I have to confess, I had so many misconceptions about the desert before I started grad school in Arizona. Being a Pennsylvania girl who finds her home in the woods, and having never visited the desert before, I was simply astounded by how wrong I was about so many things.
Take for instance the heat. Everyone I knew said “It’s a dry heat, so you don’t even feel it.” WRONG!
The first time I landed in Phoenix, Arizona on an August morning it was °114, and there is no such thing as shade. As I got off the plane, I was handed a bottle of water, something I’ve never been given before when landing in any airport. As I made my way to the car rental desk, my shirt became soaked with sweat. I don’t care what anyone says, 114 degrees is HOT! And you definitely feel it.
I made my way out of the giant suburban sprawl that is the Phoenix area, where one town bleeds into the next without break, an unrelenting expanse of development, and I was surprised while driving through the Phoenix area at the number of bright green lawns. In an area of the country where everyone is fighting over who owns the water, these lawns seem an extreme waste of this precious resource!
I finally breathed a sigh of relief when I could pull over next to the highway to observe the beauty of the giant Saguaros.
Gila Woodpeckers and Cactus Wrens sang from their perches atop these stunning plants.
My second error was I always thought the desert was flat, but I was surprised to see mountains rising behind the cactus. In fact, the elevation in Phoenix is 1072 feet above sea level, a significant difference from my Philadelphia home, which sits at 40 feet above sea level.
I was headed to Prescott, 75 miles to the northwest, and another rise in elevation to 5035 feet. And I crossed the “Pine line.” Suddenly I noticed that the Saguaros and scrub had given way to Pine trees. Lots of Pines. In fact, whole forests of Pines. And I realized this was my third misunderstanding. I had no idea that there were trees in the desert!
As I drove north, it became cooler. Much cooler. This was such a welcome respite from the unrelenting heat. By the time I arrived in Prescott, it was only °82.
My fourth error showed itself the following morning. It was cold! The day started with temps in the low 50s, but reached the high 80s by early afternoon. This is a much more radical temperature swing than I normally experience in a summer day near Philadelphia. (Imagine my surprise on subsequent trips in the winter where morning temps would be in the low 30s, yet reach the high 70s in the afternoon!)
I got up quite early each morning while I was there so that I could explore the plants, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife indigenous to this area. And I fell in love with the desert! Tiny wildflowers dotted the ground of rocky mountain trails. Butterflies got nutrients from the dry dusty soil. And the birds! I saw so many new birds while exploring this area.
I learned that wildlife habitat could be created even in this harsh environment, you just need to pay attention to their basic needs, get to learn what species to expect, and plant native plants adapted to survive these very different conditions than what I was used to.
Learning to recognize the beauty of the native plants and wildlife of a given area will help you in planning your wildlife garden, no matter where you are.
What makes your area unique? What wildflowers do you have that aren’t found anywhere else in the country? What birds and butterflies visit your wildlife garden?
Learning the answers to these questions will help you create a beautiful wildlife garden.
Note: Huge thanks to my dear friend Nance Sparks, of Homesteader’s Supply, who so graciously opened her home to me on each of my visits to the Prescott area, and showed me the beauty and intricacies of living life on an organic farm!
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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