Sedona Landscaping Archives

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a vase shaped cactus like plant with spiny canes that are covered with small green leaves typically after substantial rains and have a reddish orange tubular shaped flower at the tips in Spring. But most of the time, they are deciduous and look like a clump of thorny dead branches.  Sedona native Ocotillos are also found in the lower deserts and into Mexico.

When I first moved up to Sedona from the Phoenix area, I was surprised to see Ocotillos growing among the pines and junipers. At an elevation between 4200-4600 feet Sedona is probably at the upper level of its range. When in bloom – and when I say bloom, I mean the leafing out period where the green leaves cover the canes, they are striking sculptural features that add an unusual accent to any landscape where you want a bit of a desert flair. Ocotillo is often said to “bloom” due to its on and off leafing out cycles due to the amount of rain. However, some Ocotillos hold their leaves for longer periods between seasonal rains. Otherwise, they take on their deciduous persona which is not the Ocotillo that most clients are looking for when they request a Sedona native Ocotillo in their garden.

Sedona Native Ocotillos

But being patient is what we can learn from them

As a landscape designer and contractor, I am reluctant to suggest the idea of Ocotillos in a design for a few reasons. One of which was recently articulated in an article by the Backyard Gardener, Jeff Schlau of the Arizona Cooperative Extension Yavapai County titled, Native Ocotillos Require Patience. 

Ocotillos are native to Sedona and are useful as sculptural elements in the gardens

Ocotillo is known for its upright slender spiny canes covered with small green leaves.

Most people expect their Ocotillos to look just like the picture, but that’s not what they look like when you buy them at the nursery. Most all Ocotillos are harvested bare root from their native habitat, wrapped tight with wire for easy transport and handling. The roots are severely cut to sometimes to the point where there is not much to go into the planting hole and you wonder what is going to keep it from falling over. The process of taking a native plant from its habitat and putting it into your garden is considered transplanting Ocotillos and what Mr. Schlau is referring to as “patience required” is that some Ocotillos can take anywhere between 6 to 24 months before any signs of blooming or leafing out. Presumably because of the severe root pruning during harvesting from the desert.

I tell clients who are interested in Ocotillos that they will be planted bare root and will not have any leaves. I then tell them it could take years to look like what they expect. I also say they are unpredictable as to when they will leaf out and to be able to appreciate them in their deciduous state because that is what they will look like most of the time. I have had countless former clients complain that their “Ocotillo is dead” or “When is it going to leaf out?” I tell them to scratch a branch with a knife and if its a pale green, that its still alive and to be patient. The problem is, I am the guy with the great idea to plant the Ocotillo which is constantly under performing expectations and makes me look not so cool.

The point of this blog post is to forewarn anyone considering planting Ocotillos in their yard. Not that they should be avoided but to fully understand why they may  not meet your expectations. Ocotillos are great specimens that symbolize the southwest and provide a sculptural element that provides instant vertical height and looks great when lit at night. The otherwise brown deciduous state should be considered as the predominant look most of the year.

Many a garden writer who delves into the more deeper aspects of gardening will tell you gardens can teach you about yourself. Those inner aspects of your being are often reflected in the garden if you pay close attention . Patience is a virtue that can be learned through gardening. The Ocotillo is a wonderful teacher to instill patience. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to one day notice the buds on your Azalea that hasn’t bloomed for three years than to come home to a bountiful display of riotous color in your container garden every day.

There is a common request I get from landscape clients: they want low maintenance, lots of color and don’t want to spend very much – and they want it now, not have to wait three years for everything to look great. Usually after I get a little introspective talking about patience, being in the present moment, allowing things to be as they are, people come back down to earth.

Yes, Sedona native Ocotillos do inhabit our surrounding national forest and is perhaps the best way to appreciate their beauty and elegance. Walking in silence, being at one with nature, not thinking about anything in particular, and then as you come to the top of a crest, you are greeted by an Ocotillo in full bloom as if it was waiting for you.

If you do buy a bare root Ocotillo on your own, check out this publication from the Phoenix Botanical Garden.

 

Rainwater harvesting in Sedona is a great way to capture and store rainwater for later use in the garden. In this case, I will show you how we recently installed a 5000 gallon rainwater catchment system in a residential landscape remodel in Sedona.

But first let me give you my perspective about rainwater collection and why rain barrels will quickly have you wondering why you didn’t opt for a much larger tank instead after it fills up in about 20 minutes during a good downpour, overflows and you watch all that “wasted” water that you could have captured.

