Palo verde paradise at Arizona State University Polytechnic campus

For all you snowbound readers up north or eager-beaver gardeners down south, you’ll find lots of floral sunshine in this post, which I’ve been holding onto since last spring. During my Phoenix visit last April, my friend Noelle, aka AZ Plant Lady, took me to some water-saving gardens around town, including the beautiful grounds at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus in Mesa.

The campus, formerly an Air Force base, was originally a bleak expanse of hot paving and river rock. Austin’s own Christine Ten Eyck ripped up the paving (repurposing some of it as garden benches and paving-stone paths) to create a garden of flowering native plants that provide shade and feed pollinators, welcoming courtyards, vine-draped arbors, and creative water harvesting.

In 2012, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) recognized the garden with an Honor Award. As Ten Eyck’s project narrative explains,

Our team reviewed the campus master plan which had a decidedly Ivy League approach to the campus design and developed a new master plan strategy for the project. We reinvented what a campus could be in the unique region of the Sonoran desert which only receives 7″ of rainfall a year.

7 inches of rain — that is not very much. Yet plants like aloes and palo blanco trees grow well here with minor supplemental watering.

The river rocks that once made inhospitable paving now fill courtyard-defining gabion walls, which also shade plant roots from summer’s heat.

Cooling shade, enclosure, and places to sit

Tall gabion walls echo interior walls, sheltering an outdoor dining or studying area, with eye-catching green seating.

Some of the buildings are enclosed by a metal scrim, presumably for shade and to support high-climbing vines, which shelter the buildings from the desert sun. Noelle identified the vine as grape ivy (Cissus trifoliata).

This large courtyard is paved with stabilized decomposed granite, which allows rainwater to percolate through. Clean-lined concrete benches invite relaxation.

A concrete cistern filled with river rock collects rainwater, when it comes, and spills it into a dry creek. I confess I’m not exactly sure how this sort of cistern works, since it’s raised above ground level. How does rainwater fill it? Maybe it’s pumped up from underground pipes?

Industrial-style Corten arbors line walkways for shade. Interesting shadows are a bonus.

Lady Banks roses climb the arbors, softening the steel with cascades of ruffled flowers.

But the showiest flowers were blooming in the bare branches of palo verde trees, which glowed like secondary suns all over campus, and indeed all across Phoenix during my early April visit.

I’m familiar with the charms of forsythia from my Carolina childhood. But this — forsythia times 100!

I could not get enough of it, those golden trees glowing against a cloudless, blue desert sky.

Yellow is the color of spring in Arizona, for along with the palo verdes I saw octopus agave (A. vilmoriniana) in towering bloom…

…and aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), with its subtler spires.

More palo verdes shade a water-collecting basin and a long concrete bench.

Another high steel arbor shades an L-shaped banco, while more of those green dining sets invite socializing or studying.

This sunny courtyard near the parking lot was ablaze with California poppies and a palo verde, with a Cereus peruvianus (thanks for the tentative ID, Janis), barrel cactus, and purple prickly pear adding year-round structure.

A Spanish-style tiered fountain drips musically along a broad walkway. Ten Eyck, who is exceedingly water conscious with her designs, has told me she believes in using water sparingly but symbolically in dry climates to evoke an abundance that isn’t there, and to visually cool gardens.

It’s a shame that the City of Austin doesn’t agree and has banned the running of municipal and residential fountains for the past several years as a water-conservation measure. A small fountain is almost a spiritual gesture in a hot climate, and birds, insects, and other wildlife depend on artificial water sources when creeks run dry. But that’s a rant for another day.

Even desert plants need water to get established, and a simple trench effectively delivers runoff water to this young mesquite.

The entire garden is an inspiring example of how to make a hospitable garden with not a lot of water in a harsh climate. My thanks to Noelle for showing it to me!

If you’re interested in sustainable gardening in the desert, you might like to visit Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I didn’t visit that one this time but hope to one day. Also see my post about Scottsdale’s inspiring Xeriscape Garden. Both are, like the Polytechnic campus garden, designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Read This: Cultivating Garden Style

Cultivating Garden Style

Style, which is about expressing yourself and your unique taste, applies as much to making gardens as to fashion or interior design. Most gardeners naturally prioritize plants when making a garden, but who doesn’t also enjoy accessorizing his or her outdoor spaces with color, furnishings, and accessories like pots, cushions and pillows, and lighting?

In her new book, Cultivating Garden Style: Inspired Ideas and Practical Advice to Unleash Your Garden Personality, Rochelle Greayer, the blogger behind the well-known Studio ‘g’, has fun categorizing gardens with a stylist’s eye. Like a friend who’s good with design, she’s here to help you pinpoint the style your garden leans toward, so you can enhance it, or, if you feel your garden lacks style, help you figure out what you like. The book is essentially a collection of 23 garden mood boards: images of gardens, products, and plants but also works of art, actors in costume, and travel scenes — i.e., anything that evokes a particular mood or style. To use a more contemporary example, mentioned by the author herself, reading the book is like exploring a designer’s Pinterest boards. Stylistically, it also reminds me of HGTV Magazine: visually dynamic, a bit busy at times, and ideal for digesting over short stretches, like your lunch break.

