The five essays below were written by members of Coconino Master Gardeners, a dedicated group of volunteers who want to share their love and knowledge of gardening and horticulture with you. The Master Gardener program, sponsored by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, provides home horticulture training to individuals who then volunteer to pass on their knowledge to our community. Master Gardeners give lectures, create gardens, write articles, and answer many gardening questions. The program is offered in all fifty states with many programs offering education specific to counties within the state.
Because Flagstaff has unique gardening issues due to its high elevation, the Master Gardener class provide information specific to our often challenging conditions. This allows our volunteers to provide the best, regional gardening advice. Master Gardeners also become experts in the microclimates of their neighborhood. We hope that these pieces of neighborhood advice can take some of the mystery out of gardening in the high country.
For more information on becoming a Coconino Master Gardener, contact Hattie Braun at firstname.lastname@example.org or 928-774-1868 ext. 170.
Click for map of City of Flagstaff neighborhoods.
Note: Local realtor Eileen Schreiber offers descriptions of neighborhoods outside the city limits on her website.
Hi! I am a retired FUSD teacher who lives ‘below the banana belt’ in lower Greenlaw. Our family has lived in the same house since 1985. Because cold air drains down, we are a bit cooler here than our neighbors higher in altitude nearer Mt. Elden, but also warmer than some of the other places in Flagstaff.
One of the issues that had to be overcome in this area for gardening is that we have heavy clay soil. Because I started gardening before raised beds were popular, I have been amending the soil for close to 30 years and have a pretty good soil bank to grow things on. For clay soil, amendments have included sand, various types of manure and within the last five years, compost. Because I like to grow table crops, a good soil basis is necessary.
The second issue in the area gardening was grasshoppers and other plant eating insects. Because of children and also caring about wildlife, I have chosen to go organic with this problem. Because in our area one can keep chickens and other fowl, for most of the time here I have kept hens. This does necessitate keeping young plants separated from them as they tend to like tender greens. I have also found that native birds also like eating bugs, as do cats. I have tried to release preying mantids a couple times, and they may have helped, but it is hard to tell. Although the grasshopper problem is minimal, I have lost one aspen tree to oyster scale and a few other plants to bugs, especially if I let them get too stressed.
Another issue in my yard is weeds. My neighborhood is older and native planting was not the norm when it was established. I have had to re-establish natives around my house – though not all my plants are native. However, non-native undesirables are hard to eradicate because of continual disturbance of the soil due to gardening, kids, dogs and such and because they are very prevalent outside my fence. There are always seeds available to be carried in.
Things that seem to grow well in my yard as for landscaping are ponderosa pines, commercial junipers, Siberian elm (which are big, easy-growing, non-native and reproduce like mad), canyon box elder, red osier dog bush, fern-bush, rabbit bush, native grapes and woodbine. Some of the smaller plants that do well are non-native bulbs, such as tulips, non-local blanket flowers, and natives such as milk weeds, columbines, penstemons, erigerons, lupines, oenotheras, and our local iris. Our front yard has Kentucky blue grass, which needs lots of water, but it is being slowly replaced by blue gramma and buffalo grass.
This is happening over time by putting out seed and watering less.
Food plants that I have grown here include short season corns, both sweet and native types, short season tomatoes or ones started inside or bought already started at a nursery, strawberries, potatoes, squash, green beans, and peas. After taking a master gardening class, I set up a drip irrigation system which cut down on the water bill for the garden. Although gardening in Flagstaff is not as easy as in other areas, it is possible. I have also have had fun looking for odd things to grow and have found that teosinte—a large Mexican grass that may have been the ancestor of corn—grows well here. Happy gardening and have fun!
I moved here in July and the first season just planted a few annuals on my south facing deck. They quickly died from the intense sun or the flowers were chewed off by Abert squirrels living in two nests in my back yard ponderosas. After many failures that first year I decided to take the master gardener class that following spring. Between the class and my volunteer work at the Arboretum I learned much more about native plants and growing in Flagstaff.
The second year I set-up my first vegetable garden in the plot that was already there. The soil was a bit rocky, but I did well with mostly squashes, beans, broccoli, and snow peas and tomatoes in containers on my deck. My corn was a total failure. The tomatoes did OK but my crop was much smaller than I was used to, and I had to water every day, sometimes twice. I also began to add herbs, and mostly native plants in the rest of the garden. I had a small plot on the north end of the house where I created a herb garden, another where I put in shade tolerant plants, and many penstemons in south facing beds on the north end of the house. At the end of that season I found a source for composted manure and added it to most of my beds except the penstemons.
I ditched my walls of water for tomatoes because they cooked them on my south facing deck. Instead I purchased some self watering containers for them, and added cages covered with frost cloth until the threat of frost was gone in mid June. I was actually able to get them planted about the third week of May and they thrived. I had so many tomatoes that I took many to the local food kitchen. Each year I now plant maybe 8-10 heirloom tomatoes. I have taken them to the county fair and won many ribbons. My biggest problem over the last two years has been hail.
