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New Garden in the High Desert

The site I selected for a perennial garden is generic gray gravel that slopes toward the same gray of the street, a chipped pavement edge without curb and gutter, or sidewalk. Gardening is inquiry as well as planting, and the dandelion roots I dug from this street-side wasteland taught me soil depth and where the water seeps.

Last winter, on walks, I noticed an attractive shrub with evergreen leaves and smooth red bark and eventually learned this was Manzanita (Arctostaphylos), a bush that grows wild in this region of high desert and pine forests. I transplanted two pot-grown manzanitas. One is now covered with pale green buds but the other is adapting more slowly.

Day Lilies – From An Older Planting

The success of the flowers is mixed. The salvia’s long purple spikes (fancied by bees) finished blooming and I cut them off, hoping for still more blooms this summer. The day lilies that were here when we came finally have opened and, so far, all are a generic orange and quite odorless. Why not flamboyant lilies that can fill a room with fragrance?

The deer (or jays) plucked a yarrow bud and several pale columbine blooms, and one morning I found both iris blossoms neatly sliced and lying on the ground. Now flattened between two dictionaries, nothing remains of the sweet-spicy scent that enticed me to buy this iris. Maybe next year.

One afternoon, I watched a flicker intently picking and swallowing something from a spot on the gravel. Over and over, he repeated the same motion until a passing car spooked him and he flew into the pines. I checked. The flicker’s dinner: a nest of ants.

Establishing A New Garden Takes Time

The flower-vores also bit off and consumed (I assume) half the snapdragon blossoms. Are pink snapdragons tasty? Or were the snapdragons just another course in the floral smorgasbord? Was it deer or mice? Or the scrub jay on a tasting spree?

The buds of the purple coneflower (Echinaceae) were neatly nipped, but the flamboyant pink phlox flowers faded away naturally. Some of the sunflowers I planted from seeds were chewed so nothing remains but stems.

I hesitate to admit that I rescued two dying clumps of fescue grass by chopping each into several pieces. Now the grass tufts resemble pin cushions but by next year, hopefully, the fescue clumps will be the size of porcupines. Of the silver-leafed tribe, both the Santolina and Lavender have long stems lofting buds that are in no hurry to open.

Regarding shrubbery. A row of arborvitae—columnar evergreens—were already here. The name arborvitae comes from Latin: tree of life (not to be confused with long lived, I have learned). After one arborvitae died and others had browning branches, we called an arborist who suggested the roots might be encapsulated in clay. This yard is a conglomeration of dirt, rock, and wood chips, relics from construction and landscaping. Indeed, clay, still with partial wrappings of burlap and plastic twine, is no improvement. Apparently even in warm soils, burlap decomposes slowly. With a trowel, I removed a good portion of the clay around the arborvitae roots and added soil mixed with a mycorrhizal inoculant that the arborist recommended. So far, so good (two weeks later). No more arborvitae have died.

Moving to a new place, you get the yard as it exists, even if illogical, like arborvitae with clay-bound roots. Why not plant a nice row of climbing roses—adding beauty and fragrance? Or espaliered apple or pear trees (inside the fence, out of reach of deer)? Or sweet scented mock orange?