A young sunflower enjoys the sun before the onslaught of summer.
Like the first wave of settlers to this Land of Perpetual Sunshine, I thought all this solar power simply meant a longer growing season than I had been used to in Colorado. Like those early westward expansionists, I took the surprising abundance of vegetation in Tucson, Ariz., to mean that things could actually grow in the desert. While they decided that their home crops of cotton, citrus, and pecans would produce that much more with all this extra sunshine and no winter to speak of, I decided that it meant I could grow the vegetables of my red-hued homeland – herbs, spinach, pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peas – with little issue. We both ignored the fact that this is a desert, and deserts are, generally, very hot and very dry and any plant seen to survive here has a wicked cache of water-saving and cooling tricks up its branches.
The settlers’ mistaken judgment laid the foundation for our current water crisis and created a cornucopia of pollens perpetually wafting through our air and into our nasal passages. The crops they chose release their pollens into the air, to be later brought back to terra firma by rain. We don’t have rain here – at least not enough to wash out that much pollen – so it hangs out in the air until we breathe it in and sneeze it out (plants native to here spread their seed through burs and stickers that hook onto any passing creature and get transported to a new home). So, in addition to a longer growing season, we have a longer allergy season.
My mistaken judgment resulted in an annual cycle of hope, delusion, frustration, bitterness, resignation, and renewed hope. The first year I called Tucson home, I kept it simple and scattered some native wildflower seeds in the dirt plot on either side of my front walkway. One side of the walk included a short, wide mesquite tree, which I worried might shade the flowers too much and inhibit their growth. Putting faith in that idea of “native” though, and working from the hope and delusion that start my growing season, I scattered, I watered, and I waited. I know some prefer seedlings, but I can’t bring myself to give up the miracle of a seed for the quick-fix of a seedling.
That miracle occurred, and the front of my yard was full of tender, green-stemmed flowers with red, orange, and yellow hats – for a week. And then, May turned to June, which in Southern Arizona doesn’t bring flowers, showers, or anything else cute and endearing. June brings sun – hot, dry, direct sun that beats incessantly down on all creatures for more and more minutes each day.
To say that my wildflowers on the side of the yard that did not have the protective shade of the mesquite “died” would not begin to adequately express their demise. In other places, plants that die curl up, fall over, and work their way back into the game as compost. Here, plants that have been killed by the sun stand like torched sentinels, screaming to all who pass, “Seek shelter! Wear your sunscreen!” with their perfectly erect, perfectly frozen, perfectly burnt shells of their former verdant selves. It happens in an instant but haunts your garden memory forever.
Since that first season, I’ve tried to adapt. I start growing earlier. I use straw mulch to ease the evaporation of water from the soil. I add potting soil to the barren soil that seems to best support succulents and the Valley Fever virus. I build raised beds, created emergency shade from lawn chairs, and plead and pray for the sun to be gentle to my garden. And each year, as the first vulnerable green shoots break through the earth, I accept that, as with all miracles, it’s best I enjoy them in that precious moment and hold no further expectations.