In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
December, 2005
Regional Report

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Spot rests between a rock and a hard place, tired after a day of catnapping in the garden.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

What souvenirs do you collect on a day trip or extended vacation? Local folk art, culinary delicacies, tee shirts proclaiming you were there? I like all those choices but more often than not return home to empty a pocket, suitcase, or car trunk filled with "cool" rocks.

I can justify this behavior with a completely straight face. It's research for my livelihood. After all, rocks and boulders are an integral part of desert gardening. Well-sited boulders add structure add texture to a landscape. They help create a regional sense of place that blends into our arid surroundings. Interesting rocks add color and even character, drawing the eye to a particular spot in the landscape.

Rocks also lend a practical hand to growing plants. Have you ever noticed how native plants are often incongruously sandwiched "between a rock and a hard place," where there doesn't seem to be more than a teaspoon of soil? They can survive because the rock material is creating protective microclimates. Nooks and crannies give shelter from intense afternoon sun, and scarce rain collects at their bases. You can mimic nature's cleverness by tucking a small cactus, agave, or aloe in the shadow of a boulder. Soften the look of a larger boulder with an herbaceous plant, such as chuparosa or salvia, or plant wildflowers like desert marigold amidst smaller rock groupings.

Most of us don't have the capacity to move heavy boulders, so hire someone to do it. But if at all possible, visit the supplier and pick out your own rocks before delivery. You may be intrigued by the possibilities. Look for something with visual interest, such as different layers of color, streaking patterns, or a coating of lichens. When adding large rocks and boulders to the landscape, bury the bottom quarter to third of the boulder in the soil. This creates a natural, "been sitting here for centuries" look. Setting them on top of the soil tends to look artificial.

If hoisting heavy rocks isn't your thing, it's easy to collect small rocks. They add great visual interest to container gardens filled with cacti. Have your children find rocks for their own small planter of succulents. Don't forget indoor possibilities. One of my all-time favorite rock finds (on the beach in southern California) sits in a tabletop fountain with falling water splashing over it. Every time I see it, I'm reminded of that gorgeous day at the Pacific Ocean. After all, that's the purpose of a souvenir!


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