In A Desert Garden: Love and Death among the Insects

In A Desert Garden: Love and Death among the Insects

by John Alcock

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When John Alcock replaced the Bermuda grass in his suburban Arizona lawn with gravel, cacti, and fairy dusters, he was doing more than creating desert landscaping. He seeded his property with flowers to entice certain insects and even added a few cowpies to attract termites, creating a personal laboratory for ecological studies. His observations of life in


When John Alcock replaced the Bermuda grass in his suburban Arizona lawn with gravel, cacti, and fairy dusters, he was doing more than creating desert landscaping. He seeded his property with flowers to entice certain insects and even added a few cowpies to attract termites, creating a personal laboratory for ecological studies. His observations of life in his own front yard provided him with the fieldnotes for this unusual book. In a Desert Garden draws readers into the strange and fascinating world of plants and animals native to Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

As Alcock studies the plants in his yard, he shares thoughts on planting, weeding, and pruning that any gardener will appreciate. And when commenting on the mating rituals of spiders and beetles or marveling at the camouflage of grasshoppers and caterpillars, he uses humor and insight to detail the lives of the insects that live in his patch of desert. Celebrating the virtues of even aphids and mosquitoes, Alcock draws the reader into the intricacies of desert life to reveal the complex interactions found in this unique ecosystem. In a Desert Garden combines meticulous science with contemplations of nature and reminds us that a world of wonder lies just outside our own doors.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Alcock writes with a wry humor that appears as well in reflections on growing vegetables and cultivating compost. Graced with lively line drawings,...Alcock's engaging, illuminating text offers delightful reading for all who appreciate the natural world."—Booklist

"A spirited primer in Sonoran Desert ecology, cloaked in a memoir of gardening. . . .Ever original, Alcock encourages readers to view the desert with new eyes through this fine contribution to arid-lands literature."—Kirkus Reviews

"Makes a delightful case for insect watching and for creating a space for that purpose . . . Insect enthusiasts will love it—and those who wonder why anyone would be an insect enthusiast need to buy it."—Audubon Naturalist News

"Alcock is a fine stylist, deftly joining the keen observation and scientific insight one expects from a nature writer to the lighter (and, let's admit it, much funnier) voice of a garden writer. The result is a wonderful and informative narrative in which even the compost pile becomes a vibrant stage."—New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A patch of desert that might appear barren to an unknowing eye teems with diverse life for Alcock, professor of zoology at Arizona State University. In this appealing account of his creation of a desert ecosystem in his suburban Tempe yard, Alcock describes the varied flora and fauna that have adapted to this intensely hot, dry climate. He welcomes the cacti, paloverdes, globe mallow and brittlebush that, unlike the water-craving lawns most of his neighbors try to maintain, attract desert wildlifeparticularly Alcock's special love, insects. His yard becomes home to earwigs, rove beetles, sleeping bees, white flies and even termites, which he observes with fascination and meticulous care. He describes distinctive mating habits (such as copulatory cannibalism among mantises and redback spiders) and innovative strategies for survival. He explains the sometimes devastating impact of non-native intruders like the red brome grass imported for cattle; now dominant in the area, red brome creates a precondition for summer wildfires. "Out goes the complex, three-dimensional, highly diverse chaparral of the desert and in comes a unidimensional, uninteresting prairie," Alcock laments. He is even more discouraged by the trend in his area toward urban sprawl, with its implicit threat to desert ecosystems. But while the cravings for lawns and golf courses grows unchecked, Alcock's own yard remains a refuge and an inspiration. "Every time I walk on my front yard," he writes, "I know that whole worlds thrive beneath my feet, but not beneath my interest." Line drawings and color photos add to the book's considerable charm. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Alcock (zoology, Arizona State Univ.) has written yet another book dealing with his specialty: desert ecology in the American Southwest. His previous works include The Masked Bobwhite Rides Again (LJ 9/1/93) and Sonoran Desert Summer (LJ 3/15/90). The focus of his new work is the author's own front yard in Tempe, Arizona, and its insect inhabitants. Several years ago, Alcock tore out his typical suburban lawn to re-create a miniature native desert habitat, complete with representative local desert vegetation. He also added a small vegetable garden on one side. Readers will gain insights into how science is practiced as the author's lively, often humorous observations of assorted beetles, bugs, wasps, bees, caterpillars, and butterflies are related to broad concepts of animal behavior, ecology, and survival. Alcock's considerable talent as a nature writer is demonstrated here by his ability to take a subject as seemingly mundane as the insects found in the yard and turn it into a fascinating learning adventure. Recommended for public and academic libraries.William H. Wiese, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Kirkus Reviews
A spirited primer in Sonoran Desert ecology, cloaked in a memoir of gardening.

