Wild Desert Garden
Natural Lanscaping with a Smidgen of Gardening
I have a brown thumb, so I have to "grow" things that will grow all by themselves, where they naturally occur, or in similar conditions. I've tried lots of other things. Faggedaboudit! I prefer to let God do the gardening, and I just enhance it a little. A formal garden, all symmetrical, it's not. You WANT your wild desert garden to look rough and woolly!
I live in the Sonoran Desert, which covers an area of southwestern Arizona, northern Sonora, most of Baja California, and a little of southern California. Botanists identify certain regions by a particular plant. Our plant is the Saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea. The photo on the left shows a few of the Saguaros on my property. We depend on the natural rains, because water is otherwise scarce, especially for us, since we have to have water delivered. About 2500 gallons will last the household for three months. We scrimp. In the background of this photo, you will see monsoon clouds building. It is finally wet summer! Ah!!!
We have five seasons here. There is winter, which is one of our rainy seasons (if it rains), spring, dry summer, wet summer, and autumn. Abundant winter rains (say, anything over 5 1/2" for the season) will lead to huge spreads of wildflowers. These are annuals, and they only spring up when there IS rain. Otherwise, they lie dormant and wait. You will find wildflowers here every month of the year, if you know where to look and what to look for. But spring is our huge wildflower season, and the flowers start blooming roughly in late February, and last through April or early May, and after that, the Palo Verdes bloom, and then the cactus. The cactus will bloom through June and possibly into July. Dry summer really starts in May and lasts until the beginning of July. This is when you will experience weather that goes up to, say, 105 degrees, with down to 2% humidity. Before the monsoon, clouds will start to form, and can lead to beautiful evening sunsets. It is officially monsoon season, or wet summer, when the dew point reaches 55 degrees for three days in a row. Theoretically, the monsoon started in mid-June, but we didn't see any rain until July. It rained on July 3, which was good because it wet down the hill where they would shoot the fireworks the next day, but the next day it was clear so it was easy and comfortable to sit outside and watch the fireworks.
Autumn DOES occur here, but you get the spectacular colors only in the mountains. But that doesn't mean you don't get any autumn colors in the valley. You do. They're just subtle. We also have drought-deciduous plants, which will put out leaves when it has rained, and these plants then lose the leaves a few days after the last rain. The most obvious of these is the Ocotillo, and before the leaves drop off, they turn autumn gold.
With all that in mind, I tried several experiments.
One of the early ones was my attempt to grow a vegetable garden. I consulted with someone I knew, and following her advice, I mixed goat manure with the alkaline soil, and put it in raised beds bounded by old boards. I planted carrots and broccoli and not too much else. I watered it, and everything was growing, but then I got sick, and the kids were supposed to water it, but they didn't bother, and everything died. That was my last attempt.
I also tried growing plants indoors. I had a few going for awhile, but unfortunately, since plants don't make any noise when they're thirsty, it's easy to forget. For awhile, I was watching a soap opera over breakfast, and since the plants were in the same room, I would remember to water them. But when I started using the internet, I spent my time in a different room, and forgot to water. At the time, I had a fig tree that was, maybe 2 1/2 feet high. I got it from my younger daughter, who thought it was dead. It had only 2 leaves. By the time I got on the internet, it had 72 leaves (I actually counted them), but of course it then died, and I was very unhappy with myself!
I also had a boojum tree, but it eventually rotted because the pot it was in didn't drain well. I should have planted it outside. Live and learn. Boojum trees are native to Baja California and don't grow naturally anywhere else, but if you plant them here, they will grow, and they can be surprisingly robust.
I finally settled on the way I garden now. We have 10 acres adjacent to a national park, and most of the property is in its natural state. I have also brought in other drought-hardy plants, and "planted" them, which usually consists of either throwing them on the ground, or sticking the ends into the ground an inch or two. I water them a couple of times a week for a few weeks, and then during dry summer, until they are established. I will talk about these plants.
