In Their Own Words: From Midwest to Southwest with Chris Eirschele

Just as I’m beginning to think I have this gardening thing figured out, an early-April trip to California Spring Trials left me stunned, stumped, and sunburnt. The plant mix was unlike anything in Michigan. The seasonal timing was off. Everything was huge. Mother Nature continuously put me in my place during my seven-day trip, and as I returned home to the comfortable familiarity of snow piles, my thoughts turned to those in our industry that are thrown into climate confusion for longer than a mere week, someone like Chris Eirschele.

Chris Eirschele
She was in her early twenties when Chris moved to Germany for her husband’s military career. After a lifetime of digging in the dirt with her Wisconsin-based parents, it seemed second nature to begin her indoor and balcony gardens while abroad in an environment she describes as “a lot like the Midwest but with the Alps added in.” Her love affair with plants was firmly rooted, but took a back burner to moving home to the States, three careers, and raising her daughter. In 2000, however, she returned to school for horticulture and eventually began life as a Midwest-focused garden writer, freelancing for the likes of Ohio Gardener, Missouri Gardener, and various online publications including her blog, Stay Gardening. Then in 2011, a move took her gardening journey to completely unfamiliar territory – Arizona. Chris chatted about how her life has changed since moving from Zone 4/5 to Zone 9b.

What is gardening in Arizona like for you?

Arizona has a diverse landscape and climate, although it is dry. Phoenix and Scottsdale (where I live) are in what is called "the low desert." Freezing temperatures are almost nonexistent.

I grew what I loved May through September in Wisconsin, and now grow what I love November through April in Arizona outside. Tan and gray colors and spiky plants rule the day in the desert, but I still keep up my indoor gardens. I have had to find the plants I like that can grow here within the boundaries of living in a desert. I have had to learn to live without some plants that are not viable here, some of those plants which I truly loved.

On the left, Chris' young garden bed in Wisconsin. On the right, her current Arizona garden.

Such as what?

Peonies and hostas and daylilies. I might be able to stretch it with daylilies, especially if I lived in the higher elevations, but in the low desert the summers reach over 100 degrees during the day and, for part of the summer, only dip into the 90s at night. How much water I want to use to keep plants alive becomes a push and pull I struggle with.

How is garden writing different in Arizona?

It is very different in Arizona, beyond just the climate and plants. Meeting new plant professionals and networking with them is also new. I am beyond the world of Wisconsin and Ohio. Networking and building bridges in the Southwest will take time. Even back when I wrote regularly for Suite101, before I moved out here, I had already written about plants and public gardens in the Southwest. My muse has always been the plants and gardens, wherever I find them, and I do find that changing.

How are you still influenced by the Midwest?

I still want to write about Midwest gardening, and I can do that at Decoded Plants. I travel back to the Midwest and East Coast, as opportunities arise. For example, in April, I accepted an invitation to the press event for the spring planting event at the White House Kitchen Garden. I will work hard to keep my feet firmly in as many parts of the country as opportunities allow. I must preserve my "street cred" with Midwest publishers, while I expand my world in the Southwest.

I grow plants that can be grown in the Midwest and keep up to date with new plants; in the Southwest I grow plants I like and fit this environment and visit public gardens in the Southwest.

What advice do you have for someone writing in an unfamiliar environment?

In unfamiliar places, I go back to the basics. I build up new gardens and try plants I, perhaps, never grew. Keeping informed with new plants and techniques is hard work, no matter where a garden writer lives.

I suggest taking advantage of as many invitations as you can manage, so you can rub elbows with garden types in your new environment. Networking is, after all, about connecting for the long road. The opportunities from networking are rarely obvious at the beginning.

Nothing beats human contact, but as the world gets smaller, social media has its benefits. Choose social media that works best for you. Believing you have to do it all is just hype. Take advantage of any free feature you can Whatever social media you use, make sure the About tells your friends and followers who you are. One feature I often see bare is the "About" feature. 

Thank you, Chris, for taking the time to share your experiences with Through the Greenhouse Glass readers.  You can find Chris on her blog, Stay Gardening, and in her regular columns for Decoded Plants.

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