To judge by this graceful little study of insects and desert plants, Alcock (The Masked Bobwhite Rides Again, 1993), a zoologist at Arizona State University, is a suburban neighbor's nightmare. First, he replaced his Bermuda-grass lawn with gravel, cacti, and succulents to replicate the look of the desert before humans remade it. Next, he festooned his yard with cowpies carefully selected for size, weight, and dryness, "the crème de la crème of termite chow, as far as Gnathamitermes are concerned," whereafter that voracious insect would find hospitable quarters in his domain. Then he seeded his property with flowers to attract a flotilla of winged and crawling creatures, "carpenter bees and globe mallow bees, brittlebush aphids and milkweed aphids, these and many other insects." Thus equipped with a back-door laboratory for ecological studies, Alcock spent the next few years observing what happened; his observations provided him with the field notes from which this book is made. Alcock fills his pages with asides on the insects he has studied for so long at close hand. We learn, among other things, that female praying mantises have gotten a bad rap as spousal murderers; rising to their defense, he observes that "the extent of female consumption of males during copulation had been greatly exaggerated." We learn as well that aphids are to be prized, the occasional loss of a rosebush or milkweed plant aside, for their marvelous properties: They reproduce "without the curious beings we call males" and otherwise develop and mutate in unexpected ways.

Ever original, Alcock encourages readers to view the desert with new eyes through this fine contribution to arid-lands literature.

Product Details

University of Arizona Press
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7.50(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt



Nobody goes there any more; it's too crowded.
—Yogi Berra

HAVE JUST BEEN out to what used to be one of my favorite spots in the desert, a little mountain ridge a half hour from home, more when the Superstition Freeway is not cooperating. The freeway was passable this morning, since I timed my departure to coincide with heavy traffic crawling in as I was heading out. When I arrived at the spot where I usually park the car, a gravel pit used by shooters too cheap to go to one of the regulated shooting ranges around Phoenix, I found the usual eye-boggling carpet of litter covering the entire pit and curling into the nearby desert.

I negotiated my way past the main body of trash and began to ascend the ridge, passing a paloverde that had been cut down by fusillades from shooters using targets on the slope by the tree. A new off-road track violated a nearby side ridge; the last part of the brown gullied track went almost straight up before running out of gas. When I reached the first high point and looked down the other side, I saw that most of the vegetation on the next peak had been burned not too long before. A big black swath of emptiness circled the peak.

I dropped down the ridge slowly to get to the wash below. Fresh tire tracks came right up to the rocks below a little seep. A cupful of water moistened the gravel. Twelve beer bottles, five of them broken, lay at various distances from a fire ring built in the middle of the wash near the seep. By now I was starting to feel just a tad misanthropic.

So I said the hell with it and drove home, jumpingout of the car to take a long admiring look at my front-yard oasis. No broken beer bottles there. A good feeling engulfed me, as I congratulated myself for having a place where I can set aside the anxieties of dealing with traffic and overcrowding and litterbugs, a place where I can turn my attention to something I can control, something like yard maintenance.

I used to devote a lot of energy and spare time to mowing, watering, and even edging the bedraggled Bermuda grass that once blanketed our front yard. My lawn, dotted with unwanted weeds and yellowed here and there as a result of erratic watering, was not the envy of the neighborhood. In fact, one neighbor told me gently that only I could top her husband when it came to producing a poster child of a lawn. The front yard did, however, generate enough Bermuda grass to require frequent mowings; I trundled back and forth across the green and yellow sward shoving an aged pushmower in front of me. The mower had come secondhand from a local yard and garden shop, and it tended to lose the right-hand wheel at unexpected moments. No matter how tightly I wrenched the wheel back in place, off it came again in short order.

