A week away in warm, sunny Arizona to visit family members provided this winter-weary gardener a welcome prelude to the upcoming growing season. With the desert just emerging from its winter nap, wonderful wildflowers lit up the rocky terrain with flamboyant splashes of yellow, pink, red and orange hues.

A week away in warm, sunny Arizona to visit family members provided this winter-weary gardener a welcome prelude to the upcoming growing season. With the desert just emerging from its winter nap, wonderful wildflowers lit up the rocky terrain with flamboyant splashes of yellow, pink, red and orange hues.


Along the highways, stunning stands of Palo Verde trees created dazzling lemon-yellow clouds, the many thousands of tiny blossoms dramatic against a backdrop of bright green branches. Despite the significantly warmer climate of this area, springtime is just as magical in the desert as it is in any other region. Dormant plants sprout tender new leaves, birds sing cheerful courting melodies, and plants hasten to bloom before the arrival of summer with its extreme heat and dry conditions. 


For gardening enthusiasts, a trip to the Phoenix area in springtime would not be complete without a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden. A fascinating and diverse collection of cacti, succulents and native plants is on exhibit, many featuring bizarre fleshy leaves topped by unique floral displays.


Along the desert wildflower walk, tall spires of penstemons bearing tubular blooms in shades of pink, coral and orange were magnets for dozens of hummingbirds that darted among the flowers, oblivious to the visitors who gazed in fascination as these tiny birds hovered at each bloom only steps away from their onlookers. Several species of birds were busily building nests among the incredibly spiny branches of cholla cacti while woodpeckers could be heard tapping overhead as they excavated cavities in the trunks and arms of giant Saguaro cacti.


Bright yellow daisies on brittle bushes provided plentiful platforms for a diversity of nectar sipping butterflies. Nearby, a screened butterfly pavilion offered an intimate opportunity to view multiple winged species basking in the sun on rocky protrusions or among the flowers, often thrilling their audience by landing on delighted visitors as they strolled through the sunlit enclosure.


Perhaps the highlight of the Desert Botanical Garden this spring is the current exhibit “The Nature of Glass” by glass sculpture artist Dale Chihuly. With a local connection to New England as a former student and faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, Chihuly has become world-renown for his intricate and elaborate multi-colored blown glass artwork inspired by nature.


Dozens of unique glass sculptures were superbly displayed as focal points or integrated into the desert landscape as colorful accents. Stunning during the daylight hours as sunlight played off the crystalline forms, a return visit at dusk offered an entirely different perspective as the sculptures were lit from within or by supplemental lighting.


Chihuly is a master of artistry as he “juxtaposes his forms with those of nature establishing a direct and immediate dialog between nature, art, and light.” If you plan to be in the Phoenix area this spring, the exhibit runs through the month of May and all visits to the garden during this time require reservations; visit dbg.org for information, photos, and to make reservations.  


Every landscape in the desert requires careful analysis to determine the availability of light, wind exposure, drainage patterns and soil composition. Even within a single landscape, a wide variety of conditions are possible: wet, dry, sun, shade, exposed, protected. While some of these existing conditions can be modified, to do so may require a considerable investment of time or money and plants may still succumb during years of weather extremes.


Observation and research are critical for any garden to be truly successful. An ideal way to determine what types of plants will thrive on your given site is to identify and research the types of plants that are indigenous to your property or neighborhood. Native trees, shrubs, weeds and wildflowers offer great clues about your soil type, light and wind exposure although many of these plants are adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions ensuring their survival from year to year despite variations in moisture and temperature.


Soil composition is of primary importance when selecting plants for your individual landscape. Soil is comprised of inorganic (mineral) components and organic (decomposed plants) matter. Clay soils are dense due to tiny particles that cling together and drain slowly.


These soils tend to be damp especially during the winter months when plants are not actively growing and thereby unable to diffuse excess moisture through their leaves. Sandy soils contain large particles that drain rapidly and dry out quickly during dry spells and summer heat. While the addition of organic matter improves drainage and airflow in clay soils and enhances water and nutrient retention when incorporated into sandy soils, identifying your soil type and selecting plants that tolerate damp conditions or prefer dry soils are often the best strategies to ensure plant longevity.


The availability of light is another critical aspect in choosing plant material for your garden and is best judged once trees have leafed out in the spring, taking notes throughout the day to determine how much light your area receives. A site that receives morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled shade most of the day is considered shady; conversely, a site that receives morning shade and afternoon sun is usually classified as full sun.


As the spring growing season gets underway, take time to analyze your personal site. Knowledge of soil conditions and the availability of light will greatly assist in the selection of plants that are well suited to their growing environment ensuring healthy, attractive plants and gardens.


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.