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