The Gambler

Although the calendar says it’s still winter, the plants in my garden have decided that spring is here. The early spring flowering shrubs and vines are in full bloom. The Lilac Vines, Carolina Jessamine, Salvia Trident, Valentine Emu Bush and Red Spike Ice Plants began flowering several weeks ago and are covered with flowers and buzzing with bees. Most of the plants that froze during the hard freeze in early January have begun sprouting new leaves, and many of the other plants have broken dormancy and have begun to grow.

I love gardening and am always anxious for winter to end and spring to begin, so I’ve started my spring gardening chores. I’ve cut back all of the freeze damaged plants from 4 to 6 inches above the ground for plants like Lantana and Red Bird of Paradise, or back to signs of new growth for plants like Yellow Bells or Desert Ruellia. I raked up all the leaf litter and plant debris and the fertilized everything with a 10-10-10 fertilizer that also contains iron, sulfur and other micronutrients. And, of course, with all the rain that we’ve had I’ve been weeding and weeding and weeding. I’ve also been adding a few new plants in the ornamental garden and planted tomatoes and peppers in the vegetable garden. It may be pushing the envelope a bit to be doing all this now since the calendar says it’s still winter and our frost free date isn’t until March 4th, but the plants are telling me to get to work and I’m happy to do it.

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When I was at the nursery buying the tomato and pepper plants the guy at the counter turned to me and said “I see that you’re a gambler.” I replied “No”. Just a gardener!”

Sonoran Gardens Featured in Arizona Daily Star Article on Xeriscaping

Sonoran Gardens owner Chris Niccum was featured in an Arizona Daily Star article this past Sunday, January 17th. The article written by Elena Acoba titled “Xeriscape means dry, not dull” is on the subject of Xeriscaping and its importance.

With the help of designer Shelly Ann Abbott of Landscape Design West LLC, Sonoran Gardens won the 2014 Xeriscape Award this past November from the Arizona Landscape Contractors’ Association for their design of Tucson homeowners Betty & Jerry Eckert’s garden landscape.

Chris mentioned in the article that he hopes “the attention the award brings will help people better understand xeriscaping.” People still imagine that the term means “zero-scape,” essentially a dull, stark view of some rocks and cactus. “Xeriscape came up as a water-saving principle,” says Niccum. “I believe it has developed into a landscaping style.”

Shelly Abbott agrees that “xeriscape isn’t merely bringing the desert into the backyard,” but a “dialog between the desert garden” and the garden beyond the back wall. The Eckert’s garden is a “kicked up version of what’s out there.”

Click here to read the full Arizona Daily Star article “Xeriscape means dry, not dull”


Courtesy of Shelly Ann Abbott


Jerry & Betty Eckart -Courtesy of Shelly Ann Abbott

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Patio & Fireplace




In the Winter Garden with Chris Niccum

I hate winter. I’m a ‘Desert Rat’ and I love the heat and hate the cold. Many of the plants in my garden are also ‘Desert Rats’. A few hours of temperatures below freezing can cause more stress and damage than a whole summer of 100 degrees plus. When temperatures are predicated to fall below freezing there are several things that can be done to reduce the damage. Water your plants. Plants under water stress are more likely to be damaged by cold. Also moist soil holds and releases more heat than dry soil and can help to raise temperatures near the ground. Cover freeze sensitive plants to capture and hold some of the heat being released by the soil around your plants. Old sheets work great for this. Disposable paint buckets can be used to cover small plants and styrofoam cups can be used to protect the tips of columnar cactus. Frost blankets and tents can also be purchased and are very effective.

columnar cactus

Styrofoam Cups

frost tent

Frost Tent

frost blankets & sheets

Frost Blankets & sheets

disposable paint buckets






I use a combination of all of these. Do not use plastic sheeting as it has been shown to transfer cold from the outside of the cover to the inside and may actually increase the risk of freeze damage. Make sure that the frost cover completely covers the plant and is open to the ground so that the cover captures heat rising up from the ground and holds it around the plant. Don’t leave the covers on your plants for extended periods of time. A few days is generally ok but much more than that can be harmful to the plant due to reduced light and high humidity within the cover. Many plants are frost tolerant and don’t need protection. Others will freeze to ground but come back from roots in spring. I cover citrus, aloes, some cactus/succulents, potted annuals and the vegetable garden. I don’t cover lantana, Mexican bird of paradise and yellow/orange bells as they will freeze but come back from the root.


On Saturday, November 22, 2014, the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association held its 38th annual Excellence in Landscaping Awards Program and Banquet at Loew’s Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson. This program recognizes member companies who have demonstrated outstanding commitment to designing, installing and maintaining beautiful and sustainable landscapes in Arizona. Projects are submitted by member companies, judged by a panel of industry experts and must adhere to strict criteria of industry standards to be considered for an award. This year Sonoran Gardens submitted two residential design and new installation projects and one residential redesign and renovation project for consideration by the judges.

