Gardening in Tucson

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Most people, when you mention gardening, imagine something along the lines of an English country garden, lush and green with meandering paths. They may even see the lighting as sunbeams slanting down through the clouds, highlighting vivid bouquets of flowers. The earth beneath is dark and loamy, moist and rich.

In Tucson—not so much. In case you haven't got the point by now, the desert is hot and dry. Don't even think about hydrangeas or tulip bulbs or maple trees. Those plants are doomed to failure. But if you embrace the desert rather than fight it, you can still have a beautiful garden. Blue mist will attract butterflies and doesn't require a lot of water. The multitudinous varieties of penstemon can provide those bouquets. And you can learn to love the sparse beauty of Baja fairy dusters and creosote bushes. There is even the night-blooming Cereus which looks like a dead stick most of the time. But once a year it turns into the Queen of the Night, opening in lovely white blooms with a distinctive perfume to attract the Sphinx moths that pollinate them.

My back yard is a work in progress. The former owners planted a lemon tree, an orange tree and a fig tree. The fig drops its leaves in cold weather or when it's been very dry, like it was this summer, giving me the “pleasure” of raking leaves at least once a year. I'm not fond of figs, but the birds are. They stuck a random cactus in the shade and a pepper plant too close to the block wall that stands between me and my neighbor and covered the rest of the yard with rock. Rock is a common ground cover in Arizona. It doesn't need water.

I have this vision of an oasis for hummingbirds and butterflies. I used to love watching the hummingbirds at the feeder on the balcony of my apartment. So I need to replace some of that gravel with plants that hummingbirds and butterflies like. I've done research on that and gone to the plant sale at Tohono Chul Park, where they have clearly labeled which plants will serve my purpose. I have limited funds, so I buy only three or four plants at a time.

That's a good thing. I doubt that I'd have the energy to get more than that in the ground before it gets too cold (around freezing here) to give them a good start. You see, we don't have that dark, loamy soil to dig in. We have hard-packed sand. And rocks. And something called caliche, often referred to as “nature's concrete”. You'll be digging away, trying to make a hole three times wider than the plant you want to put in (because you need to break up the soil so the roots can spread) when your shovel will clang off a rock. If you're lucky, it's small enough to dig out. If you're not lucky, the whitish layer spreads feet in every direction. It takes a long time to dig a hole in Arizona.

I took a class at the Tucson Botanical Garden called something like Gardening for Newcomers. The elderly docent who taught it also taught a method for digging holes for new plants in your garden. Dig as much soil out as you can easily. This may be only an inch or so before you hit the hard layer. Fill the hole with water and go make a cup of tea. When you're done with your tea, go back to the hole. If the water has drained, dig again until it gets too hard. Fill the hole with water and go make a cup of tea. Repeat until you have a hole big enough for your plant. If the water does not drain out of the hole after 24 hours, choose another place to dig a hole for your plant. Seriously. I have used this method for all the new plants I've put in my back yard. All eight of them. I have one more to put in this year. I'm waiting the 24 hours on this hole.


Saturday, October 03, 2009
There is nothing like the heady perfume of the creosote bush after it rains. Soft and woodsy, pervasive, it tickles the olfactory center of the brain in a way like nothing else does for me, a smell reminiscent of incense, bringing primal memories from the depths of ancient times up to the surface. It's almost as if there is magic in the scent.

This morning I woke to the patter of raindrops on my bedroom window. After the non-soon of this summer, rain is a joyful sound, something not to be missed. I jumped out of bed and looked out the back door to make sure I wasn't dreaming it. I wasn't. I could see the moisture on the edge of my patio, hear the water running down the gutters off the roof. Unfortunately, the shower didn't last very long. I can see patches of blue over the Catalina Mountains and am afraid that the clouds will clear before we get any more rain today.

