Being on a north-facing cliff, I have always recognized that our gardens reside in a unique micro-climate. Everything emerges late compared to gardens in town or even a few hundred yards up the block, which is more southerly facing. But our recent visit to the Ramsey Canyon in Arizona has really shown us the incredible diversity that can exist right next to each other.
We were a bit worried when we came to Phoenix as the forecast was for temperatures around 105 degrees during our birding tour. And as we drove south through deserts of scrub, mesquite and saguaro cacti, our fears did not evaporate like our sweat did as we went outside the air-conditioned confines of our car. But as luck would have it, our reservations at the Ramsey Canyon B&B provided us with a uncommon shelter from the local heat.
Driving up toward the canyon, we left a parched valley and entered a shady one with thick foliage and trees filled with green leaves. Exiting the car, we discover that it is 20 degrees cooler in the canyon than it is just a few miles away.
Following the stream, the canyon walls face north and south. The south-facing walls appear as expected for this climate: prickly pear cacti, scrub grass, agave, mesquite and other sparse plantings in the desert. The sun bakes the ground hard to a light brown patina. The rocks absorb the sun and waves of heat are launched that distort the view of the incline. This undulating palette falls from the top of the canyon ridge to a few yards from where the river flows.
But at the stream a quick and startling transformation occurs. Brown becomes green, with rush grasses flourishing in mud next to the banks. Water-seeking cottonwood trees line the banks as do the local locust trees, now in bloom with delicate pink flowers crowning the most upper branches. Deer, turkey and other animal tracks imprint the mud leaving a sign that many have come to visit though they are not in view at the present time.
On the north side of the canyon, the remains of an orchard can be spotted, planted over 100 years ago with a few apple, apricot, plum and pear trees trying to survive. These trees rarely produce fruit now, indicating that winters are milder today than they were when these trees were first planted.
Continuing up the north side of the canyon, the sides are thick and covered with pine, oak, fir, juniper and other trees. Unlike the south side, the soil of the north side of the canyon walls cannot be seen as it is covered with a dense blanket of needles and leaves.
This density and the resulting coolness led to Ramsey Canyon being developed as a community in the late 1800s. Looking at the few remains of the century old settlement, it is difficult to imagine that a large dance floor traversed the creek and around an old sycamore tree in front of us. And during Prohibition moonshine was crafted further up the creek.
But it is not difficult to believe that the residents of a century ago took comfort and coolness in a valley that was unique to the area. A yin and yang that could be enjoyed.