We recommend viewing the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau's helpful website, full of important resources, at www.visittucson.org/about/newcomers to make the move-in process a little easier. Or see www.tucsonnewcomer.com.
- Newcomer to Native: How one New York transplant found her home in the Old Pueblo
- Those Pesky Varmints: How to coexist peacefully with critters that call the desert Southwest home
- The Transplanted Gardener: 10 tips for tending a successful desert garden
Newcomer to Native: How one New York transplant found her home in the Old Pueblo
by Edie Jarolim
Photograph by Dominic Bonuccelli
It's been 20 years since I moved from Manhattan to Tucson. I had no job, friends, or family awaiting me those two decades ago, just a dream of becoming a writer in a more affordable city. In between bouts of uncharacteristic optimism, I worried whether a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn could find happiness in a Southwestern desert town.
I made friends, I bought a house, I learned to drive, I adopted a dog. I began to get paid to write about things I love—including dogs.
Adjusting to life in Tucson was surprisingly easy. Theater, symphony, opera...they're all here, although, as a movie buff, what I like best is not having to wait in line at the popular screening times. Art museums, galleries, poetry readings...this is a college town, and there's always something going on at The University of Arizona.
Old friends and family? When you live in Tucson, everyone comes to visit—at least in winter. And, since I write about travel, I can go with them to my favorite local places, from Saguaro National Park to the Patagonia-Sonoita wine country, and justify it as research.
Restaurants? By the time I got even slightly bored with sampling Mexican food—it took a while, because there are so many wonderful regional varieties available—a sophisticated dining scene had grown up around me. There are even good delis here now.
These things aren't what sustain me, however. I'm not greatly given to mysticism, but green, cramped New England never touched my spirit like the Southwest does.
In Tucson, I've been granted another vision of America, one I only vaguely recollect learning about back East. The English must have had a terrific PR team—how else can you explain the absence of the Spanish conquistadores and padres from my early classrooms? I know the Spaniards were as ruthless as the Puritans in their attacks against ancient Indian civilizations—who, in this neck of the desert, managed to outlast them—as well as against my ancestors. Still, I can't help but feel a kinship with a people who headed south to warm climes when they crossed a great ocean, instead of just substituting one cold shore for an equally unyielding one. Who could relate to a bunch of guys who took Saskatchewan when they might have had Acapulco?
The Mexican culture that followed, enriched by native traditions, speaks to me through the soft lines of the many low-slung buildings, the vibrant colors, the slower pace of life. Once I adjusted to daily rhythms dictated by the sun, I discovered I was a morning person, able to enjoy sunrises as well as sunsets with palettes I'd only seen before in Georgia O'Keeffe paintings.
My vistas have literally expanded. The space in New York is vertical, massed buildings blocking out the sky. Here, you learn the derivation of the word "horizon-tal." Much of the time you're boundaried only by the limits of your own vision.
And by the city's encircling mountains. Each time I go to the supermarket, I see the Santa Catalinas rising to the north. In late summer, before the monsoon rains bring relief from the heat, they're often edged by grandly billowing clouds.
Call it an ancient Semitic desert yearning or a hearkening back to lazy, youthful summers spent baking on Brighton Beach; I can't say for certain what makes this sometimes-searing town seem like home. I only know that Tucson gives its pilgrims something far more precious than affordable real estate—I've found a place where I can let my mind roam.
Those Pesky Varmints: How to coexist peacefully with critters that call the desert Southwest home
by Lauray Yule
These straw-colored beasties grow to about two inches long and have crablike claws, a flat belly, and a segmented tail with a stinger. Outdoors they live in woodpiles, plant debris, or cracks in masonry. Indoors they like sinks, cabinets, or floor drains. New homes can attract scorpions—fresh concrete and plaster create a tempting, moist environment for them.
Scorpions sting humans in defense. All scorpions will hide in clothing, shoes, gloves, or bedding, so it's a good idea to shake out these items before use. Although reactions to the venom vary, a bark scorpion sting is never pleasant. If you get stung, call your doctor or Arizona Poison Control (626-6016) for advice.
