If you’re looking for a home in Palm Springs, and you’re not from the southwest, the landscaping around here may be unfamiliar, even confusing. On the one hand, you’ll see lush, Mediterranean gardens, with green lawns, tropical-looking palms, bougainvillea, olive and citrus trees. On the other, lots of rock and gravel, some spikey-looking things, and a few trees that don’t appear to have much going on in the leaf or shade department. And if you’re into gardening, trying to figure out what to do with your new yard can be intimidating.
Golf courses in a desert?
People forget: this is a desert. All Southern California is dry. And we just came out of a years-long drought, with water rationing, rate hikes, and a mandated push toward drought resistant gardens.
Although our desert gets only about five inches of rain annually, the Coachella Valley sits on an enormous aquifer – like a giant underground lake – that depends on replenishment by rain and snowmelt from the mountains.
Older properties and golf course communities were landscaped as if they were in coastal Spain, with lots of Mediterranean vegetation. Newer developments take our limited water resources into account and are landscaped more like what you would find in Phoenix.
Desert landscaping does not mean you have to have a yard that looks like a parking lot. There’s a lot you can do with desert natives, which look great with the midcentury modern or contemporary architecture that practically defines Palm Springs. Planning is key, because you have to make sure each plant has adequate water, and that is accomplished with a comprehensive sprinkler and drip system.
If you’re lucky enough to buy a property that is already landscaped to your liking, great. But chances are you might want to make some changes. If you’re unfamiliar with desert landscaping, here are a few resources worth checking out:
Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes, by Judy Mielke. This book has thousands of native plants of all kinds, including some that would be hard to find and ones you see growing in vacant lots, barely. She includes photos, comprehensive descriptions and ideas for use for each plant. Good for all landscape needs, from small gardens to working ranches.
Lush and Efficient, by David Harbison and Eric Johnson. Distributed by the Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency. Maybe a little more realistic, if less comprehensive, than Judy Mielke’s book, as it focuses on the Coachella Valley — the low desert — and includes more familiar and commonly available plants.
Palm Springs Style Gardening, by Maureen Gilmer. A good guide to local conditions, such as soil, heat, wind, and what to do about them, as well as landscaping ideas from sub-tropical to native.
There are many more books on dry-climate gardening; these are just a sampling. One thing to keep in mind: If you read that a bush or tree only requires a little water, like once a week, that’s probably OK in Phoenix or San Diego, but not here. In summer, most plants here need daily watering. And sensitive plants that do fine in full sun in LA, probably need afternoon shade in the desert, at least in summer.
A couple of useful websites and places to visit include:
The Desert Horticultural Societyholds an annual Garden Tour every March. The tour usually includes home and condos with different types of gardens, from lush and tropical to desert natives. You can get more information and register on the website.
The Living Desertis more than a zoo; it has extensive garden exhibits from deserts around the world, with a focus on deserts of the southwestern US and northern Mexico, including our own, the Upper Colorado Desert. The website has excellent information about plants native to the desert. The Living Desert used to have a nursery. But not anymore.
There are several nurseries in the area. Home Depot and Lowes both carry drought tolerant plants, as well as the usual bougainvillea, ficus and palms. The more specific and adventurous you are (like, if you want a Palo Breatree, not a Palo Verde, or a whitebougainvillea, not the more common Barbara Karst magenta variety), you have to venture out.
Here’s a tip before shopping: Go for walks or bike rides in your neighborhood. Check out gardens you like. If you can’t identify a plant, take a photo of it. You can show that to someone at the nursery. This is especially useful at the multi-acre nurseries down valley, where finding things on your own can be frustrating. There are a few apps that are supposed to be able to identify a plant from your photo, but desert plants are not well represented in their databases.
Vintage Nurseryin Bermuda Dunes. It says “wholesale,” like most of the nurseries in the same area, but Vintage is open to the public. And it actually has a knowledgeable and helpful staff.
Moller’s Garden Centerin Palm Desert has a lot more than Home Depot or Lowes and specializes in plants for this area. Helpful staff and El Paseo-type prices – that is, high.
Green Desert Nurseryis wholesale, except on Saturday mornings. They have just about everything. Not for the faint of heart or for novices. Until you get used to the place, you can wander around aimlessly for hours, and very little is labeled. Every now and then, you might be able to lasso some help, but it’s hard. You go there for the selection and the low prices, which may be negotiable, depending on who checks you out and how they’re feeling that day.
If you’re looking just for cactus or agaves or other big accent plants, GDNCin Desert Hot Springs is worth a visit, if you can get beyond the David Lynch atmosphere of the place. Don’t expect much help, and since some of the best specimens are huge, bring a large truck and a dozen or so helpers.
Don’t think because you live in a desert you have to give up gardening. It’s just different. But it can still be enjoyable and interesting.