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Why We Plant

A plant-filled landscape has co-evolved with humans for as long as we have been around to see it. Your stucco, wood, and concrete house is really just a fancy cave, and the picture window in your living room is the transparent cave door that keeps out the bears and inquisitive wooly mammoths. What hasn’t changed over the years is the context: We are still surrounded by a natural landscape of plants that has existed long before man had mortgage payments or double indemnity. Our long-term connection with plants is unshakable, and when plants are removed in the process of building a residential house, parking lot, highway, or strip mall, we  possess an overwhelming instinct to bring them back.

For most major housing developments built in the lower desert valleys of south-central Arizona (and just about everywhere else), a scorched earth policy prevails and plants are scraped out of existence by the bulldozer’s blade. Native plants, perfectly tuned to their environment, are swept away to make room for sidewalks, sewer pipes, and the house you just spent a few hundred grand on. Establishing a new landscape here is literally starting from scratch.

In hilly Globe-Miami, a cut-and-fill culture developed in the early 1970s and continues to this day. It favors removing wedges of mountain sides to fit the house, rather than constructing the house to fit the mountain.  Not only are plants removed, but those that remain are covered by the waste soil left over from excavating the ledge that now holds up the house, creating a double whammy of mortality for anything photosynthetic. A level lot is created, but so is a cliff behind each house that supports nothing else but erosion. Landscaping, again, starts from square one.BTA  2575

Owners of average-priced homes built in or near the mountain foothills of Phoenix and Tucson seem to have a greater respect for the beauty and benefits of existing native plants, and for the natural topography. The rigors of HOA regulation might be at play here, but even people who can afford seven-digit homes high in the foothills—and therefore able to make their own rules—choose to embrace the landscape that hugs their 5000-square-foot castles.  Except for the faint ka-ching that murmurs from a distance, most of these homes blend into the background with minimal disruption. These relatively undisturbed native landscapes are irrefutably the most frugal when it comes to water use, yet still yield plenty of pockets for horticultural expression.

What all of these scenarios share is that no matter where your house is located, or when it was built, the native landscape was disrupted to put it there. All landscaping, then, is really re-landscaping, and deep within our subconscious, we are driven to return what was lost.

Unfortunately, there is some ironic, if not paradoxical, baggage that accompanies our innate urge to revegetate. First and foremost is the reality that every new plant requires an establishment period. Even when planting natives, or regionally-adapted exotics from other parts of the world with similar climates, it takes two to three years before they can be weaned to grow mostly on ambient rainfall and begin to act like other “off-the-grid” plants. The dirty little secret, and hence more baggage, is that your neighbor’s permanently irrigated plants will always look better, grow faster, and flower longer than the same plants you have dutifully chosen to eventually tough it out on their own. If keeping up with the Joneses is a priority, that’s a hard pill to swallow. And trees, even natives like mesquites, palo verdes, and ironwoods, require a half decade or more of regular irrigation to become the functionally large, shade-producers you planted them to be.

You can’t break the horticultural rules that even Mother Nature has to follow, but you can choose your plants wisely. And there is no better place to find the plants and the expertise you need than at Boyce Thompson Arboretum’s Fall Plant Sale from October 12 – 27. Thousands of plants will be available throughout the sale, and horticultural staff with nearly 100 years of collective expertise will be on hand to help you choose. Fall is the best time of year to plant. We’ll even help you load.


Schedule of events  October

Oct.  12 Fall Plant Sale open to the public daily through Oct. 27

Oct. 12-13 Gourd Art Classes. ‘Basic’ Oct. 12 ($40), ‘advanced Oct. 13 ($50)

Oct.  12 Live Music with the band Mrs. Lincoln 3:30-5:30pm

Oct.  13 Camera Basics class with Tom Boggan 2-4pm ($30)

Oct.  19 Plants of the Bible Land walk guided by Dave Oberpriller at 8:30am

Oct.  20  Build A Terrarium workshop 10am ($50)

Oct.  26  Butterfly Walk with Adriane Grimaldi 930am

Oct.  27 Switching to Manual photo class with  Michael Madsen ($40)

Oct.  27 Mesquite Flour-Making class with Jean Groen & Robert Lewis 10:30am






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About Kim Stone

Kim Stone was a horticulturist, writer, and editor of several publications for the University of Arizona at Boyce Thompson Arboretum over the better part of three decades. He is now happily self-absorbed in freelance writing, travel, and content marketing.

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