I often hear (or read), with more than a twinge of envy, the yearly plight of gardeners who live in climes more moderate than mine: that of the overgrown garden. They post pictures on Facebook of two-foot-long just-discovered zucchini, which had been hiding in the undergrowth of lamentably uncontrolled veggies.
“If you only knew!” I silently respond, a pout on my lips, “how wonderful it would be to have things actually GROW like that!!”
Gardening in the desert is hard work. It’s a labor of love, yes…
In fact, I was reflecting earlier this week, on how gardening feeds my love — and increases my understanding of the process — of being a part of the growth and development of things: of children into responsible, loving adults; of two separate people into a carefully-tended, history-filled, long-term marriage relationship; of increasing spiritual maturity; of lifelong learning and the gaining of new skills… And more. I love to be a part of the growth of something.
So, it’s not like gardening is all pain. There are few places I’d rather be during summer days, even in the blazing heat, than out in my garden. And minutes after I wake, often still in my pajamas, cup of coffee in hand*, I take advantage of the quiet of sleeping children, and the shade and not-yet-blazing heat, and stumble into the first 10-15 minutes of my day (sometimes longer) slowly circling my garden, crouching every couple of feet to inspect growth, check on the presence of pests, watch a honeybee deep in the bowels of a gorgeous squash blossom, pull a weed or two, lament anything dead, and generally take stock of the state of affairs in that little patch of earth. I listen to the Verdin family chirp in a nearby Desert Ironwood tree, breathe in the not-quite-cool early morning air, and soak in the green. It’s a lovely, lovely way to start the day.
Still, though, gardening in the desert takes concerted effort and determination, and one can’t let off for more than a day or two — at most — or that will be the death of the garden.
It dawned on me recently why the “soil” in the Sonoran Desert — which is actually a heavy clay called caliche — is so dead. Under normal conditions — that is, conditions in environments where it actually rains — a plant goes through a cycle with the ground in which it grows:
- Eventually the plant, or very least, part of it — like spent blossoms and old leaves — dies, and that dead part settles onto the ground below the plant.
- The dead bits decompose with the help of, among other things, moisture.
- The decomposition replenishes the soil, returning the nitrogen-rich matter that is the nursery for new growth.
That’s elementary school science, of course. But it has really been revelatory to me to understand that the reason that doesn’t happen here is because this: the dead plant parts simply dehydrate, instead of decompose! If there is no moisture, there is no decomposition. If there is no decomposition, nothing returns to the soil; it just sits on top the ground, withers, and eventually blows away in the hot wind.
I’m starting to be concerned that the pay-off on this post, dear reader, is going to be highly disappointing to you.
Are you still with me?
I hope so.
Here was the source of my giddiness this morning: In spite of the close, daily inspection my garden receives — not only in the morning, but multiple times daily — in spite of my daily work and close involvement with the growing things in my veggie patch, I FOUND SOMETHING HIDDEN!
It is not, my friends, a two-foot long zucchini. It is, however, nearly eight ounces of green beans. TRIUMPH!!
They’re not beautiful, I’ll give you that.
I should have known better, actually, than to plant them. I bought them from a seed company whose gardens are in Maine. MAINE.
Note to self: It’s beyond foolish to expect beans grown in Maine to perform similarly in the deserts of Arizona.
This season, I have watched my pole beans (they’re a French heirloom variety called Émérite — read a whole post of an Oregon gardener singing the praises of Émérite here) have trouble germinating, but then spring up with vigorous, hopeful growth, and be covered with delicate lavender blossoms just in time for the desiccating 100° – 115°F rainless winds to blow, and for the cursed Western Flower Thrips to move in, for a good third of their leaves to fall, and for me to mourn the thousands of tiny, curved almost-beans which will, apparently, never grow to the “heavy producer of attractive, light green, straight, pencil- slim round pods” of which I had read, visions of haricot verts dancing in my head.
I had resigned myself to simply trying to keep a tiny breath of life in the vines, and that, hopefully, they would produce something edible, come fall’s cooler weather, when many desert gardens thrive.
However, this morning, I noticed, among the 4″ thick shady, damp mulch of Palo Verde “straw” and dead bean leaves, a fairly good-sized bean. I reached in and plucked it. Then, I saw another. I lifted away some of the mulch and found more. Then, more! All of the mature beans were very close to the ground, perhaps because it’s cooler there, and less affected by the withering desert air.
Since most of these beans were growing in damp, over-shaded, conditions, ¾ covered in mulch, they’re not very attractive. They’re pale and scarred. However, they’re tasty. Nearly a half-pound of them. They will be dinner, tonight.
I finally have my overgrown garden, in which edible things hide, waiting to be uncovered and give sweet surprise.
*Every woman should be so lucky as to marry a coffee snob who takes it upon himself to select beans, freshly grind, and brew the daily coffee.
**I must also say that the desire for jungle-like growth lives in uneasy tension with my desire to have a well-tended garden. The words “well-tended garden” frequently filter through my head… The phrase infers a great many metaphors, all lovely. Oh, well. I guess this will be one of the things I cannot have both ways. Snap.