Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

7June22 Plants in the garden, and sharing plants from the neighbor’s garden

Most urban and suburban lots are small relative to the natural tracts of native habitat, so there are limits to what we can plant, both in size and variety.

And, it turns out, putting your yard into context with the nearest forage/host area is quite important because many insects are limited in how far they can travel for food and lodging. To some, a football field of length can push limits of mobility.

So if you are close enough to a natural area that you can leverage it’s resources, fantastic! Add one or two specimens of various native plants can still get you to critical mass if considered as shared resources with the natural area. Same goes for sharing other resources, like water and nesting habitat.

Similarly, you can view the plants and other resources in your neighbor’s yards as something to be shared by the pollinator web of animals.

The neighbor behind us has a large Sissoo tree (not a tree that I would recommend), and the birds love the height and cover it affords. Good thing, because our backyard is only 2 years old, and even our fast growing mesquite and palo verdes need a bit more time to become truly comfortable perches.

Other neighbors have citrus, hibiscus and Arizona Yellow Bells to share. Let’s look at how some of the plants in and around the garden are looking on this 109 degree day.

Desert Willow in our garden is loving the heat
Rush Milkweed in our yard is a great nectar source this time of year
Peacock Flower in our garden has come back from a cut-back in the spring
Hopbush is a great low water screening plant in our garden
The Brittlebush finished their late-winter and spring flowerings, providing much needed food
Firecracker Penstemon is still showing a will to flower, but has mostly gone to seed
Desert Marigold is in its second bloom period. Finches love the seeds
Peaking over the fence, a beautiful hibiscus (thanks neighbor)
Another shared resource, loved by hummingbirds, host to Painted Lady and Gray Hairstreak
Arizona Yellow Bells, another great nectar plant (thanks neighbor!)
And Sunflowers have turned out to be a great addition to the vegetable garden

I’ve found some interesting bees on the sunflowers, but no butterflies so far. On the non-pollinator side of things though, the sunflowers attract a wide array of insects from lace bugs, psyllids, long legged flies, assassin bugs and lady beetles! Oh, and birds eating the insects off of the leaves.

Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

7June22 Blood-colored Milkweed Bug, Tarantula Hawk Wasp, Queen Butterfly, Ceraunus Blue Butterfly, Great Horned Owl

The beauty of a pollinator garden is a two-edged wand:

  • The reward of knowing you are contributing to the health of the ecosystem that you inhabit
  • The treasure hunt of discovering the web of characters that visit your paradise

In the previous installments of this post I presented the blank slate layout of our garden along with the ideas that drove the implementation of the garden. In these next installments I’ll be sharing the visitors to the garden, and in the process also showing the plants and structures that define the spaces.

Blood-colored Milkweed Bug on Desert Milkweed

There have been discussions about whether milkweed bugs are a friend or foe in the garden, but personally I haven’t found them to cause significant harm and I consider them part of the self-balancing ecosystem of the garden.

Although it may appear that your garden has only one or two varieties of milkweed bugs, closer observation is likely to reveal more diversity. Our garden also has Large Milkweed Bugs, Water Small Milkweed Bugs and Southern Small Milkweed bugs.

New World Tarantula-hawk Wasps on Desert Milkweed

These wasps can be quite intimidating, flying like military helicopters in the garden, but they take little interest in humans. They do seem to love the Desert Milkweeds (Asclepius subulata) and Desert Willows. As the name implies, these wasps hunt tarantulas, and there must be a lot of tarantulas around because the garden is currently a-buzz with these wasps. I love tarantulas, so I’m keeping the faith that eco-balance is holding steady.

Queen on Desert Milkweed

So if there is any doubt about the versatility of milkweeds in the garden, it should be apparent at this point that they serve as more than host plants for Monarch and Queen butterflies.

Queens are aptly named, so regal and beautiful! Last year I “rescued” a caterpillar right before a cold snap and raised it indoors: The Making of a Queen.

Ceraunus Blue on Baja Fairyduster

Blues are tiny wonders in the garden, and you need to be up close to appreciate their beauty and differences. The top side of the wings are blue for males, but females vary from blue to silvery-blue to brown. Host plants for the Ceraunus Blue include legumes like Mesquites and Acacias.

Great Horned Owl in a Sissoo Tree

Also known as the “tiger of the air” this owl primarily hunts rabbits and hares, rats and mice, and voles. One look at those talons and it’s clear this is a very capable predator, and it will hunt whatever it can overtake.