I am very proud to announce that Sonoran Gardens was awarded three Awards of Excellence for our submissions. The Award of Excellence is the highest honor possible. This award is given to a single project within a category that demonstrates outstanding levels of quality and creativity. Additionally, all projects being considered for an Award of Excellence must have scored 90% or higher on the strict criteria and are also visited by the judges to confirm that they are indeed worthy of the highest honor.

Winner of the Xeriscape Award

Eckert Project: Winner of the Xeriscape Award


Ashdown Project

Roper Project

Roper Project







Sonoran Gardens was also awarded the Xeriscape Award, one of the three Grand Awards. The Xeriscape Award is given to a project that has received an Award of Excellence and is designed, planned and constructed to adhere to the xeriscape principals of reduced water use and maintenance.

Congratulations to everyone who worked for and with us on these outstanding projects. And a special congratulations to our design partners Sven Gunn and Shelly Abbott for their work on these wonderful projects.

Happy holidays!

Chris Niccum

Old Dog Learning New Tricks

For the first time in over 30 years I have a vegetable garden. Learning to grow vegetables in Southern Arizona is both fun and challenging. My previous experience with growing veggies was in Idaho (the place where they grow all the potatoes). Frankly growing veggies there was fairly easy and didn’t require a lot of effort. I’m finding that growing them in Southern AZ is a bit more of a challenge.

I had set aside an area on the east side of my house for the garden. This area gets good light for most of the day but is protected from the afternoon sun. The soil in that area is compacted red clay that I believed would require major efforts to produce a growing medium conducive to growing veggies. So, I decided to use raised beds for my garden. I purchased several galvanized steel stock tanks to use for the raised beds. These tanks are very durable and about 2′ deeps, so they hold plenty of soil. This is also a nice comfortable working height requiring much less bending and stooping when working in the garden. After positioning the tanks, I drilled drainage holes in the bottom and filled them with a soil mix of 50% topsoil, 40% compost and 10% sand.

I extended an existing waterline into this area and installed a hose bib to use for hand watering. I also installed an automatic irrigation system with a controller and vales dedicated to just watering the veggie tanks. This gives me the ability to independently program and adjust the irrigation for each tank as needed. The individual plants are watered using a combination of in line drip emitters and adjustable micro bubblers.

I am now beginning to learn the what, how and when of growing veggies in Southern AZ. For the first time in a long time this old dog is trying to learn a whole new set of gardening tricks.

Happy gardening from Chris Niccum!






It seems like every time I look up in my garden something is flying around. Mostly hummingbirds and butterflies. There are three hummingbirds (a pair of Costa’s and an Anna’s) that call my garden home. They seem to be engaged in a never ending battle over control of the territory. I’m surprised that they haven’t starved to death because it appears that they spend all of there time chasing each other and would have no time or energy left to eat. When they aren’t chasing each other, they attempt to chase off other birds, and I’ve even seen them trying to chase butterflies.

This fall my garden is full of butterflies. I’ve planted an area adjacent to my side patio with plants that will attract butterflies. Most notably Butterfly Mist (Eupatorium Greggii) and several species of Milkweed. I love to sit on the patio and watch the parade of color and movement of whole groups of Queens, Black Swallow Tails, Giant Swallow Tails, Sulphurs, Painted Ladies and occasionally a Monarch.

Several weeks ago I noticed a Monarch in the garden. She was pretty faded and one back wing didn’t work quite right. I could only imagine the journey she had been on from the Midwest to Arizona. She stayed around for a while and I saw her laying eggs on one of my milkweeds. A few days later the eggs hatched and the caterpillars began devouring my milkweed. It is amazing how much they eat and how quickly they grow. After a couple of weeks I noticed that most of caterpillars were gone and I found one crawling across the patio toward the BBQ counter. Within a a few hours it had attached itself to the underside of the counter and began transforming itself into a chrysalis. Over the next 10 days the chrysalis slowly changed color from pale green to brown and early one morning a new adult Monarch emerged. It spent an hour or so drying out and expanding its wings and then spent the day feeding and flying around the garden. Late in the afternoon I watched as it flew high into the air, caught the wind and headed off to the south continuing the journey to winter in Mexico. A beautiful bright orange and black replacement for the battered and faded adult that had laid the egg.


Mother butterfly




Becoming a butterfly

Becoming a butterfly

Becoming a butterfly

Drying its wings to fly

Drying its wings to fly




As summer ends and fall begins it is a great time of year to add new plants into your garden. The cooler temperatures make it easier for new plants to establish, and there are still at least 6-8 weeks of the growing season left before cold weather and the potential for frost arrives. It also gives you an excuse to be outside in this beautiful autumn weather.

I am adding about 20 new plants to my ornamental garden this fall. This may sound like a lot of new plants to the average homeowner. However, when you consider that my ornamental garden contains over 260 individual plants representing over 100 different species and varieties, this is in fact a relatively small number of new plants. I am also the type of gardener that believes if you can see the ground, there is room for another plant. And most of my new plants are in fact replacements for plants that had not performed well or had died.