I enjoyed Greayer’s creative and evocative names for the various garden styles she explores. You’ll find Enchanted Bohemian, Tropical Noir, Low Country Shaman, Forest Temple, Playful Pop, and Homegrown Rock ‘N’ Roll, to name a few. Each chapter — each mood board — starts off with an image-dominated, four-page spread outlining the style and the motifs typically used to illustrate it.

Over the next two pages you’re given ideas for accessories to bring the style into your garden, accompanied by pithy descriptions of variations on the style.

Suitable plants are suggested in the next two-page spread.

Then you get a “garden story,” a virtual tour of a real garden that illustrates the style. This section impressed me the most, no matter which garden style I was reading about. Greayer’s ability to find beautiful images of far-flung gardens, and to write about them and their owners as if she knows them personally — well, this is not easy, folks. I don’t know whether she travels widely herself to pull off this feat or if she has a gift for making a stranger’s garden seem intimately familiar, but it’s one of the things I admire about her blog and this book.

Each chapter concludes with two pages of practical information: design tips, how-to projects, horticultural information, and the like. Here Greayer shares a mishmash of handy info about everything from choosing outdoor fabric to firescaping to making your own light fixtures. Newbies will learn some useful gardening information, and DIYers will rejoice over new projects to try.

At 323 pages, the book is packed with colorful photos (including one of mine, from a garden I toured in Austin), accompanied by Greayer’s breezy, conversational text. In spirit it reminds me of Judy Kameon’s Gardens Are for Living, which I reviewed last summer. If your garden is as much for people as for plants, you’ll enjoy reading Cultivating Garden Style to find your favorite style.

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of the book for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Decor, Design

What kind of gardening do YOU block on social media?

I bet we all do it without even thinking about it. But it wasn’t until I read Elizabeth Licata’s post on Garden Rant this week, “2015: the year of the do-nothing garden,” that I’d heard it voiced so baldly. She was vowing to take it easier in her garden next year, to stop fussing and just let it be — all well and good. And then she included a resolution that’s echoed in my head for days:

Ignore all the super-modern, spiffy-clean minimalist garden designs people keep posting in Facebook. In fact, think about blocking anyone who posts them, or at least clicking “I don’t want to see this.”

Wow, blocking someone on social media who posts about a different garden style than one’s own? I was taken aback and instantly started second-guessing myself. Is she talking about me? I do like modern gardens, and although my own will never be minimalist I’m drawn to some that are. Modern and minimalist gardens seem especially well suited to drier parts of the country than Elizabeth’s native Buffalo, New York (or even the South-meets-Southwest climate of Austin, my hometown), and plants naturally grow farther apart and as individual specimens where rainfall is scarce — and this is a look that modern design embraces. Of course it’s quite easy to make a cottage garden in Phoenix or Boise, or a clean-lined contemporary garden in Raleigh or Buffalo, if that’s what you like. But I do think that certain styles lend themselves to the region in which one lives, and don’t merely reflect one’s taste. In that case, if you block a particular style of gardening from your news feed on Facebook or Pinterest or your blogroll, are you also blocking out whole portions of the country?

Image courtesy of
Isn’t this what many nationally marketed gardening magazines and books did and still do, at least in the U.S.? Focus on one type of gardening, typically the lushly planted, temperate-climate gardens of the Northeast or Pacific Northwest, sometimes adding California Mediterranean for a bit of diversity, and largely ignoring the Southwest, Mountain West, Plains States, Lower Midwest, and Southeast — i.e., “flyover country?” And isn’t this what the democratic age of social media was supposed to ameliorate?

When garden blogs proliferated in 2006 and 2007, suddenly you could read about gardens all over the country and around the world. No longer did gardens have to fit an editor’s narrow idea of perfection. In fact they didn’t have to be anywhere close to perfect! Instead, you could see real gardens made by real people in regions you might know nothing about. Readers in the North were surprised to discover that gardening seasons are often flipped on their heads for southern gardeners. Readers in the South learned about the benefits to northern gardens of winter snow cover and the springtime joys of bulbs and ephemerals. In other words, we quickly learned more about different types of gardens than we ever learned pre-blogs, and it was eye-opening and fun.

Image courtesy of
But now, with today’s oversaturation of blogs and hourly updates on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, each of us is forced to make decisions about what to read and what to cut out of our feeds. There’s simply not time to read everything. One must curate. And so Elizabeth’s comment about blocking people from her feed who post about gardening styles she’s not into makes sense. But it makes me sad to think we may all be curating ourselves back into the limited experience of gardens we had before the rise of blogs and other social media. Personally, I cut chicken chat and edible gardening posts from my feed, only because I’m not into homesteading and am into ornamental, wildlife, dry-climate, and native-plant gardening, with a lot of modern design thrown in for fun. My taste isn’t better than anyone else’s. Your taste isn’t better than mine. It’s all just what we like and have time for. But amid the plenty don’t you feel a bit of loss for what we miss and how we narrow our world by blocking and clicking “I don’t want to see this?”

Image courtesy of
So fess up. What do you curate out of your social media feeds? And do you think it’s a necessary evil, or do you find it liberating to essentially create your own weekly magazine of garden stuff you love?

And for the record, I hope when my friend Elizabeth Licata reads this she understands that I intend no personal criticism. On the contrary, I appreciate how her post got me thinking. That’s another thing garden blogs are good for!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.