Lifetime Gardener Develops Zest For New Techniques

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As a young girl, Eileen Lawson was introduced to gardening by her mother.

Growing up in the Phoenix area -- her father taught zoology at Arizona State University -- the family was always tramping around in the desert.

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Eileen Lawson is a longtime gardener, but a novice with xeriscape, which she has slowly been incorporating into her yard.

"I loved to find seeds and plant them," Lawson said. "What came up was always a surprise to my mother."

So, in a way, Lawson was ahead of her time. Tinkering with low-water, native plants in home landscapes is essentially where xeriscape started.

But her zest for xeriscape did not take root until about two years ago.

"When I heard about it, I thought it would be boring with all the flat colors," Lawson, the librarian for Frontier Elementary School, said. "Then I sent off for a catalog and was amazed at the colors you can get."

She has three different xeriscape gardens. The first she started a couple of years ago and just planted poppies.

"They start looking straggly, so I put some other things in." She has become especially fond of ornamental grasses. There are quite a few that are drought-tolerant and they come in a wonderful variety of colors and produce intriguing and intricate seed heads.

If one of her grasses is not as comfortable with dry soil -- or the amount of moisture delivered through the drip irrigation system -- she cuts the bottom out of a plastic milk carton, puts the rootball and soil in it and replants them. So, when the plants are watered with a drip irrigation system, some of the moisture is retained around the plant instead of all seeping away.

One patch of her front yard is devoted to ornamental grass and the yard itself is buffalo grass, which is recommended for its low water use and slow growth.

"You never really have to mow it," Lawson said.

Her newest venture in xeriscape is in her back yard. She and her husband, Bill, who is curriculum director for the Payson Unified School District, had kept the back of their property natural for a number of years. But earlier this year, they joined their neighbors in making the area more fire-safe by cutting a lot of the brush.

In place of the brush, Lawson took on xeriscaping with zeal. Most of the flowering plants in the new garden sport various shades of purple petals. The dominant plant at present is a large sage with stems covered with deep lilac blooms, attracting plenty of bees and hummingbirds.

For Lawson, gardening, in any form is relaxing and rewarding. Though when her daughters, Penny and Mindy, were small, the best she could do was plant a vegetable garden, more for necessity than leisure.

She shares her talents with the people of the Rim Country at the Northern Gila County Fair. Lawson has been superintendent of the floriculture department for almost 25 years. She also competes and her wheelbarrow arrangement won a blue ribbon this year.

"That's something new we added last year," she said. "We don't actually grow the plants in the wheelbarrow, we arrange potted plants in them. Mine is now in the back yard waiting to be used in my gardening."

Next year the floriculture department at the fair will include lawn art, such as birdhouses and butterfly houses, constructed by the gardeners.

To learn more

Attend a meeting of the High Country Xeriscape Council of Arizona or visit the demonstration garden at Gila Community College. Browse the free literature available in the kiosk. Call (928) 468-0727 if you want information about future events or meetings.

The University of Arizona Gila County Extension Service office in Payson has information on xeriscape, as do the public libraries.

You can also go online and do a search with the word "xeriscape."

Happy gardening.

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