It's amazing what a difference rain makes. I've been reminding myself to water the citrus trees in my yard, to try to coax the dark green lemons to grow bigger than toy-size and turn that lovely yellow that means they're ripe. Last year, despite adequate rain, I got one small lemon from that tree that I proudly squeezed into my ice tea glass. This year there are a dozen that I'm hoping will mature. While putting the hose on the ground to trickle the precious moisture to the roots, I've noticed small buds, closed tightly against the heat and dryness. Miraculously, after this morning's shower, I can see the lovely white blossoms opening up, daring to risk their lives now that the sun is hiding behind gray clouds and the rain has come.

Life patterns form early and stick with us even though circumstances change. Rainy Saturday mornings are permission to sit with a cup of coffee and a book, ignoring the urge to get dressed and get busy. As my job wound down and out of existence over the past month, I told myself there was nothing etched in stone about working Monday through Friday and resting on Saturday. But I find myself following the same patterns as I have throughout my life even when I don't have to. If it had rained on Monday, I still would have showered, dressed, and gotten myself to my computer for writing time as always. And because today is Saturday, I stayed in bed late and am still in my nightgown, sipping my second mug of coffee and not feeling at all guilty. I'm enjoying the aftermath of the rain, air conditioning off, door and window open, letting in the perfume of the creosote bush.

Manning Camp

Saturday, September 05, 2009
A few weeks ago when I stopped at Saguaro National Park East, I spent some time in the small exhibit room. Filling the center of the room is a topographical map of the park. I'm a sucker for maps, so I was immediately drawn to it, looking at the trails and wondering how far I could make it on some of them in my admittedly poor physical condition. As I was contemplating the possibilities of a one or two mile hike, I noticed a location, a whole lot further than the distance I'd been debating, and at a much higher elevation than I'd even consider climbing, labeled Manning Camp.

My first thought that it had been a camp site for hunters or trappers or miners since it seemed high up in the Rincon Mountains. Or a stop on a trail over the mountains on the way to... who knows? It wasn't until later that I got to the pictures and text on the walls describing Manning Camp. My eyes widened at the photos of the whole Manning family, including women and children, posed outside the cabin.

Now I already knew that Tucsonans escaped the summer heat by trips to Sabino Canyon in the past and it seemed likely that other places in the mountains surrounding Tucson served as retreats from the roasting valley. But Manning Camp was so far.

This started me thinking about how wimpy we've become. Maybe it's because I grew up in a suburb of New York City, but any distance over a mile isn't something I consider walkable. Heck, more than a few blocks and I'm getting in my car to go there. It's the time it takes, I tell myself. I'll have groceries to carry.

Summer vacations consist of trips to hotels with maid service and restaurants. I've only been camping once in my life, as a Girl Scout over a weekend, and even then we slept in tents built on platforms. I'd hardly consider that roughing it. But our forefathers—and mothers—thought nothing of packing up the whole household and traveling up a mountain to a rustic cabin for the summer, while still going back into Tucson for luxuries like shopping.

The more I think about it, the more attractive the idea of a simpler time becomes. Yes, I'd miss indoor plumbing and watching Red Sox games on television, but maybe I'm tired of living on Internet time.

You can read about the Manning family here:

The Dry Monsoon

Saturday, August 15, 2009
It has been a strange summer here in Tucson. Or maybe I've been spoiled during my limited habitation here. There's been almost no rain during our monsoon season and everything is parched. Usually by this time the mountains surrounding Tucson are green with vegetation rather than their usual brown. It's soothing to look up at them, even when the temperature is near 100 degrees on a daily basis. But they're still brown this year.
My lemon tree, filled with promise in the yellow-white blossoms that covered it during the spring, now has no fruit and the leaves are yellow and dry even though I've tried to remember to dribble water on it at least once a week. I know I should do it more often, but it's supposed to be monsoon season and hope springs eternal that we'll finally get those soaking rains.
Monsoon rains are always spotty at best, but usually you can count on several times when the water arrives in gallons and lets you turn off the drip irrigation for a few days. Not this year. Even Wednesday, when the weather forecasters swore the monsoon break was over, promising an unheard of 60 percent chance of rain, Tucson got nothing.
I find myself checking and the NOAA site several times a day, looking for a sign that those longed-for thunderstorms are coming closer. Sometimes they tease us from the south; so far nothing has arrived. Today the chance for rain is—zero percent. For an area that only gets rain during two brief seasons, this is close to disaster. It reminds me of that old Twilight Zone episode where a cosmic calamity has pushed Earth closer to the sun and people are sweltering in the heat. Only this isn't a Twilight Zone episode. This is the reality of living in the desert.


