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Steve Plath
Sub-Region: Desert
State: Arizona
Business: Owner Signature Botanica, L.L.C.

Biographical Information

I have over 15 years experience in landscape design and southwest desert ecological restoration. My first plant was a Peruvian Apple Cactus acquired at the age of 12 and I've been growing succulents and other drought tolerant plants ever since (more than 3 decades!). I've done numerous speaking engagements about desert revegetation to horticultural organizations throughout Arizona, California and Nevada. I was Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley I currently reside outside the Phoenix, AZ metropolitan area with my wife Julie and our multitude of plants and animals.

Please tell us briefly about your favorite cause/business/product in which you are involved that you would like to share with the general public and why.
Propagating, growing and salvaging native desert plant species. Native plants are a natural heritage and resource that are unique to specific regions. Unfortunately habitat destruction due to urbanization is happening very rapidly in our society so preservation of our native species whether in undisturbed wilderness areas, regional parks or in our home gardens is critical.

Where can members get more of your advice? 

Background Information

Briefly describe the climate where you garden now (climate zone, state, area) and any other areas where you have gardened in the past.
My garden resides in the Sonoran Desert Upland of Arizona, USDA Zone 10, Sunset Garden Zone 12. This region is typified by hot summers that are occasionally tempered by monsoonal rains that can drop a lot of moisture in a short period of time. Winters are generally mild with occasional light frosts and gentle rains from the Pacific. I've also gardened in the Mojave Desert region of Southern Nevada for a number of years, which tends to be a drier climate overall and colder in the winter.

How long have you been gardening?
36 years.

What triggered your interest?
The love of nature and natural history. The fact that I could bring into my garden unique or interesting plants that represent a favorite environment or biotic community from around the world. Being able to experience these plants up close and watching them thrive in my garden.

What is your specialty, expertise or claim to fame?
I had the unique opportunity to manage the propagation, salvage and eventual outplanting of Mojave Desert native plants for a mining company in southeastern California for 5 years. This revegetation project involved such familiar plants as Joshua trees, barrel cactus, creosote bush and more than 50 other perennial plant species. The mine had a 6,000 square foot on-site greenhouse for propagation and over 12 acres of holding nursery for salvaged plants.

 Steve's Book Recommendations

Arizona Gardener's Guide

Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes

Plants for Dry Climates

Steve's Favorite Websites

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Desert Botanical Gardens

What formal education do you have?
I have a degree in Architectural Technology

What formal horticultural training do you have?
No formal education but I've spent many years reading and talking to and interacting with numerous horticultural experts. I've also gained much practical experience through simple green-thumb intuition and the sometimes brutal school of 'trial and error'. I also cheated by marrying a woman with a Masters degree in Horticulture!

What is your favorite garden or plant-related topic? Tell us a little about them.
Garden design and the creation of spaces or "rooms" within the overall garden. Private or contemplative spaces can make an average garden very personal and intimate. Also extending the indoor living space to the outdoors. It seems like I spend so much time in my outdoor space that sometimes I think I simply "visit" the indoors on occasion.

What is your biggest gardening pet peeve? Tell us about it.
Not allowing young trees to be young trees. In our society we have the mental image of a tree (even if in a 5 gallon container) to be a lollipop. Unfortunately the nursery industry caters to this image by limbing up young trees way too early. Most trees, especially desert trees, want to be large shrubs in their youth. By premature loss of lower limbs most trees become spindly and top heavy (suffering from reverse taper) because the lower trunk is not nourished and allowed to thicken naturally. Coupled with poor irrigation practices later on many of these trees blow over as they mature.

How much time per week do you spend gardening?
At least 30 hours a week.

How much time per week do you spend working at the business of gardening, such as consulting, reading, writing or talking about your gardening subject?
Most of my waking hours, it's what I do!

