Plants + People
A study of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the gardens they tend to.
002 sarah and rich combs
region: joshua tree
plant community: coastal sage scrub, joshua tree woodland
landscape design: sara and rich combs
photography: justin chung
In 2015, the couple purchased a home in Joshua Tree, envisioning it as a creative escape and place of solace away from the city. Renovating the house and filling it with detail, artful design, and personal touches from the landscape and their travels, it became a popular secret among friends (and soon strangers), with requests to rent out “the Joshua Tree House.” Quickly, Sara and Rich realized they might be onto a bigger idea — today, the duo owns and manages two distinct and popular rentals in both Joshua Tree and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, while continuing to live full-time in the Mojave. Here, they’ve worked to create an environment that respects the landscape…listening and honoring the life that thrives amid extremity and finding beauty in the specific cues that personify its subtle shift in season.
We spent a late spring day with the expecting couple for a walk through their cacti-filled garden, and a conversation on the slow rewards of desert living; the wild botanicals that have become utilitarian staples; and the desert drink du jour — a prickly pear margarita.
What is your first or earliest memory of being in a garden?
Some of my earliest plant memories are in my childhood backyard surrounded by wild ferns and oak trees. I had a favorite rock I would lay on and look up through the leaves of the oak to outlines of the sky. This was in Connecticut, which is such a contrast to the desert plants we have in our garden today.
Describe how your garden: feels, smells, sounds, tastes.
Feels like sunshine. Smells like petrichor. Sounds like ocean waves when breezes pass through the plants. Tastes like prickly pear tunas (cactus fruit) in the summer.
What plants are currently in your garden?
Our garden mostly focuses on cacti: A variety of prickly pears, barrel cacti, cholla, fence posts and the stars of the show (in my opinion) are the fat boy cacti, or helianthocereus terscheckii, which tower over the rest and flank either side of our garden. We also have Joshua trees, yuccas, agaves, brittlebush, mesquite trees, palo verdes, creosote, rosemary, bottlebrush, and acacias.
Describe your garden now and where you envision it in five years.
I love watching our garden transition through the seasons; particularly when the cacti bloom in the spring and fruit in the summer. It’s been so fun watching everything we’ve planted grow over the years, and over the next five years we hope to watch cuttings mature and already established plants continue to grow. We just planted a palm tree so it'll be fun to see how that will look!
Do you use plants medicinally? What is your plant routine?
Creosote is one of our favorite native plants here in the Mojave, and you’ll often find us bringing clippings inside either to add to a vase or to hang from our shower head. When the water hits it, the smell is intoxicating. Another plant we’re often clipping from our garden is rosemary. It makes great bundles for smudging and is a favorite herb that does well in our climate.
What plants do you use for cooking or healing?
We’re always cooking with our rosemary, and for healing both the aloes and creosote are great for irritated skin. Aloe is what we immediately go to if we ever get a sunburn, and creosote is antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and rich in vitamin E, making it great for healing wounds or inflammation. In the summer, we make as much as we can with the tunas from our prickly pear cacti—prickly pear juice with a little lime and sparkling water is a favorite. It also makes a great margarita.
What’s in your garden shed?
Planting cacti can be a tricky situation—our favorite tools for that are of course a shovel, some brown paper (to wrap around the cactus to prevent getting spines on us), and extra rope or old carpet scraps for carrying and maneuvering it. A rake and a hula hoe for weeding the sand are go-to tools as well.
Do you have any garden traditions that you’ve inherited or learned and plan to pass on?
We learned from our neighbors to fertilize around Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day for a healthy garden and that planting cacti with a small stock tank underground can help conserve water and keep groupings of plants hydrated.
What has a consistent application of care for your garden taught you about the role of seasons or cycles in everyday life?
The work we put in now will be rewarded in the next six to twelve months. Every physically exhausting moment hauling rocks and cacti in the garden, renovating a new space in our work life, or nurturing a relationship in our personal life is a perfect time to remember the beautiful reward that we’re creating for our future selves.