Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Tale of Two Gardens

So here I am, carving a small garden out of a raw patch of the Sonora Desert.  Despite the spectacular scenery, it's not everyone's ideal garden location.

 But for me it was a dream that unexpectedly - and in the middle of tragic circumstances - came true.

In August 2013 we were living in eastern San Diego.  We had moved there from the Midwest the year before, following the loss of my father.  I'll say very little about that, except that he - and all of us with him - battled a year and a half, first with leukemia and then with complications from a bone marrow transplant.  After his death we returned to San Diego, where much of my mother's family still lives.  In June the next year, her 91 year old mother passed away also, giving us pause to rethink continued residence in San Diego.

Because, by that time, the downside of life in southern California was becoming fairly insistent.  Concerns over the high cost of living, intense regulatory gridlock, quality of available healthcare (something we had become very sensitive to!), and constant presence of crime and petty litigation were all adding up to a feeling: we don't have to live with this...!  But we wanted to remain in the southwest, and we didn't want to get too far from family.

We took a three day run to check the housing market in Phoenix, Arizona.  Then we went back for another...

Personally, I fell in love with the place.  I had dreamed of living in the desert for years though I had only been familiar with it from cross-country drives, those marathon car trips to San Diego from our home of many years in Kansas City.  This time I had the chance to get off the freeways and drive down the back roads, seeing the countryside on its own terms.
It is big country, miles and miles and miles in view, mostly flat but punctuated by mountainous upthrusts.  The sun is, of course, brilliant and ever-present.  (Dropping down from the sombre San Diego coastal mountains into the Imperial Valley desert gives one almost the effect of a second sunrise.)  It is country that one can simply walk into... and get lost in.  It's the first place I've ever lived where there was enough sunlight, enough space, and enough silence.

The skies are gorgeous.
The wild flora is fascinating, albeit often prickly.

Housing prices at that point were about half of the SD market, and we enhanced the effect by purchasing in a rural area where we were able to buy a lovely home on two and half acres - enough for our two horses (which had come with us from Kansas City) and for a garden, with some extra empty desert in our own yard.  The house has a second garage workshop that was already fully wired for our ceramics studio.  And there are a few bearing citrus trees: two lemons and an orange.

By the middle of last summer, I was ready to plan for some garden.

My previous garden in Kansas City had been carved out of the lawn grasses on the south side of our house.  I loved the plants, particularly the bulbs, that I grew there: snowdrops, narcissus, and lilies, as well as roses.  I was not (and am not) a very organized gardener, and I waged inexperienced warfare while the lawn and other weeds attempted to overwhelm my flowerbeds.  These were freeform, cut a little haphazardly from the turf, and my experiments with hedging were not very successful - particularly my Rosa multiflora hedge...  Even Sleeping Beauty's castle would not have survived a hundred years of R. multiflora, pretty as it is in summer!

Kansas City is a beautiful place to garden, despite defects in the climate (humid heat in summer, dry, sub-freezing cold in winter).  Daffodils and species narcissus grew very well for me; tulips might have also, but our property backed up to a nature preserve and for many years I gardened with a plenitude of rabbits and deer.  This led to experimentation with herbs and other plants of pungent foliage, including a few lavender varieties, which tended to be short-lived in that garden.

So in planning my new garden, I rethought the framework question.  This garden is going into land so raw that a strong structure seems a necessity.  I am putting in a narrow hedge and using straight-edged beds for a more formal effect.  The backbone plants must be well-adapted varieties, and I am using an assortment of native desert species, Australian varieties, and more traditional Mediterranean plants.  Roses are on order for spring.

As for flower bulbs, some narcissus went in a few months ago; for some reason none have broken through yet (nervewracking!)  Lilies I will probably try in the next few years though the heat may prove too much for them.  I think snowdrops are out of the question as my chief feeling is simply how much the poor things would suffer!  There are some specialized bulb varieties that may be good choices; much exploration remains to be done...

And this is my chance to grow lavender at last.  I am keeping a sharp lookout for different varieties.
Lavendula stoechas "Madrid"
And so it's all a new adventure here - a bit of gardening frontier.  As I explain in my About page, I want to create a more traditional planting than is typical in this region (not counting the cliched snapdragon and petunia plantings of public spaces, of course!).

Luckily for me, Jessica of Rusty Duck asked only how we had arrived here, not why!  Why I love the desert would be hard to explain, though it has much to do with a sense of well-being created by ample space and sunlight.  No, it's impossible to explain why...!


  1. Amy, μια ακομη καλημερα! σου γραφω γιατι σημερα διαβαζοντας αυτην την καταθεση ψυχης,νοιωθω πως δινουμε τα χερια και ξαναγνωριζομαστε!
    δεν εχει σημασια οτι ζεις στην αλλη ακρη του πλανητη, ουτε επισης το γεγονος, οτι δεν μιλαω την γλωσσα σου και συ την δικη μου.
    η ανθρωπινη ζεστασια της προσωπικοτητας σου, εκπεμπεται και μεσα απο τα πληκτρα του υπολγιστη.
    οσο για την απωλεια του αγαπημενου σου πατερα, που απ᾽ οτι καταλαβα εγινε η αφορμη της αλλαγης της ζωης σου, ευχομαι ο χρονος και η….χρονικη αποσταση απο το ιδιο το γεγονος, να φερθουν ευεργετικα για την ιδια σου την ζωη. ανηκω και γω στους ανθρωπους που με θλιβει η θνητοτητα χωρις να μπορω να κανω κατι γι᾽ αυτο.
    ευχομαι η καινουργια σου ζωη να ευωδοθει στο καλλιτερο δυνατο και ευχες για πολλες δημιουργικες στιγμες.
    αγγελικη απο ελλαδα!