What gardening or horticultural clubs, societies, or organizations (or any other interest) do you belong to?
Cactus & Succulent Society of America since 1975, Desert Legume Program since 1994, IUCN Succulent Plant Study Group since 2000, Boyce Thompson Arboretum since 2005, Arizona Nuresery Association since 2005.

What other biographical information would you like to share?

Gardening Questions

What do you like most about gardening?
The calming therapy from day to day stresses. In some ways I consider my garden an escape from the real world.

What do you dislike most about gardening?
There's simply not enough time to do all that I want to do.

What individual has influenced your gardening interest the most? How?
My wife Julie, who shares my love of plants and gardening. Having a soul mate to experience the joy of creating a beautiful garden with makes all the difference in the world.

What is your favorite place or activity in the garden?
Enjoying and observing the pond area where the interaction of plants, insects, fish and birds creates a mini "natural history" space in my garden. The sound of water in a desert environment is a natural draw for so many creatures, so we have a lot of visitors to the pond and garden!

What is your favorite time in the garden?
At sunset, when the heat of the day is waning, the wind has calmed, the birds are feasting at the feeders and the silouhettes of the trees and plants frame the usual stunning splash of color in the clouds and sky.

What is your favorite public or private garden in the world? Why?
The Huntington Botanic Garden in San Marino, California. The succulent garden display is magnificent and unparalleled in my opinion.

What is your favorite color in the garden?
Silver to blues as exhibited by many desert plants.

If you could grow only one plant, what would it be?
Astrophytum myriostigma, the Bishop's Cap cactus, or one of it's related clan. The architectural simplicity of the plant coupled with it's earthy rock-like characteristic make it, in my opinion, one of the most sculptural species in the plant kingdom.

What plant have you tried to grow that has given you the most trouble? Or, what plant would you like to grow and can't, and why?
Some oak species have been a challenge in my garden simply because of the heat and not necessarilly day-time heat but rather the fact that at the height of summer night-time temperatures don't drop low enough for some plants to properly respirate. If there was a plant or group of plants that I'd love to grow it would be Phormium but I'm not aware of any varieties that could withstand a Sonoran Desert summer.

What is your favorite gardening outfit or costume?
I have a lightweight, broad-brim floppy hat that has an extension of the brim down the back to protect the neck from sun. It looks a little goofy but does a great job of sun protection on the head.

Do you have a gardening philosophy you would like to share with other gardeners? What is it?
A garden should never be considered static or "finished". As a garden matures the microclimates and soils change. What once was a hot, sunny backyard may become a cool, shady retreat. Observe and accomodate the changes in your garden over time.

Who is your own favorite gardening personality on TV, radio or in print? Why?
Lynn Mills of the Garden at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is seen on the local public television channel as well as produces a column in the Las Vegas Review Journal weekly. A more down-to-earth garden personality you'll not find anywhere else.

What is the one question about gardening you would really like people to ask you?
Can I experiment with new or non-traditional plant material in the southwest garden?

And what's the answer?
Absolutely. Depending on the maturity and microclimates in your garden you might be surprised what may find a happy niche there. Experiment first though with a single specimen and see how it fares for a year or so.

What is a garden myth you hear frequently which you know is untrue?
Desert plants don't need water, after all, they come from the desert!

And, what is the reality?
The average garden is by no means a natural habitat. Desert plants from containers don't typically have the interaction of the soil microbial community in your garden that they would in nature. Plus many naturally drought tolerant plants look pretty pathetic when simply eking out an existence. Proper and careful irrigation will alow your desert plants to look great and at the same time conserve precious water resources.

What group or kind of person do you think would benefit most from the advice you can give on gardening?
People who've recently moved to the desert southwest from "greener" parts of the country. Relocating to what seems like such an inhospitable place for plants and gardeners can be very intimidating to someone not knowing what to expect.

Would you like to participate, or can you recommend someone who you think should? We're always looking for more expert gardeners to tell about their philosophies and give their plant recommendations contact us and we'll get started (it's easy and a great way to promote yourself).

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