I cannot remember what source of inspiration freed me from my accursed mower and the lawn it chopped and scalped throughout many a broiling summer. However, one late spring day in 1988 I marched onto the front yard armed with a pump sprayer filled with Roundup at the proper concentration. The active ingredient in Roundup has the vaguely malevolent name glyphosate. Suburban users are encouraged not to get the stuff on their skin, in their eyes, much less inhale it. My grass, recently watered, was growing more enthusiastically than usual, the better to absorb the deadly herbicide that I unleashed upon it. After the dousing, almost all of my Bermuda grass turned turtle over the next few days, just as glyphosate's manufacturer had promised. The remaining 10 percent fought a rearguard action requiring another surgical strike some weeks later. I felt not the slightest remorse as I gunned survivors down in their tracks. This was war, war on Bermuda grass and all that it stood for.

Over the rest of that summer I let the chemically scorched yard stand naked under the Arizona sun. No more fertilizer, which had always encouraged the weeds and nut grass more than their Bermudan cousin, whose reaction to my sporadic care and attention had never been as demonstrative as it should have been. No longer would I unkink the hose and spray an insatiably thirsty lawn with thousands of gallons of water siphoned from the Salt River. The river slides out of the White Mountains on the New Mexico border only to die in four man-made reservoirs upstream from Phoenix. From these catchments comes much of the water that keeps our drinking glasses full, our lawns sprinkled, and our cars clean. Now that our lawn remained unsprinkled, our water bills declined. Bits of dead Bermuda grass fragmented end blew out onto sidewalk, driveway, and street. After the end of summer rain, I was thrilled to spot not a single green shoot in the front forty. Neighbors who had long commiserated with me on the tatty nature of my Bermuda grass now looked downright puzzled: what in hell was going on?

I explained that I was about to install desert vegetation in place of the old Bermuda grass, but it would take a while. The installation of cacti and paloverdes was, however, only the last of several time-consuming steps—herbicide application had been only the first. The next stage required rental of a small but jarringly noisy Kubota tractor with a front scoop about three feet wide. Its operation demanded the sort of skills a longtime video player might have acquired. I (a non-videologist) lacked the necessary lever-flipping dexterity, but fortunately the tractor also came equipped with a rear blade that with one shift of a knob fell to the ground with a gratifying clunk. Engaging the clutch, I then persuaded the Kubota to motor ahead. As we inched forward, dirt and dead grass piled up in front of the scraper until such time as I commanded the rear blade to rise, leaving behind the unwanted remnants of a suburban lawn.

Around and around I went, cotton wads stuffed in my ears, scraping and pulling in an effort to slice down through the first six inches or so of "topsoil." Little piles of dirt grew into small mounds. I attempted to lift and move these mounds, using the front scoop with consistent ineptness. Long into the night the struggle went on—man against machine—but by 10 P.M. I had accomplished more or less what I had intended. Something on the order of five tons of dead Bermuda grass and its upper roots and a great deal of clay soil had been scraped up and shifted from one place to another.

In the course of scalping my yard, I had formed a depression that ran diagonally across the lot, a future dry "wash," as dry streambeds are called out West, flanked by ridges of soil on either side. After the tractor rental people retrieved their machine in the morning, I moved into the manual labor mode, using a shovel to refine the crude outlines of the wash and its low banks. This was hard but satisfying work.

Having blocked out the wash, I turned my attention to the western edge of the yard, where I designated an 8-foot x 20-foot rectangle as a future vegetable garden. I covered the rectangle with a 12-inch layer of scraped dirt, first sifting it through hardware cloth in an attempt to remove dead grass roots and lumps of clay. Wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of vegetative miscellany and hard clods made their way to the back alley, to be dumped there unceremoniously for later pickup by the city's hardworking alley-cleaning brigade. The sifted soil remained in the front yard, where it was soaked, dug into the old clay beneath it, and supplemented with huge amounts of commercial soil amendments. The raised beds would, I hoped, provide a congenial home for vegetable plants.

