We decided to welcome the desert instead

I have a desert paradise outside in my back yard. A small pond provides a watering hole and rest stop for birds on their migratory paths north and south along the western North American flyway, depending on the seasons.

Through my back windows, I can peer out and see verdins, finchlike birds, resting in the shade of a desert mesquite tree.

At ground level, a hummingbird is sipping nectar from a desert plant. Butterflies are attracted to the bright colors of desert flowers.

These are some of the unexpected joys of having converted to native desert landscaping.

It was not always that way. I live in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest, a land of almost unbearable heat in summer. It extends from Arizona into northern Mexico. And like many in my neighborhood in Phoenix, the nation's sixth-largest city, I considered a lawn of green grass to be the desired landscaping. My attitude, like that of neighbors, was shaped by having lived in other, greener parts of the country before moving here.

But while sunshine is abundant in the desert, water is not. Here, average rainfall totals only about seven inches a year. Water must be transported via aqueduct from the Colorado River or pumped from deep underground. In years of drought, such as now, water becomes even more precious. My modest home's lawn would require 1,000 gallons of water a day in summertime just to keep it from resembling brown, parched tufts - if it were planted in grass.

Golf courses are even bigger guzzlers, consuming 1 million gallons of water or more daily.

Everywhere around me, development takes its toll on the fragile desert environment. At its heyday in the late 1990s and into 2000, development meant desert ground was broken for new homes and commerce at the rate of one acre an hour.

But often, the landscaping that sprang up in its place was barely distinguishable from that in such water-abundant cities as Chicago, Atlanta, or San Francisco.

This was hardly in keeping with environmental stewardship, I thought. So last year my wife and I decided to relandscape. Sod was pulled up. Water-guzzling plants were removed. We borrowed ideas that we had gleaned from our travels around Arizona - plants we'd observed along the banks of streams, by favorite desert hiking trails, and in a public garden designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Landscapers helped us choose low-maintenance plants that don't require much water, yet provide dazzling hues - purples, oranges, and reds.

The pond is reminiscent of areas that provide life-sustaining water in remote portions of the Sonoran Desert. It consumes less water than the grass it replaced.

Through this process, I discovered that the desert has a beauty all its own, if only we invite it into our living space. And once we let it in, it transformed our outdoors into a "living room" that is available for us to use eight months of the year, suitable for outdoor dinners on a patio.

An added benefit is that it creates something resembling a wildlife refuge right in the middle of downtown. To my surprise, our efforts attracted a family of quail that stops by occasionally to drink from the pond.

And at night, the stars are visible once again, thanks to the low lighting that replaced outdoor floodlights. The lights illuminate pathways of decomposed granite that curve gracefully through this desert oasis.

Television? Who needs it?

I have visual excitement aplenty outdoors. I have found peace and tranquility; it lies just beyond my kitchen door.

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