By GEORGE BROOKBANK
I’ve been writing a gardening column for the newspapers since I first came to Tucson some 35 years ago, and it’s been an enjoyable activity. I like to think that it has been a useful one and people have learned good useful information from the articles.
But my story is now coming to an end. This is my last column for the Citizen.
It’s been rewarding. I felt good helping people fine-tune their gardening and landscaping skills to overcome unfamiliar desert conditions.
So, with a cheerful farewell, here is a partial personal primer on how to meet the challenges of growing plants in the desert.
• Know your soil
In my case, it began a long time ago with my soils professor at the College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad in the West Indies, stressing the need for any agricultural development to be preceded by digging inspection pits throughout the area. He had us students walk down into the pits, scraping samples of soil from different layers for visual observation. Later, the samples were chemically analyzed to confirm, or correct, our thoughts about what we saw.
He told us of a large international tire company that had decided to grow its own rubber trees. Hundreds of acres of rain forest were cleared. The soil seemed, on the surface, to be fertile, but in a short time those acres turned to a sandy waste. None of the scientists had bothered to look under the top layer of accumulated leaf litter to discover the poor soil that lay beneath. Likewise, here in the desert we need to know what we’ve got in the way of soil if we want to be successful in raising plants.
• Choose plants suited to our environment
If a plant comes to us from a long way off where conditions are different, there’ll be extra maintenance work in caring for it locally. And, in direct relationship, the greater the travel distance, the greater the trouble.
• Water carefully
Plants need adequate water, especially during a growth period, usually in the spring and the fall. During winter and summer, desert trees and shrubs are likely to be dormant and don’t need a lot of water, though they must have some. Water deeply so that the moisture lasts longer and you avoid salts accumulating by evaporation from surface sprinkling. Don’t spray foliage because our water has too many salts in it. Use “gray water” on arid-land trees and shrubs, and conserve good water for the imported kinds of plants. If your washing powders contain sodium and borax, don’t use gray water. Hold rainfall on your property by building berms and banks, to stop it from running away. Divert rainfall from the roof and driveways to your plants, that are better clustered instead of being scattered.
• Plant and garden in fall
The air is cooling and the soil still is warm from summer. The conventional spring planting is “back to front” for our desert because the soil is still cool from winter and the intense heat of summer quickly comes before new plants get their roots growing.
• Protect plants from desert animals
Depredation by desert animals is inevitable when you change the environment by growing lush plants and irrigating them. Animals will be attracted to your landscape because you provide them with food and water. Wire-mesh barriers are perhaps the best way to save your plants.
• Enjoy your time outdoors
Work wisely, and don’t overdo it.
• Never give up!
If results seem unsatisfactory, find ways to do things differently.
Goodbye, and good luck.
George Brookbank is a horticultural consultant and author of three desert gardening books. He can be reached at 4067 N. First Ave., Tucson, AZ 85719; call 888-4586; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.