The truth about Tucson Gardens: Adaptation Blossoms in a Dirt Lot

Words and Images by Sophie Strosberg

Originally published in Notes From September. Find out more here

I’d never seen anything like it—where was the lawn? Was this kind of front yard even allowed?I woke up that morning to the sound of gently clucking chickens. My stomach fluttered as I sat up and remembered my journey. I was in Tucson, Arizona, 2,300 miles away from my home in Upstate New York.

I was planning to stay in Tucson for two months. I’d taken a short-term job here somewhat spontaneously, and after arriving late the previous night, I had stayed on a couch belonging to friends of friends.

By 6 am, I was wide awake, the work of a trip westward across three time zones. No one else was up yet. I padded out the front door and squinted into the white Southern Arizona sunshine for the first time. Chickens meandered through unruly cacti in the front yard. They pecked here and there at hardy stems bearing tiny orange flowers.

Back East, I’d seen funky yards, run-down yards, chemically-enhanced lawns. But I wasn’t used to seeing… no lawn. I decided to take a walk around the block to see if the other houses also lacked lawns.

They did. All of them did. Instead of mown grass, they sported flora local to the Sonoran Desert. Sometimes this flora seemed to be cultivated, planted within a stone-lined border, but other times it had taken root on its own. So-called “volunteers” sat comfortably along rutted curbsides or jutted from the patches of hard-packed ground in front of people’s homes. All of these plants threw splashes of green and gold across bleached earth. I would later learn their names: Saguaro, Nopales, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde, Globe Mallow, Agave, Pincushion, Sotol.

As it happened, I stayed in Tucson for two years instead of two months. And now, twelve years later, I’m back, this time to stay. Since I moved back, I’ve been spending a lot of time outside my apartment, gazing at a sprawling prickly pear cactus with hairy-looking stickers lining its pads. The cactus is the single biggest thing in the yard, bigger than our kiddie pool and yard furniture combined. It thrives in what is otherwise an unlandscaped dirt lot shaded only by a large mesquite tree located on on the other side of our neighbour’s fence. The cactus grows new pads each time we dump old water from the kiddie pool in its direction.

Tucsonans have embraced lawnless yards. They’ve had to. They used to keep lawns—many people living to the north, in Phoenix, Arizona, still do. But a shift took place in the 1970s, as water infrastructure could no longer keep up with demand and shortages prevented regular lawn watering. This led to a utility pricing structure under which the more water you used, the more you paid for each unit of it. Water still costs a lot in Tucson; perhaps this is part of the turn away from lawns.

Then, there’s the environmental factor. Lawn grasses were imported from other parts of the world to North America. Across the continent, monocultured lawn grass crowd out the multiplicity of other species that could otherwise thrive urban and suburban areas. The “Food, Not Lawns” movement is thriving in the United States. In arid western and southwestern states, it takes heavy water, fertilizer, and pesticide use to maintain lawns, so here they seem especially environmentally reckless. Tucson is home to dozens of organizations and experts focused on creating a thriving desert landscape suitable for city life.

In this country, front yards have come to represent American values and aspirations. Lawns, with the intensive care they require, symbolize hard work, civilization, and upward class mobility. In some parts of the country, lawn upkeep is enforceable by law. Certain Tucson communities also require yard conformity—I once met a man who had been called out by his homeowners’ association for using white rocks instead of beige rocks to cover the land in front of his house. But it’s largely our desert ecology that sets the parameters of what’s possible in our front yards.

Tucson yards come in a huge range of styles—from the neat volcanic rock of suburban tracts to the chicken-trodden wild-scaping of that house I first stayed in, to rainwater catchment basins filled with native food and pollinator plants. And these different looks still signify public-facing, front-yard values such as community consensus, freedom of spirit, or environmental responsibility. But they all, without exception, also showcase the power of our desert landscape, even in that most human-seeming of spaces: the city.

Lawns may be understood as an attempt to civilize the landscape with romanticized visions of the European countryside. They reveal the way that, with intensive efforts at seeding, mowing, fertilizing, and watering, we can impose order on an otherwise unruly external world. But cactus-filled yards reveal the limits of humans’ ability to control our environment. When it comes to our desire to nest and create a home in the desert, we are bound to these limits. Therefore, the way we interact with our yards—whether in how we appreciate them, how we make meaning from them, or how we dig in them—reveals a human flexibility, an ability to adapt.

In the desert, what starts as a tangle of brown can, in spring sun or monsoon rains, bloom coral pink and lemon yellow, sprout edible berries or leafy foliage. Tucson yards show us beauty on a visceral level. But they also show us that a life of adaptation can be just as satisfying as one of conquest. The limits placed on us by our position on the face of the earth provides us with a chance to show how well we can collaborate with our environment, instead of how well we tame and control them.

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