Gardening in the Desert – You Dirty Rat

The Sonoran Desert of Arizona can be quite a challenge. It is hard to imagine that, at one time, people lived here without air conditioning. We normally receive between 10-12 inches of rain a year in our particular area of Arizona near Cave Creek. This isn’t a lot of rain and this adds to the challenge of gardening in the desert.

Add to that problem the competition with the natural desert denizens including snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and a host of rodents.

This is the time of year when I make a daily round to look at all of the plants in our landscape to monitor their condition. When temperatures can spike to more than 90 degrees, the tipping point for some plants is very small.

For several days, I noticed that two of our plants were being nibbled. They weren’t being eaten, just ripped and the detritus left behind. From previous experience, I figured this was one of our most prevalent pests, the desert pack rat.

Rather than set a killing trap, we try to capture them with a Have-a-heart trap and relocate them. Out came the trap and at dusk I set it and placed it where I had seen the nibbling.

My most successful lure in the past had been peanuts or peanut butter. I had no more of the nuts so I put some peanut butter on a saltine cracker. Sure enough, prior to bed time I checked and we had trapped a pack rat.

Left to their own devices, pack rats have been notorious for chewing through wires and other human necessities in search of nest building materials and food. While they definitely look like rats, they are a bit, and I emphasize the word bit, cuter than your average rat (see iPhone pictures below – apologies, but these were taken in pitch black desert).

The pictures show the pack rat just before we released him so he could take up residence in a more rural part of the desert!

You can read more about pack rats HERE.

Desert Pack Rat Arizona

Desert Pack Rat Arizona originally published this post

See more JBRish gardening and desert gardening posts here HERE

Spring Cactus Bloom in Arizona – The Claret Cup

We have had a wetter than usual winter and early spring and thus we are having a beautiful wildflower bloom. Our landscape cactus are showing their appreciation as well with a living bouquet for our enjoyment.

One of our courtyard features is a round planter that has hosted a Claret Cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) for more than ten years. At one time it had plenty of room, but as you can see below, it will need to be divided and replanted within a year or so.

Claret Cup Cactus

In years past, it wouldn’t have this many blooms open at once, but its stinginess vanished this year and we are being treated to a full orchestration of its floral beauty.

Upon closer inspection you can see the juggernaut of thorns it sports that will present quite a challenge when it comes time to move or transplant it. We have a long pair of tweezers or tongs that we use to remove spent blooms or any debris that gets caught amid the needles.

Claret Cup Cactus

In the photo below, the pollen can be seen on top of the stamens. While this adds color to the picture and pollen to the air, it also seems to attract woodpeckers. For some reason they like to eat the center of the flowers and my assumption is that it is because of the pollen. After inspecting where they have been, the pollen sacks are gone — who knew?

Claret Cup Cactus

You can read more about Claret Cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) by clicking HERE. originally published this post
All photographs are Copyright by Jeffrey B. Ross with ALL Rights Reserved

See more JBRish gardening and desert gardening posts here HERE

Cactus Ghosts in the Desert

Life in the Desert

Cactus appear as ghosts in the desert
Photograph copyright by Jeffrey B. Ross – © All Rights Reserved.

Living in the desert will often present a real life oxymoron which will make us stop and take notice. Although people think of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona as a very hot place, it does have a winter season. During this period of time, from December through February (approximately), we have cloudy days with intermittent rains. This year, we had more rainy days in January than any time in the last ten years that I can remember.

Another surprise to some is that we get snow on top of the mountains surrounding the Phoenix valley and we have a frost every once in a while. In our neighborhood so far this year, we had one day with light frost, but there have been years when we have had several days with a bit more than a light frost. When that happens, we need to protect some of our sensitive plants. This is often done by covering them with frost blankets.

Once the cloth is placed over the plant, it needs to be anchored at the bottom so the cold air, that is heavier than the warmer air, does not get under the cloth.

THE PICTURE ABOVE – There are certain cactus species that people use in their landscape in the desert that are more sensitive to the cold than others and nurseries can’t take the chance of having them damaged by cold or frost. To protect the plants, they wrap them in frost cloths during the colder months. The picture demonstrates this phenomenon. When I passed by this nursery in N. Phoenix, the bundled cacti reminded me of ghosts.

See previous posts about life in the desert HERE.

Sonoran Winter Holiday at the Desert Botanical Garden – Phoenix

The Schilling Entry Arbor and Tranquility Fountain beckons seasonal guests to enjoy the winter holiday season in Sonoran Desert style.

