Weekly Q&A

Plant whisperer Angela O’Callaghan on gardening in the desert (with a jackhammer)

Photo: Christopher DeVargas

It’s 110 degrees on a Thursday; the sun hurling flames and cackling madly, but inside the cool of the waiting room at University of Nevada’s Cooperative Extension Angela O’Callaghan asks if we could do our interview outside. “It’s freezing in here,” she says.

I should have known she’d want to be out in the garden. This is the plant lady of plant ladies, the extension’s social horticulture specialist, who received her Ph.D. in horticulture at Cornell University (her master’s was in fruit and vegetable science) and minored in plant pathology and soil chemistry.

Maybe you know her from her Desert Bloom segment on Nevada Public Radio or from classes she’s taught. But how this woman from the Bronx became a plant and soil expert—doing her dissertation on garlic—in a place not known for fertile land is as interesting as the encyclopedia of the plant world in her head. Strolling through the UNCE demonstration gardens, she fielded a swarm of questions about her own desert adaptation.

Why garlic? My professor was the onion specialist in New York and was constantly being harangued by the garlic growers. He wanted someone who would work with the garlic growers so they would come off his case. I am a person who knows a lot about garlic.

You've been out East most of your life. How did you end up at the Cooperative Extension here in Las Vegas? They were looking for somebody who had experience working with volunteers, working with poor people, working in communities of color, working in cities and, by the way, who had an advanced degree in horticulture.

Tall order. Except that before I went back to graduate school I had spent the previous 15 years working with poor and homeless women and families in Boston.

How did horticulture factor in? I used gardening as a way to keep myself sane, as I’m working with homeless families with AIDS. I had always told myself that if I ever got out of homeless [service] I was going to go to Cornell and get a Ph.D. in plants.

Why plants? I loved plants. I wanted to know more about them. How did they work? What was the whole world around them? And there’s new information coming out all the time.

I hear they interact. Oh, God yes. They communicate in so many different ways. They communicate below ground, above ground. In fact, they don’t necessarily even have to be related. ... There are all these little chemical cues.

How do you feel about desert plants? I love looking at how they survive and the various things that they do to adapt. Like those Globemallows—if you look closely at the leaves, there is a fuzzy coat; if you were to peel away that coat you would see green leaves, but you’ve got this fuzzy coat that acts as shade that blocks a lot of the light. It also slows down evaporation.

What are some common misconceptions about desert plants? People think they never need water or they can grow with no amendment. That’s not true. Even out in the desert occasionally an animal comes by and pees or dies. Those things get into the soil and get included into the nutritional package.

What are the usual mistakes people make gardening here? Planting too deep. Over-watering and under-watering. Not checking the drainage in a hole before you put something in it. These top four inches are where the bulk of the roots are. But you want to have drainage. Desert plants absolutely have to have drainage. If it is in a muddy, airless hole, you’re drowning the plant. When a root is sitting there suffocating it stops pulling up water.

What do you think of homes with grass? Why would you have lawn unless you have livestock? If you’re feeding sheep or goats or cattle, that’s one thing.

There could be water restrictions someday. I should bloody well hope so. Maybe then everybody’s going to pay attention to their soil.

Describe your first gardening experience here.I wanted to put in a feathery cassia because I love them. First I got a shovel. That wasn’t so successful. Then I got a garden fork. Then I went to Home Depot and I bought a pick ax and I was able to get somewhere with that until I actually flattened the pick ax. I brought it back. When I came out the second time, because I had flattened that pick ax, they said, “Lady, what are you trying to do?”

Then what? Then I discovered a breaker bar—it’s a 14-pound crowbar—and started breaking things up. I had this big layer of caliche. I got a couple of gallons of vinegar. Do you ever make those kids’ volcanoes? Caliche is calcium carbonate. You put in vinegar, what do you get? Carbon dioxide. You get a volcano. So I poured a couple of gallons of vinegar in and I got this big foaming thing, and then I had more fissures that I could crack and break and I was able to put in my cassia and it thrived.

And the rest of the yard? It took me three weeks to dig the hole in the front. I said, “I’m not going to do that. I’ll be dead before I have a garden.” So I rented a jackhammer.

Soil aside, what about the heat? I am absolutely 100 percent grow where you’re planted. I’ve been planted here, I’m going to grow here.

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