Restoring the Flora

Black -tailed gnatcatcher on a foothills palo verde

Black -tailed gnatcatcher on a foothills palo verde

All over the country ordinary people are replacing their lawns with what occurred before. For example, in the western states there is a movement to restore the prairies. People are replacing their lawns with small prairie plantings full of plants that support wildlife, and eschewing overbred plants with showy flowers that give little back to wildlife but please humans.

Big muhly grass ( Muhlenbergia lindheimeri ) and little bluestem ( Schizachyrium scoparium ) intermingle with wildflowers in a “pocket prairie” at the East Austin home of John Hart Asher, a Wildflower Center environmental designer. These plants are also native to Arizona. PHOTO John Hart Asher

Big muhly grass (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) intermingle with wildflowers in a “pocket prairie” at the East Austin home of John Hart Asher, a Wildflower Center environmental designer. These plants are also native to Arizona. PHOTO John Hart Asher

Bringing back a complete cast of native, wild plants into human landscapes has many benefits. It requires less manipulation--because the plants are native, one doesn’t need to manipulate the chemistry of the soil to help the plants to live. Because we are encouraging wildlife, there is no need to expend money on pesticides (which are awful to all life forms including humans, anyway). Wild landscapes are also just gorgeous, and help give us a sense of regional identity.

This is an important trend. We humans are just beginning to understand that our ways need to change and produce the things we need (food, shelter, clothing, etc) without decimating the wild. But that change comes slow, and when a wild bird or butterfly moves from wild area to wild area, they must cross the areas manipulated by human activity. These areas are often not safe for them and your backyard can be one place of refuge for such wild creatures. In fact, suburban backyards have become incredibly important for the survival of many species, when they aren’t being bombarded with pesticides. You can become part of the bridge that helps the wild migrate safely through the human domain.


Here are some helpful hints for creating wildlife beds into your landscape.

Cast aside your magazines and books inspired by outdated and inappropriate designs created in eras that ignored the wild.
You don’t need an English garden. Those magazines with the California-inspired succulent beds? They aren’t appropriate for our region. They aren’t even appropriate for California, as those design sentiments helped people plant in a frenzy that has almost replaced the entire coastal flora of California outside of protected wild areas. We don’t want to make that same mistake in Arizona. When I first moved here, a book called Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes by Judy Mielke had just come out. It inspired me because the whole book was populated with regionally native plants, and they were presented in landscapes that did justice for our climate and ecology--rather than used like the banal garden plants sold in national chains that ignore local flora. That book, by the way, is still the best landscape book for our area.


Reconsider your use needs in the landscape.
Let’s be real honest here for a moment. Do you REALLY need a lawn. Does anyone REALLY spend time in the grass? Even if you have a child, isn’t it more important that your children have a personal relationship with the critters that populate the region than a sterile plot of grass that won’t inspire any love of nature? What will have a lasting impact: a moment crawling in some grass, or watching a caterpillar consume a plant, pupate, and turn into a butterfly? You can still make room in your landscape for barbecues, a cozy hammock, or even a vegetable garden (native planting often attract a large number of predator insects that help control pests). We just suggest that you let go of some of the landscape designs that hail from other regions, where the lifestyles are different. We live in the desert, after all.

Pipevine swallowtail on Aristolochia watsonii

Pipevine swallowtail on Aristolochia watsonii

Go hiking as much as possible.
The best inspiration for making wild landscapes is spending time in actual wild landscapes. Try to get out to the areas that are still ruled by nature, not humans. See how these plants behave when we aren’t manipulating the environment. This is the best place to get design ideas. It will help you imagine a landscape that is unique, and a true expression of the region. But please, as you visit the wild, leave it wild. Please don’t poach plants, and let it be as undisturbed as possible. These areas are threatened constantly by our human greed and ignorance. Be inspired by nature, but try not to molest it.

Visit public gardens doing it right.
There are great examples of how to use native plants, and even incorporate native grasses. Many great plant people have been doing this for years and you can benefit from their work. Our favorite public gardens are Tohono Chul and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum—these gardens emphasize native plants, encourage wildlife, and plan with an understanding of the natural history of our region.

Invite the entire cast of native plants.
Have a good balance of all the various forms of plants: trees, shrubs, subshrubs, viney plants, cactus, annual wildflowers, and please don’t forget the native grasses! Gain balance by putting the taller trees and shrubs toward the north side of the landscape so you don’t shade out your perennial/wildflower beds. Make large beds where you can pack in a mix of native grasses, perennials, and annuals.

Let the landscape evolve.
As you plant these native plants, some of them may start volunteering in other locations. Native plants will reseed and sometimes find a more appropriate place than we would find. If you can, let it happen and let it guide your design. Move that walkway to accommodate that brittlebush that popped up. Remember that native landscapes are not static. They are ever-evolving, ever-changing plots.


If space allows, plant in groups.
In nature, plants are rarely found alone. Plant in threes, fours, or just twos if you lack the space. The group can be clustered together, or spread out with plants between. And the groups can be broken up with other groups. You may have a plot of mexican poppies (Eschscholzia mexicana) punctuated by scattered sprays of purple threeawn (Aristida purpurea).

Make the landscape safe for the wild.
First of all, just don’t ever use pesticide. Those chemicals do little to control pests, but do much harm to wildlife, and humans and their pets. So just DON’T DO IT. Also, set up the landscape where birds can land and view the ground below to avoid cats. Whether or not you have cats, they exist in the neighborhood. And while we love our cats, they are terrible for wild birds. Make the landscape such that birds can perch above first, view the ground below, and when they determine it is safe, they can flit down to the seed-bearing primrose (Oenothera spp.) that they love, or get some of that fruit on the lower part of that Mexican barberry (Berberis haematocarpa). And plant lots of shrubs and cacti that birds can safely hide inside, but aren’t as friendly to the cats--thorny shrubs like greythorn (Ziziphus obtusifolia), and cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.) are perfect.


Our motto is “Restore the flora. Restore the habitat.” We cannot totally repair the damage made by our human activity, but we can bring back the habitat and the wildlife that once resided here as part of our world. And while we can do much to make our backyards more wild, nothing replaces the true wild areas which we should always promote the protection of .

Katherine Gierlach