Desert Gardening

I’m the fourth owner of my house — I guess “owner” is the correct term. I live here but I do not have complete control over the place. The same is true of the couple I bought the house from. They were a middle-aged couple from Colorado. They were energetic and had plans for the place. The husband was retired and had lots of hobbies, as I do. He was a cyclist and a white-water kayaker. They had a live-and-let-live approach to things. It was a back to nature philosophy. This was fine except that they wanted to grow their own food.  They constructed nine raised garden beds and filled them with good fertile soil…not the desert sand we have everywhere. They put up a stout fence to keep the rabbits out and a tight latch on the gate. They started a compost pile and dutifully added to it every day from the kitchen waste. They planted their garden and tended the weeds. Watering was a constant chore because there was no workable irrigation system that watered the garden. It was a disaster. They underestimated the challenges of growing a desert vegetable garden with single digit humidity, 30 mph wind and a blazing sun. There was no way they could keep up with the watering. We were in a drought and there was very little rain. The compost turned into a petrified monument to past meals and kitchen debris. The vegetables withered and died and their experiment dwindled away. They slowly went from nine beds to six and then to one. The wife’s job was transferred and they moved away. When I moved in there were a few withered herbs sticking out of the ground in one of the beds. That was it.  In a nutshell, this is pretty much the history of farming in the New Mexico desert. If the ancient pueblo ancestors could have spoken to them they might have had a few hints or pointers on how to hang on for a couple more years but even they had to pack up and move when faced with long droughts.

Desert gardening has its challenges.  I’ve already written a little about how the desert has its own way. I have no intention of trying to keep a vegetable garden. I tried to grow arugula from seeds in pots but they died from the sun each time I left them alone for a day or so. I do have some large pots that I try to fill with shrubby plants and flowers that are suited to the desert. My problem has been the rabbits and desert rats more than the watering.  Yet I persist.

I have been an amateur practitioner of Bonsai for over twenty years. I am not very successful at it but I enjoy it. On one level it is an artistic expression but on another it is almost plant torture. I once looked up the Feng Shui rules concerning Bonsai in a person’s home. The jury is apparently still out. Since trees are made of wood there is a designated Feng Shui placement, mostly on the south or east side areas. I know almost nothing of Feng Shui so this could all be wrong. It seems to me that the ‘Chi’ of a confined and ‘tortured’ plant would not be beneficial if you were really in to Feng Shui.  Most Bonsai practitioners will keep their trees outside, anyway, unless there are extremes of weather.

Trees are living things and have a genetic code that predetermines their appearance and, to a large extent, their size. Leaves and flowers conform to this code. The branching of leaves or sprouting sprigs will conform as well…maybe alternating or maybe opposite…depending on genetics.  I think there is a nurture vs. nature aspect as well. A tree growing among rocks on a cliff face will look vastly different from the same tree growing in good, moist and fertile soil. The rock crevice tree will strive to fulfill its genetic promise but the conditions will prevent it. Wind, drought, exposure to the elements will all have a say in how this tree grows or even if it survives. These trees are often naturally occurring Bonsai. To my mind they are beautiful examples of persistence and sheer determination in the face of adversity.

When I moved to the desert I brought my several Bonsai trees with me. I knew it would be difficult but I figured that I could manage. These trees have been through difficult times and came out just fine. Winters in Missouri are long and often harsh. I left the trees outside as long as I dared but would bring them in when the temperatures plunged to the teens. My concern was that the pots would shatter from the freezing temperatures. The trees were generally cold hardy and usually didn’t have a problem. They actually benefit from having a cold spell. The climate in the desert was one of short and milder winters but with searing sun, dryness and tremendous wind.  I shielded the trees from the wind as much as possible. The weather sucked moisture out of the plants so quickly that I had to water more than I was used to.

The first crisis was the arrival of the critters. Three of my trees were eaten within a matter of a few days. Animals in the desert will eat anything that offers tender leaves or sprouts. Before I knew it my Bonsai collection was down to four trees. One of the four was badly damaged and it looked like someone attacked it with a clippers. Most of the branches were down to stubs but it was trying very hard to put out new leaves and survive. Again, here was an example of perseverance and I moved it to a safe place and kept it alive. Two other trees went inside. My fourth tree was a juniper that I’ve worked with for twenty years. It apparently was of no interest to the local animals because they left it alone. The tree had a stately form and was my favorite.

My remaining four trees made it through the first winter okay. My juniper went dormant and then came out in the spring much better than in previous years. It looked great. As the weather warmed up and the winds picked up I sheltered it and watered the tree to keep it moist and healthy. Unfortunately, it got root rot from too much watering. This tree had root rot once before and I had to dry it out and repot it after removing the obviously bad roots. That puts the tree in shock but it fared pretty well the last time so that was my plan. First I wanted it to dry out a little.

There is a thin line…a tipping point, I guess, between drying out and baking. In two days the tree was dead. It was a shock. I was surprisingly attached to that tree. It still sits in its pot. I haven’t decided what to do yet. I have been looking for a replacement but nothing grabs me the way that the juniper did. Nothing has the potential or the form that I like. I’ll wait until fall and see what I can find.

I have other trees that I’m nursing along. Not exactly Bonsai but potted and protected. I raised a Key Lime tree from a seed planted some twenty years ago. In humid Missouri it thrived and even had fruit. It was cut back when I moved and it went into serious shock and almost died but it survived and spent the winter going in and out of the garage. It lost its leaves when spring came. I was sure it was dead but on the day I was going to throw it out I saw new shoots coming out near the lower trunk and it has put out about eight or ten new branches. It still needs work but it survived and looks healthy. The rabbits leave it alone.  I have a small Pomegranate tree and a Quince that are doing reasonably well, so far. The critters are leaving them alone.  

The previous owners planted a Fig tree in the yard. When I moved in last year it was doing okay and had small figs on it. I watered it and mulched it but the figs fell off one by one and never ripened. The tree is actually a bush, only about four feet tall at the most. This year I fertilized it but it has only a few leaves and looks close to death. It had no leaves at all until late July. I’m watering it like crazy in hope that it will survive and I noticed that it has a few small sprouts on some of the branches. The leaves are the size of my thumbnail. I’m hoping it can rebound before winter but I suspect it will at least die back to its roots by spring if it survives at all.  I thought Figs liked the desert but apparently not.   Maybe it’s Dates I’m thinking of. 



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