I also harvest food from the plants that occur here naturally. And I will talk about that.
All photos, unless otherwise stated, are mine.
We Start with the Basic Indigenous Plants
I have already mentioned the Saguaro cactus. The fruit of this cactus is edible. I like it straight off the cactus, but the birds usually get it first, and most of the Saguaros are too tall for my reach, and I need to get a pole to use. Poles are usually acquired from dead Saguaro skeletons. The photo shows one Saguaro that died and fell over, and you can see the skeleton clearly, and see where the poles come from. The Tohono O'dham put a cross piece on the end of the pole so they can hook the fruit and knock it down. They usually have a ceremony for picking the fruit every year, at the beginning of July. I don't know if this date varies, but this year, by the time July started, most of the fruit had already been eaten by birds.
Leave It Wild
It is pretty much the philosophy of the neighborhood to leave most of their property in its wild state, and only put gardens and landscaping near the house. We fall into that category. Where we have planted other plants, it is close to the house. The other side of the ridge is as it was, stickers and all.
One of the first rules you learn about growing a natural desert "garden" is that some plants must be started out in the shade of a tree. They won't bear the full desert sun until they're older. The tree is called a nurse plant. Saguaros must grow under a tree. You can choose either Palo Verdes or Mesquite. Some people might be tempted to plant under a Chaparral. Don't. The Chaparral puts some kind of chemical in the soil under it that prevents other plants from growing there.
So when I do add plants, particularly cactus, I make sure to put them under a tree. You'll see some of these results.
The photo is a closeup of the Chaparral (Larrea tridentata), also known as the Creosote Bush (there are many species called Chaparral, by the way). You see the fuzzy seed pods of summer. Spring flowers are yellow and tiny, not much bigger than the seed pods. The leaves are also tiny.
There is more information about the Chaparral here: Creosote Bush
Chaparral are not edible, but you can make a tea from them that is very medicinal. And it tastes awful. I make it by filling a pot with the branches, and adding water, and boiling it for, say, 15 minutes. It's strong. So I pour it into a cup, and I do what I was advised to do. I take it outside, look at the mountains, thank God for them, and then drink it. It works! I don't do this often because I have no need, but it's there if I ever need it.
Other plants that occur naturally are the Prickly Pear, Cholla, many different species of wildflower (I have found 72 different species on my property), Palo Verde, Mesquite, and close by, the Ironwood Tree. I think I used to have an Ironwood on my property, but I think that's on the part we had to sell.
Commercial break, or call it a public service announcement: get rid of property tax. It robs people blind, and if they can't pay, they lose their property without compensation. It's unconstitutional, and there are better ways to raise money. We had to sell our land because of property tax.
Back to our regular programming.
In the collection below, I present photos of some of the plants that grow naturally on my land.
Palo Verde Tree
We have several of these growing on our property. I love to eat the green seeds, but they take a lot of work to shell. They taste something like green peas, but they are sweeter. After they turn brown, they are very hard, and won't even sprout unless they first pass through the gizzard of a bird.
"Palo Verde" means "green trunk" in Spanish. This is because the trunk and branches are green. The tree is drought-deciduous, which means it loses its leaves when the weather is dry. During that time, the chlorophyll in the trunk and branches uses photosynthesis to make food for the tree. The shade the tree offers is open shade, and it is used by a number of species of birds for nests. These trees also make nice nurse plants for young cactus.
The photo shows the trunk of a tree we have used as a nurse plant for cactus I have brought in and "planted".
Prickly Pears grow all over the world. In Israel, they are called "sabra". So are native born Israelis. This is because Israelis consider themselves prickly! :) There are so many synonyms for the Prickly Pear it's not funny. I counted about 150. A synonym is when there are two or more scientific names for the same plant. I think there are so many because they DO grow all over the world. So lots of different botanists discovered and named them. Currently, botanists are researching all the plants to see which synonym is oldest, and this is the one that becomes the official scientific name.