I was very excited to see this owl swoop into the tree during daylight hours, and even more fortunate to have camera at hand. Local nesting birds were pestering the owl, trying to protect their nests I would guess, but the owl was unflappable and stayed in the same spot for hours.

Meet the Author: Dr. Shaun McCoshum

Shaun McCoshum is the author of two books on pollinators and gardening – Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions and Inviting Pollinators and Other Wildlife Into Your Garden – available on Amazon.com. He received a master’s degree in botany from Miami University (Ohio) and a doctorate from Oklahoma State University in zoology.

Hunt’s Bumblebee on Rabbitbrush

What is your background? How did you first get interested in bees and gardening for wildlife?

From a young age I had been gardening and using permaculture techniques before I even learned the term. My maternal grandparents lived a block away, and they both were in their late teens when the Great Depression hit. When I was six, both my parents lost their jobs and we became really poor, and very food insecure, so my grandmother got to work. She had me helping her do work to grow fruits and vegetables in her garden. Most people did not realize how much of the yard was growing food for us. In back we had more organized food gardens. I continued gardening throughout my younger years; then in high school, I started working as a landscaper and helping friends and family install similar gardens, all the while being aware that areas needed to be cared for to support wildlife to help control pests and pollinate flowers.

These experiences simply paved the way for me to study biology at Humboldt State University and get a botany minor. Between my master’s and PhD, I worked in conservation, which really helped me grasp ecological niches, microhabitats, and looking at areas from the animal’s perspective. During my PhD, I focused on pollinator communities and worked on side projects with monarch butterflies. I went on to do my post-doctoral work at Cornell University working on bee communities in the Mojave Desert and their vegetation community associations, as well as large-scale solar farm impacts to those communities. After my post-doc, I worked as the preserve manager for Westchester Land Trust in New York, then moved onto consulting and permitting, which I do now, while still collecting data and publishing research and books.

Gray hairstreak and bee fly on Cowpen daisy

Why did you decide to write a gardening book?

The short answer is because a few people told me I should. With my background in native bees, monarch butterflies, ecology, and conservation, I end up doing a lot of public speaking. I also enjoy reading gardening articles. Between these two things, I kept answering questions that were clearly based on incomplete or incorrect information, most of it printed in gardening articles and even coming from some conservation groups. My first book focused only on the arid regions of North America to help clarify some of the misinformation that is spread around. [Read my review of his first book here.]

Who is your intended audience? Anyone who has an interest in urban ecology, wildlife conservation, or gardening.

Ashmeadiella bee and flower beetle on native bindweed

What piece of advice would you give to people wanting to start a pollinator garden?

Pollinator gardens should be viewed in context of their surrounding landscape and provide shelter, in addition to native plants for target species. For example, in densely populated urban areas where lawns are abundant and habitat is lacking, a small pollinator garden will not be accessible to bee species that have been driven away, nor will it support many bees overall. Therefore, providing an abundance of flowers for smaller generalist bees and butterfly host plants will be more useful than flowers that support just a few bee species or do not host any butterflies. Resources for nesting bees and pupating butterflies would have to be selected based on the region, but a few logs with holes drilled in always helps. Conversely in areas where there are more wild, plant-filled areas, pollinator gardens that use native plants uncommon in the area will help local pollinator communities because species dependent on those plants are likely still nearby. Viewing a garden from the landscape context is also helpful when trying to attract other wildlife like birds, toads, or even lizards. 

Bordered patch caterpillar on sunflower

What kind of research did you do for the book?

So much. In addition to the literal decades of studying, reading scientific literature, doing conservation work, new data collection, and gardening – I started compiling data for topics and reading various forums, print articles, and reviewing resources gardeners might be using. The most important research I did for this book was probably gathering the data for plant and bee associations, and their current ranges. For the bee species profiles I also reviewed a lot of literature searching to find what substrates each species nested in. I put these aspects together to provide specific information on what a pollinator garden that would “save the bees” really looks like, going beyond articles with native plant lists that benefit honeybees, not native bees.

For the articles that do talk about “bee hotels,” they inadvertently prioritize a nesting behavior used by about 30% of bees and rarely address proper size or care of those structures. There are very few articles that address ground nesting bees, which my new book covers; but promoting ground nesting bees is showing up more and more on online platforms, which is good to see.

Checkered skipper on paperflower

Were there any surprise findings? What did you learn in the process?

