Xeriscape paradise

Desert garden blooms with color
2012-05-13T00:00:00Z Xeriscape paradiseGabrielle Fimbres Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Mark Tylutki knows all of his desert garden babies by name. There is Trichocereus Flying Saucer, with a glorious pink bloom. There's tall and twisty Pedilanthus macrocarpus and Harrisia jusbertii, with stunning white blossoms that smell faintly of honeysuckle and vanilla.

With the morning sun still low in the sky, Tylutki and his wife, Karen Campbell, stroll through their cactus garden with steaming mugs of coffee to see what has bloomed overnight.

"It's a lot like Christmas morning,'' Tylutki said of discovering a cactus that has burst into bloom.

"The colors are just spectacular,'' Campbell said.

Tylutki has transformed the front and back yards of this Sam Hughes brick-and-stucco home from lush lawns and potted plants to a lovely desert garden, with more than 70 varieties of cacti.

On early mornings in spring and summer, the couple's neighbors amble by the home, admiring the blooms. One neighbor recently brought a plate of cookies to thank them for the beauty.

The home, sitting high on a corner lot, was built in the 1920s by Tucson contractor L.M. White. It was later expanded and became the parsonage for Catalina United Methodist Church.

Tylutki and Campbell, who have lived in the well-cared for home since 1975, revel in the beauty of the desert that now surrounds them.

"It has a Zen quality,'' Campbell said. "It's very peaceful.''

While much of the transformation has taken place in the past 18 months, the first changes came a decade ago, when Tylutki planted a cactus garden on the lower tier of the east side of the house. What seemed like miles of lawn remained in the front and back yards of the home that sits on nearly an acre, with a pool out back.

"There was a lot of grass and a lot of watering,'' Tylutki said. "We were getting $600 and $700 water bills. Water is a precious commodity and we were just gobbling up tons of it.''

Said Campbell, "We were feeling really guilty. It just wasn't right.''

About the time he retired from Tucson Electric Power, Tylutki, a University of Arizona business grad, dove into his xeriscape project, starting with the front yard. His first mission: kill the grass.

"This grass has been here 60 years,'' Tylutki said. "Bermuda roots had grown 16 feet under ground.''

He stopped watering and used chemicals to kill the grass, a project that took three years and consultation with UA Cooperative Extension. He is still eradicating grass from the backyard, leaving a small patch for their Scottish terrier, Max, to roll around in after a dip in the pool.

As the grass was dying, Tylutki propagated cactus from his garden on the side of the house. He labeled each variety and cared for them in pots.

"We started learning more about cactus,'' Campbell said. "They are so beautiful and all so different.''

After the grass in the front was dead, Tylutki carefully designed the space, breaking it down into zones. He considered what he was keeping - a 60-year-old towering pine tree and sweet-smelling Texas mountain laurel.

He xeriscaped the land, installing rock riverbeds and drainage that would keep runoff away from cacti while flooding the trees. Today, very little water makes it to the street following a storm, but stays in the garden where it is needed. Tylutki and Campbell have watched their water bills drop to about $100 a month.

A local plumbing company put in drains and a mason helped lay flagstone. All other tasks fell to Tylutki.

He planted his garden, using his cuttings as well as treasures he and Campbell found at Bach's Cactus Nursery. Among the varieties is a young saguaro grown from a seed that was given to them by their 100-year-old neighbor a quarter of a century ago.

All varieties are marked with decorative pottery name plaques designed by friend Jan Streitmatter, creating a small cactus museum. The ground is covered with decomposed granite, with lantana and calliopsis added for color.

Spreadsheets document each of the zones of the yards and the varieties and numbers of cactus.

The project has cost about $8,000 and many hours of labor, but the work isn't done yet.

If the grass in the back is dead by winter, Tylutki will finish that project, designing a cactus garden, gazebo, flagstone patio and outdoor living area and kitchen.

Once the project is finished, maintenance will be minimal. "You pull a few weeds and use the blower and you are good to go and you can sit out here and enjoy it,'' Tylutki said.

The couple look forward to many years of watching their garden grow.

"I absolutely get joy looking at it,'' Campbell said.

Tips on xeriscaping your yard from Mark Tylutki

• Define the area you want to xeriscape.

• Determine what existing features - trees, shrubs, brickwork - you will keep.

• Create a system for providing water to plants that need it without overwatering cactus. Cactus receiving too much water will develop fungus and die.

• Install drip irrigation on a timer. Cacti like to be watered about every 10 days in the early summer. Once storms arrive, shut the system down.

• Invest in a quality outdoor lighting system that adds depth and beauty to the garden. "That is the frosting on the cake.''

• Don't allow cactus to become overgrown. After the blooming season, cut it back and propagate the cuttings to be planted later or shared with friends.

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at gfimbres@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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