Moving S of Tucson - need dog friendly yard.

beepsAugust 25, 2012

I'm not even sure where/how to start. I've never landscaped a backyard from scratch before. Much less in the desert - I will be in zone 8b/9a - south of Tucson. There is exactly nothing on the lot right now so this is a completely blank canvas.

Here is the lot (the house won't be canted as shown, will be set straight on lot)...

The backyard area to be landscaped is about 70 feet deep by 80 feet wide at the widest. It is oddly shaped - a cul-de-sac runs along the east side so there is a curve in the property at the one point and then my lot extends all the way past the apex of the cul-de-sac. I have turned some of that area (about 40') over to the HOA to landscape and maintain because it is useless as far as I'm concerned. I'll be walling my property off where the longer line is along the back property line.

The view is toward the east, with not bad views south and north.


1. I have dogs and they are the priority as far as the backyard goes - so no cactus or spiny plants, and no poisonous plants. I don't want any gravel that's at all big because it hurts their feet.

2. I will extend the patio a bit and probably add some type of patio cover (hopefully the HOA allows that!) as I do face south and would like to cut some sun.

3. I'd like a little bit of grass for the dogs, but don't plan to do the entire yard in grass. My impression is the synthetic grass gets way too hot. I'm considering putting it along the west side of the house as it will be shaded somewhat and would be a small, contained area. I think I'd like more than just that, however.

4. I'd like a water feature of some sort - whether a fountain or a waterfall. I like the sound. But, I worry about whether that will encourage those poisonous Colorado frogs. My sister gets several a year in her yard a few miles south of where I'm building. I so don't want to ever see one in person. (Not to mention the rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas I also don't want to run into!)

5. Don't laugh on this one, but the more lush the better. =) Shade trees. Green plants. Purple flowers.

6. Yes, it will be irrigated but I don't want to waste water either.

So, what do I do? Any suggestions on where to start will be appreciated. Thanks in advance. - California Native

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Pagancat(Phoenix, AZ)

My first and best suggestion: Trees. Especially for the dogs. Not only will it provide shade for them, but will cool the ground where they walk.

And, if your dogs are anything like my dogs, I'd make an area where the soil gets a bit of water in the shade - not mud, just damp - for them to lay on.

I would also make sure that there are some areas for some of our desert geckos (skinks?) to hide, like between a few large and pretty rocks - dogs *love* chasing them, but I've yet to see one caught. YMMV.

I am actually working at designing a water feature that will have a large basin - kind of wok shaped - that will allow my pups to splash around some. At least two of them love the water.


    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 8:14PM
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Thanks pagancat. Trees will be a first priority. There is nothing on the lot now. What kind of trees grow quickly and survive there? I ordered 3 books on Arizona gardening yesterday so hopefully soon I'll be able to answer some of these questions myself! :)

As for the skinks... they won't last long in my yard would be my guess. My terrier-mix is murder on lizards. He catches alligator lizards regularly, which are mean but try to stand their ground so are easier to catch. But, he also catches the other types of lizards here. My concern is when he meets up with a rattlesnake. He will not back down I'm afraid. May have to consider rattlesnake prevention training for him in particular. With luck the skinks will be too fast for him because that will provide him with untold hours of entertainment! He's a handful.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 8:35PM
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A few tips:

I recommend a few Desert Museum Palo Verde trees. The shade they give is lacy, not very dense, but they are bred to grow FAST and have such beautiful flowers. When you water your trees, water DEEPLY but not too frequently.

I love vines. I have many different types climbing my patio supports and fences. Many of them die back in the winter, but grow back quickly in the warm weather, like queen's wreath and catclaw vine. Some are true annuals that grow very quickly from seed, like morning glory and hyacinth bean vine.

No oleander, and no sago palm. Both very toxic to dogs.