    1. Thank you so very, very much for your kind thoughts and words, Angela!! It was difficult even to write this little post because the pain of the loss is still very great. I am glad of the decision to start new in a new place; it has made it easier to look outward and see the beauty and hope in life. And so I try to go forward again, loving and creating new things. Many thanks again for your faithful sympathy and interest!!

    2. πολλες φορες Any,το να κοινωνισουμε την θλιψη μας, ειναι σαν να αφαιρουμε απο μεσα μας μια ελαχιστη ποσοτητα, σαν να την απομυθοποιουμε.
      ειναι γεγονος πως στενοχωριομαστε για την απωλεια ενος αγαπημενου αντικειμενου ποσο μαλλον ενο προσωπου που τυχαινει να εινα και ο πατερας σας……
      παντως υποψιαζομαι πως πρεπει να εισαι αρκετα δυνατη στο να παρεις μια τετοια αποφαση αλλαγης στην ζωη σου και να μην ζεις ναρκισσευομενη βουτηγμενη στην θλιψη και την απραγια.
      κατι τετοιο πιστευω πως ουτε και ο πατερας σου θα το ηθελε…και θα χαιρεται απο εκει που ειναι …αν μπορει να σας βλεπει εσενα και την Sarah.
      επειδη εχω δει την Sarah σε φωτογραφια μαζι με τον σκυλο σας, νοιωθω πως εχεται την ηλικια της κορης μου Αντιγονης γι αυτο και αισθανθηκα την αναγκη να σου γραψω.
      η ζωη προχωραει, τις μνημες τις κουβαλαμαι, και οταν ειναι ομορφες μας δινουν δυναμη να δημιουργησουμε.
      το οτι εισαι καλλιτενης ειναι αρκετα σωτηριο και λυτρωτικο! αγκαλιες. αγγελικη.

  2. Amy this is fascinating, thank you so much for doing it. Especially as, in making the request, it didn't occur to me that it would cause you pain for which I apologise. I think the Sonora desert is somewhere that would appeal to me too. I know it would, from a brief business trip many years ago.
    My circumstances have some parallels to yours. Shortly after we moved to Devon my mother came down here to live as well. It rapidly became clear that she was unwell and ended up in a nursing home. So, although our rural dream had started to acquire some significant downsides, we felt we could not move again. Now she has died we are, sadly, free to consider going somewhere else. We haven't decided finally whether to do it, or where it will be. Getting the house into a marketable state is the first stage, we bought it as a project and a project that has only just begun and then abandoned is not a good proposition.

    1. Life throws us some difficult times, doesn't it? Please don't feel bad about asking - it was actually a relief to go ahead and tell a little about what happened. I've kept it bottled up inside too much, I think.
      I'm sorry about your mother; I understand how hard it is to reorient all one's plans with the sudden realization of serious illness. With my father there was absolutely no preparation: he went away on a professional trip well and came back so ill that he already needed a blood transfusion - one week later.
      I admire your chin up work on the house; there must be a lot of heartbreak involved with all the decision-making - and then the ongoing effort! I hope you can find a way to live your dreams in spite of it all.
      If you ever have the chance to make another visit to the Sonora, please let me know - there's not much garden here to show off yet, but I'd love to say hello!

  3. Over the course of 4 years, my husband and I lost all our parents (including both our mothers within 10 weeks of one another in 2013) so I can appreciate the way family losses turn your life upside down - we only began to move past the legal and financial issues that follow such emotional events last year. I can also appreciate the concerns about living within the urban confines of Southern California! For years, my husband and I'd planned to move away but, as elder care issues came to dominate our lives, we settled for a larger plot of land (just over 1/2 acre on the Palos Verdes Penninsula - large by LA standards!), only to have our parents, and with them, our reason for staying here, come to an abrupt end. Still we plan to stay. Even though we moved only 15 miles from our former location, the conditions here are much different and I'm still coming to terms with what that means for the garden, especially with the addition of severe drought.

    I'll be interested to watch your garden as it evolves, Amy. You might want to look into some of the South African and Mediterranean bulbs for your new garden - Freesia, Sparaxis, Watsonia and Ixia have worked for me in the hotter, drier conditions here. Snowdrops, which I could grown in my former garden, are non-starters here and don't get me started on tulips...Best wishes!

  4. It's incredible how quickly these changes shake up our lives... and how protracted all the adjustments can be. We're still dealing with probate issues, unfortunately. I think you're wise to stay put if you wish to stay in the LA area; we certainly found it difficult to go back to the "hometown" years later! Happily, there were other options...
    Sparaxis, ixia - and now watsonia - are definitely on my list (I'm waiting the arrival of my MandZ catalog!); I'll be happy to get a little more information input since the Sunset recommendations seem to believe I'm planting my bulbs in stand-alone beds :P Have you grown Anemone coronaria in your drier conditions? It's one that I always wanted but felt was a shade too tender in Kansas City. Now I worry about giving it enough water! Oh well... Thanks a lot, Kris!