Spiders (black widow, Arizona brown spider, tarantula)
Black widows tend to choose garages, electrical power boxes, areas around outdoor faucets, woodpiles, lawn furniture, or dark closets for homes. Females are black and sport a red hourglass on their big bellies. Males are brown, much smaller, and not poisonous. The female spider's venom causes increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, cramps, vomiting, and other unpleasantness. Call a doctor or Arizona Poison Control if you are bitten. Consider cutting back vegetation crowding around a house or building to minimize spider encounters.
Arizona brown spiders have a 3/8-inch bulbous body with long, spindly legs. They live in the same places as black widows and hide where scorpions do. Bites often occur when a spider is "squeezed" in clothing as it's put on: A blister forms, turning into a bull's-eye ulcer. If you think you've been bitten, seek medical attention. Precautions? Generally the same as for black widows.
Desert tarantulas live alone in burrows. Full-grown specimens can have a six-inch leg span stretching out from a buff to dark brown hairy, bulbous body. Males are skinnier. The only time you'll see them—mostly males—is during summer when they seek mates. Tarantula venom causes a beesting-like reaction.
Giant desert centipedes
A giant desert centipede has a flat, orange-yellow body with a dark brown to black head and tail. An adult can reach eight inches long. Centipedes inflict a painful pinch—usually when stepped on. Wash the site with soap and water, then apply an antibiotic to the area. In case of serious allergic reaction, seek medical attention immediately.
Don't confuse centipedes with millipedes, a harmless multi-legged desert crawly. These reddish brown to black wormlike insects can be six inches long.
Western diamondback rattlesnakes
The western diamondback is the most common rattlesnake around Tucson. Adult diamondbacks can reach five feet long, with color variations from brown to gray. Rhomboid diamond patterns camouflage their backs, and white-on-black rings precede the tail rattle.
When hiking or playing golf, watch where you step and reach. Carports, garages, woodpiles, pool decks—even large potted plants—make great diamondback homes. If you encounter one, provide a wide berth and don't try moving it. Call your local fire department for removal if the snake poses a threat. Rattlesnake bites need immediate medical attention. Call 911 for help, or transport the victim to the nearest medical facility.
Pack rats resemble a mouse on steroids: big eyes and ears, a silky brown coat, and a white belly. They build mounds out of cactus joints, sticks, and other effluvia, usually under prickly pear cactus. This mess, called a midden, houses a grass-lined nest.
These critters will move into your carport, laundry room, or even a parked car. They devour landscape cacti and other plants. To prevent pack rat trouble, eliminate middens within 100 yards of a building.
You'll likely hear coyote yips, yaps, and howls at night here in the Southwest. Local coyotes weigh between 20 and 30 pounds and resemble lanky German shepherds. Pelts vary from gray to reddish brown, with white highlights. Clannish omnivores, coyotes hunt between dusk and dawn, eat ing almost anything, even garbage. To keep coyotes at bay, never feed them, keep garbage in secure containers, and don't leave pet food or pets outdoors at night.
No, they're not pigs—they're collared peccaries, also known as javelina. These 40- to 50-pound bristly critters generally travel in herds of 5 or 6 to as many as 30. Living in a world of smell and sound (they have poor eyesight), a peccary herd uses a group scent to stick together—a nasty perfume you smell long before you see the javelina.
Collared peccaries become a nuisance when they eat your landscaping or tear out irrigation systems to create wallows. They often tip trash cans to rummage through the contents.
To stay peccary-free, don't feed them. Javelina have sharp, two-inch-long canine teeth and will bite or charge if frightened. Build a fence or construct walls around the areas you want protected: A sturdy 31/2-foot structure discourages peccaries. Baby javelina don't make good pets. As cute as the piglets are, they grow to be as large as Labrador retrievers.
Usually weighing in at more than 100 pounds, mountain lions take the cake for our largest feline predators and have been known to wander into residential areas from their mountain haunts. Although usually shy, a starving, thirsty lion becomes dangerous. If you see one and feel the animal is a threat, contact the Arizona Game & Fish Department (628-5376).