Most of the Prickly Pears in my part of the world are known as Opuntia engelmannii. There are also some that turn purple under stress, and have brilliant yellow flowers while they are purple. They are gorgeous. These are called Opuntia santa-rita.
Prickly Pears have a wide variety of uses. As food plants, they yield several different tasty ingredients. The young pads are stripped of the leaves that later become thorns, and they're julienned, and cooked in three waters. This means boiling them in salty water for 10 minutes, changing the water, and doing it again, and then once more. Three times. These can then be mixed with your favorite chili or other things to make a tasty Mexican dish. The fruit is used to make cactus jelly, but I prefer to drink it straight out of the strained crushed fruit. Some of the syrup is also added to lemonade to make a very refreshing drink. I like to eat the petals of the flowers. They are somewhat like firm lettuce, but sweeter. They would make a nice addition to a garden salad. Nobody else I know of does this.
If you get a wasp sting, a Prickly Pear pad will take care of it quickly. Cut off the spines from the edge, and also cut off all the other spines, and then slice it "lengthwise", which is to say you will end up with two halves each shaped like the entire original pad. Then cut a piece somewhat larger than the area that is painful, and apply it and fasten it on. Be sure and make it large enough to cover the area where the venom will spread. I made mine too small the first time I tried this, and it was completely pain free around the pad, and I had a ring of pain around the outside.
Prickly Pears are very decorative as landscape plants.
The fruit in the picture is not quite ripe. It will ripen in August and look dark purple.
Cholla (pronounced "choya") are closely classified with Prickly Pears. They have also been named Cylindropuntia because the joints are cylindrical. They have fruit that is edible but dry and insipid. It is said to taste best if roasted. I have never tried it. It is the ONLY cactus fruit I haven't tried when given the opportunity.
This one is known as Teddy Bear Cholla, but it is NOT soft and cuddly. If you accidentally brush against it, it may stick to your flesh. The thorns have little barbs, so it is painful to pull them out. Because they will stick to you so readily and detach from the plant, they're called "Jumping Cholla".
Different species of Cholla have different colored flowers. They can vary from rusty red to almost yellow, and some species have beautiful pink flowers.
One side of our hill is covered with these plants. They are so thick I don't walk there.
This Ferocactus is less common, but still easily found, and we have a number of them. This particular one started out as a small golden barrel (and I don't know why it lost its golden look), but it grew to this height. I think the reason it looks caved in at the bottom is because of the drought.
The flesh of the Barrel Cactus is said to be good for rattlesnake bite. The flesh should be fermented before applying, so you should keep some on hand. If you have to apply it fresh, they recommend lancing the bite a little. One can also cut off the top of a barrel and scoop it out, and liquid will gather, and can relieve thirst if you are desperate. I don't regard either of these as being optimum uses, but it is good to know about them.
Flowers on our Barrel Cacti are usually brilliant orange.
The Barrel Cactus will bear a ring of fruit which is first green, then yellow. When it is light green, you can eat it, and it has a texture similar to a green pepper, but firmer, and tastes like lime. The crunchy tiny seeds are edible, and I really like them. When the fruit turns yellow, it tastes like lemon. If I am out hiking in a place where there isn't much traffic to pollute the plant, I will always pick one fruit and eat it. I like it that much!
Some Barrel Cacti will point south. For this reason, they are called Compass Barrels.
This spindly plant is drought-deciduous. A few days after rain, it puts out lots of leaves, like this one. After a few days since the last rain, they turn yellow and fall off. We have quite a few of these on our property.
The bark is used medicinally for female troubles. The flowers attract hummingbirds. I like to gather a bunch of flowers, put them into a gallon of water in a sun tea jar, and put them into the refrigerator for 18 hours. It makes a delicately flavored punch. Don't leave it any longer; it will spoil.