The first part of July I had a devastating hail storm. The hail was disk like and I had more than a foot on my deck. All flowers and leaves were gone, and I was left with sticks with nicks from the hail. I left the plants and was lucky to still have a great deal of tomatoes before the first killing frost this year, but it was a month late (Oct. 22). I need to find a way to shelter them during the first 2 weeks of July and still get sun. My vegetable garden was devastated, and I did not replant this year.
Several years ago after hearing a lecture on garden sanctuaries, I began creating one on the north side of my house (protected by my front deck). I have a swing to sit and enjoy looking at Mt. Elden and several whimsical pieces of art. The plants are mostly shade tolerant natives and non-natives: golden columbine, pussytoes, bugbane, alum root, ajuga, and bergenia. I tried hostas but they were quickly eaten by local deer. In the summer I add annuals in pots: sweet potato vine and coleus. When I am not working in the garden this is where I spend most of my time.
Other than too many rocks/pine needles and hail I have learned how to garden in the Banana Belt. I find it challenging and rewarding. I am now working on more year round color for the garden (flowers and shrubs) and replacing old plants with more natives.
I also learned how to handle problems. Our southern California yard had peach trees, flowers, and a small lawn that did pretty well with hardly any effort or talent on our part. On the other hand, our new property—2.5 acres off Townsend-Winona Road in the shadow of Elden and Sheep’s Hill—is faced with serious winds and receives even less rain and snow than the rest of Flagstaff.
As part of the building process, we put an 8,500-gallon tank in the back yard, fed by gutters on the house and garage. Drip lines run to plantings around the house. The plants love the rain and snow water. We still seem to spend a lot of effort and money keeping the pump working, fixing lines, winterizing the system when required, and figuring out the mysteries of adding in Doney Park water when the tank gets low. To stay firewise, we weed-whack other vegetation on the rest of the property.
We grow lots of penstemons on the slopes around the house: Rocky Mountain blue ones and endangered Sunset Crater pink ones. We grew them from seeds that were a gift from another Master Gardener. Drought-tolerant catmint, lavender, wine cups, perennial grasses, Virginia creeper, wild Arizona roses, butterfly bushes, and Russian sage keep color going in various seasons. There is the added benefit, mostly, of new shoots of baby plants without encouragement.
By far the hardier plants are natives or near natives, watered rather sparingly and sheltered whenever possible from the winds. The micro-environments created by the accidents of occasional boulders or walls allow some non-native but still water-wise plants to thrive: a large patch of creeping thyme surrounds some stepping stones, and slow-growing but surprisingly cold-tolerant sedum grows well under a pine tree. Some beautiful irises, another Master Gardener gift, grow because we water them slightly more than the native plants. These successes are dumb luck on my part! Dreams of a fruit tree orchard will stay dreams, although the elk surely love my apple trees’ branches.
Unfortunately I kept bad records of where and what I planted. I do not prune or care for some half dozen plant varieties as well as I could, since I do not know what they actually are.
Our 2.5-acre lot is home to pinyon and juniper trees, blue grama, rabbitbrush, snakeweed, and various wildflowers. The builders left most of the trees but bulldozed large areas of vegetation. Our goal has been to restore and augment the native species.
We hired landscapers to create low-water, gravel-mulched garden beds immediately around the house, adding Rocky Mountain junipers, Apache plume, fern bush, sumac, sagebrush, agastache, penstemon, and other native plants. To establish these young plants, we installed an irrigation system. The landscapers hydroseeded blue grama, purple three-awn, and western wheatgrass across the property, and left instructions to water the treated areas three times each rainless day until the grasses were about an inch high.
We faced a tremendous amount of work when spring and summer 2014 rolled around. As newcomers, we had to research every little green sprout that emerged. What was it? What genus? What species? Was it native or invasive? Benign or aggressive? Desirable or despicable? Volunteer work in the Master Gardener program alongside expert botanists and experienced gardeners and naturalists helped us meet the challenge.
We spent many hours pulling weeds our first summer, mostly ragweed but also kochia, mustard thistle, horehound, and other invasives. We pulled dozens of scary-looking “weeds” before learning they were native tansy mustard and yellow-daisy-like bahia. Meanwhile, our investment in garden beds yielded immediate results and fostered hope in our hearts. We were also rewarded as dozens of beautiful wildflowers—tiny lupines, evening primrose, purple aster, sunflowers, and more—gradually spread across the lot.
Hydroseeding was a good strategy to restore grasses on our large disturbed property, but we found it impossible to water the entire lot three times a day—or even once a day—on the many dry days of fall, 2013. We thought it might have been better to hydroseed sections of the lot over several years. However, as we pulled the weeds in spring 2014, the new grasses appeared and spread throughout the summer.
John wanted to grow fruit, so our landscapers planted Nanking cherries. Though not native, they are considered compatible with local conditions. The beautiful blossoms that appeared in spring froze when night temperatures in April descended to 16°. If you wish to grow fruit trees or bushes in Flagstaff, consider the growing season in your specific area. Even so, be aware that your fruit may be nipped in the bud more often than not.
