Sunday, April 24, 2011


or Patience (and/or Procrastination) (or Quite Possibly Faith) (and apparently Dithering) Rewarded

It was a close call.  That is, if we keep in mind that we're discussing a very small garden where not much happens, and where the little that does happen gets photographed, given a breathless caption like, "Aphids!" and dressed up in words to make it exciting before being posted on the internet, it was a close call.*  And even then it wasn't my close call, it was the little sun roses'...

Oh, let's start from the beginning.  My first year here, I planted three 'Wisley Primrose' sun roses (Helianthemum nummularium, one of the few Latin names I flat-out adore) beneath one of the desert olive saplings to see what would happen.  (For the record, when I first planted the garden, I wasn't familiar with any of the plants that ended up in it, except for the herbs.  So "I planted it to see what would happen" is kind of a recurring theme.)

The sun roses were beautiful.  They grew with encouraging (but not intimidating) enthusiasm, blossomed wholeheartedly, and withstood that first year's onslaught of pests while being well-beloved of bees.  Once the blossoms were done, the leaves made a nice, thick carpet of greenery over a springy, woody base, in what passed for shade at the time under the tree—the kind of nice, soft, thick, springy, cool place just perfect for a cat, for example, to take long, refreshing naps on.

I was actually trying to photograph the sun roses...
The cat, of course, was Sir Marley.  (Again, although it was more by way of introduction at the time.)  He was touchingly grateful to me for putting in such a cushiony cat bed just for him.  He showed his gratitude by using it well and often.  Luther, on the other hand, was at that elderly stage where he might bark and give chase, but was more likely to say to himself, "Oh, bother.  A cat," and decide that he didn't really need to go outside after all.  Sir Marley was able to nap without interruption. 

The sun roses developed large bare spots, and despite the occasional shearing, have looked silly ever since.  One of them died a slow, lingering death over at least two seasons.  Every year I've thought of getting rid of the others but have kept them in memory of that beautiful first summer.

This was to be the last year, the year the sun roses got turned into creeping germander.  Especially after the killing cold we had in February, they looked terrible.  It was time for them to go.  And yet—I don't know.  I still loved them, I guess.  I gave them a hard trimming and decided to give them another chance.

And suddenly, this spring, they're gorgeous.  They're beautiful, a cheerful spot of sunshine even in my garden's afternoon shadows.  They've taken the reprieve and run with it; they're blooming their little hearts out, and the leaves look thick and green.

If I were a cat, I'd want to take a nap on them.

* Hey, life is what you make of it, but it doesn't hurt to keep things in perspective.

To those of you who celebrate this day of reprieve, of renewed life and joy, a happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Balancing Act

or The Earth Day Reading Project

As I was walking the circle path around the garden the other day, I was dismayed to discover this:

Leaf-curl plum aphids had invaded my biggest, shaggiest monster of a sand cherry—one of the inner branches was pretty well lost to the world by the time I discovered it.  These are tricky aphids (for me) to get rid of—they curl the leaves around them and become impervious to sharp sprays of water.  Even if I were to use pesticides (which I don't), it's doubtful whether the pesticide would reach them.  Thinking back to my first year here, when the garden was decimated by the nastier types of insects, and worried about a repetition, I took hasty action and clipped the two worst branches off, hoping to nip the the problem (as it were) in the bud.

I should have trusted my garden, trusted the effect of the last few years spent filling the bug-bath with water twice a day, providing sheltering mulches and ground-covers, and planting nectar-rich flowers to ensure constant bloom—all the things needed by the beneficial insects that keep the pests in check.  Because look at what was on the undersides of the leaves:

Lady beetle eggs.  Half a dozen leaves with clusters at the bases.  The natural process had worked; the aphids would have been brought under control without my intervention (and boy, was I disgusted with myself for having gotten in the way).  Fortunately, more lady beetles are ready to replace the ones I pruned away—I spotted eight of them, including two mating pairs, in a one-foot area yesterday.  It looks as if the process is still working in spite of me.  In fact, if you're not squeamish, look at what this lady beetle is munching on  (as always, you can click to enlarge) (if you're into that kind of thing):

Death and destruction come to the aphids.  Bwahahahaha.

I've written more about the ways I've learned to protect my garden elsewhere.  For now, I want to pay tribute again to Sally Jean Cunningham's Great Garden Companions, the book that taught me that organic gardening isn't about gardening "normally," only using wimpy pesticides and fertilizers instead of the chemical kind; rather, it's about creating ecosystems that can be self-balancing, about creating a place where all kinds of lives (including pests', and including yours) have their needs met.


