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Tall Pots in a Shallow World

Scientists have figured out how to restore damaged urban desert landscapes with native plants that use less surface water and prevent erosion. Problem is, the scraggly little saplings with long roots just arent as pretty as their conventionally grown counterparts.

Wayne Warrington
Im drawn to the call of frogs congregating on a

environments. But the Flood Control District of Mari-

lone desert tree - the only dry anchor they can

copa County hopes to combat the destruction. One

find. The tree stands isolated, on an island cut

tree at a time.

from recent eroding floodwaters. A muddy river


now separates me from this last tree standing in a
landscape scoured by downed limbs, tumbling
rocks, and long discarded man-made debris.

Yesterday, this expanse of desert in Maricopa


County was silent, dry, and sparsely vegetated.
The natural desert plants must have been cleared
years ago for a farm or perhaps a housing development on the edge of Scottsdale. Now its barren
land. Had the native mesquite, creosote, palo
verde, rabbit brush, and various cacti been left
undisturbed, the established network of deep native plant roots may have weakened the recent
torrents damage. Unfortunately, damaged landscapes like this are common in disturbed desert

An obscure and time-tested solution

Such an anchor provides additional support for fledg-

The salvation of flood-ravaged desert landscapes lies ling or established trees in fierce winds that can occur
in an obscure but time-tested planting method for

during the height of monsoon storms. Anchored plants

native plants. A decade ago, the county embarked on also hold soil in place and retain healthy populations of
an experiment to plant native trees and shrubs in tall

vegetation, allowing wildlife, like chorusing frogs, to

pots, hoping to create plants with more robust root

remain dispersed, instead of clinging to islands.

systems better adapted for our arid climate. Since


native plants have a natural propensity to create root

The tall pot nursery

structures that seek ground water dozens of feet be-

Harry Cooper, the Flood Control Districts landscape

low the surface, it made sense to pot new desert

architect, inherited the tall pot experiment in 2014. His

plants in a way that encouraged long root structures.

inheritance included a tall pot tree nursery, an office


stocked with bookshelves and file drawers containing

Conventional growing methods, conversely, create

related materials, and a collection of digital data.

unnaturally dense balls of matted roots. While they


may be hearty to start with, they struggle with a

I met with Cooper early on a windy morning in mid-

shallow root structure in the harsh environment of

October, in the Flood Control District building in the

the Sonoran desert. But the rub is that native plants

county complex in south Phoenix. Smells from the

transplanted from tall pots are not immediately

landfill directly to the south become noticeable each

pretty. During the early growing phase, plants trans- time the wind picks up.
planted from tall pots have reduced foliage, thanks
to their long roots.

Coopers voice is deep and gravely, and his professionally proper greeting reinforces his serious demeanor.

The longer root structure allows vegetation to anchor Im interested in looking at his data, but hes eager to
itself in the desert soil, while reaching for the water

showcase the tall pot nursery. We cross the agency

table that may lay dozens of feet below the surface.

parking lot to a fenced off plot of land marked

Maricopa County Flood Control District Tall Pot

ingenuity and successful persistence.

Nursery. He unlocks the gate and leads me to rows


of vegetation growing in 30-inch sections of PVC

If climate changes, tall pot plants will fill valuable role

pipe. Standing amongst the scraggly sapling and

If monsoon storms continue to intensify and prolonged

yearling trees, I wonder where the notion of incubat-

high temperature periods increase, plants grown with

ing native plants in tall pots began.

minimal water and robust roots will fill a valuable role


in and around Phoenix.

The modern development of growing methods emphasizing elongated roots had originated in southern

Richard Adkins, forestry supervisor for the city, is

California during the 1980s in experiments in arid

charged with managing its urban forest. In an interview

lands restoration. The tall pot tubes surrounding

with azcentral.com, Adkins admits that the largest chal-

Cooper and me were developed from planting prac-

lenge he faces is lack of citizen awareness of the exis-

tices started in Joshua Tree National Park, were im-

tence and benefit of Phoenixs urban forest. Surprising

proved by research conducted by David Bainbridge

and frustrating, since a 2013 inventory documented

in San Diego, were transported to Arizona by way of over 92,000 trees, palms, and tall cacti within the city.
revegetation specialists at Arizona Game and Fish

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says urban forests

Department, and were shared with the Center for

cool cities, save energy, improve air quality, strengthen

Native and Urban Wildlife at Scottsdale Community

quality of place and local economy, reduce storm water

College before ultimately being embraced by Mari-

runoff, improve social connections, help promote smart

copa Countys Flood Control District. And, while

growth, and create walkable communities. With such

its still relatively unheard of today, it boasts an en-

tangible benefits directly available from a well-

viously high survival rate.

managed urban forest, public funds should be pouring


into Adkins office. Unfortunately, they do not. As az-

Once considered impractical and improbable, arid

central.com points out, the city designates funds for the

lands restoration projects have become examples of

maintenance of established trees in its urban forest, but

not for the planting of new trees, or even for replace-

While tall pot plant use in urban areas may remain a

ment of lost trees.

challenge, their suitability for restoration projects is


being properly utilized. The Flood Control Districts

In an email, Adkins writes hes familiar with the bene- nursery maintains the ability to grow 8,500 trees at a
fits of tall pots and if the opportunity to utilize tall

time and typically coordinates two to three restora-

pot material for a project was to arise, I am certainly in

tion efforts each year in conjunction with their flood

favor of using the material.

control construction projects.

Given the ability of tall pot vegetation to thrive in arid

At least with these efforts I may find myself once

environments with minimal maintenance and limited

again listening to frogs in the desert after a summer

irrigation, the connection between Richard Adkins, the

storm. This time, however, thanks to tall pot plant

forestry supervisor, and Harry Cooper, the flood con-

restoration, I will hopefully stroll through a grove of

trol districts landscape architect, should be an instant

trees, instead of standing staring at just one.

win.

Adkins says in an email that public preference dramatically favors top growth when selecting plants for residential or commercial use. Cooper, surrounded by his
nursery saplings, emphatically and disappointedly
agrees. Despite the demonstrable superiority of tall pot
trees in dry desert environments, these plants are not
mass-produced because theres just not a market for
them. They are not as aesthetically pleasing as conventionally grown plants when first transplanted.