With your terrier mix, I would not recommend an in-ground water feature (pond) that might attract those Colorado river toads/aka Sonoran toads. Go for an off-the-ground fountain. Where I live, I am surrounded by irrigated farmland, and get tons of those! They are nocturnal. When I had my border collie, she could not go outside at night in the summer off leash. Now that she's gone, we don't have to worry -- my remaining three dogs ignore the toads.

Texas ranger shrubs have lovely purple flowers in the summer; trailing rosemary shrubs have lovely purple flowers in the winter.

Have fun landscaping!

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 12:51AM
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Pagancat(Phoenix, AZ)

Now see, I haven't heard a thing about those toads - are they a recent phenomena? I'm returning to the desert after 6 years in the mid-west; there's a lot I've forgotten and things do change....

Anywho, there are some great books out there - if you'd like to tell us which ones, we might be able to supplement your list.

As for trees..... I agree with the Desert Museum. Not only do they have the attributes piranhafem mentioned, but they also have an incredible bloom in the spring - bright yellow, slightly larger flowers than the species. Some people aren't as thrilled, but I like the bloom drop that forms a golden carpet underneath the tree. It dries and dissipates pretty quickly, but it's definitely something you don't want to have to clean out of your fountain.

The Mesquites are also pretty fast growing; they are native and need very little care short of the occasional shaping. Very drought tolerant, and I wouldn't put them in a lawn because of the water they would receive - in fact, a few of the desert trees are good in lawns (too frequent and too shallow of water). As they age they can get very nice branch structure, great for putting sitting areas under. The natives do have thorns, but there is a thornless hybrid, Maverick. I think there is also a thornless Honey Mesquite (more upright, bright green and a bit leafy-er than some of the mesquites) which is one of my favorites.

There are several different cultivars of Desert Willow for a long, summer blooming tree that stays about 25', and takes a few years to get there. I know you asked for faster growing, I only mention this one because I just got a Chilopsis 'Bubba' and am totally in love with the magenta and pink orchid shaped flowers. If you want to see, I've posted a link below.

Honestly, there are *tons* of great trees, and I would hold off getting any until you've had a chance to live in your home for a while, or just plant any you put in now somewhat far from your home until you know what you need in terms of light, how cold things get, etc. Tucson has a botanical garden - I haven't been there in years but it and Tohono Chul park in northern Tucson are great places to go to see what is available, and what it looks like planted. The Desert Museum in west Tucson is a must-see for anyone; you will learn more about your new home in an couple of hours than anywhere else. Once again, I haven't been in years, so I'm not sure what they have in terms of showing off trees, but if they're hybridizing plants, I'm betting they have good ones.

If you make it up to Phoenix, another must-see for plant lovers is the Desert Botanical Gardens - it's a great place to see hundreds of established plants and get great ideas.

Blah blah blah, lol. If you have any other specific wants on trees, let us know, there's some very knowledgeable people on this forum.

Here is a link that might be useful: Desert Willow 'Bubba'

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 10:37AM
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Wow. Thanks for all the help and suggestions! It looks like I can have some green and pretty stuff even in the desert. I've lived a lot of places in the US and prefer the green of the mid-west. So, I'm trying to figure out how to make peace with the desert. You guys have given me hope that I can make my yard pretty yet use drought-resistant plants. I'd heard of the Palo Verde trees and those sound very nice. Glad to learn of some of the others also.

I have to run to work but about those poisonous toads - this pic is from my sister's backyard last week.

Those ugly things will kill pets, and quickly. If an in-ground water feature would encourage them in any way - I will not put one in. So not worth it to me. Here is an article about them...

Here is a link that might be useful: Article about Toads

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 11:04AM
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Pagancat(Phoenix, AZ)

Thanks for that info, I'll take a look at it now. I have 4 dogs and they mean the world to me.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 9:49PM
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So I'm actually getting rather excited about what my yard could look like in AZ. I see so many yards with primarily cactus and spiny plants that I was concerned. While pretty that just won't work for my dogs. But after looking through the first book I received I'm feeling much more optimistic.

