From sere to jungly in two weeks

It’s time to plant now that 
the rains have finally arrived 

As Saturday Night Live’s premier journalist Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “It just goes to show you, if it’s not one thing it’s another.” 

A month ago the ranch was tumbleweed-dry, the levels of the rainwater in the cisterns had dropped down to eighteen inches and brush fires rolled across the weedy fields, uncontrolled. Nearby a brush fire reportedly consumed most of eighteen square kilometers and fried nearly all the vegetation at a friend’s ranch. 

A patch of Aeoniums amid Agave tequilana (“Tequila agaves”)

Meanwhile, farmers fooled by last year’s early rains had plowed and planted their fields in late May and now muttered about a looming drought. 

Then two weeks or so ago it started raining, seemingly non-stop. In reality our rains have a perfect sense of timing, starting around six or seven in the afternoon and through the night, but allowing several hours of sun in the morning and early afternoon to charge our solar batteries. 

Still, the sudden deluge is a challenge for the dry-weather or xeric garden I’m trying to create. Two or three weeks ago the ground was cracking and almost impenetrable, even with a pick, and now we have small lagoons, small streams zigzagging toward the low spots and soil turning into something with the consistency and stickiness of chewing gum.

A drop of rain looks like a diamond at
the center of an Echeveria plant.

Anyway, it’s time to launch my landscaping plans, which I’d been noodling in my head for weeks. 

First task was weeding and chopping down dead plants, no small a task that required the temporary hiring of Félix’s young brother Esteban. Many of the cacti, particularly the old prickly pears, had rotted leaves and branches, and even the agave’s lower leaves needed to be pruned off.

But there is only so much clearing we can do without hiring a backhoe. Some weeds and bushes, such as mezquites, huizaches, gatillos and a weed Félix calls “sandredago”, are thorny, desert-tough customers with roots a meter or more deep. They are nearly impossible to dig up so we let them stay and work around them.

Some succulents we’re trying to propagate in our small greenhouse.

Then comes the even harder part: What do we plant in the blank spots left by the clearing?

Landscaping design I would argue is as difficult as high cuisine. Good chefs have a vast repertoire of spices, ingredients and condiments in their heads, in addition to techniques and experience they can summon to create a great dish.

The same with a good landscaper’s knowledge of different plants and where they grow and how they’ll look when grown.

As an amateur gardener, my plant palette is very limited. I rely on about a dozen books and magazines  I’ve collected on succulents, cacti and desert gardening. The latest addition is The Bold Dry Gardening, which I bought while visiting Santa Fe’s Botanical Garden.

A garden we began last year. The prickly pear in
the foreground are Indian Ficus that we
found by the side of a local road. 

Then I shamelessly borrow, plagiarize or steal any ideas that catch my eye—hey, why would they put so many photos in gardening books if they didn’t want you to steal the ideas?

We also make adaptations for the soil and climate in our ranch, and the limitations of nurseries in San Miguel which don’t seem to stray too far from the same-old combos of geraniums, English lavender and daisies, year after year.

One exception is a nursery run by Louis Franke, an American who introduces new plants every year. For the past few years he’s been introducing new varieties of ornamental grasses that remain unknown to other local nurserymen. This year he is selling a bright-red grass which might be a Japanese Blood Grass, though I’m not sure and neither was the young guy who waited on me.

I’ve also spotted a couple of good no-name nurseries I know only by their location near a landmark. One is located near La Luciérnaga shopping center and is the most disorganized, jungle-like operation imaginable, spread over a couple a acres. Yet if you explore you can find clusters of succulents waiting for adoption.

The tall grasses are Mexican Feather Grass, one of my favorites. In
the foreground is a rampant, low-growing plant with
yellow flowers called Bulbimia. It’ll take over the garden if you let it. 

Another nursery is near a place where we pick up our mail and is also run by woman who keeps bringing up new varieties (new to me at least) of succulents available nowhere else, the names of which she doesn’t know.

Indeed finding the name of the plants can be a challenge. In San Miguel there is no neat labeling or pricing of potted plants like you find in the U.S., so nursery people often just make up names (“Shrek’s Ears Cactus”)—and prices—and I negotiate a small discount at the end, though in truth plant material in Mexico is dirt-cheap.

Sometimes I find plant names in one of my books, other times I go with made-up names such as “fox tail grass,” a short ornamental with beautiful white plumes. There is no such variety in my books, so Félix and I have settled on “the grass with the white plumes.”

So it goes with dozens of other succulents and other plants in our gardens. Besides, to remember all the different varieties of euphorbias and opuntias would be as taxing on my old brain as learning all the different kinds of sparrows.

The most inexpensive source of plants, particularly cacti, certainly has to be a nursery we could call “The Here and There.” Last year Félix spotted a different-looking type of prickly pear cactus that had been nearly flattened by a car at a nearby road. We picked up and planted some of the pieces and now we have a thriving patch of Opuntia ficus indica, a type of thornless prickly pear with smooth, shiny leaves.

So between the pictures in the books and magazines, our own ideas and recollections—and a trial-and-error system of placing potted plants next to each other to see what they look like—Félix and I gradually fill in the garden areas, which we have delineated with rocks.

Rocks of all sizes and shapes are the most plentiful natural materials in our ranch, sometimes, it seems, more so than even topsoil.

We planted some gardens last year that have come up nicely. One however, where I pretended to create a rose garden, is not working out at all. A year ago I ran into a nursery having a sale on rose bushes (a dollar a plant, how cheap is that?) and bought about ten, which now are not looking very enthusiastic about life.

The bedraggled rose garden reminds me of a line in the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris,” when one of the characters advises her daughter, “cheap is cheap, you get what you pay for.”

So true of my would-be rose garden. I might have to break down and buy better specimens.

Next post: Preparing the soil, selecting and placing the plants. 

5 thoughts on “From sere to jungly in two weeks

  1. I love your garden! I also have a thing for succulents, and I do have a small collection of them. In fact, my sister has a plant nursery where she almost exclusively grows succulents, along with several species of cacti. I wrote a post about that in my own blog.


  2. I urge caution with prickly pears. I planted one a decade or so ago, smaller than yours, and now it's about 25 feet tall, threatening the very life of anyone who ventures near it.


  3. I have been gardening in the Pacific Northwest for 17 years, but my gardening “roots” are deep in Southern California, especially San Diego. As we contemplate a move to Mexico, I have been dreaming of a new xeriscape in some fantasy home. I would definitely include Mexican bush sage, salvia leucantha, a favourite with butterflies and hummingbirds in our San Diego side yard. For now, I will garden vicariously while you and Felix do the hard work. Buena suerte!


  4. Gardening in the Pacific Northwest is easy I understand. Rainy and damp. I'll look up the salvias you mention. I think the Mexican bush sage if the one with the long strands of blue flowers. We have a Salvia Clevelandia (true) that was doing great until this year. Went to the nursery to get more and they said some sort of infestation had killed all the plantlets this year (?). I have tried to grow Russian Sage (Perovskia) which theoretically should thrive in xeric types of situations but not


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