How to Grow a Desert Garden Anywhere

Heat-loving plants stretch their limits in the rainy Northwest

Elizabeth Jardina
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A Lot of Lawn and a Lot of Weeds

The house was small, the grass expansive. Still, as Loree Bohl and her husband, Andrew, were hunting in a hot Portland real estate market, they could tell they’d found the right place. “It was a lot of lawn and a lot of weeds,” Loree recalls. “But when we drove up, it just seemed like home.”
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Danger Garden

Nevertheless, the blogger and Pacific Horticulture Society board member had
 a vision for her Concordia neighborhood home. “I absolutely love spiky, architectural, and dangerous plants. Then I saw that a nearby house had a beautiful, established Agave parryi, and I thought if they can do
 it, why can’t I?” With a dogged spirit, Loree has transformed her plain lot into a home for some of the most bristly and weird flora that can survive her city’s climate. That’s meant trial and error, carefully documented over the past nine years on her blog, .
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Front-Yard Game Changers

  • The deep brown exterior (Behr paint in Espresso Beans PPU5-01, from $37/gallon; ) makes the house recede and the mostly green garden palette pop.
  • Repetition keeps everything from seeming cluttered. Several manzanitas, Opuntia cactus, agaves, and spiky Dasylirion wheeleri ensure a cohesive look.
  • Punches of color--including a magenta bougainvillea and 
a spray of hot pink flowers from a Hesperaloe--provide eye-catching contrast.
  • Climate may limit choices, but Loree recommends whimsical plants with a tropical feel: Pineapple guava has been hardy so far, even producing some fruit.
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Contrasting Textures

A sharp-tipped, blue-green Agave parryi ‘J.C. Raulston’ nestles at the base of a red-barked ‘Austin Griffiths’ manzanita. A low groundcover juniper, ‘Blue Pacific’, fills in around them.
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Backyard Revamp

Away from prying eyes, the backyard is a lush jungle. There’s
 a magnolia with enormous leaves and a silvery Yucca rostrata, plus agaves, palms, and hundreds of potted treasures. To keep the area from looking too discombobulated, Loree and her husband installed a geometric patio of concrete pavers, kept the patio furniture simple, and left some of the grass. “It’s plant chaos,” she says, “so the lawn is a good, calming counterpoint to lots of things that come and go with the seasons.”
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Loree has accumulated 30-plus individual bromeliads, an impressive feat. They live happily in containers and produce pups that can be shared with friends. She purchased this mottled purple and green Vriesea ospinae var. gruberi from a collector who had moved to Portland from Florida.
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Unexpected Elements

“I love custom-making planters from unexpected materials,” says Loree. Here, leafy ferns find a home in chicken-feed dishes affixed to silver fence posts for sleek, modern style. On the wall, Begonia ‘Curly Fireflush’ and Dichondra argentea emerge from store-bought containers hung from a salvaged piece of metal.
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Unfettered by climate and always pushing boundaries, Loree’s style is best described as maximalist—the more flora the better. “I believe in ‘cramscaping,’ ” she says wryly. “If you can fit one, you can fit three.”
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Climate Beaters

  1. Shredded umbrella plant (Syneilesis aconitifolia): A deciduous perennial with deeply cut leaves that dies to the ground in winter but requires no cold protection in the Northwest. It can be thirsty in the summer, so irrigate often.
  2. Yucca rostrata: This Southwest native’s ball of grayish spikes grows on a fat trunk and requires good drainage.
  3. Schefflera delavayi: Although it resembles its houseplant cousin, it’s a hardy grower with a tropical feel unbothered by cold.
  4. Whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia, pictured): A bluish rosette that can take dips in temperature and will grow faster with extra summer water. Don’t plant in a boggy spot; like all agaves, it dislikes soggy roots.
  5. Green bottlebrush (Callistemon viridiflorus): This tall, airy shrub (to 8 feet) has dark green leaves and brush-like flowers in yellow or green, spring through summer.
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