Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Off the grid in the Arizona desert: Jan Emming's Destination:Forever Ranch

A large parcel of land away from it all, surrounded by scenery so beautiful you want to cry, with no neighbors in sight and the freedom to do exactly what you want: Who hasn't dreamed of that at some point in their lives? I certainly have. But how many people actually turn this heady fantasy into reality? Precious few.

However, there are some who do. Jan Emming is one of them. A Colorado native, he began in the late 1990s to scour the western U.S. for a site where he could create the desert garden he'd been envisioning since he was a teen. In 1998 he found what he was looking for: 40 acres in northwestern Arizona near the small town of Yucca.

This is a very special spot where the Mojave meets the Sonoran Desert. I was astounded to find Joshua trees, the signature plant of the Mojave, growing side by side with saguaros, the signature plant of the Sonoran. Add ocotillos, chollas, hedgehog and barrel cactus, California junipers and scrub oak, and you have a great start for a desert garden. When I pulled into the driveway of Jan's property on the morning of December 28, I understood immediately why he had chosen to live there.

But let me back up a little. I got off Interstate 40 at the first exit for Yucca. If you've ever driven this stretch, you've probably seen this quirky structure from the road:

Golf Ball House aka Area 66 off I-40 in Yucca, AZ

Known as the Golf Ball House, it was built in the 1970s as the restaurant and night club for an ambitious real-estate project that went belly up before it ever got off the ground—a metaphor for so many desert dreams that go poof. Later owners built a store and renamed the property Area 66, but when I stopped to take some photos, the gates were locked and there was no sign of life.

Another sight I'd never seen before: signs advertising water for sale! I fear similar signs might become commonplace in California in the not-too-distant future.


A handful of miles past the Golf Ball House the paved road...


...abruptly turned to dirt:


After another seven or eight miles, I finally arrived at Jan's place:

Jan's driveway


Jan calls his 40-acre slice of desert paradise Destination:Forever Ranch, or D:FR for short. After completing a small papercrete house in 2010, Jan has lived at D:FR year-round, off the grid and self sufficient. But that doesn't mean he has to rough it: A solar system provides power, water comes from a well, and a satellite dish connects Jan to the Internet.

The papercrete house Jan built himself over a three-year period

Papercrete block

For Jan, Destination:Forever Ranch is more than just a place to live. It's also a vision of a botanical garden that combines Mojave and Sonoran Desert natives like Joshua trees, saguaros, and ocotillos with xeric plants from similar climates around the world. Located at an elevation of 3,000 ft., D:FR regularly experiences winter temperatures in the low 20s, sometimes even below that (just the week after I visited a cold snap brought a bone-chilling 14°F). This eliminates succulents from warmer arid regions, including most aloes, but Jan still has a large palette to drawn on.

Jan started planting his desert garden in 1999, shortly after he'd bought the 40-acre property. He estimates that over 2,500 cacti, succulents, and small trees have been added so far. Many natives such as Joshua trees, ocotillos, red barrel and hedgehog cactus were salvage plants from development projects in the area. Since Jan runs a small nursery from D:FR and is well connected in collector circles, he also has access to a wide range of other plants, including uncommon and unusual species. 

In any arid region, watering is a major issue. At D:FR, which sees about 8 inches of rainfall in an average year, most plants in the ground only get whatever precipitation occurs naturally. Thirstier specimens, and all plants in the nursery area, are irrigated by hand using water from the on-site well. In addition, Jan built two flood-retention basins near the well shaft. They capture runoff so it can trickle down to the water table in order to recharge the aquifer. Jan estimates that in the first two years of operation, these basins harvested 200,000 gallons of water. 

The botanical garden is a largely self-financed undertaking, and progress is understandably slow, but Jan is undeterred. He maintains a steady pace, constantly making improvements and adding new plant material. I was surprised to find several eucalyptus planted near the house, together with maybe a dozen other Australian shrubs and trees in nursery pots waiting to go in the ground: They all came from Australian Outback Plants, the large wholesaler grower in the Phoenix area that I briefly mentioned in my recent plant haul post. This kind of fusion gardening is right up my alley.

