Working With Mother Nature A DESERT GARDENER’S PHILOSOPHY OF “LESS IS MORE”.
KIRK ANDERSON CURATOR OF GARDENS
nature of the area in which we live. T e American landscape standard of turf and foundation plantings of ubiquitous shrubs misses out on the opportunity to establish or re-enforce a sense of place and a blending of our neighborhoods with our unique natural surroundings. While the local landscape plant palette is shifting in favor of a southwest fl air, you can still drive through entire neighborhoods where you would be hard pressed to guess what part of the country you were in judging by the plants alone. We are fortunate to live in a land that off ers the natural diversity of palms to pines in such close proximity, but judging from our landscapes we often seem to forget about the desert in between.
T e lack of many landscapes to celebrate our arid heritage is T e arrival of this issue of foxpaws coincides with the
best time of year for gardening in the Coachella Valley. T e scorching temperatures of summer have abated by now, at least I pray they have, and the promise of the ‘rainy’ season looms over the horizon of the Desert Divide to the west. If compared with gardening regimes from more temperate regions, fall is really our spring in the low desert. T e struggle with desiccating heat and near-lethal temperatures is over for the season; plants perk up with a renewed vigor and many perennials respond with a repeat cycle of bloom. Air temperatures have cooled while soil temperatures are still warm enough to induce rapid root growth from new plantings. Except for the more tender, frost sensitive tropical materials, fall is the best planting time in the low desert. Plants have the best opportunity for getting established and require much less irrigation through the cool season. While gardening in the low desert can be a year round activity, paying close attention to our seasonal weather shifts can pay huge dividends and eliminate many of the frustrations experienced by newly transplanted gardeners from less arid climes.
Count me among the legions of the once, and still on
occasion, frustrated. I rolled into town for the fi rst time nearly thirty years ago, in the fall, for a visit, on my way to somewhere else. I was leery. I was fresh off a six year stint at a ski resort in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah. T e emerald green swaths of newly over-seeded lawns and perpetual planters packed with the perfumed petals of pink petunias fi lled the landscapes. I thought to myself, “T is desert stuff ain’t so bad”. I was smitten. I came to the low desert with a public library fueled education in horticulture consisting mostly of
books published in the ’60s or earlier. In other words, I was well prepared for growing roses in the English countryside. I set down roots and proceeded to ‘garden’. I may as well have donned a mask and assumed the en garde stance with foil in hand as I found myself in a one-sided duel with Mother Nature. No matter how hard I tried to grow and move forward she would parry my advances and strike me down in defeat, repeatedly and eff ortlessly. It was d’Artagnan vs. Oliver Hardy, I never had a chance. It was time for a new strategy.
T e new strategy was simply to step back and accept my
adversary as my mentor. After all, Mother Nature has been gardening in the desert for a long, long time. It was about casting off pre-conceived Victorian notions and images of gardening and opening my eyes to the inestimable beauty inherent in natural desert scenes and also about gaining an appreciation for the myriad strategies of adaptation by the native fl ora found growing here. Local plants have earned their right to be here. T ey deserve to be incorporated into our commercial and residential landscapes as often as we can accommodate them. T ere really was nothing new about this approach, merely a personal revelation, as intuitive gardeners throughout the years have recognized the folly of fi ghting with Mother Nature and have long espoused the virtues of native plants and other plants adapted to arid climates.
Upon fi rst encounter the vast, open seemingly lifeless
expanses of desert can oft times seem a harsh and foreboding place. T e lush and verdant landscapes of the valley’s communities off er a sense of comfort and familiarity for fi rst time visitors and longtime residents alike but belie the arid
even more astonishing given the incredible diversity of unique and remarkable plant species indigenous to arid and semi-arid regions that are available for use. Plants such as cacti, agaves, ocotillos, aloes, euphorbias, alluaudias, yuccas, dasylirions and nolinas off er an almost endless variety of form and texture and bold accents from which to choose. Dry areas are also home to an intriguing group of thick-stemmed trees that are at their best in our climate. T ese trees have specialized tissues for storing water and have trunks and branches disproportionately thick in relation to their overall height and include elephant trees (Bursera spp.) from North America, Commiphora spp. and Boswellia spp. from Africa, bottle trees (Brachychiton spp.) from Australia and baobobs (Adansonia spp.) and Moringa spp. from Madagascar. Out of the tens of thousands of plants at T e Living Desert, the Moringa hildebrandtii in the Madagascar Garden is by far my favorite.
Over the years, the more I’ve worked
with desert plants the more my approach has developed into a “less is more” gardening
opposed to the rose culture I was weaned on. By following several basic landscape principles, the most important being – the right plant in the right place, the use of plants adapted to arid climates allows for the creation of extremely low maintenance/low water use gardens. Desert soils are often coarse, fast draining,
alkaline (higher pH) and low in organic matter and available nutrients. T ese are conditions already adapted to by plants from arid climates so you can stop the backbreaking chore of trying to ‘fi x’ your soil. In fact, the old standards of digging deeper than the root ball and amending the backfi ll with copious amounts of organic materials during planting are no longer recommended as the fi rst may allow the plant’s crown (top of the root ball) to settle below the surface and the latter may do nothing more than create a rich planter in the ground where roots are reluctant to explore beyond or hold too much water near a plant desiring quick drainage. Digging only as deep as the height of the root ball and fracturing or loosening the soil four to fi ve times the root ball’s width is now the suggested protocol.
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