Those of us who have lived in the desert Southwest for years truly understand the intensity of the sun and heat. We struggle to keep flower and vegetable gardens, pets — and ourselves— cool. So, when we go outdoors, we want to step into an oasis. To do that, we need to create an impression of cool air. It’s time to rethink how we create this oasis.
CREATE A COOL OASIS
There are a variety of elements that create a soothing oasis and allow you to keep cool. We can take advantage of the shade offered by trees, shrubs, walls, fences, and structures. Adding moving water lowers the temperature while the soothing sound is proven to help us relax. We can create and direct breezes over the patio. Flower beds with color palettes that rely on blue, purple, and white visually cool the garden.
GROWING SHADE IN THE LANDSCAPE
When we think of shade in the garden, many of us immediately envision giant, spreading trees with rustling leaves that dapple the ground with shade. Of course, trees provide excellent shade and cool the garden, porch, and house — especially if properly situated in the path of the sun.
Large trees in the landscape should be planted to capture the most impact from their shade throughout the day. For shade, structure, and drama, plant trees such as Chinese pistache (Pistachia chinensis), Texas red oak (Quercus buckleyi), or Texas honey mesquite (Prosopsis glandulosa).
In a small garden, plant trees such as desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), Mexican redbud (Cercis candensis), and, in the southern part of the state, blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida). For an excellent evergreen, plant Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica), Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), or in higher altitudes, pinyon pine (Pinus edulis).
However, it can take decades to grow trees, and sometimes we need more immediate relief.
A plant does not have to be 50 feet tall to provide substantial shade. Shrubs and small trees that grow less than 15 feet tall still cast enough shade to cool the ground and conserve moisture. In addition, the leaves in green and gray are gentle on the eyes. Tall shrubs include Texas Ranger sages (Leucophyllum frutescens), Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), and fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium).
HARDSCAPING FOR SHADE to keep cool
When designing our garden spaces, let’s not forget fences, rock walls, and other surrounding structures that create shade throughout the day. Whether planning a private space for morning coffee or a sheltered area for a flower garden or vegetable bed, we can take advantage of the respite offered by these types of hardscapes.
For example, I took advantage of a rock wall on the west side of my garden to create a perennial border. The flowers, planted on the sheltered east side of the wall, received the benefit of the morning sun, but were sheltered from the late afternoon sun and hot west winds.
SHADE STRUCTURES FOR PROTECTION and to keep cool
Shade structures, such as porches, portals, pergolas, and arbors, provide protection for people, pets, and plants. From a buyer’s perspective, these additions can increase the value of a home.
Sara Maul, owner of Santa Fe Awning Co., observes that most of her clients want wind and sun protection. She lists numerous benefits of adding awnings, screens, and sails to the home and landscape.
Her suggestions can provide protection from the intense sun and strong winds for people, plants, and pets; create privacy; and protect windows, doors, and patio furniture. Some clients desire shade to protect their skin from exposure that could cause skin cancer.
“Glass magnifies heat,” Sara said. One way to decrease heat buildup in the home is to add awnings and screens — for protection and to save money on cooling. She observes that adding retractable shade to a patio allows shades to be raised in the winter for solar gain, while cooling the house in summer.
Santa Fe Awning, a family-owned business based in Santa Fe, has been providing shade protection for almost three decades throughout New Mexico and Texas. Their local staff produces and installs a variety of shade options according to their clients’ specific needs.
THE COOLING EFFECT OF GRASS AND GROUND COVERS
The cooling effect of planting grass and groundcovers can be easily overlooked. Of course, every desert dweller is concerned about water usage. So, it pays to be thoughtful about where to plant grass and the type of grass to plant. Planting grass near the house and patio areas allows the water used for irrigation to lower surrounding temperatures to cool the patio. Green leaves do not absorb and reflect heat and are gentle on the eyes — and human and animal feet.
If a hybrid Bermuda grass or native buffalo grass is planted, water usage will be significantly reduced. Installing a timed irrigation system and watering as needed according to the season also reduces water usage. So, a small lawn balances water usage with lower temperatures and less energy used for cooling.
Watering the landscape in the evening allows the patio and house to keep cool. Sara said, “I water in the evenings and then open the windows to help cool the house.” She reported many clients decided to cover their patios after attending evening socials where the hosts had sprayed the patio, which made the space feel like a cool room.
CHOOSE A COOL PALETTE
While many of our native plants bloom in yellow and red, which are considered hot colors on the color spectrum, there also are many perennials and small shrubs that bloom in purple, blue, and white, which are the cool colors on the spectrum.
Who can resist dainty white flowers on native blackfoot daisies (Melampodium leucanthum) or lovely purple verbena (Glandularia pulchella)? Sierra Negra dalea (Dalea frutescens) and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) both have delicate leaves and purple flowers.
Artemisias are very tough and have a soft silver color.
Growing vines on structures or walls can provide shade and deflect heat from walls while providing relief for our eyes. Choose tough native and drought-tolerant vines, such as silver lace (Polygonum aubertii) or coral wreath (Antigonon leptopus).
If you wish to shelter the south side of the house year-round, consider training a climbing Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksia) on a trellis.
ADD THE SOUND OF WATER
Placing a fountain on or near the patio or any seating area decreases the heat and is an asset to plants and creatures. Listening to moving water can relax us.
CAPTURE BREEZES to keep cool
Don’t overlook the blessing of natural and man-made breezes for lowering the temperature on the patio or porch. While in spring, we may wish to block the harsh winds. In summer months, a gentle evening breeze is welcome. Adding an outdoor ceiling fan can create a similar effect. Keep in mind that moving air also discourages mosquitoes.
With good planning and design, and some investment in hardscape, we can make our summer days more comfortable and create savings in our use of valuable and costly energy.
Check out these other ways to keep cool in Las Cruces.
Story and photography by Jackye Meinecke | Additional photos courtesy Santa Fe Awnings
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2023This article was posted by Olivia