If you're a member of just about any succulent or desert plant group on Facebook, chances are you've seen Jan's name. He posts frequently, chronicling his daily life at Destination:Forever Ranch and sharing his encyclopedic plant knowledge. In October 2017, he started a blog at https://janemming.com as a permanent archive and will gradually move over photos and content from Facebook. Jan's very first post on his blog is a great introduction.

The jefe of Destination:Forever Ranch

This was the first time I'd met Jan in person, but he's so easy to talk to, it felt like I'd known him forever. Before I was even aware of it, four hours had gone by. There was still so much to see, including row upon row of nursery plants, and I was disappointed that I had to leave (I had to be in Phoenix by 5pm, a 3-hour drive). But there's always next time!


Jan bought this metal saguaro in Wikieup, 30 miles away—at the Chevron gas station, of all places, which also sells Mexican metal art. That's the same place where I bought one of my metal Mariachi musicians.

Driveway, looking towards the main road

The saguaros, Joshua trees, chollas, and junipers are part of the native vegetation

Jan's house at the foot of the hill

Jan sells succulents both locally and through mail order. You'll find a list of plants on the website for Destination:Forever Ranch. The site also contains an interesting Q&A section about the D:FR.

On the right you can see some of Jan's nursery plants






Saguaros

Ocotillos, saguaros, and barrel cactus

What a perfect backdrop for a desert plant nursery! In spite of the remote location, Jan says he does get visitors occasionally.


Saguaros and golden barrels waiting to be dug for customers

Three saguaros Jan received from a homeowner who didn't want them anymore

These are a nice size—not tiny starter plants, but still easy enough to transport

I'm sure somebody will snap these up quickly

The photos below were taken as Jan was walking me around the property. We didn't get all that far—too much talking!

I was surprised to see South African bulbs peeking out of the ground

The agaves and barrel cactus were added by Jan


Agave chrysantha

Agave macracantha and paperflower (Psilostrophe cooperi), an Arizona native

Agave deserti var. simplex (possibly soon elevated to species rank)

Agave wocomahi

Euphorbia horrida and Brunsvigia bosmaniae

Ferocactus rectispinus


Agave ovatifolia, Opuntia 'Fruit Punch', and Ferocactus pringlei

Ferocactus pringlei

Ferocactus pringlei

Ferocactus pilosus and Aloe karasbergensis (fenced off for protection from wildlife)

Ferocactus pilosus, the form with lots of bristles that I love so much

Ferocactus pilosus

Ferocactus pilosus

Ferocactus wislizeni × Ferocactus rectispinus

Ferocactus herrerae in front of Euphorbia royleana, a cactus-like spurge from the Himalayas that has proven remarkably cold hardy in Jan's garden

Ferocactus rectispinus and Fouquieria columnaris

Boojum (Fouquieria columnaris)

Ferocactus rectispinus 

Agave palmeri

Teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)

California juniper (Juniperus californica)

California juniper (Juniperus californica)

California juniper (Juniperus californica)

When Jan bought this 40-acre parcel in 1998, it was completely undeveloped. I was curious how he decided where to put the driveway. His answer was instantaneous: where no junipers had to be removed. The California junipers are part of the native flora; they are very slow growers and have a life span of 250 years or more. Even specimens which appear dead at first glance often have a trunk or branch that is still alive.

Another native tree Jan loves is the crucifixion thorn, also known as palo cristi. It's the kind of wispy tree that makes a great silhouette.

Palo cristi (Canotia holacantha)

Palo cristi (Canotia holacantha)

Palo cristi (Canotia holacantha)

Look what I found under this particular palo cristi tree:


But there are not just blue bottles...


...there are purple, green, brown and white ones, too, all neatly sorted by color. It turns out that Jan has been collecting bottles for many years. He wants to build a larger house to live in and will use the bottles to create mosaics in the walls.


When I finally left D:FR, I did so with an Agave wocomahi, a Ferocactus rectispinus, and a blue Arizona Ice Tea bottle from the 1990s for my bottle tree!