Desert bobcats (wildcats) have reddish brown coats, which are spotted and striped for camouflage. Measuring more than 20 inches tall, they're sometimes mistaken for big domestic tabbies. The short bobtail—white underneath with a black tip—gives them away.
Wildcats are common in Tucson's suburban areas. If a bobcat visits your yard, leave it alone. Each cat roams a territory of between 5 and 50 miles, so it won't hang around for long. If you feel the cat poses a threat, contact the Arizona Game & Fish Department (628-5376).
Northern flickers, ladder-backed, and Gila woodpeckers drill into wood siding and trim, stucco, and cement block. They're responsible for the holes you see in saguaros, where they nest.
Both Gila and ladder-backed woodpeckers are zebra backed—banded black and white. Northern flickers have a barred cinnamon-brown back and a red crescent running from beak to both cheeks.
These birds, besides drilling, thrum on resonating metal cooling and heating units and ducts on rooftops to mark their territories. Most destruction and metal banging occurs in the spring, when adults seek mates and raise babies.
How to solve woodpecker problems? Hanging a windsock within a bird's project area unnerves it. Suspending half-inch chicken wire or plastic sheeting over a favored spot, or treating wood or stucco with a bad-tasting product such as Ropel, while less attractive, are also effective measures. In the end, patience may be your best defense.
The Transplanted Gardener: 10 tips for tending a successful desert garden
by Scott Millard
Special challenges when it comes to growing plants. And transplanted gardeners—those who knew the lay of the gardening land, so to speak, in a former locale, may find adapting to desert gardening even more difficult. Many of the gardening practices green thumbs learn to trust—the when, the where, the why, and the how—get tossed into the desert wind. Gardening is different in the desert. But the following 10 tips will help make the transition from transplanted gardener to Tucson gardener much easier.
1. Prime planting time—our spring is actually fall
Spring gardening fever infects us all, but in Tucson, fall is the best time to plant most plants. During fall the warm soil, still holding its heat from the summer sun, promotes rapid root growth. At the same time, air temperatures remain moderate—with no extreme cold or heat to stress new plants. By spring, plant roots respond to warming temperatures, producing healthy top growth. As spring turns into summer, root systems are much more established, giving plants the strength they need to tolerate summer heat. (Plants sensitive to frost, such as citrus, hibiscus, and bougainvillea, are exceptions to the fall-planting rule. You'll generally have better results by waiting until late spring to plant these.)
2. Adapting to desert soil
Desert soils consist mostly of sand or clay, not loam—the more common soil type in regions with higher rainfall. Desert soils are also alkaline, not acidic. This means we don't add lime to our soil. In addition, our soil contains little organic matter, so we must add compost to beds that contain plants with shallow roots such as flowering annuals or vegetables. Also, mixing generous amounts of ground bark products or compost into the soil helps increase its water- and nutrient-holding capacity, which helps plants grow better.
Formed from mineral deposits that can develop into a layer of material that's more like concrete than soil, caliche soils require a special approach. Caliche can exist just inches below "normal" soil, preventing plant roots from spreading out of the original planting hole and retarding growth. Even worse, caliche can slow drainage to the point that plant roots suffocate and die. You have two choices here: dig drainage holes through the caliche or grow plants elsewhere. Some gardeners with severe caliche on their property say "I give" and grow plants aboveground in containers.
3. So many plants, so little time
We can grow an extremely wide range of plants in Tucson. Tropicals, subtropicals, cacti and succulents, native trees and shrubs, flowering perennials, plus plants we've grown in other climates compete for our attention and garden space. It's tempting to give them all a try in our gardens, and we often do. Unfortunately, too many kinds of plants can develop into a hodgepodge that is difficult to maintain and not all that attractive. Not only can this make the landscape's appearance less than ideal, many kinds of plants in one garden often have a wide range of moisture requirements as well. You can avoid watering problems by zoning or grouping plants by water needs, because if you cluster plants with varied moisture needs, it's difficult to water each correctly. Start slowly with your plant-selection process. Gradually get a feel for what works together and plan your garden carefully. If you consider the time and monetary expense a landscape represents, gaining the advice of a professional landscape designer may be well worth the investment.
