I love gardens that sit well in the surrounding landscape, gardens with a strong sense of place. Christina’s garden in Italy transitions smoothly from formal planting through more informal massed perennials, grasses, shrubs and tree and on into the wild natural landscape beyond. James Golden’s ‘Federal Twist’ is full of naturalistic planting that helps settle the huge garden into the surrounding wooded landscape. Sarah is creating a garden at Hillwards with boundaries designed to embrace the surrounding countryside while still providing some much needed shelter. Of course, when you find yourself gardening in a suburban setting, surrounded by identikit houses, probably over looked, this sense of place is hard, if not impossible, to embrace. Then gardens like Mark and Gaz’s celebration of all things exotic create their own world in microcosm.
Bill’s garden in Arizona has Superstition Mountain as a backdrop, and over the past couple of decades he has created a garden with a strong sense of place, using lots of native plants. I’ve wanted to do a post about Bill’s garden ever since I started blogging. I fell in love with the desert landscape and strange – to me – plants on my first visit back in 2006. I’d always assumed I would get the opportunity to walk around the garden with Bill, that he would be able to tell me the names of the plants, explain the choices he had made, the plans he had for its future. This is most definitely second best, but hopefully it will give you a feel for the garden, and perhaps the man behind it too.
The house sits in a plot of around 2 acres. The house itself was originally a rather plain box, and Bill remodelled it extensively over the years, inside and out, including adding the stepped detail you can just about see around the roof to echo the local vernacular. I’d seen desert before, in Utah, California, New Mexico, but this was my first experience of a desert garden – no lawn, and plants that were very alien to me.
I’m not sure Bill would ever have described what he did as xeriscaping, but he certainly only used plants adapted to the arid environment, most of them native to Arizona, and used mulch and raised beds and contouring of the landscape to minimise the water requirements. New plants were watered until established, but then everything was left to get on with it. What strikes me, going back over the pictures I and MIL have taken of Bill’s garden over the past few years, is that although the plants are very different to the ones I am familiar with, the way they are used is somehow very familiar.
By using native plants, like the giant Saguaro, the garden blends smoothly into the surrounding wilder landscape.
Plants and hard landscaping are combined to create dramatic views.
Textures are combined in interesting ways, here agave and a desert ironwood (Olneya tesota)- at least, I think that’s an ironwood, I can’t get a detailed enough view of the leaves to be sure.
The wonderful textures of the plants were the main thing I fell in love with, though with cacti you have to be careful. These “Teddy Bear” Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) may look delightfully cuddly but having had a close encounter with them in Joshua Tree National Park I left tending them to Bill and FIL, those spines can fly out at you and turn you in to a pin cushion!
Bill planted lots of cacti of various sorts, sometimes massed in raised beds, sometimes as low level interest in island beds. A rather different form of ground cover to what I am used to, but so beautiful in their own way. I’ve never been one of those people who grows cacti. Between the cholla and a much earlier childhood memory of stroking the cactus collection in my Great Grandparents’ conservatory, I wouldn’t have described myself as a fan, but I fell in love with them once I saw them growing like this in a garden.
A Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus), I’m not sure what sort.
A California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus), I love the colour.
The Violet Prickly Pear (Opuntia gosseliniana), my personal favourite.
I’m not sure what this is, Bill used a bluey-green form too, but I love the shapes it makes, and how it glows in the sunset. In fact the light adds a whole new dimension to gardening, the clear desert air seems to bring with it stunning sunsets that cause plants that are otherwise almost plain to glow. I’ve never been out there when the cacti or the trees were in full bloom, but I imagine it is breathtaking.
Gardening in the harsh Arizona environment, with this type of plant, certainly brings its own particular challenges. I’ve mentioned the Teddy Bears with a bite, but where else would you find yourself having to accommodate a Saguaro beside your bin store?
Another challenge has been managing the run-off from the infrequent but violent rainstorms that occur each year. Bill bought in and moved hundreds of tons of earth over the years, roping in willing visitors to help whenever possible, to level out and grade the garden so that water was channelled away from the house, used to irrigate beds, and ultimately taken safely away. Each plant has a small piece of pipe or plastic bottle with the bottom cut out buried along side it, so that when the water runs it goes directly to the roots. If you look at the photo above of the Chollas, you will see one of several drainage ditches with a retaining wall. Over the years Bill noted where the water tended to run, where it tended to erode planting beds, and moved plants or dug ditches and built walls to manage the water better.
One advantage was that brush cut from land he was still reclaiming together with tree and shrub prunings could be buried – a process occasionally aided by the ingenious use of a slide…
Dirt deliveries were a regular occurrence on our visits, sometime arriving before it was fully light.
The lorry would drive around the garden dumping loads where Bill was working. Each load would be levelled by hand, stamped down, and then driven over to settled it. On one occasion the truck got stuck in still-soft ground, and had to be rescued by a giant yellow digger! Not only is this gardening in an environment that is alien to me with plants that are a mystery to me, this is gardening on a totally different scale!
Its striking that a desert garden has been so shaped by the need to manage water. There’s either none at all or way too much. Inevitably some of the soil so painstakingly distributed across the garden is eroded when the storms come and has to be replenished. This means there has to be room for a truck to get around the garden to distribute it, hence the island beds with large areas of soil in between. Not only that, but ‘The Wash’ – a drainage ditch that is meant to control the run-off from the storms for the houses along its run – bisects the garden. Keeping it clear where it runs across the property is one of the ongoing maintenance chores. More than that, the violence of the water means that Bill has had to rebuild the bridge over the wash that connects the two parts of the garden, and rebuild the retaining walls to prevent large sections of garden being washed away.
Bill was a man with tremendous creativity, and he poured that creativity into shaping the house and garden. Both were very much ongoing projects, and it makes me so sad to realise that he is no longer around to spend hours positioning a new tree or building a new garden structure. I will miss his humour, his generosity, his sharp mind. Most of all I will miss the opportunity to walk around his garden with him, listening to him enthuse about the plants he loved and combined so skilfully.