Saturday, May 08, 2010

Landscapes are interesting; people are fascinating

Begins my 26th year reporting on the Green Industry and my wonder grows at the incredible diversity of ecosystems, both natural and manmade, that give each region of the United States its distinctive personality. That said, it’s the people connected to these landscapes that fascinate me most. People like Phil and Rhonda Brewer who live and maintain a unique landscape at their 3.5-acre homestead just outside of Tucson.

First, a short back-story:

I’m visiting Tucson with about 50 other editors and communication professionals, all of us members of the Turf and Ornamental Communications Association (TOCA), and participating in three days of learning and networking.

Like any other conference, the schedule is packed. Yet each of us manages to carve out a few hours of free time. I spend mine meeting the Brewers and touring their uniquely personal landscape in the company of Ray Garvey of the Grasshopper mower company and marketing specialist Brian Schoenthaler of Meet Associated, both hailing from Wichita, KS.

How the five of us – myself, Ray, Brian and the Brewers — came together is a long story. It’s enough to say that Phil, whose lean, angular features suggest a wrangler riding fence more so than the former owner of radio stations in Hawaii and Colorado, and his wife, Rhonda, made the acquaintance of Grasshopper President Stan Guyer at a Colorado art show where Rhonda was exhibiting her work. By the way, Rhonda is an incredible artist that works in multiple media, including producing one-of-a-kind pieces out of lariat rope. But we're talking landscaping here, right?

Phil noticed Stan’s jacket with the Grasshopper logo, mentioned that he was looking for a commercial mower tough enough to tame the turf on his desert turf, ended up buying a Grasshopper 723K, and here we were walking the Brewer’s property and admiring more than two years of landscaping that have transformed this tiny piece of desert into a delightful ecosystem that blends livability with the native environment.

Certainly if your passion is purely native landscaping, you might take issue with at least one of the features, turfgrass, the Brewers installed on their property since moving there 10 years ago.

Yes, they installed and maintain turfgrass, in this case centipedegrass (modest parcels by Midwest standards), which Phil mows with his Grasshopper. And yes, the turfgrass is irrigated, which, of course, is now also being discouraged in desert communities across the Southwest. In this case the water comes from an 1100-ft.-deep well, pumped to a 5,000-gallon underground tank, which the Brewers had installed several years ago. It also captures rainwater runoff from a nearby utility building. When the property, which includes a one-acre pasture for horses, is irrigated, which apparently is only done when the Brewers are home, the grass is green and alive.

Phil, after much research, installed the system himself, a total of four miles of water line and about 80 Hunter sprinkler heads matched to specific zones. The heads irrigating the fenced in pasture were installed in recesses in a low stone wall. They can be changed much as you would change a spark plug on a car. He didn’t want sprinkler heads in the pasture fearing that a horse might stumble on one and get injured.

The landscape, of course, features cacti (many species), mature mesquite trees with cast a cool dappled shade across much of the small front lawn and perhaps a dozen other indigenous plant species on their property. Non-natives include roses, flowering plums and five oaks, which give their homestead its name, Five Oaks.

We came at a good time.

The cacti buds are full and tight, and you can just see hints of the blood reds, oranges and yellows promising to unfold in full bloom on their brown, rocky residential landscape. A few species are in glorious blossom as I write this. The real show takes place next week.

Credit for the brief, annual phenomenon goes to the region’s scarcest resource – water.

Heavy rains this spring in a city that in some years measures precipitation in a single digit, is coaxing one of the most brilliant displays of desert color in recent memory. (The Sonoran justifies its claim as the most ecologically diverse and alive desert ecoscape on the planet!)

As I mentioned earlier, the real story isn’t so much the landscape, much of which was installed by the Brewers and by Rhonda’s brother, an experienced contractor, but about the couple’s love of the region’s unique environment. Like any thoughtfully planned and executed landscape, it fits the ecology of the region and is frequently visited by a variety of desert critters, including bobcats and coyotes. Very unwelcome, however, are rattlesnakes, which a 3-ft.-long Mojave rattlesnake found out when Rhonda dispatched it with two blasts from her shotgun.

The Brewers are people on the move. They’re gone from their home almost as much as they’re there. The morning we visited they had just the night before returned from Oklahoma.

Sharing a pitcher of cold, non-sweetened ice tea that Rhonda poured from a colorful ceramic pitcher she had created in here “Little Dipper” collection of serving ware, Phil says the couple is looking forward to spending the summer at Five Oaks. Then they’ll be off again in their motor home with Rhonda’s art – pastels, ceramic ware and lariat rope baskets, all of it one-of-a-kind and some of it incredibly pricey by work-a-day standards – secure in the trailer behind it.

“You never know who you’re going to meet or what stories they’re going to tell you. They could be famous or not, but I look forward to it,” says Phil.

But for now and for the next several weeks, he says he will be busy getting Five Oaks back in order and Rhonda will be busy with her artwork, which includes crafting one-of-a-kind baskets out of lariat rope, unique in all the world . . . like the Brewers. — Ron Hall

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