The joy of desert gardening

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Jorie Parr

Mary Brent Wehrli, president of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley, and her husband have cultivated one of the valley’s outstanding low-water use desert gardens.
Photo by Gordon Parr

It’s an astonishingly beautiful scene.

Mary Brent Wehrli leads a meandering stroll around her garden hideaway in Palm Springs. She stops to pull on a fragrant plant here and there, munches on a kumquat picked from a branch, and lets fly comments like “Creosote — the Indians’ medicine chest — defines the garden” and “fig trees like the desert.” 

At a dense grove of citrus trees colonized by palms, she says, “It’s every tree for itself” and then snaps off cuttings from a prolific plant aptly called Mother of Millions, predicting that they will take root and bloom gloriously. The path winds by a 1930s rustic structure that onetime resident screen star Ralph Bellamy helped build as a garage. 

Smoke trees punctuate the casual landscape. Though it’s dead winter, Wehrli points out colorful flowers, gaillardia and desert marigolds. They proliferate, actually jumping over from one section of the garden to another. There’s the chuparosa with tiny red flowers that resemble its namesake, the hummingbird. 

Embracing the desert

Rain buckets. When did you last see anything like a rain barrel? “I keep them for hand-watering.” Of course. Water is a key issue with Wehrli, president of the board of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley. They are major water watchdogs. 

But before you tear out your lawn in allegiance, by the way hoping to be compensated, Wehrli says stop. Find out what your individual city requirements are. You don’t remove the grass first and ask for cash later; you have to follow procedure. 

The society strives to desertize civic property. In Palm Springs they’ve converted the southeast edge of Ramon Road and Farrell Drive cornering the high school. They’ll figure in the changeover of the second half of the Tahquitz Canyon Drive strip approaching Palm Springs International Airport. As for that facility, Wehrli and her group are encouraging a more desert-conscious attitude. After all, she reasons, if you want to fly into a lush environment, fly into Hawaii. 

The horticultural advocates first made their mark with garden tours. In fact, cofounder and former longtime president Paul Ortega’s inspiration for the sponsoring club came when he saw a tour bus rolling down Palm Canyon Drive in 2005. Why not a garden tour? They’ve been madly popular from the start. The 10th annual tour is April 12 in Palm Springs.  

The society helps finance good works, like scholarships, distributed at the annual Desert Community Garden Day held this year at the Living Desert. In collaboration with Vintage Associates (the Desert’s Garden Center) a total of $15,000 has been provided over the last four years.

Tours, trips and meetings 

The tours aren’t expensive at $15, and they’re free to members. Wehrli smiles because dues are just $10. Membership now totals about 469. Around 50 show up for meetings where “pros and home gardeners come together to share the joy of gardening.”

One of the perks is the free online newsletter, “The Chuparosa,” which prints features on local water history and issues and less seriously on how one man found solace in a mail-ordered cactus. It keeps the faithful informed on meetings, excursions and the like.  

Meetings begin with an exchange of plant pups and cuttings. As Wehrli puts it “You don’t have to invest a lot of money to have a beautiful garden.” Then the educational group has a really good speaker. The next get-together is Jan. 21 at The Living Desert, Hoover Room, in Palm Desert. Caroline Conway, education director of the Wildlands Conservancy, will talk. 

There’s going to be a 10th birthday party for members on Feb. 28 in a private garden in Palm Springs. 

 As for excursions, the DHSCV ventures as far afield as Santa Barbara to the west and Phoenix — coming up Feb. 20 —- to the east. Wehrli cites the Huntington Library garden in San Marino as a favorite destination: “They have an exquisite desert section.”

Next up, closer to home, a looksee at the gated Smoke Tree Ranch with an optional lunch at the Ranch House Dining Room on Jan. 28. 

In her past life, Wehrli was a distinguished sociology professor at UCLA and a prominent political activist. And then, she says, “I failed retirement.” Being DHSCV president amounts to a full-time, if volunteer, job.  

With her husband, Martin Wehrli, a retired lawyer, she’s been caught up in creating a desert wonderland of their Palm Springs property, which they’ve owned since 1999. (He does the hardscape and irrigation.) Their home interior reflects his Wyoming origins. It looks kind of like an elegant take on a 1930s western movie. 

When Mary Brent first included their garden on a tour, Martin was understandably wary. But it all went very well. She says, “Gardeners are nice.” 

Learn more: 

• Mary Brent Wehrli recommends a Living Desert University class to be held in her garden March 14, 9 a.m. to noon, including brunch. See