Jun 30, 2008

Desert Gardening

by Rene Allen

I have a chancy green thumb. That means whenever I plant something, there is a chance it will grow, but don’t make any bets.

I’ll admit, the odds are against me here in the desert where caliche starts a half inch under what might be considered the worst top soil in the state – gravel, pulverized eucalyptus leaves and dead ants. I’ve added a ton of mulch but I think there is some kind of mulch eater that comes around at night and devours it. Next morning, all that nice, dark stuff is gone and the ground is just as hard as the day before.

There’s also the problem of getting water to the plants. We have run a mile or so of drip line just to keep the mesquite trees alive.

I have good luck with oleanders. Each spring I prune them back to about four inches about the ground and each summer they threaten to take over the front porch. My husband says you can’t kill bougainvillea or oleanders. Obviously, these are good plants for someone like me who has a chancy green thumb.

I have thrown away at least a dozen dead gardenia bushes. I’ve put them in planters and in the earth. Either way, they make it to the monsoon season and then wither into nothing. Likewise for roses, honeysuckle, and a bunch of other green things that don’t like to take chances.

The reason I keep planting things, is because I like to watch them grow. And with vegetables, is anything more satisfying than bringing in that basket of fresh produce, picked from your own vegetable garden?

With my green thumb that basket is mostly an illusion, although this year, I have improved my chances. I discovered the Earth Box. It is a semi-hydroponic, reservoir type of growing system. Basically, it is a black box that has a 2 gallon reservoir in the bottom. This is topped with potting soil, fertilizer and the whole thing covered with a silver plastic shower cap. The plants are put in holes cut into the plastic. A tube gives you access to the reservoir. Every morning, I put 2 gallons of water in the tank, then stand back and watch things grow.

Seriously, I’ve picked about a hundred eggplants this summer. And with all the concern about salmonella infested tomatoes, this was the year my vines decided to bear fruit. I had to cut back the basil – it was so big and heavy it fell over. And I have enough jalapenos to flood the neighborhood. For someone with a chancy green thumb, this has been a good year.

I take nothing for granted, however. I could wake up tomorrow and find everything in the final throes of terminal droop, the kind overdosing on fertilizer and flooding with water does not help. These, by the way, are my first remedies for ailing plants. The fact they already may be over-watered and over-fertilized only occurs to me late in the game, when it is too late for the first aid of restraint.

I’ve lived in Tucson for 35 years. Other than the first ten years when we lived in town on an old chicken farm that grew everything, sort of like the Garden of Eden, I’ve applied my chancy green thumb to the whims of desert gardening. It’s a challenge. But this year, picking all those sweet tomatoes and a hundred eggplants, I’d have to say taking the chance definitely paid off.


  1. Rene! I want one of those boxes! I didn't even plant a garden this year. I had to pick my battles. I get so tired of pulling bermuda grass out of the garden...but not getting it to grow where I want "lawn." grrr...

    I ignored my herb bed...and guess what! the oregano and thyme are taking over!

    Hurrah for taking the chance!

  2. I'm in awe. Living in a mobile home park I decided the easiest thing was to do herbs in big pots. Now the heat is killing it off. I used to have a rosemary plant - when I had a house - that turned into quite a scrub/bush, but I've killed of 2 here and everything else is slowly dieing. I'm thinking the years I spent growing up on a farm didn't do me much good.
    Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

  3. I can't even get oleanders or azaleas to grow. I think I have a brown thumb. I'll have to check into this earth box concept.

  4. I like that term -- chancy thumb. I think I'll borrow it. It took me a year to get back in Sister Gunn's good graces. When we first arrived in Sydney, Australia, as temple missionaries, she greeted me with, "Do you like plants?"

    I replied quickly, but obviously from the depths of weariness from a sixteen hour non-stop flight and immense jet lag. "Yes. I've killed hundreds of them."

    I did better there in the damper, coastal climate. A year later, Sister Gunn (a most cultured and delightful neighbor in the flat across the hall; married to an American but still traveling with a Dutch passport) finally trusted me with a plnt.

    My biggest claim to fame was keeping a boston fern alive for two or three years in my sunny living room in Mesa.

    Yes, earth boxes are great. I had four of them, but loaned them to my youngest daughter. I had them on my patio, didn't know about the two-gallon deal, overflowed the input opening, and eventually rotted the decking below, and the two-foot ornamental edging beneath that. Even my green thumb is costly.


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