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for the garden
desert gardening basics
the scented garden
The Scented Garden
January, 2013, Page 71
Photos by Jackie Alpers
Raised flower and veggie beds are shielded from the afternoon sun by a wall of star jasmine.
Frances and Al Polonyi have created a courtyard oasis filled with fragrant plantings
Although Frances and Al Polonyi were skilled home gardeners in the Midwest and Florida, they initially found desert gardening to be “a bit overwhelming” when they moved to southern Arizona, recalls Frances. Nevertheless, the couple jumped in enthusiastically, guided by landscape architect Penny Batelli, owner of Blooming Earth in Tucson.
Batelli divided the Polonyis’ Marana, Arizona, lot into three planting zones—natural, transition and oasis—based on proximity to the home and water use. They filled in the natural desert on the property’s perimeter with additional native plants, such as young saguaro spears and mesquite and palo verde trees. In the transition zone, they transplanted low-water-use plants to blend visually with the native plant palette and added textural variety and color. These plants include blue euphorbia, golden barrel cacti, fire barrel cacti and yellow bird of paradise. For the oasis area, they went for scent, incorporating more verdant, aromatic plantings.
‘Tequila Shooter’ roses climb on wire trellises flanking courtyard doors, while blooming ocotillo stalks appear behind the wall.
“We appreciate that the front landscape showcases the desert, while entering the courtyard is like arriving at a refreshing oasis,” explains Frances. At the home’s adobe buttress entry, honeysuckle vines flank large wooden doors. The vines’ lush greenery and sweetly scented blossoms provide a hint to visitors of the delights within.
The couple’s 30 years of gardening experience is the most evident in the courtyard oasis zone. Water, food plants and shade create an ideal desert environment, and the courtyard provides all three, with the bonus of heavenly aroma. “Wherever we’ve lived, we’ve gardened to enjoy fragrance and greenery,” comments Frances. “We’ve just done it a bit differently, depending on local conditions.”
Batelli designed passive rainwater-harvesting systems to supplement irrigation to the thirstier courtyard plants in the oasis zone. Custom steel roof scuppers and rain gutters channel water to rock-filled depressions (swales) around small patio trees, such as mastic and calamondin, a citrus that Frances uses to make deliciously tart marmalade. Precious rainwater collects in the swales and percolates into the soil, giving tree roots a deep soaking. Along the swale edges, the homeowners experiment with bulbs, clumping grasses and perennials that benefit from the extra moisture and the filtered sunlight beneath the tree canopies.
The Polonyis have gardened together for more than three decades. One Mother’s Day, Al bought Frances a John Deere tractor with attachments. Here, they savor some memories and homemade marmalade.
In spring, if the curving courtyard path that disappears into foliage around the side of the house doesn’t entice visitors to explore, the intoxicating fragrance does. Star jasmine vines cover the home’s eastern wall, creating a solid green expanse. In April, the vines are at peak bloom, and “the aroma is fantastic,” reports Al. Shielded from hot afternoon sun, the foliage remains evergreen year-round.
Opposite the wall of jasmine, Al tends waist-high raised vegetable beds that line the side yard. “Before retiring, I was a commodities pit trader on the floor of the Kansas City Board of Trade,” he relates. “It’s a stressful job and getting my fingers into garden soil at the end of day was a great stress reducer for me. I still enjoy working with soil.”
He sows beets, carrots, leeks, mini cucumbers, onions and radishes, including watermelon radish—white on the outside, red on the inside. The beds also hold bok choy, leaf lettuces and spinach. “We eat so many fresh greens from his garden that I’ve worn out salad spinners,” jokes Frances.
Al also enjoys starting large quantities of tomato plants from seed to transplant into his garden, and shares them with just about everyone he encounters. “Sowing from seed and producing abundant crops is not difficult if a gardener starts with the right soil mix,” Al advises. “If a seed doesn’t have a good bed of soil to sleep in, it’s not going to do anything.”
Tending their new landscape and learning as they go, the Polonyis have become desert gardening converts. “The desert provides so many surprises, especially after a rain,” concludes Frances. “We’re having a fantastic time.”
Rosemary planted at the corner of the house releases its scent when brushed against, while behind it, snowy white star jasmine offers an intoxicating aroma of its own. Nearby, vegetables in raised beds keep the homeowners supplied with fresh greens. On the right, a ‘Pink Cascade’ rose clambers up a wall.
Fragrant Plants in the Polonyis’ Yard
)—Flanks the exterior of the courtyard door, its sweet scent welcoming visitors.
)—Covers multiple walls and also encircles backyard patio pillars, creating an aromatic sanctuary.
Dwarf citrus grown in pots
Meyer lemon, Rangpur lime
)—Are easy to move and to protect when frost is predicted. Calamondin grown in the ground may suffer some frost damage, but the plant rebounds.
Thymus ‘Pink Chintz’
)—Grows among flagstone pavers set in gravel, allowing the rain to soak into the ground.
Rosemary and salvia
—Are planted adjacent to the path where they release their scents when brushed against.
A patterned Talavera wall pot is surrounded by a fragrant star jasmine vine.
Before each planting season, Al Polonyi incorporates equal parts of bagged treated manure, peat moss and vermiculite to the existing soil in his raised beds. He then waters deeply and lets the soil stand for two to three days to ensure that it is well moistened before planting.
Rock-lined rainwater-harvesting swales allow water to soak in deeply around patio trees, such as this calamondin. Some winters, its fruit may suffer frost damage, but the tree survives.
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