My visions of a vegetable bonanza proved optimistic, to say the least, but with the passage of time, my pocket garden has settled back to the same level as the surrounding yard while providing sufficient Swiss chard to keep me digging and planting year after year as well as offering a vegetative smorgasbord to satisfy any number of insects.

Once my incipient garden stood in place in the fall of 1988, I had plenty of work still ahead on the ex-Bermuda-grass plain before I could boast of having a desert yard. One unfinished step involved placing several tons of fist-sized gray rocks on the floor of the "wash." A local rock and gravel company gladly brought me more than enough of these rounded rocks, which they dumped on the yard. My son Nick and I distributed these materials to their proper positions, a task requiring a stout back and an empty mind. Nick worked on the rockpile with more good humor than the job deserved. Sue had the sense to find something else to do in the confines of the house, but she emerged on occasion to comment on our accomplishments.

Then the rock and gravel company returned to deposit the gravel to go on the yard around the wash and garden. A huge dump truck let fly with many tons of Mission red gravel, quarter inch and finer. A small pyramid soon rested on the concrete slabs of the driveway. Little fracture lines in the concrete skittered out from the gravel mound, testimony to the weight of the load we would have to move.

Nick and I returned to our hard labor, cheerfulness gradually evaporating as the pyramid lost its mass ever so slowly. The wheelbarrow groaned under its burdens. Stout young back and bowed middle-aged back creaked alike. Arms ached. But persistence has its rewards and eventually the driveway regained its usefulness as a place on which to park a car while the yard's gray-brown clay substrate was uniformly concealed under several inches of far more attractive gravel.

As a university professor I have academic friends, who are generous with their advice, dispensed without charge. In discussing the proper method of graveling the yard, some colleagues recommended the interposition of black plastic sheets between clay and gravel. This, however, I did not do, citing the added expense and the aesthetic disaster sure to follow when tattered fragments of black plastic emerged from underneath the ground, like hands from shallow graves, to decay in full view of passersby and so destroy the illusion of desert habitat. The advantage of buried black plastic is, of course, that it thwarts unwanted grasses and weeds from colonizing the gravelly soil. But without these invaders to hunt down and extirpate each spring, what excuse would I have for inspecting each square inch of my creation, gaining and regaining a familiarity with its every feature, sweating the good sweat, smoothing, plucking, pruning, putting my own stamp again and again on my handiwork?

Having skipped the black plastic, I began digging holes about 12 inches wide and 18 inches deep in the buried clay, first scraping to one side the blanket of store-bought gravel. Into these slots I inserted one by one a variety of small desert shrubs and cacti: a couple of brittlebush, three or four penstemons, some fairy dusters, two leafless desert milkweeds, a chuparosa, three globe mallows, several aloes, a desert marigold or two, two creosote bushes, a golden barrel cactus, and two highly branched Opuntia cacti, all plants in one-gallon containers purchased at the local Tip Top, or the Desert Botanical Garden's nursery in Phoenix, or the more distant nursers at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, an hour's drive to the east Three somewhat larger holes were dug to accommodate two paloverde trees eased out of their five-gallon containers and one fifteen-gallon ironwood tree that I humped over to its designated spot off to one side. Almost all of the plants that I permitted to grace my yard were local Sonoran Desert species. Well, a few (such as the golden barrel cactus) did come from Mexico, and an even fewer, such as the South African aloes and an Australian poverty bush, somehow managed to convince me they belonged despite their un-American provenance.

Although the number of transplants sounds substantial, their planting was actually spread out over many weeks, with additions and replacements right up to the present. Early on, even after several dozen plants had been put in place, the yard still looked empty, quite abandoned, displaying none of the happy clutter of a native patch of Sonoran Desert. Patience would be required.

Some friends and colleagues urged a drip irrigation system for the plants now scattered among the gravel; Once again, frugality won the day. Only plants able to survive without major technological assistance had a place in my front yard. Each of the plants that I ushered into its new hard-packed clay home was thoroughly watered on its day of planting and then again at ever greater intervals. Almost all have survived, and most have thrived, confirming the wisdom of my penny-pinching negativity with respect to drip irrigation lines and timers.