Planting success is mostly a matter of selecting the right plant and putting it in the right spot. The first 35
step is to determine what you want the plant to do. Screen out the neighbor’s house? Attract butterflies or birds? Or maybe just look pretty. Then you can decide what you want the plant to look like. Size? Flower color? Flower season? Foliage color? Texture? Evergreen or deciduous? Lastly, you must determine the growing conditions in the site that you have selected. Sun exposure? Heat and cold tolerance? Soil conditions? Irrigation? Don’t skip this step. Most of plants that I’m replacing this year failed because I paid too much attention to function and appearance and not enough to growing conditions. You now have enough information to select the right plant for your spot. I like to do this by going to the nursery and looking at the plants they currently have available, carefully reading the tags, and making a selection based on my criteria. This all sounds good except, because I am a plant nut, I almost always come home with a bunch of extra plants that I just had to have and I now must try to figure out a place to plant them.


Planting is easy. Dig the hole at least twice as wide as the pot and about 1/2″ shallower than the top of soil in the pot. Place the plant in hole. Then install drip irrigation and backfill with the soil removed when digging the hole. Build a water retention basin with soil about 2″ deep around the outside edge of the planting hole. Water the plant in with liquid fertilizer to settle in the backfill and give the plant some nutrition to grow on. Water everyday by filling the basin for at least 2 weeks and once a week with liquid fertilizer. Then just let it grow.

Now, go plant something!


My gardens look fabulous. The plants in the front desert re-vegetated areas are all green and growing and many are in flower. The rear ornamental gardens are full of flowers and every plant appears to be healthy and vibrant and the vegetable garden is providing fresh produce every day. I must be the greatest gardener in the world!

Or maybe just maybe my gardens look fabulous because I’ve had a great monsoon season. At my house it’s rained on a regular basis, temperatures have been relatively moderate and humidity has been up. I would guess judging from the number of calls that we’ve been getting at the office requesting drainage improvements and general landscape clean ups that most of you have also had a good monsoon. For the last six weeks the weather in Tucson has actually encouraged plants to thrive and they have. This really seems to be the only time of year in which every plant in my gardens consistently looks good and I love it. I’ve been fortunate to have worked as a professional gardener in many varied locations (Indiana, Texas, Idaho, Virgin Islands and Arizona) and I can say that without a doubt that Southern Arizona is the most difficult place of all to grow a beautiful garden. Except for right now. So, all you gardeners should enjoy the beauty that you’ve created and pat yourselves on the back because right now it appears that we are all the greatest gardeners in the world!

Happy gardening!

Chris Niccum
Sonoran Gardens Landscape Design & Construction

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I’ve been a gardener for most of my life. I have always had an interest in
plants and enjoyed growing them. My career has included work in almost
every aspect of the green industry with a particular emphasis on the design,
installation and care of ornamental landscapes. Currently I am the semi
retired owner of Sonoran Gardens a residential landscape design, build and
maintenance company in Tucson, AZ.

My home is a fairly typical suburban residence on about a 1/3 acre lot with
in a development in Vail, AZ. We built it about 10 years ago and I have
been designing and planting since then. There is undisturbed desert behind
and across the street and a neighbors house on each side. We don’t however
share common walls with them. The front yard and the areas between the
walls have been planted to duplicate the existing desert areas as closely as
possible. At the front entry is a small specimen cactus garden with a
collection of potted succulents on the porch. The rear yard is an outdoor
living space with patios, swimming pool, BBQ/bar counter and fire pit all
surrounded by an ornamental garden. The side yard is dedicated to growing
fruits and vegetables in pots and galvanized metal stock tanks.

Generally when I meet someone and they discover that I own a landscape
company they begin asking for advice about their landscapes and the plants
in them. Since I have a passion for plants and beautiful gardens, I’m
always willing to share what I have learned from a lifetime of gardening.
For that reason I’ve begun this blog. I will be regularly discussing my
design inspirations, maintenance activities and plant knowledge as they
relate to my home gardens.

Front Yard

Veggie Garden

Back Yard

What Can You Do To Minimize Heat Stress?

In most cases, summer stress can be lessened or even prevented by proper irrigation. Slow, deep irrigations that allow water to soak water down deep into the soil to reach the lower root zones of plants are essential. Never use hot water from a hose. Let the water run until it cools off. Timing is critical also. It is best to irrigate by running the drip irrigation to regular landscape plants 3 – 4 days per week for 2 hours with the run time starting in the early morning.

Trees should run twice per week for 3 hours. Flower beds and pots should run twice per day, every day for 5-7 minutes each run. A correct irrigation will wet the entire area underneath shrubs and trees to ensure that a majority of the roots are receiving water.

If you understand the basics of summer heat stress, we can take the proper steps to minimize the stress or avoid it all together.

As always, you can call Sonoran Gardens with any questions or concerns. We’re here to help!