Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Canopy Connection

Happy New Year!!! As promised, I would get this writing finished before I begin teaching again.  It has been a wonderful time for me as I have been writing, volunteering, reading, and just thinking.  I've set my gardening projects up for the spring, and I can't wait to add more plants.  What will it all look like when finished?  The past week I made the purchase of 10 whiskey barrels that will contain the cactus garden for the property.  I have the cacti ready to plant which include agaves, prickly pear(the purple variety:), totem poles, and the list goes on and on. There is so much more to work on in the gardens in 2011.  However, I won't be posting as much in the following weeks with school starting up again. 

A typical Amazon morning in the forest....the mist reveals the various heights of trees.

Here is my own work below from the Amazon in 2008
Today's write is about the canopy we create above our heads in the garden/s. For many people, myself included, when we moved into our home, there were trees established on our property. Or for some, there was nothing.  I have a lot of space to work with here on the grounds and each space is considered its' own garden.  One of the spaces is named the fern garden because all the plants have fernlike leaves and when the sun hits the leaves, it filters to the ground nicely. Very few ferns can grow in our desert  and unfortuneatly, it's one of the plants that I don't try and grow anymore. I have luck with the asparagus fern and that does really well in Tucson(so some varieties are out there for the fern fan club just not the ones many people like:)  You need moisture in the air and that is something we don't have an abundance you have to think about things you like about the fern and find plants that have similiar qualities.  You can then  recreate that look about ferns in your own garden space. 
Let's get back to the canopy. A garden is not what we only create below us on the ground but one that we can also create in the sky above.  It's probably the trickiest art form of them all.  The inspiration that I have used in my own work is from the forests both here and abroad.  A homeowner must always use caution when planting trees closer together and near homes for a variety of reasons such as the roots damaging pipes, the foundation and/or the structure itself.  Again, precautions must be taken to prevent trees limbs from falling off and smashing onto the roof or side of the house.  I speak from experience on this latter issue.  Mesquites are fantastic trees but they can also be dangerous during a wind storm.  Branches, sometimes large ones, like to fall off and smash everything in its' path.  The key to this is pruning....not liontailing as I have written about before, but the sometimes necessary removal of a tree limb to prevent harm or damage to structures and/or people.  These are the technical aspects of creating the let's look into the art of the canopy.

Once the homeowner has established what's acceptable to place in the space, s/he can begin to design the air space above.  My particular fern garden will allow for light and wind to filter through like a southern garden that has willows.  Standing in the rain forest, looking above, you see birds and monkeys and a million other things living amongst the tree tops.  While this is the desert, it doesn't mean that life doesn't exist....quite the opposite!  We have so many birds here(see my previous post on Christmas in the Canyon).  I had to look at tree shapes and at their maximum mature heights to see how they would all interlock together.  Some trees are tall and narrow while others are rounder and shorter. Then you sketch on a sheet of paper the projected image of how the sky garden will look.  Don't be discouraged if the growth doesn't happen overnight. And you may have setbacks!  Remember my Chinese elm that croaked due to Texas Root Rot?  I researched and found a resistant Texas Ebony to replace the tree.  While slower growing, it will eventually connect with the other trees.  Some trees will shoot high into the sky and be narrow while others will create the "lower-to-the-ground" look and the mid level trees will fill out the center layer of sky space.  When put together, it will be the equivalent of a desert-like amazon rain forest....except all xeric:)  For this particular garden, I used a mesquite, the desert fern tree(lysiloma), the chitalpa, the jacaranda, the eucalyptus tree, the Texas ebony, and finally the Arizona Ash.  That's a lot of tree so figure out who your shorter trees are, then your middle layer trees and finish with your emergents or taller trees.  And like a puzzle, they will all connect in time:)

In the desert, naturally, things are spread out because that's how it works here......however, there are also oasis islands where a person will find these drawings a reality.  Again, observe other places and plan plan plan.  Another garden that I am working on is the tropical fruit garden which is opposite the fern garden.  It will have a different feel but one that will utilize the same ideas with fruit trees that do well here in Tucson like the fig, guava, loquat, etc. This blog is a record of all the things that inspire and create El Presidio Gardens.  A person can't say that just one thing creates a garden because there is so much history, art, observation, technical information......and just knowledge that goes into planning something special like this space.  These pics were pulled from the internet to demonstrate what I am writing about......but you can see in the video from yesterday,  the idea that I am working on from the post called "A Cold End".  Most of the trees have lost their leaves for the winter but you'll definitely see the eucalyptus. I look forward to the new year with the new projects...stay tuned for more in January. There's always something going wherever you may be.  If you're in the North, you're planning and looking through gardening books and if you're in the warmer areas, your protecting plants from frost and beginning your projects before the intense heat.  Wherever you may be....Happy Gardening in 2011!!


  1. The layered canopy effect is an interesting concept to apply to the SW Desert. An extension agent I know in Las Cruces is trying that at his own house, even w/ some citrus!! Too bad he has 2-3x too many trees to do that and still have it look good.

    It would be interesting to find some plant layering / canopy illustrations like yours', but for the various deserts of North America.

  2. It's definitely an experiment, and I'm ready to sacrifice if I need to, but so far I haven't had to make those hard decisions. I can't imagine using that technique with established trees already in place. This particular area was barren of any plants except for some agaves, a dead euc, and inappropriately placed palm tree. Those things are not easy to get out. It's all growing in nicely so I'll snap pics as it all happens. The oleander fence is coming along nicely as well.....but we'll see. Spring is when all the new growth happens for most of the trees.

  3. How wonderful to have the space to plan for so many trees. We often joke that we're going to buy our neighbor's corner lot and just fill it with trees. He has NOTHING planted in his whole lot. He mows the weeds that grow there. Sigh. Sounds like you're making good use of your down time from school. It is so fun planning new gardens. I'm starting the planning process here. 2011---more gardening!

  4. great information about the tree canopy! I just read that we have a city site that shows the tree canopy of our individual properties. I havent had a chance to check it out yet. I'll have to link back to this post if/when I can get some info.

    I've been off on winter break too. It went by waaaaayyy too fast. I'd had the "Sunday night blues" for the past couple of days. Did get through all my catalogs and made my list of garden veggies - that was productive.

  5. The truth is that I never think, ponder in such scale, considering the limited space I have to experiment, but often I wonder what could I do with an acre or half...

    This kind of beyond the surface theme, is rarely found and necessary for some...

  6. This was a really interesting post. Loved the rain forest pictures! I've thought about this similarly when I've been in the woods near here. Many of the big trees in suburban neighborhoods by me are actually planted more with understory trees and don't handle the sun very well. I wish we had more space to grow some of the very tall trees as well as the understory type. Lucky you to have so much space, sounds like it will be and is beautiful.

  7. Honestly, never thought about canopy-ing in the desert. Why not? I will re-read this a dozen times. Thank you! It will take a morning to look up each tree, map it out, place it, and then build downward/upward. Awesome work here, Robert.


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