Desert yardwork

I’ve been doing lots of yardwork lately, pruning back trees that haven’t been pruned since before we moved in, starting a compost pile, thinking about maybe attempting to plant some tepary beans this monsoon season, and so on.

One thing about desert yardwork is, you find a lot of dead growth.

Or a lot of what looks like dead growth. The desert is tricky that way. Look carefully, and the brown branch you were about to break off may turn out to have new green growth sprouting out of its base. Or, it may not have growth now, but if you come back in a few weeks or years, it will.

It’s easy to want to draw metaphors from this, to writing and to other life endeavors. That even when things seem dead, they’re just lying fallow, and will bud and bloom again when they’re ready.

But it’s not that simple. Some dead-looking desert plants really do have steady cycles of seeming-death and vigorous growth. The ocotillo is one of these; most of the year it looks like a bunch of dead thorny sticks stuck in the ground, but every wet cycle it bursts into green leaves, and every spring, rain or not, it sends up flags of red flowers.

But sometimes, a dead-looking gray branch really is dead.

And sometimes it’s dormant, but not because that’s the natural way of things. Maybe there hasn’t been enough water a particular year; or maybe there’s been frost somewhere there usually isn’t. Or maybe the plant is an import from elsewhere, and isn’t getting the things it needs to survive here: fertilizer, or mulch, or watering beyond what the desert provides. The desert is a harsh place; sometimes a plant goes to brown or gray because it never belonged here in the first place.

Or maybe it does belong here, but was planted in an inauspicious spot, one with hard soil or too little shade or bad drainage of water. It often comes down to water, one way or another. Some native plants die from too much water, too.

Maybe it’s because I’m a desert transplant myself, but I’ve been fooled more than once. Sometimes things are just lying fallow and will revive on their own, if I’m patient and wait for the right season. Sometimes, something is wrong somewhere, and I need to do something to set it right. And sometimes, no matter what I do, something just isn’t going to grow, and the best I can do is chop up what I can for compost or firewood and move on.

It’s telling the difference that’s the tricky part.

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