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Mexican hat, snakeweed, wild chrysanthemum and rabbitbrush are among the plants in Lynne Nemeth's yard in Doney Park.

We've been braving the wind in Doney Park for 11 years now. We had hardly any neighbors when we first moved in, and were surrounded by open fallow fields, which used to be pinto bean farms and sheep grazing land, The coyotes had free range and yipped and yelped outside our bedroom window most nights. (The previous owners told us that they used to shoot at prairie dogs out the back door.) Now the area is full of homes, and even though the lots are two and one-half acres, it's feeling almost suburban.

I knew nothing about the flora and fauna of northern Arizona when we moved here, and coming from the humid piedmont of the East Coast, I only vaguely knew about microclimates. (Microclimate refers to the long-term weather conditions in a small area; for example the differences in climate--and landscape--between the tops of hills and neighboring valleys.) The first thing I did was sign up for docent training at The Arboretum so I could learn about the ponderosa pine ecosystem (and beyond). It's quite astounding, really, the huge elevation changes here--and what that means for ecosystem differences, growing plants, and landscaping. At our property in Doney, the elevation is about 6,550 feet. At The Arboretum, it's 7,150 feet. Doney Park is on the windward side of the San Francisco Peaks, and receives about 17 inches of precipitation a year. The Arboretum is south of the Peaks, and receives about 25 inches of precipitation a year. Completely different ecosystems? You bet.

So what is supposed to grow in Doney Park? It used to be a huge lake at some point in time, I hear. But now that it isn't farmed, what is it? Pinyon-juniper? Shortgrass prairie? I'm still not sure, but I can tell you what we have 11 years in.

Over the past years, we’ve mowed maybe once a year and pulled out invasive weeds. What has flourished seems to be mostly shortgrass prairie vegetation, which includes native grasses such as purple three-awn, blue grama, and sand dropseed. We also have Apache plume, rabbitbrush, fringed sage, snakeweed, and broom groundsel. Flowering plants include golden crownbeard, globe mallow, wild chrysanthemum, sunflowers, vervain, and assorted white and purple asters. Just last week, I got a positive identification of prairie zinnia, new to our property! And two junipers have sprouted, as well as a three-leaf sumac, to my surprise. None of these I've planted myself. So maybe it would eventually become pinyon-juniper woodlands.

I've planted a number of shortgrass prairie species, including bee balm, Mexican hat, penstemons, blanketflower, golden currant, chokecherry, sand cherry, buffaloberry, and the gorgeous sand sage (which, unfortunately, the desert cottontails like to eat.) All these are doing well.

I often hear the phrase, "nature will take its course." That's not entirely true. With climate change, introduced and invasive species, and development by humans, nature can have a hard time taking its course. I know that 11 years in time is minuscule, and who knows what our landscape will look like in 20 years. But for now, we’ve assisted in created a living, breathing prairie ecosystem, and it’s beautiful.

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Lynne Nemeth, executive director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff, is the editor of Gardening Etcetera. To reach her with articles or ideas, please email


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