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.

Infill Condos in Tamalewood

Albuquerque isn’t wrongly associated with spicy Mexican food, high crime, and too much sun and desiccation. The Duke City, with the development of the film industry in their area, has even been called “Tamalewood.”

Since I was already running late to return home, why not visit another project or two, near my freeway on-ramp and 3 more hours to Las Cruces?

Photos 5/18/20:

I was part of the architect-led design team on two infill, multi-family residential projects as their landscape architect. (same architect as on the prior office post) On the above map, they are either side of Aliso Dr SE, just south or below Silver Ave SE. Both were developed in 2006 and 2008.

A friend told me the episodes of the Breaking Bad TV series my design was seen, but I forgot which. I never could get into that show!

But talk about “location, location”: near UNM, old Albuquerque in the valley, and their decent freeway system to the nearby mountains or other directions to endless wilds beyond.


Aliso I:

Quercus muhlenbergii / Chinquapin Oak and Dasylirion leiophyllum / Desert Candle are near-natives and growing well, although the oaks are in a tight area. The low, green lumps were originally thriving Teucrium chamaedrys / Trailing Germander, at each of the four corner planting areas of phase one.

But the landscape subcontractor hired by the general contractor or owner muscled their way by adding weed fabric, which also prevents such plants from trailing and rooting to control erosion on slopes, and forming the intent: a living, evergreen groundcover.

The maintenance contractor who I recommended also forgot the design intent, by pruning into lumps not allowed to fill out again.

Fortunately, I have photos of how that Trailing Germander once thrived, between the perils of the undeserving un-horticulturists.

This oak looks like it needs the drip emitters checked and repaired or a few added. Or inspected for maintenance damage to the bark. The time for such labor could easily come from the unnecessary time lumping each germander.

The west-east plantings are growing, all native. The original, permeable crushed gravel walkway was not cared for and was replaced with impervious concrete.

I never did catch the mid-spring flowering of my Wisteria sinensis / Wisteria choice. But that’s a steel trellis fitting for the vigor of wisteria…

Aliso was my name for this and the next project, used by the owner and architect while they were figuring out a name. The name was easy: not because alders (alisos) grow in ABQ, but rather, Aliso Drive SE bisects both condo projects.

Like a good name to brand anything, Aliso is easy to pronounce.


Aliso II:

This time another landscape contractor I recommended installed the second phase, and it came out better.

Though the maintenance contractor is the same one from phase one, who knew better and could have done only beneficial maintenance.

Such as ensuring that the irrigation is functioning optimally, including timing and additional emitters for tree growth, or thoughtful pruning of some plants like the cacti and trees. And suitable replacements in the rare but expected case of plant mortality.

As always, I tried.

And as always, good design often shows years later if one looks at more of the project, not cherry-picking what others did wrongly and not caused by the design.

Like this tragic row of “the customer is always right” so “shear them all”, instead of a stunning row of evergreen, foothills native dwarf trees, Cercocarpus breviflorus / Hairy Mountain Mahogany.

Here’s what a Hairy Mountain Mahogany looks like with slight but informed pruning.

That’s obviously not tall enough to block Sandia Mountains or city views. The second floor decks are too high even when seated, while the bottom floor decks have no view: they look to the sidewalks and two story townhomes across the street.

Which is why I used that dwarf tree, ideal for such constraints…

But overall, I’m pleased to see it. There’s no good reason for a garden designed well to not outlive me.


A live oak:

A sighting of this tree in the later 1990’s with central New Mexico’s oak advocate, then a chance conversation years later with a woman who grew up in this house, told much.

Presenting Quercus fusiformis / Escarpment Live Oak

It’s a long story for another post, but this tree was brought as a few acorns collected from a Dallas cemetery by that woman’s mother, from one of a few survivors of their worst freezes ever, in December 1983.

Even with the former Bermudagrass lawn replaced with rock, that live oak is thriving more than ever.


Albuquerque is gaining a critical mass who care for it, outnumbering the arcticism I met in 1992: xeric-escapists and zero-scapers. It’s satisfying to have added to the few exceptions I learned from way back.

With less montane-midwest-med, there’s more of a there, there.

Just drive around some more, past the zip-zags of mesic, non-native grasses, lollipop elms and ashes with dying tops, or lavenders.


My 3 hour drive into darkness, on the decompression of I-25 to my home in Las Cruces, the rapidly cooling breeze confirmed better times to come.

As I shut my car’s sunroof and windows.

Within days, a last breath of coolness before the next 4+ months.

To and Fro Phoenix: Ferns and Ironwoods

Another doctor visit to Scottsdale, and this time a different way going and returning home to Las Cruces.

2 hours from my home, west of Lordsburg, this is a favorite view including distant mountains. Especially when it’s not windy and I’m not strategically navigating the more rude semi drivers of I-10. The playas (dry lakes) getting closer are often filled with rainwater during El Niño winters like this last one, but they’re just white with the dry heat.

Like the 5/19/20 sky:

And 4 hours after leaving, it’s a quick dinner with Gayle, before the last 90 minutes of driving and another stay at a still empty, new hotel near the clinic. Tucson has some architectural soul even in a few strip malls.

Excellent containers for those potted Asparagus Fern, which looked good for these May photos. Following a more recent, late summer visit even this east exposure seems too hot in Tucson to use these.

Perhaps a low desert designer or horticulturist reading this can enlighten me if I’m off.


All went well at my doctor’s appointment in the rather light traffic of Phoenixn. I headed home via the more scenic route of US-60 and US-70, a less arid and higher part of the Sonoran Desert.

Not that much of Arizona or New Mexico aren’t scenic. Just some routes are more scenic than others, as both states can be picky given what we can choose from!

Ironwood / Olneya tesota signals summer beginning in a more subtle manner than golden palo verdes signal spring in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. We’re far enough west yet just high enough in elevation, there’s a richer plant diversity here than to my west or the last section of Sonoran Desert in the Gila Valley west of Safford.

I drove back and did a U-turn to get these Ironwood photos! What’s 20 more minutes added to one 5-1/2 hour drive?

These hills look enjoyable to more than a driver, including by horseback or mountain bike.


This heavily farmed area between Pima and Safford blurs what the original vegetation cover was here. The climatology and nearby, wild areas indicate to me it’s the ecotone where the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts overlap.

Which I’ll explore in a future blog post, to see which desert overlaps more.

That distant plateau in tan grasses, Frye Mesa, looks like it would be interesting to explore. Especially with the range of elevations, 2,900 feet where I took the photo to 10,700 feet on the top of still-snow-capped Mount Graham.

7,800 feet of elevation change in a short distance must hide many treasures.

Which is yet another post, how some southwestern towns have amazing mountain backdrops and changes in plants and climate. Those are to be enjoyed, but not used to justify forcing colder, wetter plant species in town to deny place.

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