The United States may be one country, but it definitely isn’t one climate. The many people who have moved to Arizona from cooler areas can attest to that. They know firsthand through much frustration that what worked for them in their gardens back in the Midwest no longer applies in the desert.
Helping newcomers transition between climates are nurseries that have grown organically on the same earth that the plants rise out of. One such example is Avocado Nursery, tucked in the desert between Casa Grande and Central Arizona College. Since 1984, they’ve been helping customers who just want an item or two to spruce up their yard, or those who want to completely renovate their outdoor space.
It started with Pinal County Master Gardener Phil Bond and his wife Julie, when they built an underground home on the property, a house where Phil still lives today. They built out an irrigation system from there that allowed them to bring in more and more plants to form the nursery. Now, the backyard contains 10 acres of plants. Julie died in 2013.
Decades of experience have gone into that selection, featuring plants that are ready-made for a drought, while still providing plenty of beauty. They require little water compared to what some might be used to in other parts of the country, and are not doomed in the dry Arizona soil.
“A lot of people come here to be educated,” said Adel Diego, the nursery’s sales manager. “They say, ‘I’m new here. I know it’s totally different from where I’m from. I am looking for a certain plant.’”
But as Diego — who has been at Avocado for 21 years after being a business student in Julie Bond’s class at CAC — explains, finding the right selection of those plants is even more complicated than what can or can’t adapt to the Sonoran climate. The soil, she said, is noticeably different from town to town in this area, and prospective gardeners need to know what will thrive on their land.
For example, the soil in Coolidge is on higher ground, so there is a lot more salt and calcium buildup. In Casa Grande, the weather is a little warmer, so the ground is much harder, almost like concrete. Then there is Arizona City, where one part used to be in a wash so there’s a sandy base, while the other section is more like a hard clay.
So once a customer knows what soil they’re dealing with, they can work with the nursery to figure out which plant will thrive. Coolidge would favor more tropical plants like the purple or white bougainvilleas. But if you put those plants in Casa Grande, they might struggle to survive because there is too much heat buildup.
Meanwhile, a lot of trees at the nursery such as bananas or mangos would have a hard time growing in Coolidge because of the colder weather and the calcium buildup that could burn the edges of the leaves. In Casa Grande, the soil would more likely protect the trees throughout the winter.
And that’s just the beginning. Newcomers to gardening face many issues and make many mistakes. There’s no shame in that, of course. It’s all part of the process of getting to know the land and what it needs.
While desert plants are drought-resistant, meaning they require less water to survive, some customers mistakenly believe that means they don’t have to maintain their gardens. Evan cacti, she said, need to be watered once a month to prevent them from rotting out, or about 100 gallons over the course of a year. But just as much of a problem for locals has been over-watering the plants.
“Some of the brittle bushes that are seen out in the desert, if you water it every day, it’s gonna rot out,” Diego said. They’re used to once or twice a week.”
Those wanting to conserve even more water could use chicken and cow manure, but they will only be effective during the coldest months, from November through January. Otherwise, other organic fertilizers include bone meal or blood meal. The nursery also recommends specific types of fertilizer for each plant, including cacti.
When monsoon season arrives, the dust can have effects on the plants. With citrus trees, the dust buildup can cause leaves to dry up quickly, so extra water would be necessary to keep it all from turning brown. Specifically, water should be sprayed onto the leaves to wash away that dust.
Another common mistake for desert transplants is not adjusting the mind to the different seasons. In the Midwest, it’s common to trim trees in the springtime, in preparation for the summer growth. But in Arizona, summer is the hardest time for plants, so trimming only adds to the stress of trying to survive by exposing them to sunburns. Instead, locals should trim their trees beginning around October.
“You can still do some light pruning underneath and it will be fine,” Diego said. “But if you’re going to do a heavy pruning, where you’re topping out about a third of your tree, and the weather starts to get up to 105, then the tree starts to really get sunburned. You’ll see a lot of drying on the leaves, or yellowing on the leaves.”
Of course, each plant is different and has its own picky needs. That’s why the staff at Avocado is there to help customers with advice on what to do with each product when it comes to placement, planting, shade, irrigation and other problems that might surprise an amateur. Diego said they love that part of the job, because they feel they are doing their part in making the area beautiful while also being sustainable.
And working at such a beautiful location doesn’t hurt either.
“It’s the ambience. It’s very relaxing,” she said. “Sometimes after work I’ll be so tired I just sit in the picnic area and enjoy the breeze and the birds all around.”