Saturday, August 01, 2009
Ten years ago, before the current green craze hit the media and gained the public's attention, the City of Tucson and a long list of agencies realized a goal for a sustainable community named Civano. The goals were visionary for the time: reduce the consumption of energy, water, and pollution to levels significantly below baseline levels for Metropolitan Tucson. These goals were to be achieved by building structures for shade, use of reflective building materials, using native plants for landscaping, and using gray water for irrigation. The community design was intended to favor walking and biking rather than driving, with less private land and more community land than was customary in subdivisions in the Southwest.

This may not seem so revolutionary, but Tucson, because of its warm climate, is very popular with retirees from other areas. Too many wanted to recreate some of the features where they came from, including grass lawns. With an annual rainfall of only twelve inches a year, grass lawns and palm trees (another water-thirsty favorite) require too much supplemental water to be practical. With the Colorado River drying up from over-population and unwise water usage, using water for landscaping is not something we in the Southwest can afford to do.

Homes in Civano use water harvesting for the native and desert-adapted plants allowed in the community. This can be as simple as directing rainwater during our brief, but intense, monsoon thunderstorms toward the plantings around our homes by grading and placement of rocks at the end of downspouts, to cisterns that catch this same rainwater from roofs and store it for later usage. This maximizes the little rainfall that we do get.

On the other hand, we have an abundance of sunshine. Every home in Civano (and Civano II and Sierra Morado, neighboring sections of the original community) has hot water courtesy of the sun. In addition to solar hot water, many homes have added solar panels to supply electricity.

Some things haven't worked out as planned. Decreasing automobile usage is one of them. In the original Civano, a central area with space for businesses was part of the plan so people could walk to work. There haven't been many businesses that have enabled those jobs. And, ironically, the community has been unsuccessful in persuading SunTran, the Tucson bus company, to extend a route to the community where the usage per capita would probably be higher than anywhere else in the city.

But there are still people who believe in the dream. On Saturday, October 17, there will be a day-long party for all of Tucson and the surrounding area to celebrate 10 years of sustainable living. I plan to be there.


Saturday, July 18, 2009
One of the things people tell you about when you first move to Tucson is the wind. Now, I grew up in the Northeast with blizzards and nor'easters and the occasional hurricane, so I assumed they were just exaggerating. But then there's a storm like the one that blew through last night and you understand that the wind here has its own personality, unlike anything you've experienced before.

Often the first sign that there's a storm coming in is that the wind picks up. Trees sway, dust devils dance and you start to hear a whistling sound as it cuts around buildings and through slits under doors and poorly sealed windows. The sky darkens as the clouds move in from the Mogollon Rim, lifting over the Catalinas to the north, losing their meager moisture in the cooler air. Lightning crackles across the sky, followed by a rumble of thunder. You think at last you're going to get some rain to soothe the parched ground and fill the scorched leaves with moisture again. But all you get is the wind, stronger now, bending trees almost double, gusting to near hurricane strength. Dried mesquite pods fly through the air, blossoms are stripped from the Texas rangers, power poles topple, plunging thousands into darkness and the heat of a Sonoran summer without air conditioning. The metal garage door vibrates like some harp from hell as the wind assaults the house.

You find yourself willing the rain to start, knowing that the wind will stop once the collision between air masses passes, but sometimes there is no rain. All you get is the wind, endless wind, driving wind, howling wind. Finally, it eases, the storm passes and you find yourself breathing again. Until the next time, when you get to go through it all over again.