We have learned that the highest virtue for a Flagstaff gardener is PATIENCE. It is often hard to identify a plant until it flowers, and by then it may have carpeted the fields. There are billions of seeds lying dormant, waiting for the right conditions to spring to life in your field—if not next year, then the year after, or even six years from now. To reduce the number of invasives or other undesirable species that may crop up, we continue to plant natives such as Gambel oak, golden currant, Indian paintbrush, scarlet gilia, sideoats grama, and an alligator juniper. We remain attentive, prepared for hard work, and eager for next summer’s adventure.
In my mind’s eye, living in Timberline is akin to dwelling on an isle of short-grass prairie amidst a sea of conifer forest and cinder cones. Standing sentinel over all are the majestic San Francisco Peaks. It is a land of fathomless blue skies, mushrooming thunderheads, all-around views, wildflowers, and fierce spring winds. And I love it!
Timberline is situated along highway 89 roughly between Silver Saddle Road and Sunset Crater National Monument.
We basically have sandy-loam soil and receive less precipitation than the city of Flagstaff. Other than the lack of nutrient-bearing organic matter, the soil isn’t bad. Several inches of compost incorporated into my existing soil yields beans, sweet corn (‘Incredible’), summer squash, and peppers. Other folks around here grow pumpkins, onions, beets, carrots, and rhubarb.
My husband and I haven’t been so fortunate with our tomato-growing endeavors. Short season varieties produce tasty, albeit puny fruit late in the season. Setting out transplants in early June, we surround each with a Wall-O-Water (available at our nurseries) to stave off frost. The strong winds here though, will occasionally collapse the Wall-O-Waters onto the fragile transplants, requiring a quick rescue. We’ve had better luck with potted patio cherry tomatoes.
A few blocks away friends John and Sandy grow tomatoes and other vegetables in raised beds constructed of cinderblocks situated against the south side of their home. The radiant heat emitted by both the house and the blocks provide the warmth required to allow tomato varieties like ‘Early Girl’, ‘Roma’, Beefmaster, and some heirlooms to flourish all summer. They set out transplants in early June without Wall-O-Waters.
The main caveat to growing productive fruit trees here is blossom-damaging late spring frosts. Apple trees are your best bet to produce an occasional crop, but if you don’t choose at least two mid to late-blooming varieties that are pollen-compatible, all you’ll have to show for your efforts will be attractive shade trees. We’ve had some success with Golden Delicious and Jonathan, each of which are great cross-pollinators of other varieties as well as being partially self-fruitful.
The stately Colorado spruce appears to be many folks’ favorite tree in this neck of the woods, and rightly so. They’re somewhat drought-tolerant and sturdy enough to withstand our high winds. (Their top leaders however, do occasionally get blown off.) Other handsome yet hardy evergreens include ponderosa, pinyon, and Austrian pines, Alberta spruce, and native junipers.
Members of the poplar family are commonplace. Cottonwoods grow well, but all too often the leaves freeze before they’re allowed to senesce and turn gold in the fall. Everyone is familiar with the showy golden leaves of quaking aspen in the autumn, and Timberline has its share of them. However, they’re quite susceptible to black leaf spot, stem cankers, and tent caterpillars, from which all of mine have suffered. European poplars make great shade trees, but like other members of this family, readily clone themselves from suckers arising from their roots.
Other popular trees include flame and amur maples, which boast brilliant red autumn leaves while black locusts sport yellow fall foliage. Globe willows are tough with bright green round canopies in the summer. Our ‘Sunburst’ honey locust bears yellow-gold springtime leaves.
One of my most prized landscape specimens is our New Mexico locust, a rugged subtree native to the region. It bears clusters of pendulous rose-pink blooms.
As for shrubs, Timberlinians frequently landscape with evergreens ranging in size from ground creepers, to medium-sized accents and borders, to large-sized screens and anchors. Colors range from steel-gray to gold-tipped forest green.
Several deciduous shrubs thrive in this environment. Fern bush bears fernlike leaves that emit an exquisite fragrance. Red twig dogwood displays red branches through the drear of winter, while sumac sports burgundy berries. Apache plume’s small rose-like flowers give rise to mauve plumes that dance in the breeze. Throughout the summer shrubby cinquefoil shows off sprightly yellow flowers, while Russian sage renders a burst of lavender.
Pocket gophers, which devour roots, are a major hindrance to gardeners. We’ve been able to deter these critters by planting all of our trees and shrubs in extra wide holes lined with one-inch gauge poultry wire. Our vegetable beds are lined similarly.
During the late summer nearly all undeveloped fields in this sector teem with sunflower and Rocky Mountain bee plant. We mow our back acre at least once a year to discourage invasive weeds and allow sunlight to activate wildflower seed germination.
I take delight in embellishing our yards with flowering native perennials. Our arid soil provides the ideal medium for agastache, skyrocket, penstemon, red cinquefoil and aster.
Gardening in Timberline is, as in any high altitude locale, not without its detours and roadblocks. But for me, the added hardship serves to strengthen our character and make our successes all the more sweet.