I stepped into Elena’s back yard. Flagstones with wildflowers shooting up between every crack. A wall of pomegranate trees is starting to bloom. Bright orange and yellow African Daisies are clustered among rocks along with colorful toadflax, yellow composites and magenta poppies. I had started a conversation because of her giant clusters of agave and enormous eucalyptus trees in front of the house. I walked away with a gifted container of wildflower seeds.

I have been back a few times to deliver groceries during this COVID-19 pandemic. Coming back and talking a few times I have walked through quite a few of the plants to understand the layout. The large space with flagstones between the main house and guest house is where the desert wildflowers bloom. On the north side of the house a mesquite competes for sun with an aging arborvitae, a citrus with inedible fruit and the big eucalyptus trees, creating a canopy of bark and leaves that lets in filtered light. A small section along the east wall of the house has a saguaro, a sculptural agave and creosote, and a special pink globe mallow from a Tohono Chul plant sale. Elena pointed out where the Globe Mallow had volunteered (spread by seed on their own) throughout the yard, cross breeding with the more common orange mallow and producing flowers in shades of coral and salmon.

We talked about how little maintenance is needed to have all the wildflowers and very few weeds. “Every year it’s different. I toss out a lot of seeds I gather around town and some come up and some don’t. One year I had a great stand of pink Mexican primrose among the rocks. This year there’s a lot of toadflax. I don’t even try to control it.”

"Do you think you spend more time on your yard now than a gravel yard that has to be regularly weeded or poisoned? What about a lawn that needs to be mowed weekly?”

“No no no, I spend far less time on my yard than any of that. Maybe I have a cleanup at the end of a particular flower season, but it isn’t a big weeding after every rain where if one weed in the middle of your pristine gravel patch comes up it looks terrible, or having a sprinkler system and weekly lawn mowings. I wouldn’t want any of that anyways, I really like my flowers and the surprises I get by seeing what blooms each year.”

Here are some of my questions for how to get a beautiful and low maintenance yard like Elena's:

How much time do you spend weeding?

I took a few seasons eliminating Bermuda grass before I put down the flagstones. That was critical to having a relatively weed-free yard later. I’d have to say as a general rule that to have a low maintenance landscape in Tucson, you need to put in a lot of effort at the beginning and maintain vigilance thereafter. Now while walking around I will occasionally see something I don’t want growing and pull it up while it’s small. I spend very little time keeping it up like this anymore.

Did you always know you wanted your yard to end up like this?

I tried many things that didn’t work. At one point, I had an apricot tree and a peach tree where my rock garden is now. It was a great step forward when I surrendered to reality and stopped trying to impose my will. I decided that if a plant did well, Id help it and if it didn't, I’d let it go.The best change I made was switching to container gardening. That way, if a plant doesn’t thrive in one location, I can try it somewhere else before giving up on it. And native plants of all sorts have jumped into my pots and done well. They seem to like the richer soil.

How much time do you spend outside in your yard now?

My yard is L-shaped, which gives me several options. My favorite part now is to the north of my house but for several months, that area gets no sun at all. The shadow of the house reaches all the way to the fence. It’s colorful in spring and summer but October to March it doesn’t look like much.

The rock garden is at its best February through May. The rest of the year, it’s too hot or too cold to try to maintain things so I turn off the irrigation until shoots start appearing usually in late January. It has its own drip zone because it can only absorb a little water at a time. It gets 5-10 mins 3x a day. It’s not perfect but in general it works okay and I can tweak the positioning of the emitters to get water where I want it. Another secret to a low maintenance yard is to accept that different areas will do well at different times of the year.

Where do you buy your plants?

You don’t really need to buy most of these. You can gather seeds from your neighbors or find someone willing to share. I can’t resist buying a new plant every so often, like that pink globe mallow. Some of them work out well, others not. I’m not a purist about native plants. If a plant is happy here, I’m happy.

She pointed to a lush, leafy plant growing in the shadiest corner of the yard. “That’s a Japanese aralia. It’s heat and frost tolerant and doesn’t require much water, given the size of the leaves. Before I found it (recommended by the wonderful people at Green Things), nothing worked in that corner.”

You mentioned drip lines. I’m wondering how much water you use on your yard? Do you know your total gallons per day?

“There are three zones: the front, the back and the rock garden. The front is watered every other day for 40 minutes except in the summer when it’s watered every day for 30 minutes. The back is watered twice a day (30 mins in summer and 20 in winter) and the rock garden three times a day February through end of April. Monthly water costs for the whole house generally range from $25 to $35 a month. The most water goes to the back because I wanted the feeling of an oasis. It’s worth every penny.”

Seed and Plant Sources

Tucson Seed Library lets you check out seeds with your library card. If you are able to get blooms and gather the seeds, please return as much as you took.


Native Seed Search