Serious rainwater catchment systems are designed based on your needs. There are a lot of calculations involved based on how much water you will need to supply your garden, your regular landscape shrubs and trees and other uses you may have. Most professionals who deal with rainwater system design and books on the subject recommend buying a tank as large as you can feasibly locate on your property. However, many homeowners considering rainwater harvesting in Sedona think it would be nice and a “sustainable thing to do” to help save water will quickly back off a serious system after finding out the overall cost of the equipment. A 5000 gallon tank alone can cost around $2500-$3000. On top of that you have to have a pump and all the plumbing accessories not to mention the labor to install everything.

Compared to a serious rainwater catchment system, rain barrels are a popular alternative as they are easy to hook up to a single downspout and as long as the height of your rain barrel is higher than what you want to water, a garden hose pressurized by gravity will work and is affordable. But a rain barrel that only holds 50-100 gallons won’t supply the needs of a decent sized garden or trees that are not on a regular irrigation system. People realize the limitations of rain barrels but cannot justify the expense of spending several thousand dollars on a serious system.

So what are the reasons people find capturing rainwater attractive? Here are several possible reasons. Remember, people buy based on emotional reasons and only use logic to back up or to justify their decision.

  • Rainwater is pure and plants definitely respond better to rainwater than treated municipal water;
  • People are bombarded all the time with educational material from the government about the need to save water – use it wisely as it is a precious resource and thus people already do some form of water conservation inside the home and so why not do so in the landscape?
  • To reduce their overall use of water and thus reduce their water bill;
  • They are doing it because it is a lifestyle choice and it fits in with their identity as a conscious consumer who values green living, sustainability and is doing their part to save the planet.
  • Rain barrels are now stylish and they want to make a statement to their neighbors that they are good citizens that save water and recycle everything possible.

So it’s not so much (or at all ) about saving money. It’s about saving water and feeling you are part of a society that recognizes the scarcity of water, and is willing to not only conserve the use of water, but to capture and save it for later use during dry periods. People that do opt for an expensive rainwater capture system do so not to save money on their water bill as it will not pay for itself anytime time soon. It’s a lifestyle choice in order for them to be able to look in the mirror and feel good about their decision to save water – regardless of whether its on a grand scale like a 10,000 gallon storage tank or a 60 gallon rain barrel.

This thinking is very similar to why somebody will justify spending $100,000 on a Model S Tesla electric car when it may take 40 years to amortize the cost of gasoline that they are “saving”. And again, it’s not the cost of gasoline; it’s the non-reliance on fossil fuels and using free energy of the sun which is akin to the free water from the sky.

Rainwater harvesting in Sedona is just as popular as driving a Tesla, only people opt for a Toyota Prius and a rain barrel too boot. Maybe I should give away a free rain barrel with the purchase of every landscape package…hmmm… maybe there is something to that idea.

Watch us off load a 5000 gallon rainwater tank and set it into place on a recent landscape remodel job we did in Sedona:

 

The term water feature typically refers to an assembly of natural materials including boulders, stones and gravel to mimic a form of a stream or waterfall you would see in nature. Fountains are usually more formal style structures that create a jet or stream of water from a decorative piece or nozzle.
Natural water features use various types of stone and river rock. Here in Sedona, we have an abundance of what everyone calls “red rock”. It is a type of sedimentary rock formed by layers of ocean bed over millions of years. Sedimentary stone is not unique to Sedona, however the red color is due to the presence of iron oxide.

 

sedona waterfeaturesSince the local red boulders are so readily available as a local resource, they are relatively cheap compared to another kind of natural boulder found outside of the Sedona area and is a type of granite, which is heavier. Boulder types are named from the area where they are mined, such as Hasayampa Gold. Boulders that come from Sedona are simply called Sedona Red. Since everyone in Sedona loves the red rocks, using the red rock boulders of Sedona are the most popular choice for water features.
Another type of natural stone that is used in Sedona water features is called Moss rock which is typically a type of sedimentary stone that has surface growth of moss and lichens and is usually hand harvested since these boulders are located on the surface of the land. They are also weather eroded from water and wind giving them uniqueness quite different than the red rock.
The third type of rock used in Sedona water features is known as river rock and is commonly found in our streams, rivers and washes. It is smooth and rounded and comes is screened to produce sizes ranging from ½” pebbles to large boulders. River rock is typically used to line the underwater portions of the water features, especially along the stream courses and the basins. Since river rock does not stack very well nor does it look natural when stacked, it is always used under the water where it mimics its natural condition.

 

hillside waterfeature in Sedona
How Are Sedona Water Features Built?