Birds and Butterflies

Saturday, July 11, 2009
One of the misconceptions about the Sonoran Desert is that it resembles the Sahara. Say desert and people think of sand dunes and a vast wasteland with a meager smattering of oases surrounded by date palms. The Sonoran Desert is alive with plants and animals; sometimes too many plants and animals, but that's a topic for another day.
We seem to have more than our share of butterflies. Lately I've been watching some small white ones that appear to fly in pairs, circling around one another in a dance that's a delight to see. Many of our butterflies are an orange-brown with black and white spots. They are often mistaken for Monarchs, but monarch butterflies only pass through during their spring and fall migrations. The Tucson Botanical Garden has a wonderful butterfly garden and also hosts Butterfly Magic, an indoor exhibit of exotic butterflies from around the world.
The city of Tucson and surrounding areas lie on a major flyway, so we have not only our year-round residents like the Cactus Wren, but transients like juncos and warblers. Perhaps nothing says Southwest as much as the Gambrel's Quail, those large birds with the plume sticking out of their heads, that scurry across roadways in single file, mom and dad at front and back, chicks in the middle. And, speaking of scurrying across the road, there's always the roadrunner. Unlike the quail, these solitary birds are more elusive. Thanks to Warner Brothers, no one can see a roadrunner without smiling and thinking “beep, beep”. A bird that always surprises me in the Lesser Goldfinch. Yellow birds in nature are so rare, these always catch my eye when they land in the mesquite tree outside my office window to feast on the insects on its leaves.
My favorite birds have to be hummingbirds. Maybe it's because I grew up in an area where you didn't see hummingbirds on a regular basis. I think it's probably more that the way they hover over a flower to drink its nectar, their wings beating faster than seems possible, then suddenly dart off to the next one, lets you see their beautiful colors and the delicacy of how they're built. It doesn't take much to attract them here. Hang a feeder filled with sugar water and you'll be sure to have lots of visitors to your patio or yard.

The Fifth Season

Friday, July 03, 2009
I grew up deprived. In the Northeast, where I was born and raised, and in Michigan, where I went to college, there are only four seasons. It was only recently, when I moved to Arizona, that I discovered the joys of having five.

Tucked in between (Dry) Summer and Fall, here in Tucson we have Monsoon, the time of year when our normal days of single digit humidity are changed by wet winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Traditionally, monsoon begins when we have three successive days where the dew point is over 54 degrees. This obviously was too esoteric for the folks at the National Weather Service to deal with. How do you keep statistics if a season keeps moving around? So last year they declared that monsoon begins on June 15th, regardless of the dew point. This might make record-keeping easier, but it really doesn't correspond to the season very well. The average date for the beginning of monsoon by the old method is July 3rd.

Desert people aren't used to rain. There are two distinct reactions to the thunderstorms that come up suddenly during monsoon. One group of people stands outside in the rain, enjoying the novelty, even acting like children, opening their mouths and catching raindrops on their tongues. The other group, which tends to be much larger, stays indoors until it's over, fearful that they'll actually get wet and melt like sugar.

In the Northeast, storms are big masses of moisture. Thunderstorms in Arizona are more miserly. They break out in columns of water coming down in torrents. A street can be drenched in minutes, rivers gushing down it to flood the intersections and tie up traffic. A couple of blocks over, it will be perfectly dry.

And the lightning! I never really saw lightning till I came to Arizona. Huge forks of electricity pierce the sky, putting on a fireworks show more wondrous than any 4th of July. My second year here, I was lying in bed when I was awakened by the sound and fury of a monsoon storm. Debating whether to get up and watch the light show or stay snuggled in my bed, the flash of light and rumble of thunder were almost simultaneous. I waited a few minutes, thinking the storm would abate, but it continued to flash and rumble. I got out of bed and went to the sliding glass doors facing the patio. Off to my right, a tall tree in the yard of the house next door was blazing like a candle. I never looked at the Italian cypress outside my balcony in quite the same way after that.

Tonight, on the typical monsoon start date, the sky is overcast and the wind is blowing fitfully. I can see the flash of lightning in the distance and have heard the rumble of thunder as I've been typing. But so far, the storm hasn't come to my street. I long for it, the relief from the 100 degree days and the scorching sun. Soon now. I can feel it.
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