Thursday, August 9, 2012

So you want to move to the desert

By Star Lawrence
Reprint rights, $15

I’m 8, behind the garage, planting corn. Into each hill, I insert a still-frozen Mrs. Paul’s fish stick, just like the Pilgrims used to do in the days before Home Depot. My mother is torqued and sends me to the store for more fish sticks.

Now, I am 25, wearing a daring bathrobe and planting scarlet runner beans on my balcony in downtown Washington, DC, overlooking the garden of the exclusive F Street Club. It’s the sixties. McGeorge Bundy and another gentleman I do not recognize lift their champagne glasses to me -- in what I can only assume is a salute to my horticultural prowess.

Another 20 years pass. Washington is going to seed. I plant impatiens in a teeny patch behind my apartment building. Three weeks later, the patch is boarded up to keep panhandlers from climbing out of the woods in back of the building.

I am now the north side of 50. Fortune has transported me to Chandler. To my own home. And, most importantly, to my own yard, a beige quarter acre formerly occupied by a German shepherd with hyperactive intestines.

In front, surrounded by the Arizona-trademark gravel "lawn,” is a 25-foot, brick-rimmed circle. As we passed it, the realtor waved toward it and muttered, "That’s your dirt.” In actuality -- I learn -- the substance in question was widely used during the Cold War to reinforce missile silos.

Growing in my alleged dirt is an aggressively green and leering plant called a bullhead, which produces burrs that drill into tender barefeet with the cruel enthusiasm of a Ninja fighting star.

I water this patch for a while. Nothing else appears. The bullheads are, of course, ecstatic. More and more of them spring into being, whole, a foot across, overnight. I take to calling my front garden the crop circle” in tribute to its truly alien power.

No, not aliens -- spirits -- corrects a psychic friend. She squeezes her eyes shut. A young girl once surprised some robbers in a wagon train on that exact spot and was eliminated as a witness, she informs me. "That’s why nothing will ever grow there,” she adds. The long-forgotten, and most probably apocryphal, slaying is sad -- but that last is tragic!

I get a second opinion. "Wouldn’t a dead body make things grow better?” the Maricopa agricultural extension agent wonders. He decides the soil is too alkaline. I start on a program of amendments that involves hundreds of pounds of manure and gypsum. I top dress with everything but fish sticks.

Then the real carnage begins. Rosemary bushes. Birds of paradise. Salvia. Begonias. A cute little yellow broom bush. My old friends, the scarlet runner beans. All dead. I even put an ad in the Pennysaver and offer to adopt stray plants and trees. I net eleven little Mexican fan palms. All but one to dust return.

The neighbors begin to shake their heads sadly when they see me. That’s just the front. Luckily, my back yard is fenced from view.

The back, you see, is the scene of the most pigheaded, most misguided, most pathetic experiment of all -- making bamboo grow in the desert. Sue me. I love the stuff. And I will have it.

First, I cruised the Internet and found bamboo growers, some of whom mentioned that they had multiple tiny groves in the woods in places like Oregon and Washington state. Lots of tiny little groves. Nah, couldn’t be. Some marijuana growers might camouflage their crop from the air using bamboo -- but not the guy I picked. Surely not. I’ll never know for sure. Anticlimactically, he sent four plants of the legal variety. Meanwhile, my plaintive cries also inspired a buddy on the East Coast to send eight plants.

Well, it would break your heart. Mid-Arizona summer, the huge spaded crescent I prepared for my charges mocks their listless yellow and green skeletons. Even you bamboo haters out there would melt. It’s a pitiful sight. Invasive? These customers couldn’t crawl half a foot even if you hooked each one to a tiny IV.

But at least they are still alive. In back, the toll of the mortals continues. Coral bells, lavender, roses, butterfly bushes (three), a Harry Lauder Walking Stick tree, enough herbs to stock a New Age chain pharmacy, hostas, peppers, even artichokes (from seeds sent by an Internet pal in Tuscany). All dead, dead, dead. I even killed vinca, for heaven’s sake. When that happened, Guinness called.

Now, Star, you are thinking. You live in the desert. Why are you trying to grow plants from those magazines featuring locales that have, shall we say, superior endowments -- such as soil and water? You must learn nature, Jean, study her ways, see what wants to grow and what doesn’t.

To this I answer, nothing really WANTS to grow here. You have to use whips and chairs, drip irrigation, threats, bags of dried excrement, and prayer. Then you learn to live with loss, with disappointment, with the grinding realization that nothing will ever be what you wanted in life. I am I really so deluded, so demented, to want to grow things supposedly suited to Zone 9 in Zone 9?

And -- could it really be this bad? Well, I have to admit my bougainvillea looks nice. The oleander, although stiff and ill-at-ease looking (like McGeorge Bundy until he spotted that long-ago gardener in the low-cut bathrobe) is thriving. Century plants add a Spielbergian prehistoric touch. The crop circle is bright green, cerise, yellow and peach -- with awakened Bermuda grass, agaves, ventana, lantana, portulaca, mint, and succulents, surrounding a cute little in-ground birdbath. Make that three birdbaths.

In back, some on-sale grapevines voted for life (until my dog dragged them from the ground to play with him). Amaranth put on a gaudy show, shaking its plumes like a circus pony. A couple of pounds of wildflower seed produced an impressive thicket, and irises and daylilies shipped by friends from temperate climes have settled into their sun-scorched retirement home.

The hummingbirds, which I think of by their Iraqi name of kiss flowers, visit the feeder everyday and sometimes hover a foot from my nose looking me over. Doves and starlings swarm the birdbaths, sometimes succumbing...

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