Borrowed Landscapes

Tucson garden designer Scott Calhoun invites the desert into our yards

It is the colonist's default position to import his culture rather than give in and go native. I learned this early, growing up in Prescott, a town that for most of its history has tried to be more Midwestern than the Midwest.

For several generations, Anglo Arizonans tried their best to grow green lawns and annual flower beds in their heat-blasted yards, figuring they could ignore nature's unbending rules in their gardens, just as they had when they dammed the rivers and paved over the desert. Fortunately, this trend has been dying for a long time, and today, there's no shortage of gardeners, garden designers and garden writers who advocate the use of only native, or at least desert-adapted, plants in Arizona gardens. Tucson is a leader in this new golden age of nativism, and one of the movement's most passionate heralds is local writer and garden designer Scott Calhoun.

In The Hot Garden: Landscape Design for the Desert Southwest, his third book for Rio Nuevo in the last four years, Calhoun includes what he calls "The Desert Gardener's Bill of Rights for Homeowners' Associations." The list of eight "rights" is also a perfect distillation of the few simple truths that the desert gardener should remember: Grow native plants found in the wild within 50 miles and at an elevation within 1,000 feet of your lot; harvest rainwater; let plants grow according to their own wild hearts instead of pruning them into submission; let your garden go dormant during the cold and the dry months; plant wildflowers; and design your garden or yard so that it invites outdoor living—which means plenty of shade and interesting, personal aesthetic touches.

Perhaps Calhoun's most cogent message, and one he has repeated in each of his books, is that we need to look to the desert itself for our garden-design inspiration. His most trustworthy design tools, he writes, are his hiking boots.

"The best Southwestern gardens are closely wedded to surrounding wildlands," he writes. "These gardens are built by people with hiking boots who travel into canyons and know exactly where a ragged rock flower grows, or what sort of wildflowers will colonize a sandy wash, and how a hedgehog cactus can thrive atop a rocky outcrop."

Several times in this useful, entertaining, and beautifully photographed and designed book, Calhoun writes about letting plants have their "dignity." His point is, I think, that the desert's native flora will thrive only under natural conditions; you can't keep a wild thing hemmed for too long before it revolts, or dies.

That's not to say that he advocates tossing some seeds in the backyard and seeing what happens. More, Calhoun seems to subscribe to a liberal interpretation of a Japanese design principal which he translates as "borrowed landscapes." In the book, Calhoun talks about borrowed landscapes in relation to the Southwest's mountain ranges, and how a "picturesque view is preserved and framed by plantings." In Tucson, where the Santa Catalinas and other sky-island ranges loom over just about all of our yards, this is a particularly useful technique.

But Calhoun takes this concept a step further. He wants us to "borrow" not only the "million-dollar views" of the desert, but the entire wild landscape around us to create a kind of controlled wilderness where plants and humans can find common cause. To Calhoun, the garden is a sacred space where we should be reminded that we live in a rare and exotic land that deserves to be celebrated every day. The desert garden also has its utilitarian aspects, Calhoun shows us. Throughout the book, there are myriad sidebars called "Eat Your Garden," where he provides harvesting instructions and recipes for prickly-pear fruit, mesquite beans and other native edibles.

The Hot Garden—along with Calhoun's two other books, Yard Full of Sun (2005) and Chasing Wildflowers (2007)—belongs in any library of gardening books, or, indeed, in any collection of books about the Southwest. There is one warning I should mention: If you are only a casual plant-lover, be prepared for an uptick in your enthusiasm for digging in the dirt. Calhoun's casual, friendly writing style, and his hot-blooded love of the Southwest and all its weird, contradictory bounty, is infectious in the extreme. Read his work at your own risk, and don't be surprised if you find yourself sweating in the backyard, installing your own little patch of desert.

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