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Desert Gardening: Shade for Less Than $100

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

When high summer arrives in the desert, both you and your plants badly want some shade. I found an architectural solution for under $100.

 A reed panel suspended by steel cables makes a handsome awning.
 The light beneath the reed panels is dappled and pleasant.  Note the hourglass shape of the aircraft cables.

The garden outside my office door had languished for a couple of years - I had been too busy designing other peoples' gardens. Last fall I finally scheduled time to work in my space. I installed planter beds, steel edging, trees and specimen yuccas. Trellises and pavers went in. Problem: I needed something to filter the sun over two patios. Solution: reed fencing panels.

Originally I'd designed my trellises to support fabric shade sails, customized and made to order (around $450 each). But as I planted up the garden, a problem with the sails became apparent: They block over 95 percent of UV rays.

 Even a few species of cactus, such as this lady finger cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus), love my new shade.

That might be good for pale-skinned redheads, but it is not optimal for growing plants - especially succulents. My succulents dislike growing under more than 60 percent shade; more than that and they etiolate (stretch out, blanch, and otherwise deform from lack of sun). A friend suggested I try cheap reed fencing panels.

 Reed mat fencing, used here as a shade cover, provides 40 to 60 percent shade, which is perfect for many plants over the summer months.

Dappled is good
I was opposed to the idea. I had seen too many reed fences that were laid over chain-link and appeared ratty. But then I started to think about the quality of the shade a reed mat would cast - lovely bands - and I warmed up to the idea.

 The panels hover over the space, suspended by almost invisible aircraft cable.

In the end I loved the way the reed mats floated over the patio, and I loved the shade. I suspended the mats by using an hourglass pattern of steel aircraft cables tightened with turnbuckles. Then I used baling wire to affix the matting to the aircraft cable. The result has been very durable, surviving intact a series of windstorms.

 The turnbuckles shown here keep the aircraft cable taut.

To purchase the materials I used the $100 Lowe's gives its regional garden experts every year, challenging us to come up with improvements. Below is a list of materials I used:

  • 2, 6x15-ft reed fencing panels: $22.59 each
  • 1/4-in aircraft steel cable: $.55/ft
  • 2 3/8x10.5-in turnbuckles: $7.92 each
 I hung pots of succulents on a trellis beneath the filtered shade.

A couple of things I learned:

  • It is best to space out the aircraft cable about 5 ft apart to support the reed mats without sagging.
  • If the reed mat panels are too long for your space, you can easily shorten them by cutting the woven wire and then twisting the wire to hold the remaining reeds in place.

How do you protect plants and people from the blasting summer sun? Do you have any tricks for shade-making in your garden?

See more Desert Gardening Articles.