The next 30 miles of my drive towards Phoenix were on dirt roads. I only saw two cars but plenty of Joshua trees:







There's so much scenic beauty here, it would be impossible to take a bad photo.

This area is also the source of the rocks I brought home. Next to plants, rocks are my favorite souvenirs because they connect our own garden to the place where I collected them.



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18 comments:

  1. I know I miss great stuff staying away from Facebook, and this post really drives that home. What a great adventure, and all the plant IDs are so appreciated. Nice to see 40 acres of desert in good hands.

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    1. Jan is the best steward imaginable. Makes me wish he had 400 or even 4,000 acres!

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  2. It may have been a brief visit but as usual you made the most of it. Great photos as always. I'm impressed by the breadth of the botanical desert garden as well as the house. Off-the-grid homes seem to be becoming more popular, or at least popular enough to have spawned a TV (DIY) series on their construction. Creating a botanic garden AND a business off-the-grid takes the movement another leap further.

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    1. It takes the kind of dedication that borders on obsession--as well as patience and perseverance. I think Jan has a balanced combination of all of those qualities.

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  3. Those red Ferocactus have me transfixed. I mean, just look at that little group of them glowing in the distance in the photo below F. rectispinus. Are they trickier to grow than golden barrel cactus? They accent the powdery blues of Agaves so well that I'm wondering why that combination is so rarely seen.

    These are phenomenally atmospheric shots, Gerhard; I feel as if I've been to D:FR myself now. Thanks for taking us along.

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    1. The red ferocactus really are that red. They're even redder when wet, almost to the point of being surreal.

      I honestly don't know why you don't see more of those types of barrel cactus. They're just as easy to grow as the golden barrel, and many of them are far hardier!

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  4. Thanks so much for sharing this extraordinary spot with us Gerhard. I've driven the length of most major highways in Arizona (not to mention the back roads) but it's been a very long time since I've been in this particular region.It's so beautiful ! I will add Jan to my blogroll and I can't wait to read through his posts-his photos look just splendid.

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    1. Jan is an outstanding photographer, and D:FR produces a neverending supply of great images.

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  5. Wow! What a garden Jan has created...I see several things I wouldn’t think could survive the temperatures you describe, a few Aloes, Agave macracantha, and more. It must be because they’re so dry? And does it warm up significantly during the day? Just beautiful photos all around, thanks for the desert blast!

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    1. Those plants cannot survive below 20F without some aid, that much is true, so I just throw some old towels or sheets over them during cold snaps. Maybe a few nights a year. It definitely helps to have well-drained soil and sun during the daytimes, although last week most of the highs barely reached 38 to 40 F and nights spent 14 or more hours well below freezing. That would kill some of these species without coverage.

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    2. Thanks Jan, good to know I’m not crazy. It gets that cold up here in Portland but then we’ve also got the winter wet to deal with.

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  6. What a great spot! Always nice to speak to an expert as the time passes unheeded. The Himalayan Euphorbia is really cool. Have a couple of other oddball Euphorbias in pots. A treat to see them in the ground. Thanks for sharing your excellent photos.

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    1. Ever since visiting Jan's place, I've had space envy. If only I had a little more room....

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  7. Thanks for the great write-up Gerhard. I appreciate the thoroughness you treated my place with, and the photos too. Great to have you come visit, come back again soon!

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    1. Jan, visiting D:FR has had a more profound effect on me than I could have anticipated. What you've created really resonates with me, and I think with many others. And since most of us will never get to do what you're doing, we live vicariously through your photos and stories.

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  8. I love your post Gerhard ... and seeing Jan Emming's wonderful desert environment! I agree it is is such good hands and gives me hope when I start getting disappointed and sad about losing so much of our beautiful land in Arizona to development. I have purchased bulbs and plants through the mail from his items for sale. They are just wonderful and are growing so well planted here in the ground in Sun Lakes. I am very happy to have found him and also you!

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    1. You brought up a good point: Jan's giving us hope. As long as there are stewards of the land like Jan, not all is lost.

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  9. Gorgeous! Thank you for sharing this garden. It is an inspiration, and one of the best examples i've seen of how the desert can be beautiful... so many ideas!

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