March 23 - March 29, 1995

[Out There]

Desert Dopes

By Kevin Franklin

CALIFORNIA, Washington and Colorado residents have undergone a tremendous migration the likes of which hasn't been seen since the North American bison thundered across the plains.

And lately, it seems, they all came here.

I would like to be a xenophobe. When some jerk with a Colorado plate on his car zooms past me on a dirt road and almost hits a yearling calf, I want to holler, "Screw you! Go back where you came from!"--or something more colorful. But I can't honestly hate out-of-staters. Truth be told, it wasn't that long ago I was trying to make a left turn on Broadway at 4:30 p.m.

In the intervening years, I lost my eastern accent, learned not to wrestle with cholla cactus and to stand in the shade wherever possible. And I bought more guns. In short, I've become a proud Arizonan, the lunatics in the state legislature not withstanding.

Also, I don't water the damn grass.

In the yards belonging to ex-Californians of recent vintage, there seems to be a dismaying amount of newly-planted grass. In defense of the Golden State refugees, grass and tulips also blight the yards of some longtime Arizonans, too, I'm sorry to note.

One could say it's a minor miracle that a desert rat can cultivate a plant evolved in the cool meadows of Holland. Of course, I've also seen guys push real hard on doors that say "pull." And even if they're able to break down the door frame, it doesn't mean it's the best way to get inside--or that it deserves praise, especially if it's your door.

Planting water-demanding plants in Arizona is the same sort of logic-defying activity. There are very few things these plants can do that our local desert adapted species can't. I'll put a desert golden poppy up against a tulip any day. You can bet your britches the native talent won't run home whining about bruised petals.

And desert strains don't waste our water.

Planting native species just makes sense.

"It works better," says Bruce Evans, a Tohono Chul Park docent specializing in plants. "You don't have as much intensive labor. If you water more, you're more likely to get weeds. Generally the natural stuff is cleaner."

Evans also points out that local plants are adapted to local soil conditions and that they produce less refuse to be raked up.

"You don't have to pour fertilizer," Evans says. "It knows when to turn off and when to drop leaves."

Every Wednesday and Saturday Tohono Chul Park sponsors tours on xeriscaping, or landscaping with desert-adapted plants.

There are a myriad of reasons to go native, but one of the most compelling ought to be the threat of a water shortage this summer. Tucson Water officials say agua may be rationed, depending on the amount of rain we get. Watering outdoor plants may be one of several prohibited activities.

Even if Tucson never endures legally enforced water conservation, the very possibility ought to get us city dwellers thinking. The number of people who have no idea where our water comes from or if our supply is limited is worrisome.

According to Southern Arizona Water Resources Association statistics, the groundwater wells that deliver Tucson's water are extracting it at least twice as fast as rainfall and runoff are replenishing it.

Tucson and outlying communities are continuing to grow. It doesn't take genius to do the math. An unchanging supply burdened by a growing demand will eventually run out. Even with Central Arizona Project water, our supply is still limited.

But a few folks are trying to show the rest of the city that landscaping with native species can be exceptionally attractive.

"People come in and they want to plant grass and gardenias," Evans says. "That's because they had it back home. I find out why they like that plant."

Once he knows what the desired characteristics are--shade, fragrance, color, whatever--Evans usually is able to direct that person to a native substitute.

In the case of the gardenias, Evans suggested an Eisenhardia tree, which provides wonderful shade while its vanilla-scented flowers are reminiscent of gardenias.

"Planning is the most important step in xeriscaping," says Tohono Chul docent Al Percy, adding that xeriscaping is more than just plants. It includes designing land to use natural rainfall, hardscaping with tile and rocks and installing a drip irrigation system.

The basic principal is to plant shade trees, vines and maybe a small plot of grass close to your house. That way you reap the most foliage enjoyment and save household cooling costs. As you move farther from the house, make use of more arid plants. In a sense xeriscaping creates a personal oasis.

I followed Percy on a xeriscape tour of the park, and he pointed out the dazzling possibilities of desert plants.

After going on the tour, Percy wants people to realize the potential benefits of xeriscaping, both economic and environmental.

"I hope," Percy says "they get to feel like they're part of the desert instead of wanting to make the desert like them."

Incidentally, Percy was driving around with a California license plate just a couple of years ago.

Maybe I'll start letting out-of-state cars merge again. There might be somebody behind the wheel who cares as much about the desert as I do.

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March 23 - March 29, 1995

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