If you cut these and gather them together, you can make a fence. Often, it will take root and then it will put out leaves, so it is a living fence. People put up these fences to keep coyotes out of their yards.
We have only a few of these in our yard. They are said to be endangered, so if you eat one, please plant more. The flesh is edible (cut off the outside with the stickers, of course) and will cool the body in summer, so don't eat it in winter! The flowers are small and red, and taste a little like strawberries. I think both flesh and flowers are tasty. I wouldn't mind a bowl of the fruit, but I've never had the pleasure.
Prosopis velutina. These trees show there is groundwater in the area. They send a tap root very deep, up to 150 feet. If you want to drill a well, and you're where the location for it isn't obvious, drill it by a mesquite. They also grow abundantly in riparian areas.
I learned why they are called Velvet. In addition to these soft flowers, the fresh seed pods, before they dry out, really feel like velvet. These are the flowers. Bees like them.
The seed pods are used to make flour for baking.
The Things I Planted
Below are some of the plants that do not grow naturally on my land, though they may grow elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert. Usually, planting a cactus or succulent in the desert consists either of throwing it on the ground and leaving it there, or sticking it a small distance into the ground. Existing roots often not necessary.
This makes it easy to plant things. Then while they are young, you will want to water them with a small amount of water a couple of times to begin with, and then about twice a week during our season I call "dry summer". Once they are established, you usually don't have to worry about them. They will make it through extreme drought. However, a few plants will succumb, so keep an eye on them (like I haven't for the past two years).
Some plants should be planted under "nurse trees". They can't stand the full sun. We have a couple of good nurse trees on our property. They are Mesquites and Palo Verdes. Often, as the plants grow, they will eventually kill off the tree, but I haven't had this happen yet. Some plants needs to stay under the nurse tree. A good example is Aloe. It simply burns in the direct sun, all its life.
Someday, when we remove a structure I hope we are able to remove soon, I will try to start a wall, and when it is sufficiently high, I will try to plant a Japanese garden there. This may or may not be beyond my skills, but I'll try anyway. I love Japanese gardens. But at this point, it is only a dream.
This is a Trichocereus hybrid. I have one in my yard, and it is my pride and joy. I planted it under a Palo Verde tree as its nurse plant, and this year I have counted 21 buds so far. The flowers are hard to photograph with accurate color because the throat of the flowers is a delicate sea green, but it comes out dark in photos.
This is a picture of the buds, which I took the other day. I haven't been out in the rain to see if I can catch one in bloom, but I will show you a photo from past years.
One of our children planted this one. We probably got it from Harrison Yocum, but I don't remember for sure. When we planted it, it was just a few inches high. Now look at it! The shortest stem you can see easily is probably about my height. I don't know what species this is. I'll figure it out.
This is another view of the cactus one of our children planted. One of them also planted the cactus to the right. I don't know the species of that one, either.
You don't have to know the name of a plant to enjoy it, but it sure helps!
Wild Desert Garden
If you have ever had a wild desert garden, tell us about it!
Maybe you've never had one, and don't regret it. Tell us about that, too.
Have you ever had a wild desert garden?
Totem Pole Cactus
Pachycereus schottii var. monstrosus.
I bought this one from a man who was selling part of his collection. When I got it, it was no more than a foot long, and was a single piece. The next plant was about the same size, and I got it also from the same person.
It's a little hard to see because of the twigs of the Palo Verde nurse tree in front of it. This one has to be at least 15 feet high.
The Other Columnar Cactus
This one and the Totem Pole Cactus are growing side by side.
When I plant other species of plants, I try to follow nature as closely as possible. These plants require almost no care. In years past, I would water them with a small amount of water twice weekly during dry summer. I haven't done that for several years. You can see there was some damage to this cactus as a result, at the tips. But when the plants are well established, they can tolerate all but the driest years.
This is the base of the two columnar cacti that are growing side by side.
