You call that a garden?

Midlife crises evoke dreams of a new career and in my case, about fifteen years ago, of becoming a  landscape designer. After a few night courses at the Chicago Botanic Garden, a tentative verdict about my abilities came back from the teachers: I had a good eye for plant combinations but needed to double down on the “plant lists.”

That meant not only memorizing hundreds of plants but also their common and Latin names and their characteristics such as height, girth, foliage, flowering, growth habits and so on, before trying to design anything.

The rock garden at the foot of the back terrace, with the back
curtain of Virginia creeper. 

It’s a bit like learning to cook. You need to become thoroughly acquainted with the taste, texture and appearance of the different ingredients, and what goes with what, before you throw them in a pot, light up the stove and call your friends over for dinner.

Memorizing lists of any kind, though, has never been my forte so the prospects for a blooming career in landscape design wilted early on.

That of course didn’t stop me from buying dozens of gardening books, particularly those dealing with “xeriscaping” or low-water gardening in desert areas.

But again, translating glossy pictures into a real garden has been more difficult than I ever imagined and my expectations have diminished accordingly.

For starters, seven-and-a-half acres is an awfully large palette unless you’re a countess in England with a platoon of born-again serfs at your disposal to plant and nurture your creations. Our man Félix is as diligent a gardener as they come but the gardening challenges here are too much for one man.

During the nine-month dry season, anything you plant is going to struggle until it’s firmly established and until then you have to make regular rounds with fertilizer and a watering hose.

Even if you rely on a four-inch well, a diesel pump and an irrigation system–which would contradict the principles of xeriscaping–you ultimately have to resign yourself to the fact that in the middle of February, a desert landscape looks pretty fried.

The next step is to rationalize and rhapsodize about the beauty of a dusty, fried desert landscape. In other words, to get used to it.

Welcome intruders: Don’t know what these guys are or where
they came from but they look beautiful backlit
by the morning sun. 

When the annual rains come though, chaos ensues  and frustrates whatever notions you have about design, control and which plants go with what. Flowers of all sizes come out of nowhere; climbers embrace trees and cacti. Even the somnolent cacti sprout flowers and fruit on their own and surround themselves with small offspring.

I have valiantly tried to retain a bit of order in a few areas of my garden. One is the rock garden at the foot of the back terrace, now covered with Virginia creeper, large rocks, succulent ground covers, buganvillas and several kinds of cacti.

That and another manicured area have helped me retain some of my gardening self-respect. I can tell myself the ranch is not just a seasonal jungle, running amok when the rains start, a free-for-all of wild flowers I’ve never seen before punctuated by several varieties of rapidly spreading grasses, their delicate plumes swaying in the wind.

The spectacle in the rest of the garden is both reassuring and humbling.

There’s no way Félix is going to win a battle against nature, which ultimately decides what goes where.

I thought the contrast between sturdy cacti and willowy
grasses would be stunning. It was, until Momma Nature
dropped a ton of cosmos and other flowers in between
to “ruin” my clever design. 

A weedy yellow flower climbing up a woody huizache bush, almost completely covering it, may not be anyone’s idea of meticulous landscape design but I’m not going to get in the middle and try to referee that rumble.

Even my efforts to spread some wildflower seeds a reader gave me are inconclusive. I spread the seeds alright, but I forgot what they were so I don’t know if I had anything to do with the million flowers sprouting all over the place, or if the show, again, came free of charge from nature.

The ornamental grasses are spreading so fast that it looks as if I planned their handsome appearance. In fact I just planted a few and the wind took care of the rest by spreading their seeds in all directions.

What started out as one two or three plants of penisetum
grass has turned into a phalanx, steadily marching alongside
 one of the outside walls. 

Stew’s bees seem grateful for the flowers and so do the mice and rabbits and other critters that run around the land, which now have a place to hide from the huffing and puffing noses of our dogs.

Out the office window I just spotted a small bird the size of chickadee but with bright yellow and bright plumage, perched on the plume of one of the grasses, feasting on the seeds. Who would have thought?

Maybe I’ll send pictures of the ranch to the teachers at the school of the Chicago Botanic Garden and credit their fine instruction for all this beauty.

Problem is they really had nothing to do with it and neither did I.


5 thoughts on “You call that a garden?

  1. I love this concept and it seems you have managed it well. I particularly liked the line about your land being “not just a seasonal jungle.” Everything is so glorious right now…


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