Scott Calhoun's new book, The Hot Garden, is a book for those who live in the hot zone of this continent and need a little encouragement to garden. Calhoun says most gardening books leave out this parched area of the country. The Civano resident is a writer, photographer and landscape designer who grew up in Phoenix during a time when planting native species in one's yard was looked at as almost crazy. For more information, check out Calhoun's blog at web.me.com/zonagardens/Site/Blog/Blog.html, and his Web site at www.zonagardens.com.
Do we really garden in Tucson?
Most people don't think of this as a gardening city, but if you can get out of your head this need for grass and hydrangeas ... then, yes, you can garden in Tucson. I travel a lot and speak to different garden clubs clear across the country. I don't really find any place that has the same diversity of plants that are as endlessly interesting as the drought-tolerant succulents we have here. One problem is that most horticulture literature and writing is about some place else and doesn't apply here.
And you're hoping to change that?
Right. There is a great community here of horticulturists and writers interested in how plants can change people's lives. I'm working on (another) book right now (and traveling in Mexico) with Greg Starr, who has a nursery here in town and is a noted agave expert. People have been hunting for new species of that plant for the last 100 years. Our proximity to Mexico is really cool. In this region, we have a rich culture of plant interests, plant trade and garden design. But it isn't something we recognize. Designer friends I have in Phoenix make special pilgrimages to Tucson, to Tohono Chul Park and Desert Survivors Nursery, because between here and Mexico, we have a whole rainbow of specialty cactus. The goal is for people to get over things that have spikes and spines.
Have you always been a spine freak?
I grew up in the Phoenix area, and my family has been here a long time, too. I've lived in Salt Lake City and Portland (Ore.). (The desert) is one of those things you have to move away from and come back to appreciate. When I got back, I started to appreciate native plants and ... I wanted to build a garden. In Tucson, there's a real ecological vein in landscape design. There's a philosophy that plants and (the) wild become an integral part of landscapes here. That doesn't happen anyplace else. When I was a kid, and we'd go hiking with my dad up Superstition Mountain, my dad pointed out all of these plants. Then we'd make our drive back to Phoenix, and I remember seeing none of those plants, and wondering: Why? That's changing now, even in Phoenix.
Don't these changes have to do with the fact that we now see water as a finite resource in the desert?
There are water issues, and those are not going away. I was just in San Diego. They are building these desalinization plants, and having to re-plumb Lake Mead. Las Vegas is paying people by the square foot to take out grass lawns. It's actually exciting. It creates enormous opportunities for gardening and talk about some plants no one is paying attention to.
Your new book is a good fit for that discussion. Why did you write it?
It covers parts of the Southwest where the predominant mulch is typically gravel—Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma, Palm Springs, Albuquerque and El Paso. This is a great neglected region, yet with all these unusual plants. It's a place where we have really hot summers and, strangely enough, cold winters. We're not largely in a frost-free zone. In this book, I'm trying to address that and point out what the particular aspects of design and gardening are in this region. ... I also look at pathways, how we use recycled objects. ... There's a great freedom to landscaping here. I was in New England a few years ago and met a designer who was so tired of designing gardens there. He said everybody just wants the same thing, only nicer than their neighbors. I'm designing a garden for a client right now. We took out all this flagstone (in his yard) and, in trying to figure out what to do with the stone, we made these old rusted rebar cages and stacked the flagstone to create a sculpture element. It is a great example of the freedom we have here ... things we can do here that in Cleveland won't fly.