For a master gardener, Cathy Rymer doesn’t get a chance to fuss over the vivid penstemon plants and snapdragon flowers at her Gilbert home as much as she’d like. Instead, she spends a lot of her time offering advice to Gilbert residents on cultivating their own gardens and conserving their water.
Her hobby has, in fact, become her job.
“Our home is a test plot,” says Rymer, a water conservationist for Gilbert, referring to her spacious yard where she and her husband, Rob, try out various low-water-use plants before recommending them to residents.
While Rymer is passionate about dispensing advice to area residents on how to best care for their desert landscapes, the Arizona native admits her job as a water conservationist sometimes gets a bad rap. After all, she and her colleagues aren’t the water police. They are there, she says, to educate residents on why it’s important to regulate their water usage.
“When you are within town limits, it’s hard to remember you are in the desert,” she says. “We help people in our town use water more efficiently. . . . We don’t tell people not to use water — just not to waste it.”
Rymer traces her fascination with gardens and landscaping back to her grandparents’ farm in Phoenix. “They grew citrus, alfalfa and cotton. . . . My cousins and I would run amok,” she says. “We had fun.” She learned about gardening “through osmosis being around (her) grandparents” and often lent her mother a hand in the family’s garden.
In college, Rymer focused her studies on biology and received a degree in education at ASU. From there she took a job with the University of Arizona’s urban horticulture department, where she helped develop the curriculum for gardening programs in addition to teaching courses.
As a water conservation specialist, a position she’s held in Gilbert for nearly four years, Rymer has been able to combine her penchant for teaching and gardening with another mission: Making sure residents use water responsibly. And she’s spreading the message to all generations, in the form of assemblies at local elementary schools for the youngsters to offering courses in the community at night for adults. Topics cover everything from irrigation methods to desert landscaping.
SPREADING THE MESSAGE
“It’s all about awareness,” says Rymer, who on any given day is sending out landscaping and water usage literature to Gilbert’s residents. Armed with an arsenal of information, Rymer has guides on growing low-water-use plants. There are also pamphlets on watering guidelines and brochures on home water management.
Sometimes her outreach gets up close and personal.
“We will respond to complaints from residents who see water trickling down their street from their neighbors’ irrigation systems,” she says, adding in some cases, her staff will leave messages on water abusers’ doors offering a free water-usage audit and send personalized letters to those whose water usage spikes, offering to help them inspect if there is a hidden leak or educate them on ways to use their water more efficiently.
Rymer practices what she preaches. Growing up in Arizona, she says conserving water was always a way of life for her and her family.
It’s a philosophy she’s been able to successfully incorporate into her own landscaping. Part of her property is xeriscaped, but she also has made room for colorful blossoms.
“Some people don’t realize you can have a beautiful landscape using low-water-use plants,” she says. “And you can still have a garden here if you care for it correctly.”
When it comes to her own garden, Rymer admits it’s her husband who does most of the labor in the yard. “He’s a good sport. He tolerates my gardening habit.”
Rymer says she selects flowers for color and fragrance and positions them in strategic spots where they will be seen most by passersby. She’s placed flower beds by her front door, especially favoring lobelia in shades of purple, pink and blue. In her backyard, she has a cluster of yellow-petalled flowers called chocolate flowers — which, like their moniker implies, give off a chocolate scent.
“I like to plant flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies,” says Rymer of the tubular and daisylike flowers she specifically seeks for that very purpose.
There isn’t much going on in the Rymers’ 20-by-10-foot garden now, but she says come fall it will be bursting with color and a medley of vegetables. That is, if she’s able to keep Speedy, their pet tortoise, away from the offerings.
“Speedy likes broccoli and also helps himself to the peppers,” she says.
Rymer even set up a section within the garden that’s devoted to salsa. There, fresh onions, tomatoes, cilantro and chilies are grown.
Daughter Lauren, 25, is the family’s designated salsa maker.
Her garden is a work in progress. “I’d like to plant Armenian cucumbers . . . and put up a shade structure for my tomatoes. I also want to install an irrigation system with a timer. I’m still watering with a soaker hose.”
It may take Rymer and her husband a while before they start checking those items off their wish list. These days Rymer’s time puttering in her garden is relegated mainly to weekends. It’s a perfect spot, she says, to unwind from her busy week.
“A garden is a great place to clear your mind,” she says. “It’s very therapeutic.”