The other night I dreamt I was in my Grandmother’s kitchen. She passed away almost 30 years ago. My mother was in the kitchen, too. She recently celebrated her 92nd birthday. In the dream, both were wearing bucket hats. You know, the deep hat that covers most of your head and has a downward sloping brim. I can’t say I’ve ever seen my Grandmother in one, but I wear a bucket hat all the time in my garden. The future of the desert has been on my mind a lot lately. Healthy sustainable desert gardening practices have been on my mind, too. I trace my love of gardening to these 2 outstanding gardeners who tended to their landscapes in healthy and sustainable ways.
I actually enjoyed spending time in my Mom’s garden in September. It had been 2 years since I had been home to Canada. The ground in northern Ontario is completely different from the ground here in the low Sonoran desert. I pulled weeds and helped prepare the area for planting in the spring. What an unexpected treat! When I was a kid, I never considered “working” in the garden something to look forward to. But, I was always an eager participant when it came time to eat the tomatoes, peas, radishes, raspberries, and all the delightful home-grown edibles. I think I took for granted the colorful perennials that came up in their beds every spring and the layers of plants throughout our yard that took their turn in the spotlight throughout the summer months. I learned to appreciate gardening more and more, especially after I left home. When I was in university, I spent a few summers planting trees (with the bears!) in northwestern Ontario along the border with Manitoba. I have to attribute my love for gardening to my Dad, as well. He was the one who effortlessly demonstrated a sincere love for nature. He is now 88. He took me camping, canoeing, cross-country skiing across frozen lakes, and shared stories of wolves, bears, and moose like they were our rightful neighbours. I would collect leaves in the fall (who hasn’t done that, eh!?), try to find all the different coloured wildflowers, and my sister and brother and I would build forest fortresses. It’s been a process. My love of gardening has grown over time. When It comes to desert gardening, I am all in!
Gardening has changed since I was a kid. Composting used to be the norm. Now, most people get their soil out of a plastic bag. We compost at my home in Arizona. It’s so easy and a healthy sustainable gardening practice. Where I grew up in Canada, we could see each other’s yards and children could use the entire neighbourhood block to play hide and seek. In Gilbert, Arizona, everyone has fences made of cement blocks. It took a long time to get used to when we moved here over 15 years ago. Wood fences in the low desert deteriorate rapidly under the blazing sun. However, instead of looking at these gray walls as barriers, I choose to see them as opportunities to bring colour and plant and animal life into my garden. (I use “yard” and “garden” interchangeably.)
As I write, I’m actually sitting in my backyard enjoying the antics of a pair of hummingbirds. London, our family border collie, has me jumping to her occasional barks, too. My yard is nothing without the plants. DESERT plants. It’s the first thing people notice when they see my garden for the first time. I am sincerely appreciative of the many compliments. And then my guest usually asks a garden question they have related to their own yard! But, my yard wasn’t always like this. The transformation of my outdoor space back to desert has been ongoing for more than a decade. And I’m not finished yet!
I love the desert. I am a horticulturist who specializes in desert and drought tolerant plants. I am a plantscape artisan who recognizes which plants are suitable for particular places, including hot walls. I’m not just claiming to be an artist. I’ve lived through the changes in my yard. I moved in and watched how other people around me were caring for their landscapes. It took less than a year (too long!) for me to realize I was doing it their way - the wrong way. I immediately removed the front lawn, and other healthy sustainable choices followed. I am a garden designer who has experienced growing hundreds - yes hundreds - of desert plants. I’ve removed plants (some as big as palms), planted new ones, watered plants less and less (I just watered my front yard for the first time in a month), cared for them, observed them, and loved them. I have immersed myself in the world of desert plants.
I’ve always wanted to make a difference for the betterment of the world. When I graduated from university, I wanted to do environmental impact assessments which would help determine if proposed development projects were approved. Now, more than 15 years into the desert, I realize I am making a difference for the better. I am a property owner and I make choices regarding my outdoor space. Those choices affect what grows in my landscape and therefore how much water I use. This affects what other beneficial creatures live in my garden. All in all, this process determines the health and sustainability of my landscape. Collectively, we have a significant impact on our neighbourhoods and our cities. Just because it’s for sale in your local nursery doesn’t mean you should buy it.
Earlier, I mentioned development projects. One morning, while driving my son to school in the middle of the pandemic (how many people can say they have lived through a pandemic?), I realized that “development” had reached the high school. It used to be surrounded by open fields and a hawk sighting was guaranteed every commute. But, the town was adding an exit ramp to the highway near our school, so there was construction machinery everywhere and new chain businesses popping up. I hadn’t seen a hawk for some time and this particular day, as I was heading home, I spotted one high up on a lamp post. Where will he go?? We have pushed nature to the edge, to the outskirts of our towns and cities. Once we “develop” an area, “someone” decides how much of nature to let back in: trees planted in the medians, ground covers line the sidewalks, and, if a leaf falls from its parent plant, it must immediately be blown away. I decided a long time ago to let nature into my yard. Will you join me and let nature back into yours?
My personal gardening style falls easily within the “re-wild” movement. I can be symmetrical and organized, but, in my own outdoor space, I prefer a more relaxed look. Leaf litter is essential to insect life which in turn is essential to birds and other wildlife. These are the beneficial elements every yard awaits seasonally. Manicured spaces are sterile. Let life in! As the American novelist Edward Abbey wrote, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit…” The formal ecology movement began in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I like to think Dare to be Desert is aligned with that movement. Recently, I participated in an online presentation about water rights. I asked the speaker, who teaches water law at ASU, what the role of the homeowner is regarding plans to manage water in the desert. The professor clearly stated that the Colorado River is fundamentally different now than it was a century ago and it is not coming back to its former flow. This “drought” is not going to end. We have to learn to be more resourceful. Dare to be Desert contributes to the mindset of learning to live in a more sustainable and equitable way in the desert. We have to become adaptive and willing to change our water habits. Everything we do should reflect our love for the desert. We will create a desert-loving ethos in the process.