Tucson garden thrives from years of heartache

2014-07-06T00:00:00Z Tucson garden thrives from years of heartacheBy Elena Acoba Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Why would anyone follow the advice of a landscape gardener who’s been at it in Tucson for only five years?

Because, Bruce Hyland says, he’s made a lot of mistakes in those five years. And he figures he could save a new gardener some time and heartache from those lessons he learned.

Hyland plans to give dozens of tips at his Tuesday talk, “Down and Dirty Gardening.” It’s at the monthly meeting of The Gardeners of Tucson, of which he is a member.

The talk is aimed at new gardeners and those who think they have black thumbs.

“I want to help people who have tried and it didn’t work,” says the retired business executive, consultant and professor, 62. “I’ve had so many failures, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

Instead, Hyland has rediscovered the joy of gardening, something he avoided after leaving his tiny hometown of Haddam, Kansas.

As a teen and young adult, Hyland was known as “the lawn mower king” as he tended the gardens and lawns “of all the old ladies” in town.

The business paid his way to college. But once he started attending university, he was done with gardening. “I swore I would never touch a plant as long as I lived,” he says.

That’s not to say he didn’t like gardens, but he had other people take care of his yards. That included while he lived eight years in Tucson in the 1980s as a manager and 22 years in San Francisco.

Fast forward to 2009, when Hyland was ready to retire. He decided to move back to Tucson. “I always knew this was my spot on Earth,” he says.

After looking at 137 properties, Hyland bought a house on a two-acre Foothills spread near a wash.

A landscaper installed the front yard xeriscape, a design that encourages low water use.

But Hyland decided he didn’t like what he had the landscaper put in the backyard. “It had no personality at all. I said, ‘I’ve got to rescue this thing.’ ”

Breaking his vow, he tried out a garden typically seen in Northern California. In one season the rabbits and other critters ate it or rooted around in it.

Next, he started a Kansas landscape — a lawn and neat rows of flowers and shrubs that sucked up water. He recalls with a chuckle, “I thought, ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ ”

So he ripped that out and went natural, installing native cacti, succulents, trees and agaves to create a desert meadow.

He particularly likes his lush Tombstone rose that rises two stories. With his careful pruning, Hyland has cut out “windows” in the foliage that provide a view from his deck to the backyard.

Hyland is much happier with the latest result. “I realized you have to garden in nature’s way,” he says. “You do it like she would execute it.”

It’s an attitude he picked up from Randy McLean, Hyland’s longtime friend who helped him install the Sonoran Desert landscape.

“It all comes down to Mother Nature,” says McLean, “whether she wants it to live or doesn’t want it to live. Whatever you do, she wins.”

“I’ve done all my gardening according to Mother Nature.”

McLean, himself a Wyoming-bred, lifelong gardener, has lived in Tucson since 1977. He helped Hyland understand the rules of desert gardening. “I would work with him (in the garden),” says the retired floral designer. “He would ask why we’re doing something and I would explain it to him.”

His common sense answers inspired Hyland to suggest they write a book. “He wanted me to put some of those things down on note cards,” McLean recalls. Hyland organizes that information and edits the copy. A publisher has expressed interest in their book proposal.

It’s from this collaboration and Hyland’s continued tinkering in the yards that he’s compiled the tips he’ll mention in his talk this week. He’ll use props and his humorous gardening experiences to share what worked for him in landscape design, plant purchases and garden maintenance. “These ideas are useful, but they’re not secret,” he says.

Here’s some of what Hyland will cover:

  • Help rabbits coexist with your garden. Install plants they don’t like to eat or plant a lot of what they like so they don’t destroy everything.
  • The best way to tell if a plant in a container needs water is to stick your finger in the dirt. Hyland will use a sponge to demonstrate what’s considered moist enough.
  • Dry dirt repels water, so water deeply.
  • It’s worth watering what looks like a dead stick if you know enough about the stick.
  • Water boxes and ollas automatically irrigate plants for you.

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net

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