Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Go With The Flow

When I decided to remove the Bermuda lawn from our front yard, I was also considering how I would redesign the space. With the exception of a few legacy plants, I essentially, for the first time, had a blank canvas to work with. A way for me to get started on the design was to begin observing some key elements of the space: sun, wind, water and traffic.

Since the house faces east, the front yard catches the first rays of the sun once it crests the hill beyond. This is an asset during the temperate months but it can cause some problems in the cooler season. For example, last winter, the area experienced below freezing temperatures. The potted cactus that I had placed on the front porch didn’t survive. The sun blasting over the hill first thing in the morning caused their demise instead of the freezing temperature. Their systems were not able to adjust to the sudden switch between extreme temperatures. This year, I moved every potted plant indoors.

In the winter months, the sun hangs low to the south. The north side of the house receives very little sun and is sheltered between the two houses so it offers the most stable temperature. This year, I started an experiment with this area. I have encouraged succulents and cactus to root in the ground and so far the pioneers appear to be thriving in the area. Fortunately, they haven’t experienced the same level of extreme temperatures as last year. Last year’s cold snap was notably unusual. We still have a few months ahead that could bring freezing temperatures. Time will tell.
Western Tanager

The Pyracantha shrub on our south side provides filtered shade and our two-story house creates shade that begins to creep eastward after the peak of the day. Pyracantha is an attractive evergreen shrub. The delicate white flowers lure the pollinators and the local birds enjoy the red berries. Depending on the season, sparrows, thrashers, doves, cardinals and tanagers congregate to sing and play in the protective shrub. While these little birds might appreciate the lethal thorns, I can’t seem to avoid drawing blood when I get in contact with them. The shrub has been allowed to become quite large throughout the years, even to the point where the trunks have swallowed the iron fencing in some places. My partner and I have been removing the dead branches and pruning it back in stages. Our goal is to encourage the Pyracantha to provide shade and, more importantly, wind shelter without damaging the fence or passing pedestrians. I planted a few passionflower vines in open spaces underneath the Pyracantha hoping that they can use it’s branches for a trellis and provide more wind protection during the windiest months. I can think of reasons why this may not be wise but I have passionflower starters from a previous garden and I’m willing to experiment with the idea.

The yard outside of our fenced in area is exposed to the sun for the most hours and it doesn’t have protection from the wind or the animals. Rocks and wood chips are freely available in the area and will be an easy solution to protect the soil. Selecting Plants suited for the arid climate will be necessary and I plan to incorporate the local species as well. I do not plan on designing a drip system in the areas east of the sidewalk so those plants will need to be satisfied with what nature brings them especially during the time I travel away from home.


I have been observing the wild animal population in the surrounding area that might endanger the health of the garden. Unfortunately a herd of javalinas makes daily forays in the neighborhood. These herbivores can be massively destructive to gardens. We are practicing being diligent in locking our gates to the fenced in area. The challenge is in the plant selection for the unprotected areas. I have seen deer in the nearby hills but not in the neighborhood. They might pose as a problem under the right circumstances. The Bendire’s Thrasher, which lives in the area year round, can also be quite a nuisance although on a smaller scale. Their habit is to fling the dirt around to scare up insects, often leaving uprooted seedlings or groundcover lying in its wake. It can drive me crazy. We have a young cat (with bell attached) that might be helpful in discouraging the Thrashers but I’m not counting on that as a solution. With the amount of birds that live in the area, protecting freshly sown seeds and the subsequent seedlings will have to be cleverly thought out.

In regards to the human activity in the yard, it only took a few months to notice that our foot traffic wore a pattern in the lawn. It became apparent that frequently we were not observing the historical sidewalk’s 90-degree angles. Since our natural impulse was to cut the corners to reach the gates and the entrance doors, I decided that adding alternative pathways would be an important element in the landscape design.