Holiday Cheer at the DBG Entrance

Traditional festive decor can be found in many areas including the membership kiosk. While these items would be at home in any holiday display in the United States, they take on a special nuance when surrounded by nearby saguaro cacti and succulents.

Traditional Holiday accents at the DBG

It was somewhat strange to see the poinsettias taking their place next to traditionally xeric plants, many of which are native to the Sonoran Desert and other arid regions. The colors of the temporary plants play well off of the green aloes in the raised bed.

Poinsettias seem right at home next to their cacti neighbors

This yellow/white poinsettia with a bib of white cyclamen was strategically positioned near the main ticket booth. A swath of burlap is used to cover the less decorative standard pillar base.

Less traditional yellow/white poinsettias lend a nice accent when placed against the white cylcamen

During the Las Noches de las Luminarias celebration, the Desert Botanical Garden boasts – Eight thousand hand-lit luminaria bags and thousands of white twinkle lights will set the Garden aglow this winter for 21 magical evenings” – but I don’t think they were counting this rebar candelabra waiting patiently for the evening visitors and its chance to shine.

Candelabra in waiting for the evening display

The Las Noches de las Luminarias event is one of the major valley attractions this time of the year with a variety of music venues, holiday themes and a wonderful seasonal ambience set against the beautiful Sonoran Desert backdrop. If you attend, dress warmly and bring gloves!

Candelabra in waiting for the evening display

Above photograph courtesy of a screen shot of the Desert Botanical Garden website

It is a wonderful time of the year in Phoenix at the Desert Botanical Garden.

Year of Yosemite (YOY) – Day 115 (Lupines – Valley Loop Trail)

Lupines along the Valley Loop Trail 

A wet spring brought wildflowers to Yosemite and the lupines were abundant!

As YOY followers probably know by now, one of my favorite subjects to record as I hike are wildflowers. The diversity and tenacity of nature to have flowers of such beauty that fend for themselves in the wild leaves me in wonder.

As we hiked the Valley Loop Trail, we would come across pockets of lupiines, but this particular specimen appealed to me because of the colors of the nearby ferns and the lupine leaves. The leaves have a unique (palmate) form and dark green color with lighter highlights along the ridges. Not only that, but lupine leaves have a water-gathering quality. If you look at them after a rain (or watering) you can see that the water beads and collects in strategic places on the plant.

A careful examination of the flower might remind you of a pea. Yes, it is a member of the pea family.

My wildflower ID skills are only “fair” so I am guessing these are Gray’s lupine, but they could be Brewer’s lupine. I am providing links to each below so you can decide.

Gray’s Lupine

Brewer’s Lupine

Do you have a question about our visit to Yosemite? Ask it in the comment section. originally published this post
*All photographs Copyright by Jeffrey B. Ross with all rights reserved.

See previous Year of Yosemite (YOY) posts HERE. If you want to read the introduction to the YOY series, CLICK HERE.


Meta Data – Day 115 YOY – Year of Yosemite

File Name: 0316.NEF
Capture time: 12:16:43 PM
Capture date: June 8, 2016
Exposure: 1/60 sec @ f/13
Focal Length: 38mm
ISO 280
Nikon D3300


Milkweed – The Beauty of A Seed

As I may have mentioned on the pages of this blog in prior posts, I volunteer at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ. It is a wonderful place to experience desert flora from the Sonoran Desert and other arid regions of the world.

Whenever I work with the various dried seed pods, I am aware of the miracle of nature they represent. That a large flower can grow from the tiniest of seeds is a marvel. Not only that, but many seeds have a beauty of their own.

I recently had the opportunity to work with milkweed seed pods (Asclepias erosa). When I opened the first seed pod, this is what I saw.

milkweed seed pod

** NOTE ** These seed pods were not as dry as they would be in nature, but they had opened on their own and the seeds were removed and dried for storage.

Milkweed plays a key role in the health and welfare of the Monarch Butterfly. You can read more about that HERE. I am writing this post to show the form, function and beauty of the milkweed seed pod.

I was struck by the symmetry of the seeds and how they were aligned in a very particular pattern. In addition to the symmetry, I appreciated the rich colors displayed.

Here is the main seed structure removed from the pod. Notice how some seeds are separated from the main cluster. They fell off readily and easily separated.

symmetry along the main seed stem

As they were separated, they reminded me of tadpoles with their pearly white, almost silky tails flowing easily behind them.

silky white tails on the seeds

As they began to dry, however, they opened up on their own accord to form the fluffy wing-like structures we have come to know.

seed tails beginning to dry and fluff

In no time at all, there was a table full of the “wings.”