The most surprising thing I found was how much we simply do not know about pollinators. I had been somewhat aware of the lack of data, but it wasn’t until I was trying to compile information that I really grasped the lack of data. For example, there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the continental United States, but researchers have described the nests of less than 500 species. Frustratingly, many of those descriptions do not characterize soil texture or document entrance solar exposure, both of which are important to nesting bees. So, in this book, soil diversity and structure are discussed to help cover different possibilities. Sandy soils are used more often by nesting bees than any other type of soil.

It was also shocking to see, and this is in the book too, that more than 50% of counties in the contiguous United States have fewer than five native bee species digitized as of 2020. We simply have not done a thorough survey. The data for which bee species feed on which plants are also lacking. Even in this book I could only report plant associations, and I explain this does not mean the bees will feed on those plants. When bee researchers collect bees, they often do not include notes on if the bees were collecting pollen, feeding on nectar, collecting oils, plant parts, or simply sitting on the plant. Most likely, the bees were feeding in one way or another, but the data simply do not exist for most bee species yet. Luckily, community science platforms like iNaturalist are improving our knowledge, but it is difficult to help gardeners choose plants for their gardens when we aren’t sure which bee species might be in the area.

Male longhorn bee (Melissodes) on Spiny goldenweed

All pictures by Shaun M. McCoshum, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Some answers edited for clarity and length. My thanks to Shaun for agreeing to be interviewed. – Elliott

Book Review: Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions

Thank you for reading my review of “A short introduction to Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions” by Dr. Shaun McCoshum. If you are interested, the book is available for purchase on Amazon.com

With 29 full-size pages, this book is lightweight, but not light on content. It is specifically aimed at arid environments, which is refreshing given the lush, yet unrealistic, gardens portrayed on many websites. Even if we long for shady lawns, it’s irresponsible to maintain high water use landscaping in Arizona and New Mexico.

Native desert landscapes can serve as inspiration for our own gardens, and they are the best way to support native wildlife

The book is essentially split into 5 sections: brainstorming/planning for your garden, reptiles, bees, butterflies, and birds. I would characterize this book as in between a do-it-yourself guide and a reference manual – it has explicit instructions for planning your space, lizard sunning spots, bee hotel, and water feature, but also leaves it open to the reader in terms of selecting plants and doing further research.

The ligated furrow bee, Halictus ligatus, and Spiny goldenweed, Xanthisma spinulosum are discussed in this book

One of the strengths of the book is the knowledge Dr. McCoshum brings to the bee section. I love the discussion of ground-nesting bees, which are the majority of native bees in the world (and especially the desert southwest). The book addresses crucial elements of bee habitat in addition to the plants that they forage. Regarding the plant lists, you may want a wildflower book or Internet browser handy, as the names are largely in Latin.

Bottom line, I recommend this book. I think it will be most useful to people starting out, renovating part of a yard, or wanting to attract more of a specific kind of wildlife, like bees or lizards. It would make a great, not so subtle, gift to a neighbor who’s still hanging onto their lawn. You can hear more from Dr. McCoshum in this Youtube recording of a talk he gave for NMSU: https://youtu.be/Q6v6CLOui6c

Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Design: TJ’s framework drawing for pool and landscape. This is the third post in this series. You can read the first post here.

Bucking the trend of right angle, manicured modern design, we decided to go with organic shapes to soften the landscape and align with the natural shape of the plants. Have we waited long enough for this to come back into vogue? That has yet to be seen, but, of course, it’s a moot point since we’re designing the yard for ourselves (and then, ultimately, pollinators too!)

It’s worth noting that every pool designer was only offering rectilinear pool designs. In fact, our pool builder said he had not built a freeform pool in about a decade. Fortunately for us, TJ is a true landscape artist and provided a framework that we loved.

Landscape Framework (tjfitzloff@gmail.com)

On the left side of the drawing is the North Side yard. As previously mentioned, this area was defined as a xeriscape with walkways, with a strong need for privacy in the east corner, and a requirement for water retention and control for roof runoff.

On the right side is the South Side yard, which was defined with oasis elements around the pool, a strong need for privacy at the south wall, and a requirement for water retention and control for roof runoff.

