In the Desert, Its Beginning to Look Like…

As most people can imagine, there isn’t too much in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona that would innately remind the casual visitor of the overall Christmas/Winter Holiday Season. It does get cool during the late fall and winter evenings. We hit temperatures in the forties many nights during the end of November and through December. We can also get more rain this time of year, but generally not as much as January.

So residents of the Phoenix area use their creativity to devise ways of decorating for the winter holidays.

Here is a photograph of a variegated agave we had in our landscape at one time. The plant has thick leaves with sharp edges and each leaf has a sharp point on the end. That is how it survives in the desert. Without all those sharp edges and points, it would be eaten to death by rabbits, javelinas and other denizens.

Agave with sharp edges and points

People have discovered that those sharp tips at the ends of the leaves have another good use!

Gold colored Christmas balls create a crown-like appearance on top of this agave in the front yard. They play well against the green of the agave and the rest of the residential desert landscape.

Gold balls on a green agave

If solid gold is too regal for you and you want more of a standard Christmas color scheme, a variety of colors would work just as well.
Colorful variety of Christmas balls on an agave

Colorful variety of Christmas balls on an agave

The increased color palette (above) plays well with other holiday ornaments such as the foreground cactus with Santa hat.

Instead of plain poinsettias, how about faux poinsettia leaves attached to the branches of the Ocotillo?

Ocotillo with Poinsettia leaves

(BTW – If you want to see what an Ocotillo looks like during the active growing season with leaves and without fake ornamentation, click HERE)

For a more subtle spot decoration, smaller colorful Christmas balls can be uniquely placed in planters.

Planter with small, colorful Christmas balls

Yes, it really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the Sonoran Desert in 2016!

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!

Winter Holiday in the AZ Desert

I don’t know what most people think about the winter holidays in the Sonoran Desert, but it is celebrated here much the same as it is all over the United States and perhaps the world. We do have a few differences, however. Below are some photographs taken at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix earlier this month.

Poinsettias and cyclamen are popular Christmas plants because of their red, green and white colors and their suitability to cooler temperatures.

poinsettias and white cyclamen

Planters with variations of this assortment can be found in numerous locations at the Desert Botanical Garden this time of year.

poinsettias and white cyclamen

Naturally we do accent some of them with our desert favorites like the agave and aloe in this grouping.

poinsettias, white cyclamen with an agave and aloe

And this taller cactus contrasted with poinsettias.

tall desert cactus accented with red poinsettias

For evening visitors to the DBG, there are metal sculptures with votive candle holders to add to the celebratory nuance of the season (pictured here unlit during the daytime).

metal sculpture of a candle tree

Recognizable in any locale is the relatively standard Christmas wreath!

Christmas wreath with red ribbon and shiny balls

That is not to say we don’t have our quirky desert expression of the season such as…

Cactus with Santa hats

Picture courtesy of AZ Landscape Creations

Happy Holidays form JBRish in the Sonoran Desert!


If You Give a Dance, You Gotta Pay the Band* – Agaves


The huge agave spikes that towered over our front landscaping since late last year (see photo above) eventually peaked and then withered by mid-2015. These once proud giants made our yard look oddly majestic; but by late summer, the 20 foot poles started to lean dangerously into other plantings. The party was over. With monsoon winds in mind; we proactively cut the poles and then gave the remaining plant bases some additional time to weather and lose water weight to aid in disposal.


First step in removing an agave is to cut off the spike as it will only get in the way. We save the spikes and use them for decorative purposes.

For the most part, these plants did not “go gracefully into that good night”. Agave “leaves” are fibrous, thick, pointy-ended weapons that require gloves to handle (and protective eyewear); and frequently must be removed with a saw.


The next step is to remove the sharp-edged leaves. Yes, do wear eye protection and gloves.

And then there is the “root” itself …typically buried deep into the desert soil requiring (on occasion) ropes, a pick-ax, crowbar (and once) the horse power of a Subaru Forrester!

Once the agave is removed, disposal is no easy issue. The side of our home has become an “agave graveyard” where plant detritus continues to dry in the sun so they can subtly make their way into the weekly trash pick-up.



This is how the side of our house looks while the agaves are weathering.


The plants dry out and then they head for the trash bin.


This is how the house now looks without all those spikes.


We aren’t home free yet, as you can see above we still have several younger agaves which will spike in the future.

But there is an upside to all this destruction. Several agave spikes have been promised to friends; who will hopefully dress them in twinkling holiday lights and enjoy them as much as we still treasure the one that adorns our patio (see images below)!!



*Stanley L. Gray

Desert Botanical Garden – March 12, 2015

Living in North Phoenix brings us close to the natural desert, but when guests arrive, they often want to visit the second most popular attraction in the state, after the Grand Canyon of course, which is the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG). Some might argue that Sedona, AZ would also be a close second, but I am just repeating what I have heard based on statistics.

Last week we visited the gardens with family. It has been unusually warm during the last week or so to the tune of 10 plus degrees so I wasn’t sure what the flowers would be like at this time. I am glad to report that many of the spring standard bloomers were still strutting their stuff although there were areas where drying had taken its toll.

Before we get to some of the flowers, however, here are a few pictures of the cactus and succulents we saw:

Silver Agave with Dark Margins

The silver highlights and varied leaf margins make this agave a stunning plant. The chocolate outline with the yellow surround are superb!

Pickle-colored agave with large Serrated Edges.

The wider-leaved agave had a very unusual color almost like a pickle. The serrated edges were also particularly colorful and pronounced.

Small dense agave with dark leaves and silver margins

The plant pictured above appeared to be an agave, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a succulent of a different family. In this particular arrangement, it wasn’t named although I am certain that elsewhere in the garden it would be. It was a smallish specimen being about twice the size of the average closed fist. The dark leaves and silver edges make this a winner.

Penstemon, asters in the wildflower garden

These Daisies/Asters and Penstemon Parryi were doing well in the wildflower garden. Not pictured were the Firecracker Penstemon, Brittlebush, Lupines, Fairy Dusters and others that were plentiful along the paths.

More about our trip to the DBG shortly…