Jean Potuchek, who writes Jean's Garden, invited me to take part in the Earth Day Reading Project organized by The Sage Butterfly, to "list at least three books that inspired you to perform any sustainable living act or inspired you to live green, and then tell us why they inspired you."  In addition to sharing her gardens in Maine and Pennsylvania, Jean writes regular book reviews.  Her discussion of Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home made me wish that it had been one of my inspirations.  Alas, it hasn't yet, but only because I am behind the game.  Instead I would like to point the inquiring reader to:

1)  Cunningham's Great Garden Companions.  Cunningham gardens in Tompkins County, New York, with acidic soil, 180+ cloudy days per year, 35 inches annual rainfall, and frequent sub-zero F winter temperatures.  I garden in the high desert of New Mexico, with 300+ days of sunshine annually, 8 inches of rain, "soil" (ahaha) so alkaline that it bubbles if you pour vinegar on it, and baking summer heat.  Cunningham's ideas work just as beautifully here as they (apparently) do in New York.

2) Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.*  A fictionalized account of the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy.  I don't know that this book has pointed me to a particular action, but its appreciation for the southwest has reminded me what a fierce love for a landscape is like.  Perhaps the strongest urge to protect the land comes not from those who are most idealistic about it but from those who understand it best, who love it the most passionately.

3) Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette.  Dacyczyn (pronounced like "decision") is the voice of radical frugality, but she also makes (what should be but apparently isn't) the obvious point that consuming less takes less energy and produces less waste.  Dacyczyn essentially opts out of the capitalist credo that more is more.  She lives abundantly by being creative and working hard—and by thinking for herself about what she does or doesn't need, rather than letting Madison Avenue do the thinking for her.** 

I encourage you to visit some other blogs as well where the authors take different approaches to sustainable and/or green living.  B_a_g at Experiments with Plants chooses to grow extra plants for the slugs rather than put out slug pellets.  Diana and Jurg at Elephant's Eye give thoughtful homes to wounded sparrows and provide bathing ponds for wagtails and dragonflies.  Nate at The Scholar's Garden is currently swamped with scholarly work, but he is also busy creating homes for bees and embracing a green growing lifestyle at an age when I was perfectly happy with mega-stores and "big ag," and ready to use pesticides if they just got rid of the bugs.

Even if they got rid of all of the bugs.
*  Spoiler alert:  The archbishop dies in the end.

**In a roundabout way she reminds me of Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, a mystery novel written in the 1930's, whose amateur sleuth, Peter Wimsey, goes under cover in an advertising agency.  He has a horrible time finding paper evidence of a crime, because all of the paper in the office is recycled.  In the 1930's.  When people thought that being frugal was a virtue, and that re-using things was common sense. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Flavoring the Feast

or A Lot of a Good Thing

Long-distance drives—you either love 'em or hate 'em.  I've always loved them.  The trips I would make from the Finger Lakes area of New York back to my parents' home in Denver are some of my favorite experiences of all time.  I'd load Luther T. Dog into the car with his treats, toys, pillow, leash, water dish, and plenty of et cetera, pack a picnic hamper and suitcase, and be off, driving the "blue highways," the back roads, for 1,800 (mostly) wonderful miles.*

Generally, I really enjoyed quietness in the car—no music or news, just the slow pace of miles and scenery and thoughts unfolding.  It was kind of a Zen thing.  Besides, Luther was the perfect traveling companion.  He was easily entertained by cows, which, across the rural midwest at any rate, made him pretty darn easy to entertain.  Since I was easily entertained by dogs who were entertained by cows, we were both happy for mile after mile after mile
after mile
after mile.

But as Steinbeck says in Travels with Charley,you don't take a trip, the trip takes you.  Sometimes the joy of a trip is over when you're still miles from home; the last 500 miles of a return trip especially can be pretty dreary.  For those occasions I'd bring a book on tape from the library and parcel it out in small doses to spice things up a bit, hoping to time it right so that I wouldn't run out of book before I ran out of road (while also trying to finish it before the due date).  The timing didn't always work.  I might be too stingy on the trip and find myself back at home, hurriedly listening to the end of a mystery so I could find out who dunnit before the library charged me a fine; I'm still a little fuzzy about the whole Orient Express thing.