I added drip irrigation infrastructure in four zones:

  • South side yard
  • North side yard
  • North side along the house
  • Cacti and succulents

The final implementation of this plan varied from the foundation drawing, as is often the case with the best laid plans. Considerations affecting change included:

  • A 3 year plan for privacy, which required choosing faster growing plants at a higher density than shown in the drawing
  • Plant availability – I don’t have a landscape license so couldn’t buy wholesale, but did almost all of the purchasing and planting. Some plants called out in the drawing were not practical to procure and plant given the desired size or function.
  • Cost, of course. As anyone who has planned and completed large projects is likely aware, you can cost, labor and time, but not all three at once.

Coming up next: Planting, Phase 1

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Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Design: North Side Yard

Welcome back! This is the second installment in this series – in the previous post I presented the history of the project and the design considerations for the South Side Yard – you can view that post here.

The side yard on the north side of the house has two separate microclimates. The area near the house gets sun in the summer, including late afternoon sun, but during the late fall until early spring, no sun hits the landscape because it’s shaded by the house. Selecting plants for this area can be a challenge, but with some judicious selections the summer sun can be moderated. This area will also be responsible for retaining and controlling water runoff from the roof.

Towards the block fence the sun exposure is more consistent, especially for taller shrubs and trees. The goal here is to have a xeriscape and walkways, similar in design to a botanical garden.

Northwest Side Yard

On the west end of the side yard there is a mild need for privacy screening, but a much stronger need for shade since the late afternoon summer sun comes blazing over the front gate. You can almost feel the heat radiating from the dirt in this early afternoon picture. So we’ll be using trees and shrubs to create some microclimates for plants and people.

Northeast Side Yard

The east end of the side yard has two large 2-story homes, both with second story balconies, so privacy is a big consideration. Screening will be accomplished with trees and shrubs.

Coming up:


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Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Blank Slate

Landscaping a bare earth tract home backyard into a taste of paradise, then evolving it to support pollinators and the web of characters that support an ecosystem. This is the first of a series of posts to share the story of discovery and a labor of love.

It’s 2019, and after 9 months of searching for a resale home, we ended up purchasing a new tract home further out than we wanted, but availability and price aligned to a relative sweet spot, and we made the leap.

(A View from the Rearview Mirror: A great bit of luck, that leap. Who knew a pandemic was on the horizon, and home prices would begin to see upward price pressure that was unimaginable. In fact, when the pandemic first hit, the developer began discounting homes due to lack of demand.)

We had just moved to Phoenix from the midwest and I had taken some landscape classes at the Desert Botanical Garden to learn about plant selection, irrigation and water conservation, so this project would put the newfound knowledge to good use.

I wasn’t, however, yet aware of the importance of native plants to support pollinators in the yard. So the foundational landscape that we designed and planted was focused on a botanical garden style xeriscape with oasis elements. Tuning the landscape for pollinators came later, after the pandemic hit and I became involved with the MetroPhoenix EcoFlora iNaturalist project (more on that later) and the Maricopa Native Seed Library.

South Side Yard Design

South Side Yard (A/C wall of house faces 191 degrees South)

A blank slate can be daunting, as shown above in our initial “scorched earth” yard. This side yard faces slightly off from 180 degrees south, so it gets lots of winter sun. Because of the way the sun travels, however, it also gets late afternoon summer sun, which is the hardest on plants.

A two story home with a second story balcony, and a next door home that’s close to the fence, guided us to design for privacy along the fence line. Another design element would be a pool to make the summers more enjoyable and to add an oasis in the desert aesthetic. We also wanted walking paths to give the yard a botanical garden feel.

And of course, water conservation is a necessary and practical aspect of the design. To efficiently deliver water to the plants I decided to use multiple zones of drip irrigation, and since rain water (hopefully the monsoons will return in 2022!) is the best hydrator for plants, the design will incorporate swales to retain water shed from the roof, which drains along the wall with the A/C unit.

Coming up:


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One Year in my Pollinator Garden

Painted Lady visits apple blossoms (Vanessa cardui on Malus domestica)

I joined iNaturalist in April 2021 to participate in the City Nature Challenge – 2022 edition is coming up soon! – and I had no idea at the time that it would be my go-to resource for appreciating and documenting the visitors in my pollinator garden. I was quickly drawn in by the many friendly and knowledgeable users and the potential to improve my understanding of the natural world. One year later, I’m delighted to reminisce and share highlights from my edible garden and native plant xeriscape. It has been a blast watching, photographing, and learning to identify hundreds of species of plants and animals. Please, join me for a celebration of diversity in my New Mexico neighborhood.