The tails dried to form wings

If all the seeds are removed carefully, as I learned after working with several of the pods, the backbone of the pod, so-to-speak, remains attached. It too has a wonderful symmetry and structure.

The remaining spine of the seed pod

Perhaps the picture below better demonstrates the architecture of this botanical backbone and the pointed tips which probably help to secure the seeds until, in a natural setting, they are dry enough to float away on their own.

The structure of the spine helps to retain the seeds until they are ready to fly away

The empty seed pod was slightly sticky and offered a relatively cushioned home for the seeds to await their release.

Empty pod

The two pictures below show milkweed in its natural growing habitat. Both pictures are used courtesy of The New Hampshire Chapter of The Appalachian Mountain Club  

The first picture shows how similar the seeds look while clinging to the pod in the wild.

The second photograph provides a glimpse of how the seeds float away on the wind hoping to find a hospital place to root and grow.

Seeds clinging to the pod in nature

Seeds poised to fly away on their wings with the first gust of wind

You can find more JBRish posts about plants and gardening HERE.

Monsoon Desert Bloom – Mammillaria

For those who are unfamiliar with the Sonoran Desert around North Phoenix, let me explain what happens during the heat of the summer through the middle of September.

The desert often creates strong dust storms and rain storms. These are customarily referred to as “monsoons” although technically they probably do not meet the necessary criteria for such a designation. Read more about our desert monsoons HERE!

During these storms, the Sonoran Desert receives much of its yearly rainfall. This past week, we had some very strong storms with winds and much rain.

When the “monsoon” storms arrive, there are desert plants that respond by soaking up the moisture and using the opportunity to bloom and produce seeds.

The picture below shows one such plant across the street from our house which is basically “the desert”.

desert plants after a rain 

Plants in the desert after the rain

The large plant in the center/top of the photograph that looks like it has antlers is a cholla. This is one plant that people try to avoid because it is segmented with a multitude of needles. The needles grab on to clothing, skin, leather or almost anything and a segment then breaks off and goes for a ride with the bearer. This is one way the cholla propagates.

In front of that large pant is a smaller cluster of cacti. This is a mammillaria and it produces a variety of pinkish flowers that nearly look artificial. They are very attractive and seem as if they would be at home in a tropical drink at the local brew pub.

Here is a closer look…

mammilaria blooms from above 

This mammailaria cluster has dozens of flowers which create a colorful bouquet

This is a non-cultivated plant that grew on its own. We do enjoy having it in our neighborhood!

Agave Trellis

After nearly a decade of gracing our desert landscaping, several agaves started to shoot out their thick center stalk last year.

Agaves with spikes

The “maturation”/growth of this spikey stalk takes nearly a year; and in the final months of the process, the mother plant starts to wither and will eventually die after sending out multiple “pups.”

Agaves with pup

The spikes often exceed 16 feet; and after several months in the hot sun are lightweight yet sturdy. Previous uses for these spikes have included our year-round holiday light pole (scroll all the way down) that continues to adorn our patio. Now we wanted to extend our agave craft to the creation of a trellis!

Internet research yielded no effective uses of these agave poles for a trellis; so an original prototype was designed! Our three spikes were each approximately 12 feet long; with varying thickness of about three to five inches in diameter.

After the appropriate cuts were made, two coats of fast-drying clear satin polyurethane was applied.



The thickest spikes were used to create the three 6’ vertical spikes/supports that were placed at equal spacing over a 5’ linear area (each end spike was approximately 30 inches from the center spike post).


The three vertical poles were carefully placed in 6” PVC piping submerged into the ground, with pea gravel used to fill in any gaps. Effort was made to assure that these poles were aligned carefully to facilitate the placement of the cross bars.



Lighter lengths of spike were used for the three horizontal (cross) bars and placed at equal intervals; with the bottom being 18 inches from the ground.


For additional support (and because the spikes have natural imperfect planes), the middle horizontal bar was placed to the opposite side of the top and bottom bars.

Carriage bolts of varying lengths (dependent upon the thickness of the two spikes used being secured) were employed….and holes were made with a cordless drill prior to ratcheting these bolts into place.




Now the challenge is to find a worthy resident for the trellis that will offer a bounty of flowers and yet get along with the other desert denizens!

Reinforced Trellis Support – Reduce Metal Fatigue

I just came back into the house from taking the picture below of our Queen’s Wreath. This is a very easy vine to grow in the desert as long as the appropriate exposure, water and support are offered. Throw in a bit of fertilizer and this plant does not ask for much else. As a matter of fact, the main challenge is to keep it in bounds as it is a vigorous grower and wants to do more than its fair share!


