The Search for a Perfect Cactus - Transplanting My Daughter to College
Of everything I've grown from scratch, the most beautiful results I've ever achieved are my two daughters, aged 18 and 14. Although they required a great deal of attention, nourishment, fertilizer, and water, they grew steadily more beautiful with each passing year, blossoming even in winter and maintaining their bright colors throughout the season. Weeds were occasionally a problem, mostly of the male varieties.
This year, though, I was faced with an interesting question: how would my older daughter do transplanted from the temperate Northeast to the desert conditions of the Southwest? And how could we use our mutual love of gardens to help bridge the miles that would be between us for the next few years?
When we arrived in Phoenix on Wednesday to make the two-hour drive to her picturesque college town at 5,200' above sea level, it was 104° F. Yes, I know what you'll say, "it's tolerable because it's a dry heat." Why, the heat index brought it down to only 102°. How much more comfort could a person ask for? My husband asked for the rental car with the coldest air conditioning. No sense of adventure, I guess.
As we began the trek into the mountains, my mind, as much to drive out the thoughts of my daughter's moving away as to satisfy my gardener's curiosity, began to think about what types of plants would thrive out here, and what would not. My daughter spent the long drive searching for "the perfect cactus, you know - like the ones in the old Westerns - upright, with two perfectly symmetrical arms growing from the sides." I tried to point out how much lovelier the cactus with bunches of asymmetrical branches were, but no.
It turns out the cactus she was concentrating on was the Saguaro cactus [sah-WA-ro], Carnegiea gigantea, native almost exclusively to the Sonora desert of Arizona and, in fact, protected by law there. The night-blooming flower of the Saguaro cactus is the State Flower of Arizona, and it is one of those plants every part of which was (and still is) used by Native Americans. Its fruit is delicious, its pulp can be eaten raw or preserved, and its sap can be fermented into an intoxicating beverage. The stiff ribs of the dead plant can be used to make baskets or to thatch roofs, and the sharp spines used as needles. It lives to be up to 150 years old!
We knew none of this, of course. We made the trip lost in our desert dreams, she thinking about how cool this hot new world would be, while I wondered how I could use the local flora to create a familiar garden feeling for her new house.
Oh, yes, did I mention that first we had to find her a new home? Her college has practically no dorm space. The students team up to locate rental houses and apartments. We had to accomplish this task in three days. Miraculously, it took less than two.
My daughter had a new friend from nearby New Hampshire whom she had met on Facebook. The two young ladies, both freshmen, were fortunate enough to team up with third woman, an Arizona resident, who had scouted out a lovely little Craftsman-style house with three bedrooms, a patio which looked out on a rocky hill, and yes, an empty raised bed out in the front of the house. My mission was clear.
First, we hit the local thrift shops and yard sales for furniture and last minute school gear. (Did I tell you that new student orientation includes a three week hiking trip into the Arizona canyons? Back-to-school shopping this year included hiking boots, a knife with a locking blade and can opener, and every manner of specialized clothing for the rugged terrain and weather conditions).
My daughter and I also went off together to search out plants for the small garden area. We needed plants that would thrive in part shade and brutal sun, that were highly drought tolerant. We found some lovely Mexican primrose, invasive if I let it loose here but containable in the small, enclosed bed. Next, we picked a Sprengeri asparagus fern, also invasive in the wrong conditions but in the cold, dry desert, probably worth the risk. Finally, we chose a couple of annual yellow-gold lantana, which we both agreed would complement the pale pinks of the primrose. My daughter, in keeping with her new sense of independence as a college student, picked out a small strange plant labeled 'perennial' that neither of us recognized, a short succulent with green leaves, a single straight stem and one small purple bloom. This was not going to be "Mom's Garden, West." At least not entirely.
But my East Coast garden, the one at home, had never been just mine. My girls had labored with my husband to build my raised bed and my container garden walls, picked out the pots, and helped fill the floor with marble chips. This daughter had crept barefoot into the garden to take close-up photos of a butterfly that alighted on a cone flower. She had clipped blooms from all over the yard to make floral arrangements for the dinner table. As I thought about the ways that she and I, together with her younger sister, had shared the creation of our garden spaces at home, my eyes began to water. If this kept up, the drought tolerance of her new plants might not be as much of an issue as I feared.
It's been three days now, and I'm on a plane heading back to Boston. I can't wait to see our 14-year-old, who is in her last day of cheerleading camp. Today is my older daughter's 18th birthday, which she is spending at base camp in preparation for her backpacking expedition. When she gets back to her new house, her flowers will be waiting in the raised bed next to the front door, her front door. Our flowers, first watered by my eyes the day before her birthday, in her garden in front of her home. Both she and her flowers will grow and thrive there, well-nourished and hardy, ready for whatever conditions await them, but her garden will never be only hers, just as mine had never been only mine.
Photos courtesy of Xenomorf, mrsj, Dinu and bob47. Thank you.
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