Off the grid in NW Arizona: Jan Emming's spectacular desert garden (May 2021)

Everybody has a different concept of “remote.” For most people, it simply means away from the built environment or the services they're used to. Others don't stop there; they keep going until they're really away from it all. 

Jan Emming falls in the latter group. Over the last 20+ years, he's turned a 40-acre parcel in northwestern Arizona into what he calls Destination: Forever Ranch, a sustainable-living homestead and desert botanical garden. If I had to describe Jan, I'd be hard pressed to come up with something short and simple. “Renaissance man,” as overused as that term is, comes to mind. With a degree in biology from Colorado State University, Jan is an astute observer of the natural world. He knows as much about animals as he does about plants, and he shares his daily discoveries on Facebook. Jan is a brilliant writer, and his personal website contains a wealth of articles on a wide range of topics, including pieces about his travels.

I'd visited Jan in December 2018 so this time I knew what to expect. Even so, I'd forgotten what it's like driving 15 miles on dirt roads in the desert—it's not something I do routinely. Fortunately, I only encountered a couple of other cars so the dust clouds I had to contend with were manageable.

Below is a map that shows where Jan's place is located in relation to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Phoenix. The closest towns with services are Lake Havasu City to the southwest and Kingman to the northeast. Both are about an hour's drive away.

I stopped several times along the road to Jan's place to photograph the scenery and desert plants:

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), many in flower, and teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia)

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Strawberry hedgehog (Echinocereus engelmannii)

I arrived at 9 a.m., and Jan had already opened the gate for me:

His 40-acre property is completed fenced, and he keeps the gate closed to keep out wildlife that might otherwise treat his garden and nursery stock as a smorgasbord.

This is the view of the driveway towards the gate:

I already mentioned that Jan is an expert naturalist and botanist; he's very generous with his time and happy to share his knowledge. As we were walking around, he patiently answered my many questions.

Opuntia macrocentra, often similar in coloration to Opuntia santa-rita, but armed with long spines

Plantings outside of Jan's house

The metal saguaro may not be alive but it, too, was “planted” just like Aloidendron 'Hercules' on the right

Fake saguaro and the real thing, with Aloidendron 'Hercules' in between

I forgot to ask if Jan planted this saguaro, but I suspect it was there when he bought the property

Jan's house is made of papercrete; he built it himself and made it his permanent residence after it was completed in 2010. Unlike many of his neighbors who have to haul in water and store it in large tanks, Jan had a well drilled so he has a reliable supply of water, both for himself and for his garden and nursery. He generates power from solar panels and connects to the internet via satellite. In his case, off the grid definitely doesn't mean cut off from the world.

Jan in front of his house

Left: Agave colorata setting seeds

Jan is not only a naturalist, he's also a nurseryman. He grows a large variety of cacti, succulents and desert-adapted plants right outside his house. The majority are in pots, but he also has larger specimens of saguaros and some barrel cactus in the ground, ready to be dug and transported to their new home. 

In-ground barrel cactus and saguaros, ready for digging

While Jan does have customers come to his place to buy plants, he typically sells at plant shows, through word of mouth, and by mail order. Equipped with a truck and trailer, he's known to drive long distances to deliver specimen plants.

Aloidendron ramosissimum

Barrel cactus galore (and a rat trap)

These purple beauties are Opuntia santa-rita

Ferocactus emoryi (front) and Ferocactus chrysacanthus (back)

Ferocactus chrysacanthus

Right: Cylindropuntia x campii, a hybrid between Cylindropuntia bigelovii and Cylindropuntia acanthacarpa

Echinocereus engelmannii waiting to be replanted

The fencing materials you see in the photo above are part of a massive project Jan has been working on for the last two years: enclosing his entire 40-acre property with fine-mesh chicken wire fencing—a total of one mile of fencing if I did the math right. That's a lot of work for one person. When I visited, Jan was just about done with his rabbit-proof fence, both physically and mentally.

The primary goal is to keep out rabbits, which have proven to be highly destructive not only to the plants in Jan's desert garden, but especially to his nursery stock where even one bite can make the difference between a plant that can be sold and one that, well, can't. 

Echinocereus engelmannii elsewhere on the property

Flowering Agave parryi var. neomexicana and flowering saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

Yours truly for scale (photo by Jan Emming)

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata)

Boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

Fouquieria columnaris

Ferocactus pilosus

Ferocactus peninsulae

Ferocactus peninsulae

Totem pole cactus (monstrose form of Pachycereus schottii)

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)

Cotton top cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus), native to the Mojave Desert

Ferocactus rectispinus

The red-spined barrel cactus is Ferocactus pringlei, with Grusonia bradtiana and Aloe aculeata on the right

Agave ovatifolia

Creeping devil (Stenocereus eruca); crawling along the ground is its natural growth habit

Wavy monstrose growth on an opuntia

Agave pelona

Agave pelona

Ferocactus robustus; I got one from Jeff Moore in Tucson because I want to have a clump like this in my own garden

Ferocactus robustus

Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita) and a small Boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

Ferocactus emoryi

Agave palmeri

As you look at these photos, bear in mind that this is not what the raw desert looks like in Jan's corner of Arizona. Instead, what you see is Jan skillfully and sensitively supplementing the native flora with plants from other parts of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts—and, in some cases, from somewhere else entirely. To me, this is what a desert garden should look like: a enhanced but naturalistic version of reality.

Grizzlybear cactus (Opuntia erinacea var. ursina)

Aloe karasbergensis, a surprising sight in the Arizona desert

Ferocactus pilosus

Yucca rigida

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and Agave parrasana

Echinocactus grusonii flower

After I left Jan's place, I continued on dirt roads to the small town of Wikieup. There I hooked up with Highway 93, which took me to Wickenburg and Highway 60 and, ultimately, Phoenix.

On the drive to Wikieup, I saw many stands of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), sometimes alternating with saguaros. This corner of Arizona is the interface between the Mojave and the Sonoran Deserts—the only place in the world where the Joshua tree, the signature plant of the Mojave, grows side by side with the saguaro, the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take a photo that shows both of them; as it turns out, I could have taken one right in Jan's desert garden but didn't think to ask.

I have a thing for photos of lonely roads, so this is a completely gratuitous picture for my own enjoyment

Jan doesn't have a web page for his nursery operation per se, but you can contact him through his main website with questions regarding plant availability, pricing, etc.


© Gerhard Bock, 2021. All rights reserved. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.


  1. You can't take a photo at Jan's that isn't beautiful! Thanks for your trip there Gerhard! I live in Phoenix and have not gotten to his place. I follow his blog with his wonderful writing and I have purchased plants from him that he mails to me.

  2. Driving numerous miles on dirt roads is something I got pretty accustomed to when I lived in N.Az. I was in a more 'canyonlands' environment than Jan , but I will say if funding was not an issue I would have a part time home in the desert with no hesitation. Your photos just bring it all back to me-there is nothing like the desert.

  3. Those must be some tough bunnies if they are nibbling on spiny delicacies. Jan's is definitely an unusual garden as it looks more like Mother Nature did all of the work. The creeping devil cactus is impressive but somehow rather sinister at the same time.

    1. With so little rainfall, the bunnies (and other wildlife) are most likely desperate for any source of moisture...

  4. Wonderful photos. I would love to visit Jan's place, maybe you'll take me a long someday?


Post a Comment