These photos sum up “flora” in the big scrubland that is southwestern Wyoming and the other desert basins, which compose the “basin and range” geography the American West.
A “lush” scene of sage brush, snakeweed, bunch grasses and weeds in late summer, at just the right moment in evening, when the sun produces “color” in the landscape. I used to differentiate “weeds” from native plants, but just what is native to this place? The idea is a bit preposterous: any “blown in” in or tracked in seed that manages to establish a colony is legitimate: survival, not “social labels” become the measure of successful plant life (and people).
When I moved to town 22 years ago, the yard of the house was packed mud, as were many other “lawns”. I wanted to do something with this blank canvas, but didn’t have any money to spare or a place to by “real” plants, shrubs, trees and perennials. Any existing landscaping in the neighborhood was typical – lawns and lilacs; fir trees and spring fruit trees that bloomed like crazy but were not orchard varieties; no edible fruit produced. Chinese elms (now that’s a weed!) proliferate in town, along with renegade forms of domestic plants gone wild – planted many decades ago, the most rugged specimens have been selected by the merciless environment and are all but indestructible.
Up close, the countryside reveals some lovely plants; not at all like domestic garden types, but interesting. And of course, rocks; a never-ending supply of metamorphic cobbles washed down from the mountains during glaciations and rounded and polished to perfection, and slabs of sandstone broken out of deep outcrops by freeze and thaw leverage, and strewn about by gravity. These I dragged home, a few each day, as I wandered around getting to know my new homeland.
I learned that sage brush can be transplanted; necessity revealed how to do it. A single large sage brush is impossible to dig up. The roots extend for many feet – a tap root straight down into the earth and many more that travel under the surface horizontally. But, the small extensions that pop up around the main plant can be easily pulled from sandy areas with roots intact. I literally planted dozens of these, to ensure that one or two survived. I didn’t amend or improve the soil (there wasn’t any). The differences between “wild and domestic plants” was soon obvious; how much water would the sage and Artemisia, globe mallow and flax, and unidentified “others” tolerate? And which plants would simply not transplant at all, and require starting from seeds?
I collected desirable seeds whenever they appeared; the desert plants have their own timing due to the sporadic delivery of rain, so I stripped handfuls – some plants produce seeds that look like small flowers or parts of branches. In imitation of “nature” I tossed them randomly about the lot and forgot about them. It was then a surprise to discover something growing at all.
Eventually a proper nursery opened in town, where I supplemented the donations of iris from neighbors, and I fell into the “domestic trap” of wanting cut flowers. At first, perennials thrived, especially ground covers rooted between cobbles that made up the “rock garden” and other traditional flower producers. But – plants that are perennials in less tortured climates proved to be biennials in most cases; even hardy iris, having their tubers or roots “freeze-dried” by our cold dry winters.
My questions about the ubiquitous limited landscaping in town were quickly answered: “It’s the climate stupid” so I replaced whichever plants died with those that didn’t, and with ever more rock and gravel, and with evergreen shrubs, which adapted well. Flowers became annuals in pots; waterproof pots. Traditional clay pots simply turn into tombs for the mummies of their once-living contents. I literally abandoned the front yard to vegetation that never needs additional water. It’s literally a “what grows, grows” plot just like the countryside. And, deer eat their choice of favorite vegetation.
I must mention that all of this trial and error gardening is only possible due to the city being a “hands off” regime; they do occasionally cut weeds along the parkway and alleys, but budget cuts have all but eliminated even this activity. Years ago an overeager teenage employee with a weed-whacker interpreted my parkway landscaping as weeds and reduced the area to a crew cut – pitiful! But one irate phone call to the city and a letter to the editor of the local paper produced a “vow” that no one would come near my house again. That’s responsive government.
This year, the “garden” is down to a few pots in the back yard, and even these typical annuals are struggling with two “fill ups” of water every day. The sun at 6100′ feet actually burns leaves to a crisp, and along with temps in the high 80s – 90s and 10-15% humidity, the wind sucks the moisture from every living and non-living substance. It’s discouraging. But it’s a lesson in reality that should be obvious to all human beings, now that the earth is changing dramatically; global warming and cooling are typical, and periodically extreme in climate history. Much of the earth’s surface is uninhabitable by humans: that’s a fact that has only temporarily been overcome by massive water management, diversion and reckless depletion. That inhospitable area is increasing and shifting latitude northward and southward and in ways that are unpredictable, given the complexity of the physics and chemistry involved.
When “visiting” my poor beleaguered pots of plants this morning, I realized that “adaption” to this harsh place has not been a matter of trying to bend it to my will, but to let it change me. That’s a good thing. The changes coming to earth are normal and inevitable; so is human stupidity, so I have no illusion that nature will move on, with or without us, just has it always does.