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.

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