Thursday, June 27, 2013

Guest Post: Gardening in the Desert Part I

This delightful piece is by educator, novelist, and humor writer Kate Fowler Kelley, who inexplicably moved from hot, sunny Tucson to cool and rainy Seattle three years ago.

I’m not sure why my 1980 move to Tucson prompted a sudden interest in gardening. Perhaps it was because my house, the only rental on Juarez Street, looked forlorn with its barren flower beds and single chinaberry tree in a yellow lawn. I envied my green-thumbed neighbors their attractive yards and sought advice on plants for beginners. “Marigolds,” said one. “Vincas,” said another. I planted both. The combination of orange and fuchsia was startling but it matched the shag carpet.

               marigold vincamarigoldvinca

I soon came to loathe vincas. My neighbor recommended them because “they let you know when they want water”. What she failed to mention was that they want water all the time. Those flowers demanded water like a five-year-old at bedtime. “We wanna drink of water. We’re really thirsty. Pleeeeeze can we have a drink? We won’t ask again, we promise.”

                              wilted plant sun

But soon the leaves would shrivel into pathetic little curls and I’d grab the hose, muttering “All right, but this is the last time today, I mean it.”

My next house was on a freshly-graded lot in northwest Tucson. It needed trees, but under a thin layer of grit lurked caliche, a substance impervious to shovels, digging bars, and pickaxes. If the Colorado River flowed through caliche, the Grand Canyon would be seven inches deep.

I moved on to a 1936 house, where a desolate patch of dirt by the side door offered a blank canvas for my horticultural fantasies. It offered a blank canvas over and over again, as everything planted there died.  wilted plant no sun

I amended and mulched until it should have been fertile as that fabled crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but it remained a plant graveyard. I finally decided it was atop an ancient cursed compost heap and left it alone.

When I bought my final Tucson home the back yard contained one tree. The front yard had two, but one was dead and my moving truck ran over the other. I banded its split trunk together with panty-hose and it survived to become a favorite nesting site for mockingbirds and cactus wrens.

Mockers new backyard 007Cactus wren on cholla 10-18-2010 8-14-005

Tomorrow: Gardening in the Desert Part II: Tips and Tricks


  1. I like vincas for their canary in the coalmine quality. They REALLY wilt, but usually don't die (and I don't care if they do -- they are prolific re-seeders), but they let me know I should probably think about watering the good stuff. We bought a few several years ago and they send up a new crop (one never knows where) every year.

    1. I quit planting vincas because they are... boring.

  2. Good one!
    I love those pictures of the birds in the end!