Most water features are dug into the ground in which a rubber liner is placed to contain the water. The type of liner most used is called EPDM rubber and typically 45 mil thickness. The liner is placed on top of an underlayment fabric that helps prevent any damage to the liner from rocks, soil and roots, etc.
The plumbing components consist of a skimmer box inside of which the pump is placed. This works just like a swimming pool filter and has a weir that draws in the water at the surface level. Inside the skimmer box is also filtration screening materials that can be accessed for periodic maintenance.
The pump pushes the water up through a “return line” to the highest point of the water feature where either the simple end of the pipe discharges water or it can be plumbed to a “waterfall box” that has various widths of the lip opening for different effect on the face of the waterfall. The waterfall box can also be the location for a biological filter and contain media to help colonize good bacterial that keep the pond aspects in balance. A water feature that does not contain aquatic plants or fish does not need a biological filter.

 

Key Design Tips for Sedona Water Features

1) Natural. The whole point is that the water feature looks like it belongs where you are building it or at least integrating it the best you can in your man made landscape. Not everyone has a perfect slope of red rock formations ready to be used for a water feature.
2) Elevation change. Water flows downhill so naturally the end of the pump’s return line must be higher than the pump at the low point. The more the elevation difference, the more cascading drops and sheer drops you can create with the arrangement of stone.
3) Avoid artificial mounds. On a flat property, it is tempting to bring in a pile of dirt to create a mound so you can artificially create the necessary elevation drop. This is the number one mistake made by amateurs and the reason such water features tend to not look natural.
4) Use different size boulders. Depending on your access to heavy equipment to lift large boulders, varying the size of boulders is important rather than using uniform size stones.
5) Create pockets for plant material. Plant material close to the edge of the water feature in strategic locations using appropriate plants will enhance the natural appearance. Envision the kinds of shrubs you are going to place as you are creating the pockets.

 Maintaining Your Sedona Water feature

For water features that contain no plants or fish, cleaning the filter screen in the skimmer box is required. Also make sure the automatic water leveler fill valve is operating properly and is not stuck which could lead to over flowing the basin. A well designed water feature will have a pipe situated a bit higher than the desired water level in case the basin is over topped due to a stuck valve or inordinate amount of rainwater.
If algae becomes a problem, there are products sold that will control the algae and clarify the water. Do not use chlorine or bleach as this can damage the pump components.

Winterizing Your Sedona Water feature

About half of winter nights in Sedona experience freezing temperatures. Two or three of these, on average, drop down into the range of 11 to 20 °F (-12 to -8 °C). Lows in the teens can occur from November to March, but are most likely in December.
Is it necessary to take certain measures to protect the pump for a water feature in Sedona? Most pump warranties I have seen recommend removing the pump during freezing temperatures and storing the pump in a bucket of water indoors. There is also the argument that leaving a pump running actually reduces the likelihood of the water freezing because flowing water does not allow water pressure to rise when flowing through pipes. Typically, the surface of the pond may freeze and ice develops on areas where the water flows, but inside the skimmer where the pump is at is not at risk as much as the surface areas.
It is recommended to shut off the water supply line that controls your auto fill valve during freezing temperatures. Keep an eye of the water level and fill with a hose if there is some loss due to evaporation.

Raked Sand Garden in West Sedona

Raked Sand Garden in West Sedona

Just finished an Asian inspired garden for a backyard landscape renovation in West Sedona. The client had a large backyard with a lot of trees mostly evergreen conifers and several fruit trees. The rest of the land was dying grass and weeds, so it was a good starting point since it was nearly a half acre to work with.

She wanted a “Japanese Garden” but not the traditional style you would typically see with a pond, bridge, lanterns, etc. So it was a bit of a challenge for me to design it with an Asian influence, yet not obviously Asian. Hence I call it an Asian inspired garden rather than a type of Japanese garden.

My basic concept was to create a strolling garden making use of the large area so as to make the garden conducive to experiencing within rather than simply viewing it from the back porch. And since she wanted to have some grass, I created a large island of plantings around which the grass would symbolize a lake.

I also incorporated a Karesansui garden (dry Zen garden) of raked sand and boulders to contrast the otherwise “wet” strolling garden and make it a destination for the pathway. As a transition from the existing fence enclosed patio, I designed a Torii gate which has its own symbolism of separating heaven and earth or man and spirit.

This is not the first Asian inspired garden I have designed and built in Sedona. In fact there are several others I have yet to blog about. Each property and client is unique, so each Asian inspired garden is not the same, however, I do use several common elements that help to give it that Asian influence.