As the years have passed, these immature youngsters planted so long ago have grown dramatically, filling in many of the open spaces that appeared nude in the desert yard's babyhood. The yard now has the look of chaparral. To maintain some suggestion of desert, I have on occasion had to dig up and cart away a few original colonists and their offspring. Globe mallow and brittlebush sometimes get carried away with the pleasures of "captivity," taking full advantage of the relative absence of competition from neighboring plants, expanding almost overnight when it rains, so much so that my current policy is never ever to run the hose out to them. Were they to receive extra water, they would balloon completely out of control, sprawling outward, reaching higher and higher, achieving a mass well beyond the restrained dimensions of their true desert cousins.

As my imported plants reached maturity, some proved especially good at producing new seedlings for me to play with. For example, I now know that I can always count on Penstemon parryi to generate a small army of baby penstemons each year. This attractive stalked plant with its tubular red flowers yields seeds that clearly vary in what triggers germination. In this they are like the seeds of other penstemons whose germination requirements have been carefully studied. In these other species, some seeds require light to become a seedling, others do not; some need to be chilled before two little leaves pop out of the ground, others do not. As a result, penstemon seedlings appear under a wide range of conditions in both winter and spring. In both seasons, Parry's penstemon do wonderfully well if it rains (or if I sneak some Salt River water to them).

In nature, baby penstemons, brittlebush, and globe mallow all like open, disturbed areas such as the edges of dry desert washes or hillside gullies. This preference for disturbed soil makes them perfect for unnatural yards in a perpetual state of rearrangement. I, for one, relish the opportunities for micromanagement offered by my desert yard. It took me a spring or two but eventually I learned which miniature seedling would grow into a penstemon and which was the product of an unwanted weed, the better to save the former and destroy the latter. I could then transplant baby penstemons in winter, creating small clusters of the plants where I imagined they would flower for maximum effect. In drought years, I have to water the transplants in winter and early spring, but they more than repay my attention with a glorious display of flowers, which attract a bevy of bees to say nothing of Anna's and black-chinned hummingbirds. In March or April, I can count on having a half dozen jet-black carpenter bees and several hummingbirds rocketing from one clump of penstemons to the next in appreciation of my winter manipulations.

The bees and hummingbirds are responsible for pollinating the flowers, so that there will be a new crop of seeds in due course. When researchers have prevented hummingbirds and bees from reaching the flowers of some other penstemons, by enclosing them in various sorts of mesh cages, the plants have not set seed, proof of the importance of these animals to the plants. I do not try to keep pollinators from my plants, and as a result, the penstemons (and other yard plants) invariably produce a bumper crop of seeds—and new generations of seedlings for my experiments in exterior design.

As part of these experiments, I not only foster the growth of favored species, I keep a close rein on those that try to take over too much yard. Since the removal of an overgrown globe mallow merely makes room for one of its youngsters, I need shed few tears for the giant tangle of stems and leaves that I throw on my compost heap, if I am in a composting frame of mind, or cast into the long-suffering back alley, if I am not. The deceased plant will be replaced, sometimes more quickly than I would prefer, by one of its offspring or that of a neighbor.

Therefore, my current yard is always in a state of disequilibrium rather than in the nearly static condition that characterized its Bermuda-grass days. Some shrubs come and go; new individuals arise from seed dropped by adult plants; in the spring, a whole collection of small annual flowering plants, among them desert poppies and Mojave desert bluebells, have their brief moment in the sun before adding seeds to the gravel for storage until the winter rains.

From a botanical perspective, my diversified desert yard is a thousand times more interesting than the grass "desert" it replaced. Moreover, it is an entomological paradise; in sum, the conversion has been richly rewarding. As a result of the much greater variety of plant species in the yard, ranging from trees to desert shrubs and ephemeral annuals to Swiss chard and tomatoes, the specialized food niches available for exploitation by particular insect species have been greatly expanded. Carpenter bees and globe mallow bees, brittlebush aphids and milkweed aphids, these and many other insects can now be accommodated in an enriched environment. I sing the diversity of plants. Down with Bermuda grass! Long live penstemons! Up with insects!

Meet the Author

John Alcock is the author of Sonoran Desert Spring, Sonoran Desert Summer, and The Masked Bobwhite Rides Again, all published by the University of Arizona Press. He is Professor of Zoology at Arizona State University.

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