I have several species of Agaves on my property. This one and another species were gifts from Harrison Yocum. The picture shows this plant to the upper left, behind the Torch Cactus.
The Century Plants were given to us by our tax accountant. We planted them along the property line at intervals so we could find the property line easily. In the mountainous country, this is a non-trivial problem. At least one of them has bloomed, and it has a bunch of pups, so there will be more. I will see if I have pictures of those.
I also had an Octopus Agave. This one grows a yellow-flowered stalk which produces lots of tiny plants instead of seeds. The plants will fall off and can then grow by themselves, though ours didn't do that. After the plant puts up this stalk, it dies. The one in my garden died several years ago.
This is a Euphorbia antisyphilitica. It got that name because the juice was used to treat syphilis. I got this from Harrison Yocum as a small pile of branches about 14 inches long. I stuck them into the ground, and now there are thousands of branches. They bear the tiniest white flowers, almost invisible.
The juice of Euphorbias is white and can be caustic, depending on the species. The forms the plants take are WIDELY variable. The common sand spurge is another species. This has milky juice which is rather mild. It can be applied to an insect bite and will take the pain out. But try not to be bitten in dry summer, when none of those plants are growing!
Some Euphorbias look like cactus to the uninitiated. If they don't have glochids (fuzzy stuff at the base of spines), they are Euphorbias, not cactus. I had one in my garden that put out quite a few branches, but it didn't survive the drought.
I don't like it when my plants die, and I kick myself. But life goes on.
These are the buds. The flowers won't be much bigger than this. You can also see what the stems look like up close. They're all stem and no leaf.
We had an Opuntia santa-rita in our garden, but the extreme drought killed it, and I found it in a pile on the ground, all dry and withered, the other day. Maybe it will grow back from what is left underground. Interestingly enough, the Aloe vera barbadensis under another nurse tree survived nicely. I am very happy about that, because that is a wonderful medicinal plant!
This is what our Opuntia santa-rita Prickly Pear looked like before it died. Here, it is in bloom. This plant doesn't naturally grow in our location, so I planted one.
Here is a closeup of some of the flowers.
Our tax accountant gave me a couple of Aloe vera barbadensis plants, which I planted under a tree in my garden. These are the flowers. Most Aloes have orange flowers, but these are light yellow to white. All Aloes have medicinal juice, but in most species, it is weak. Aloe vera barbadensis has the strongest juice. When it is healthy and has lots of water in its succulent leaves, the gel is actually orange in color.
One of our children got a second degree burn on his finger. I got some BF&C ointment, a formula by Dr. Christopher, cut up an aloe leaf, spread a little ointment on it, and taped this around his finger. It took the pain right out, and within the next few days, it healed without a mark.
Wildflowers on Our Property
I have found wildflowers every month of the year. Most of these grow naturally on our property. A few I planted, and I will make note of those. You have to look diligently to find wildflowers at times, and other times, they are very obvious.
Looking for wildflowers is like going on an Easter egg hunt. The only difference is, THIS Easter egg hunt lasts all year!
Flower GalleryClick thumbnail to view full-size
I showed you the buds earlier. These are the flowers.
This resembles the Texas Bluebonnet, but the flower is more sparse. We get them in this blue, and also occasionally in pink. Different species. I rarely see pink ones on my property.
A closeup of the flowers of the medicinal plant. I planted this one. It was a gift from our accountant.
The flower head is shaped like the neck of a fiddle, hence, the name. The flowers are small, and look nice with a couple of raindrops amongst them.
Two Kinds of Flowers
The white ones are Rock Daisies, and the purple ones are Scorpionweed. Both are small flowers.
These beautiful little plants grow in the shade of a big rock every year.
Wild Desert Garden
I hope you enjoyed your little tour of my garden. Please come back and visit again.
The thorns are wicked, but the flowers smell wonderful and are used to make perfume.
I leave you with a view of this rather spectacular Scorpionweed that grew in our finished garage one year. Alas! It never returned.