An Asian inspired garden not only consists of elements that are visually evident, but the unseen elements or symbolism that creates a subtle influence. The re-creation of the natural environment using earth, stone and water is the essence of a Japanese or Chinese garden. Variations on the basic theme are how the different styles came about. However, when Buddhism was brought to Japan from China, Buddhist principles were weaved into the early gardens. I have written about these different styles of Asian gardens as well as what constitutes a “Spiritual Garden”.

You can also view before and after pictures of this project at my Fliker page.

Now that you have a list of suitable plants that will grow in the Sedona area (USDA Zone 7), which plants you use will depend on design principles based on the plant’s form and purpose. If you are looking to simply create an area that you will call your hummingbird garden that will be quite easy to design. It would be based on the size of the space as well as the amount of sunlight it gets. But before selecting which plants are suitable for your particular space, let’s look at the general form of each shrub. Not all the plants will be suitable for any space within your garden.
If you want your garden to not look like a hodgepodge of plants, you have to spend some time thinking about this basic principle: Select the right plant and put it in the right place.
What this means is you have to understand the growing requirements of the plants such as how tall and wide do they get, what kind of sunlight do they need and water and soil needs. Also, research and understand the aesthetic characteristics of each plant such as the flower color, texture, size and form.
Once you have a palette of suitable plants to work with, where do you place them? This is the art and science of planting design and there is a process that you must go through to achieve a thoughtfully designed garden.
The key to a successful “hummingbird” garden is to not rely solely on plants that have flowers that attract hummingbirds. Use other plants that provide the necessary structure, form, textural and seasonal interest to your garden. For instance, if you have a 12 x 12 spot that you want to create your hummingbird garden and select all perennials, what will it look like during the winter? A garden in Sedona must be designed with a balance of evergreens and perennials. This balance is key to the placement of the plants.
Start with analyzing your garden, its various spaces, the site conditions such as the amount of sunlight, slope, soil type, existing structures and elements you want to keep. Many of the ridge line properties in Sedona are rocky. You may have to rely on using containers instead. If you have sloped areas, consider using low terraced retaining walls which will allow you to add good soil to plant.
What are the functional elements such as a sitting area, patios, walkways, focal points, fountains or fences that may be included? Laying out the “hard” surfaces will define the areas available for plantings.
Perennial gardens are typically planting beds that are intended to create a flower show. For a hummingbird garden, you may want to designate a certain spot for this special bed or it could be a series of beds that border a walkway. You can also locate specific hummingbird plants throughout the garden so not all the excitement happens in one particular area.
In order to create interest place the plants based primarily on their form.  Categorize the forms based on trees, tall shrubs, medium shrubs, low shrubs, ground covers, spiky accents, evergreen vs. deciduous, annual and perennial. Conceptually layout each particular planting area based on the forms, then pay attention to the grouping, the layering and the massing of the plants.
Vertical layering is the escalation of height from the front to the back of a bed or a vantage point in the garden. Small low plants go up close and taller, bolder textures go in the background. Midlevel shrubs go in the middle.
Horizontal layering is the massing of shrubs and the repetition of shrubs to fill up a void. It is not a good idea to create horizontal layering with too much variety. Repetition of the same or similarly formed shrubs is best. You can break up the monotony by using vertical accents to break the linearity of the repeated shrub texture and form. I like to do this with spiky accent shrubs like Liriope, Red Yucca or Agave. Note that the Liriope and Agave are not hummingbird plants. Limiting your plant palette to all hummingbird plants is not a good idea. Use them as accents for when they flower, but not as the primary structure of the garden.

Here is a list of trees and shrubs that will do well in the Sedona area which should form the plant palette that will comprise your Sedona Hummingbird Garden Design.
TREES
Mimosa (deciduous)
Desert Willow (deciduous)
Vitex (deciduous)
Crape Myrtle (deciduous)
Pomegranate (deciduous)

PERENNIALS
Agastache
Bee balm
Canna lily
Daylily
Delphinium
Flame acanthus
Coral bells
Nasturtium
Petunia
Red columbine
Russian Sage
Penstemon
EVERGREEN SHRUBS
Autumn Sage
English lavender
Spanish lavender
Red Yucca

VINES
Halls honeysuckle (semi-evergreen)
Coral honeysuckle (semi-evergreen)
Red Trumpet vine (deciduous)

Include feeders in your Sedona Hummingbird Garden Design
Don’t overlook the use of feeders to provide hummingbirds with a food source in addition to the flowers. Not all flowers will be blooming, nor have sufficient nectar. Place the feeders in shade and/or near sitting areas of to view from inside the house. Having more than one feeder will help attract more hummers. For more information about the use of feeders check out the Sedona Hummingbird Society web site.

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