4. In the desert, lawn is a four-letter word
OK, that's a little harsh. For people with kids or pets, or who just want a spot to walk barefoot, lawns have their place. But our average annual rainfall here is about 11.5 inches, not the 32 inches you received in Chicago. As a general rule of thumb, avoid growing lawns for greenery only; low-water ground covers can give you the greenery you seek. Keep lawns a manageable size to keep water consumption to a minimum. Grow adapted warm-season grasses such as hybrid Bermuda for best results.
5. The ways we water
Watering plants properly is one of the trickiest techniques to explain, especially to new desert gardeners. Above all, plan on giving newly planted plants frequent irrigations, perhaps up to two or three times a week during summer. (This is one of the reasons why we plant in fall, when the weather is more forgiving.) When plants are established—after they have lived through one or two summers—deep soak the soil every two to three weeks during summer. Apply water in an area around the plant's drip line—near the perimeter of the plant where rainfall would naturally drip from the plant's canopy to the ground.
Installing a drip irrigation system that applies water via emitters with an automatic timer will make your job easier. This way, you can control exactly how much water you apply, as well as where and how often.
6. Pruning—when and how much
Pruning can mystify even experienced gardeners. And in the desert, the guidelines are not as simple as "wintertime is pruning time." In addition, many plants, particularly flowering trees and shrubs, do best when pruned right after they cease flowering. Some years our winters are so mild that plants are reluctant to cease their growth cycle. The trick is to avoid pruning too early, for example, in December, but not wait until plants have begun to produce buds, usually by late February or early March. Have your pruning tools sharp and at the ready come mid-January to mid-February. And don't prune unless you have a reason. Pruning just to prune will do more harm than good.
7. Mulch—it's a good thing
Mulch is just about any material that is applied over the root zone of plants. It can be inorganic, such as rock or gravel, or organic, such as compost or forest mulch (ground bark products). A three-inch layer of mulch over the plants' root zones (beneath the canopy and slightly beyond) reduces moisture loss, retards growth of pesky weeds, and cools the upper layers of soil. Simply put, mulch serves as an inexpensive method to help plants grow better and use less water.
8. Respect the power of the sun
Extreme sunshine and heat can stress plants, or even kill them. This is particularly true of plant species that may have thrived in your former home climate but are not adapted to our long, hot summers. The likelihood of such plants failing increases even more if they are placed in a south or west exposure, where sunlight and high temperatures are most intense. Select only the toughest plants for these locations. Also, take advantage of kinder, gentler exposures, such as an eastern exposure or a partially shaded location beneath a canopy tree. Likewise, respect the sun's capacity to do you harm. Plan on working outdoors early in the day, before it gets too hot. Wear protective clothing, use sunscreen, and drink plenty of water. Better yet, do the heavy work during fall or winter when temperatures are mild.
9. Not all rainfall is equal
Tucson typically has two rainy seasons: winter and summer. Winter rains are usually slow and steady, which allows moisture to soak into the soil. Summer rains come in the form of intense storms originating in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California. They are highly localized and capable of producing large quantities of water in a short time. The rain that falls can do more harm than good due to erosion from runoff. Don't let a summer monsoon fool you into cutting back on irrigation. Often when it appears that a rainstorm has moistened the soil, the benefit to plants is negligible. Dig into the soil to see how far moisture has penetrated.
10. Become an expert on your garden
With time, growing and caring for plants in our desert becomes easier due to your observations of your garden. It helps to understand the natural progression of our gardening seasons so that you can plant, prune, and fertilize in sync with the ebb and flow of plant growth. Consider keeping a written record of activities in your garden—a garden journal. Record planting dates and methods, flowering periods, methods and times of weed control, times when plants were pruned, and how much and when they were watered. Become an amateur naturalist by observing native plants and note when they flower, drop their leaves, or otherwise change gears. Keeping track of such matters will eventually allow you to see and feel when it's time to reach for the pruning shears or when to sow your seeds.