Southern Arizona receives most of its rainfall during the monsoon season, which typically begins near the 4th of July and usually ends in mid September. The daily storms can dump up to 2 inches of water in a few hours. The risk of flooding is added to the fact that the clay and caliche soil in the area slows the absorption of the rainwater.

In 1906, the town of Warren was deliberately designed to address the risk of flooding, which had historically plagued Old Bisbee. The canals were engineered to channel the potential floodwater away from the streets and homes during the monsoon season. Canals constructed in various proportions lines several streets throughout town for this purpose.

West Canal facing northSouth Canal facing east

Our property just so happens to be positioned where several channels converge before the water is sent under the road along a natural wash heading south. Canals line three sides of our home, so we probably see half of Warren’s floodwater pass by. The west canal is located behind our home. The right picture above shows our bridge/driveway to the garage and is a view of the canal on the south side of our house.

Last year, during an exceptionally heavy downpour, organic debris blocked the flow of the street canal at the house up from us. The dam diverted the mini river up my neighbor’s driveway where it followed the sidewalk downhill, continuing into our yard and completely flooded it. Later, I was discussing this phenomenon to a neighbor’s house sitter who was chatty and knew the area well. She was convinced that the water could be intentionally diverted into a private watering system. We couldn’t come up with a solution at that point but I took note of idea for future reference.
South Canal facing west

Notice the south canal is filled with dirt. The town’s topsoil that has settled into the canal is now being manually diverted into our yard. The canal topsoil holds a fair amount of small stones that I can utilize in the yard as well. It takes a good deal of sweat and sore muscles to shovel, screen, and then wheel the dirt up into the yard. The dirt is probably better than what I can buy at the local garden center (I’m never happy with store bought soil) plus the canals will work more efficiently without the soil buildup. The best part is the dirt is readily available for the price of the labor. I would prefer working out in the vitamin D rich sun to workouts in the gym any day. In that vein, moving rocks has been my weight lifting program. I want to point out that my partner deserves credit in his assistance in both of these activities. I recognize that the dirt may have the harmful metals found in mining towns so it will be placed in areas that are not going to be used for edible vegetation and I will practice the use of phytoremediation.


The photo on the right is a rock bed that I created to lead water through a run-off opening into the canal. Previously, wild grasses had established themselves in front of the hole. They would catch debris, causing a dam, which would effectively slow the water’s progress and cause flooding onto the pedestrian bridge seen in the above photo center. The dirt is mainly clay because the topsoil has been washed away. It requires a good soak and a crow bar to dig a deep hole.

Below is an illustrated map of an aerial view of our yard. The arrows and paths in black illustrate the pedestrian movement. The access to water is located toward the back end of the house on the left and the hose is dragged along the left side following the black pathway to have access to the front of the yard. The blues areas show the flow of water run-off. 


In the past, I practiced T’ai Chi and Qigong. My teacher often reminded me of the lesson of the pine tree and willow. 

...wu-wei, meaning not to force, refers to what we understand of one's acting accordingly to the nature, of one's moving in order to avoid a stroke, of one's swimming downstream, sailing before the wind, rolling like the waves or one's bending in order to win. (From Alan Watts - "Tao: the Watercourse Way").

The well-known parable about the pine and the willow tree perfectly illustrates the concept of nondoing in Taoism. Being covered with snow, the pine falls down as it is rigid and resisting, whereas the willow, being pliant, bends to the ground and this way, the snow falls down from it.

But nondoing is not pure absence or refrain from interfering with things, it is also a way of acting in accord with the very course of the things. In other words, we have here what was called the line of minimal resistance.

The exercise of studying the property’s flow systems before digging in helped me understand what is naturally occurring in the space and it inspired me to invent ways to work with the systems. The line of minimal resistance is a difficult practice for me but I’m truly grateful for my teacher’s voice replaying in my head. For me, both idioms “bend like a willow” and “go with the flow” serve as reminders during the process of designing a sustainable garden.
Just for fun, here is a video I made that captures the lightning during the monsoon season in southeast Arizona.

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