While Russ Buhrow was the curator of plants at Tohono Chul Park—a position he held for 21 years—he introduced many new species of native plants into the nursery trade, including many of his own selections and hybrids. In retirement, he’s still growing lots of saguaros, running a sawmill, and is planning other “top secret” projects. I first met Russ in the 1990s, when I owned a small plant nursery.
Were you always into plants?
I grew up on a farm, so we always had a garden and grew things. When I went to college, I went to study astronomy and found out it wasn’t what I thought; it wasn’t looking through telescopes. It was just a bunch of math and physics. It wasn’t as much fun for me—I like to do more hands-on stuff. After a short break, when I went back to college, I changed my focus to agronomy, and then gravitated toward more horticultural stuff. Agronomy was right next to astronomy in the catalog, so …
Back in the 1990s, I remember you were growing all kinds of weird plants. One stands out in my memory, a plant that nobody else was growing: Crossosoma bigelovii, or ragged rockflower.
Nobody knew how to grow it. They would try to germinate some seeds, and the germination would be poor and they would give up. All you have to do is select for nondormancy—it takes a couple of generations.
But you were growing a plant that had no demand, except for plant weirdos like us.
Well somebody has to lead. The world is full of followers. But really to me, it was just about growing pretty plants that were appropriate for our environment. Crossosoma is a beautiful plant.
People want to grow Camellias or they want to grow … azaleas. And I just can’t believe it. Are you kidding me? They like acid soil! Our soil is alkaline. Some spots at Tohono Chul are so alkaline, it’s almost corrosive! There are plants that are here and grow in soil like that. And they’re happy. And they are beautiful.
We still sell a lot of non-natives in the nursery trade.
People did a lot of development in Europe a long time ago. They found plants native to their area, or sometimes from expeditions to Asia or elsewhere, brought them into their yards, and grew them because they were interesting or pretty. Over time they picked the better ones. That is all I do: what they did then but with our own native plants. For some reason, maybe we are in a state of arrested development, we just hang on to those plants instead of developing plants here, appropriate to our own climate.
Do you think nostalgia plays a part in us hanging on to those plants?
Yes. People want what they know, what they grew up with. But again, someone has to lead. Get the new things into the market. If they are pretty, and you are the only one who has them, those plants will sell. It was good doing the work I did under a nonprofit. We could spend the time and energy looking and selecting [new selections] and if one of those plants got popular, the nurseries might pick them up. Those guys have to make money. But see, this is where the nonprofits have a place—development. Nurseries mostly pick up what is already popular, native or non-native, and maybe they will work on improving those plants. But they have to make money. I know a lot of people who were [doing development] and went broke.
I was one of them.
Well, there you go. That was the nice things about [Tohono Chul]. Take penstemons. We were growing like something between 30 and 50 different ones. Many of those were tough [to grow], but there were 10-15 that worked … most anybody could grow them. Now all you have in the trade predictably are about 3 or 4 kinds.
Are you still developing plants?
I still do plant breeding. I have some projects now. It’s all top secret. When something comes out, I will let you know.
Is the winter garden your favorite?
Winter gardens are nice because you get a lot more food for the amount of water you put out. But I like the summer garden better. I love corn. I love squash. I like growing fresh tomatoes and peppers. That costs a lot of money, though. The only way tomatoes and peppers make economic sense is if you container grow them, and keep the adjacent trees from sucking the water from them. People don’t realize how much trees suck the water out of the garden. Use big pots. Plastic pots that don’t let water evaporate out of the sides. We often put a bunch of large plastic pots up against each other and that keeps them from going dry too fast.
You have quite an asparagus bed. Is this Martha Washington?
No it was some other variety; it’s supposed to be super fat. But the damn dog eats them off! We never got any asparagus because he got at them all.
What citrus are you growing?
Let’s see, that’s a ruby red [grapefruit], and there is a moro blood orange. And we have a kinnow mandarin, a Washington navel, minneola tangelo, Valencia orange, Arizona sweet orange, and a marrs orange.
The kinnow mandarin is really, really good. Problem is you have to wait. They start getting really good in March, really April, so you have to wait.
You have a fig tree, too.
Yeah, I don’t have the variety name on that, but it’s one of those yellow ones. Super sugary. We got a frost recently here. They don’t taste as good when the trees start going to sleep. Those stress chemicals. As soon as they got hit by the frost we just had, they went from really yummy to the birds aren’t even eating them.
Any advice for beginning gardeners?
Don’t blame the plant. The plant never fails. We just have to figure out what it needs. Give the plant what it needs and it will thrive. ✜
Jared McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona