A secret desert garden grows
Aspen, CO Colorado
There is a part of my garden that hardly anyone sees. I call it my desert-rock garden.
Gardeners are opinionated and fiercely individualistic, as though you hadn’t noticed. They constantly learn from other gardeners and even help one another, but they don’t take kindly to direct interference. That is how our property came to be divided into three garden zones ” one for Gerry, one for our daughter Miranda and the rest for me. Miranda’s sister didn’t take up gardening until she had a yard of her own, but that’s another story.
Gerry and Miranda got the steeply sloping backyard, and it was a big project to make it accessible and usable. Gerry wanted a flat area to grow vegetables, so instead of terracing it like much of the rest of the yard, he excavated ” with pick and shovel, mind you ” until he came level with the house; then he and Miranda built retaining walls with landscape timbers on three sides surmounted by a deer fence.
The fourth side is for ingress and egress; it includes steps on the east and west sides of the house and a gravel path that runs the length of the north side.
The base of the retaining wall is stepped into two narrow terraces.
Gerry has devoted the lowest one to his collection of irises and has gradually improved the soil, but the other terrace was left rough. The sloping unadulterated subsoil is littered with stones and protruding rocks ” this became Miranda’s garden. She began her garden with cacti, never amending the soil, and never looked back.
The high south-facing wall is both sheltering and exposed. It holds sunshine and slowly releases its warmth at night, but snowfall melts almost immediately, denying plants a protective snow cover. It has all the advantages and disadvantages of a planter; warming up quickly and drying out just as quickly. Rainfall flows off or drains away fast. Cold air flows down Basalt Mountain and settles between the wall and the house. But even the most inhospitable places in the world have plants suited to just their conditions and none other. It has been an adventure finding and propagating the plants that are just right for this ecological niche. By trial and error, I have found some and to my delight and surprise, some have found me.
One of my favorite finds is Fendler’s sundrops ” how could you not like a flower called a sundrop?
Calylophus hartwegii fendleri to be precise, is a Southwestern native, a spreading mound of numerous fine leaves and 2-inch-square yellow flowers which open in the morning and turn orange and pink as they die at the end of the day, with a charming multicolored effect. It blooms so generously and so long in the hottest part of the summer that it is hard to believe each blossom lasts but a day.
The seeds are difficult to germinate, and maybe that explains why it isn’t a staple in the trade.
Bright green and yellow Fendler’s sundrops combine beautifully with the soft feathery gray foliage of fringed sage, Artemisia frigida, whose 1-foot flower spikes are distinguishable from the stems only by a slight change in texture. I planted the original seedling, and it has spread gently throughout the border from there.
English lavender has become an unexpected companion, adding its cool color to the mix; probably the Munstead strain of Lavandula angustifolia, which has self-sowed in front of the house, found its way here somehow. I grow many kinds of lavender, but none performs as well as these volunteers, baking in their infertile soil; they are compact and dense and show no tendency to get straggly or misshapen.
One of a handful of true native wildflowers of my property, creeping globemallow, Sphaeralcea coccinea, is a very small plant for such a preposterously large name. This pure orange delight has sprinkled its way into all the very dry places in my garden, including the desert rock garden, sometimes as widely spaced individual plants but frequently as a very loose groundcover. It is deeprooted and one of very few plants I have that prosper and seed around with no extra water whatsoever.
After my daughter was fledged, her garden reverted to me, and I finally got it ” I had generously shared the least promising, most challenging part of our yard with a beginning gardener. Now this hot, dry, stony place and the plants that call it home have become very dear to my heart.