooms and where people walk around the motel complex. Unlike some locales in the southwest, they really embrace their place.

More potted plants given no planting spaces near rooms or parking, and probably their favorite, Lady Slipper.

Since Ronstadt is a native of Tucson, you can’t escape her in much of their town or on radio stations. It’s a good thing I like her making so many covers into almost her own songs! At this motel it includes walls and the parking space name for her room.

I doubt I’ll add Duluth, Gary, or Paddington UK to my future travel destinations…

Even room door mats tell their story.


In-between the rooms and the pool area, there’s more local imagery. Saguaro, Palo Verde, and Desert Milkweed included…


The first day, we stayed near the hotel, between Sentinel Peak, the Mercado District, and downtown.

The next day following breakfast, we drove to just beyond the western edge of town, to hike the Yetman Trail, and see the rock-built Bowen House.

Back to the roundabout with passive water harvesting:

Imagine what other locations could do, averaging more rain than Tucson’s meager 12 inches per year, plus far more summer heat and for longer than most of the US.

My region’s 8 inches? 10 inches in San Diego? 15 inches in Denver, LA, Santa Fe, or Lubbock? 20 inches in the interior SF Bay Area? 33 inches in Austin, Dallas, or Oklahoma City? 37 inches in Portland, Tulsa, or Kansas City?


Returning to the car at about lunchtime, a mere 92F, we drove across town armed with cold drinks from Eegees and picnic food, to join the throngs driving to cool Mount Lemmon, atop the bold Santa Catalina mountains.

That highway climbs from 2,500 to 9,000 feet elevation in about an hour’s drive. That’s 4 of the world’s 7 life zones, flatlanders!

Per Merriam’s Life Zone system, more for predicting agricultural potential in the late 1800’s in the southwest, than for ornamental horticulture:

The bottom is Lower Sonoran (saguaros, palo verdes, jojoba, etc.), posted in previous photos. These photos go up through Upper Sonoran (creosote bush without the above, plus desert grassland, sotols, agaves, junipers, live oaks, …), Transition (ponderosa pines, alders, deciduous oaks, …), and Montane (mixed conifers, aspens, …).

If you were dressed for summer like us, that’s 95 to 55F. Our blankets had to do for our picnic and keeping warm.

I was expecting 70F for our picnic at 8,000 feet, but in May the change with elevation must be greater. My car thermometer indicated it was 60F. Better packing next time!


This graphic sign tells that same story of radical changes in climate or ecoregions, too. People who design gardens or produce plants would be wise to let this inform their work.

In a previous town I lived for over 2 decades, it also had a dramatic mountain range as a backdrop – 4 life zones in over 5,500 feet in elevation change. One could drive up and escape summer heat on a picnic or hike, ski in winter, or enjoy plants in nature instead of torturing them into landscapes far below in town.

Ditto many western towns: Las Vegas, Denver, Santa Fe, Reno, LA, …

Where I live, one can only access a 3 life zone change by a long backpacking trip into the stunning Organ Mountains or a 3 hour round-trip drive to Cloudcroft.


Tucson’s embrace of it’s geography is refreshing, including the variety of places nearby or within a day trip. Not to mention there are some good Mexican restaurants, inviting patios to enjoy a drink, or appealing gardens from courtyard to freeway scales. Soul.

It is of the desert, not merely in it.

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