You asked about the books I purchased and I finally have a minute to respond.

I got Arizona Gardener's Guide by Mary Irish. I already rec'd it and am loving it. It has me excited that my yard can look pretty and still be water conscious.

I also ordered Perennials for the Southwest: Plants that Flourish in Arid Gardens also by Mary Irish. I haven't rec'd this one yet. Hope the info isn't just a repeat of the other book by her.

Lastly I ordered Desert Landscaping for Beginners: Tips and Techniques for Success in an Arid Climate by Cathy Cromell and Carole Palmer. Haven't rec'd this one yet either.

I also have the Sunset Western Garden Book.

I am a little confused about what zone I'm in. It looks like according to the Sunset zone guide I'm in zone 10. According to some other reference (I can't remember which one now!) I'm in 8b/9a, and according to Mary Irish's book I'm on the border of 3/4. I realize they are using different scales... wish there was some consistency! :)

If I'm at approximately 2900-3000 ft is that considered the low desert? Mid-desert?

Should I avoid any type of ground cover because of snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, other critters? My dogs would probably destroy ground cover anyway - nothing in the yard is off limits to them in their eyes, but there are a few areas where ground covers might work.
Thanks in advance!

    Bookmark   August 30, 2012 at 12:32PM
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Pagancat(Phoenix, AZ)

Good books, all - Mary Irish, as you probably already know, was the director of horticulture at the Desert Botanical Gardens, a place everyone can learn a lot from if they haven't been there.

Desert Landscaping for Beginners, I haven't seen yet. Will be interested in hearing what you think of your purchases.

I haven't heard of scorpions in ground covers; more under boxes, wood piles, barrels....and only really a problem if they're disturbed. For inside the house, cats are very good deterrents - they are not susceptible to the poison of the sting.

Black widows also seem to enjoy enclosed spaces - mail boxes, inside of enclosed b-b-q stands, unused out-door cupboards. Strangely enough, Daddy-long-legs spiders will clear them out in no time.

In the few years I worked in the E.R. down in Tucson (the university hosp.) I saw one scorpion bite and one snake bite. IOWs, they definitely happen, but it's not that common of an occurrence. I have heard where you have the most problems is new construction sites where established wildlife have been disturbed and are looking for a new home.

As for ground clovers, there are a few, depending on how tall you want them. A fairly common one is Wedelia (leafy, dark green with yellow flowers,) but that might suffer in your area on colder nights unless it is protected, and definitely needs irrigation. More drought tolerant is some of the Daleas, ( they would also probably take your dogs on a little easier.

Ah, AMWUA has a bunch of them - link below. Just be careful of the frost tenderness, you're a little cooler than we are in the Phoenix area, not that covering on frost nights or planting near walls, rocks or sidewalks that absorb heat in the sun during the day and give it off during the nights won't mitigate that as well.


Here is a link that might be useful: AMWUA

    Bookmark   September 3, 2012 at 7:33PM
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Didn't know that about cats and scorpions. I do know scorpions show up wickedly pretty under a black light! :) Glad to hear scorpion stings and snakebites aren't all that common. My sister had a scorpion in her house, unbeknownst to her. But her poor dog kept having sudden and acute breathing problems in the middle of the night. They started giving her Benadryl on a daily basis but also got a black light. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of turning out the lights the scorpion came out from under a piece of furniture. They assume it was stinging the dog on the nose and that's what was causing her breathing problems.

Still impatiently waiting on the second two books I ordered. Thanks again for all the links and helpful info. I feel like I'm moving to a different planet, and I've lived all over the US. I guess the difference is I bought houses that were not new so had landscaping so I didn't have to make the start-up decisions. And none were as arid as southern AZ. One thing I know not to do I learned from this house where the builder jammed a bunch of trees up close to the foundation when the houses were built. Great for about 5-7 years, then you have to pull them all out. :(

Again, thanks for all the info!

    Bookmark   September 3, 2012 at 10:00PM
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