3 varieties of sunflowers (Helianthus) blooming in summer 2021

Getting Started

My journey to hosting a pollinator garden in Albuquerque began with an all but blank slate. The front yard was a sea of bare gravel plus cheatgrass, tumbleweeds, and goatheads, while the back featured 8 Russian olive trees and plenty of dandelions. In 2020, I decided to transform the landscaping and hired a local company to cut down the invasive trees. In their places, I planted Peach and Apple trees for fruit, Utah serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) and New Mexico olive (Forestiera pubescens) to feed songbirds, and Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) for shade and fall color. Thanks to the New Mexico Native Plants Society, Plants of the Southwest, Osuna Nursery, Hilltop Landscaping, the American Penstemon Society, and the ABQ Backyard Refuge Program, I found plenty of resources and support to select appropriate, drought-tolerant plants for my yard and begin to create habitat for wildlife.

Habronattus festus jumping spider

Watching the Grass Grow

At the beginning of the project, I typically saw common city birds, lizards, bumblebees, rock squirrels, paper wasps, and not much else. It takes a while for new plants to get established and for neighborhood critters to (re)discover my yard. It’s all worth it now for moments like watching an American Robin eat serviceberries, a longhorn bee sleeping on a sunflower, or munching on a fresh apple that I grew.

Large-tailed Aphideater (Eupeodes volucris hoverfly) on Arugula

When I started, I was familiar with common pollinators, like honeybees and hummingbirds, but there were so many branches of the Animal kingdom of which I wasn’t aware. (I’m doing a little better now and I hope you’ll scroll through some of our visual guides Insects – Pollinator Web.) By slowing down and observing with purpose, I find something new in the garden almost every day. It is both fun and frustrating to follow a little bee on her journey to collect pollen as I struggle to get clear pictures for identification.

Tripartite Sweat Bee on Scorpionweed (Halictus tripartitus on Phacelia integrifolia)

By The Numbers

Honestly, I have been blown away by the diversity that can exist in 0.2-acres of land. We tend to think of deserts as arid and empty; in reality, Arizona and New Mexico combined have over 1,000 species of native bees plus more than 300 species of butterflies! I have recorded more than 600 yard species in the last 12 months, using iNaturalist. They include:

  • >100 species of cultivated plants, including 20 varieties of native trees and shrubs
  • 75 bees
  • 59 butterflies and moths
  • 59 birds
  • 58 flies
  • 50 ‘true bugs’ (Hemiptera)
  • 47 volunteer plant species (“weeds” and wildflowers introduced by wind or animals)
  • 45 wasps
  • 37 beetles
  • 21 spiders
  • 12 crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids
  • 11 ants
  • New Mexico Whiptails and Southwestern Fence lizards
  • Flame Skimmer and Blue-fronted Dancer (dragonflies)
  • 2 springtails
  • 1 mayfly!
An unexpected mayfly showed up as I was leaving for work last year

Closing Thoughts

Imagine what we can do working together in our communities by planting yards full of flowers, instead of spraying chemicals and mowing lawns.

Every square inch of planet earth has ecological significance, even where we live, work, and play. If we landscape these areas with plant function as well as aesthetics in mind, we can create viable habitat where humans are, not just where humans are not … Today’s environmental challenges are so enormous that it is easy to feel helpless, as if one person can’t make a difference – despite the cliché that suggests you can. In this case, however, the cliché is right on: by choosing ecologically-effective plants for your landscape, by shrinking your lawn, and by removing your invasive ornamentals – all actions a single person can take – you will be able to make a difference that you can see, and enjoy, almost immediately. Life will return to your property!

Quote from Doug Tallamy
Lewis’ Soldier Beetles were abundant in fall 2021 on snakeweed, goldenweed, and Chamisa

Gardening for Life / Doug Tallamy

Lady beetles need native, pesticide free plants, so their larvae have a supply of aphids available

Chances are, you have never thought of your garden – – indeed, of all of the space on your property – – as a wildlife preserve that represents the last opportunity we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role that built landscapes are now playing and will play even more in the near future. If this is news to you, it’s not your fault. We were taught from childhood that plants are decorations and our landscapes are for beauty; they are an outlet for expressing our artistic talents and an oasis for having fun and relaxing in. And, whether we like it or not, the way we landscape our properties is taken by our neighbors as a statement of our wealth, our social status, and our willingness to follow cultural norms.

To read more, visit homegrownnationalpark.org/tallamy/not-in-our-yard-doug-tallamy
Lesser Goldfinch perched in native Bigtooth maple