Queen's Wreath mid-May

This (above) is still relatively early in the season. Below is a picture of what the plant looked like in a more mature stage.

Stunning Coral Queen's Wreath

As you can see, the plant is quite robust and that is usually a good thing; more plant, more flowers!

That would be true except for the Monsoon Season winds. With all that foliage, this vine on the trellis becomes a sail and catches the wind. This is a big box store trellis and we had to do quite a bit of modifications to make it work for us. The one weak point, which we realized right away, were the welded joints at the base of the trellis which hold the tab for what are now screws. Originally the trellis was packaged with eight inch “J-shaped” spikes that didn’t even have ridges. That wouldn’t support the trellis with the plant on the calmest of days.

We eventually buried concrete blocks in the ground and screwed the trellis to the blocks to offer a more sturdy support. There were other modifications as well, but that is for another post. (See the picture below with arrows indicating potential weak points where metal fatigue might occur.)

Areas of trellis weakness along welds

Even with the feet of the trellis well-anchored by the cement blocks and the screws, we noticed during last year’s winds that the trellis swayed back and forth quite a bit and we feared eventual metal fatigue on the tabs holding the screws and that they would break off.

We had tried to support the vertical posts of the trellis with rebar and then using old nylon stockings to tie the rebar to the supports and we even twisted wire covered with plastic tubing around the rebar and trellis to hold it together, but that did not hold tight enough for real support.

Previous reinforcement attempt

This year we decided to use hose clamps which, in theory, would hold the rebar more tightly to the trellis and hopefully keep movement to a minimum. You probably know them as the clamps used in cars to keep the radiator hoses attached to the metal valves of the radiator.

Here is a picture of the tools needed for the project:

Tools needed

      1 – Wire snips to cut any excess length of the clamp

      2 – Nut driver to secure the screws if necessary and perhaps for use with the clamps themselves

      3 – A hose clamp
      4 – Screw driver to open and close the clamps either loosening or tightening them


Here’s a better look at the nut driver and the hose clamp.

Hose clamp and nut driver

We secured the clamp around the rebar that was in place. Notice how tight the clamp is. The plastic around the rebar is really compressed. Also notice that a thin piece of plastic was used between the inside part of the hose clamp and the trellis to keep the paint from being scratched.

Tightness of hose clamp

We later decided to insert an old piece of 3/4″ irrigation hose around the clamp to protect the metal instead of the thin piece of plastic. In the picture below you can see it on the right with the clamp coming out of it. Notice the long tail of the leftover/unused portion of the ratchet band from the hose clamp. That is where we use the wire snips to cut it off.

Hose clamp with tubing

This is the final result. We did this in two places on all four verticals of the trellis and hopefully the rebar, being held tightly along the trellis, will keep it from swaying as much and reduce the metal fatigue on the supporting screw tabs (yellow arrow).

Final look at a finished hose clamp install

Only time will tell and so will I via a new post if things don’t work out!

If you want to read more about the Queen’s Wreath, you can check out our previous post Showy Queen’s Wreath – October, 2015 originally published this post

See more JBRish gardening and desert gardening posts here HERE

Once Lamp Shade-Now Planter!

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” – Boyd K. Parker

Or “repurpose it!!” The concept has been used for hundreds of years (think old cowboy boot nailed on a wooden post as a mail drop!)…but now the practice of using or changing an item for an alternate use has developed “urban cachet”.

When the base of a floor lamp was unable to be safely stabilized, we knew it had to be discarded…but the large glass lampshade was perfectly fine.

It was approximately 18” in diameter with fluted edges that (from afar and to a non-discriminating eye) looked a bit like marble or alabaster! A perfect planter!

Several layers of plastic mesh (rain gutter lining) were placed over the two-inch opening at the base to facilitate drainage and keep the dirt (a modified cactus mix) from escaping through the bottom.

Small succulents (in 3-4” pots) from a local hardware store were carefully transplanted into the lampshade planter. A rounded Mammillaria was chosen for the center and five other selections spaced evenly around the perimeter. These are all fairly slow growing plants with similar light and water needs. Light colored gravel was placed on top to serve as mulch and to add a decorative contrast.

The planter sits on a table top beneath a covered patio and receives filtered light. Although the height makes it (hopefully) inaccessible to javelina; birds and squirrels remain potential adversaries.

After six months, the plants appear healthy and show some (small) growth. The planter now happily lives within 10 feet of where it was once a lampshade!!