All to say, Albuquerque ought to be safe from frost at this point, barring an act of God or some other adventure.  (Don't worry; we'll get to the logical connection in a minute.)  The mezzo-piano days of spring are over—even though the temperature is comfortable, the sun is strong enough midday that it actually kind of hurts.  The cool weather plants in the microgarden, which have been providing me with small harvests of pepper cress, arugula, and the occasional radish for a couple of weeks now, are about to rebel and bolt altogether, and (logical connection alert) suddenly I am harvesting in earnest. 

I've been comfortably, deliciously parceling out the harvest of greens—tossing them in a pasta salad, say, to stretch them out; adding flavor and freshness to other dishes so as not to use up the microgarden's limited wealth too soon.  Those days are over.  It's "use it or lose it" at this point.  So today I enjoyed a very large salad, full of the mustardy heat of pepper cress, the strong, peppery flavor of arugula, the cucumbery freshness of salad burnet, a handful of (gorgeous, gorgeous!) radishes and their equally flavorful leaves, some spring onions and garlic chives... All with the nice, strong herbal vinaigrette I had on hand.  It was a salad you noticed.  Whether you wanted to or not.  I will be eating another very large and flavorful salad again tomorrow.**

Note to self:  Some day, try parceling things out more generously to begin with...

* Especially at Christmas, whenever I was westward bound, the skies were invariably cloudy until the Iowa/Nebraska border, and from then on they were deeply, vividly, gloriously blue—my skies, Western skies.  Yes!

** For some reason, I've never been able to grow actual lettuce out here.  Mostly I don't mind, since my philosophy is that if we really liked lettuce, salad dressing would not be a billion dollar industry.  But sometimes, a little bit of plain old lettuce to toss into the mix would be OK.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Chicken

Spring leaves with last summer's fruit
or The Egg

You wouldn't believe how long I debated which of those titles should come first.  A disclaimer, though—no actual chickens (or eggs) were involved in the making of this post.  We're in metaphorical chicken-and-egg land, thinking about priorities in general.  My desert olives have been blooming, you see, and for some reason, those trees always make me think.  (Just wait until I start pruning them—then the philosophical excitement really begins.)

Desert olive (or New Mexico olive, or NM privet) (Forestiera neomexicana)

Let's step back a bit.  A recent kerfuffle on Garden Rant reminded me of the book Plant-Driven Design, by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden.*  The basic premise of the book is that gardens are more satisfying when plants, rather than hardscape, are the starting point of the design—an idea most gardeners I know would agree with, but maybe not (some) landscape designers.  I certainly have a number of books on small garden design that go nuts about expensive brickwork, expensive water features, and theatrically expensive lighting designs, and then describe the plantings only as "mixed borders."  The Ogdens focus instead on landscapes where each plant is allowed to showcase its strengths, where its character is given a chance to shine.  At one point, they talk about facing a choice in their own garden about whether to prune a tree drastically to make room for a path, or to move the path to allow the natural character of the tree to develop; they chose to move the path.

Male tree
To return to the desert olives.  I planted them for all kinds of sensible reasons, but one of the most important was that they provided food for songbirds.  That is, some of the trees do.  This species has separate male and female trees.  Both are needed to produce fruit, but (obviously) only the female plants have actual "olives."  If you plant them young enough so that they stand a chance of surviving (at least, in my garden), you won't be able to tell which is which—you just plant several and hope for the best.

My very first plantings in the garden were three desert olive trees, two of which have turned out to be female, and one male—the optimal mix.  Today, several years on, even without the fruit as a guideline I can see the difference:  the male tree's blossoms are more golden, and they open before the leaves do.  They have a faint scent—one book describes it as honey, but I would describe it more as "proto-honey," maybe just the scent of nectar—which the bees love.  The female trees have (so far as I can tell) scentless, greenish blossoms that open with the leaves.**

Female tree

I can't help wondering what I would have done, though, if all three trees had been female (or male).  Would I have uprooted a perfectly healthy tree and killed it, replanting in the hope of mixing the genders?  (It's a small garden—planting more isn't an option.)  I certainly enjoy the trees on their own merits, but half the point of planting them was to provide food for songbirds.   What is the threshold of choice, between what I keep and what I discard?  What do I prioritize?  What comes first, the tree's life (a tree! not some measly annual!) or the birds' winter food?  I don't have a ready answer, and fortunately I don't need one this time around.  But I can't help wondering what I might have done, or how others have solved these problems; what kinds of choices you've made, which "small" lives you've prioritized, when it comes to the habitats you've created in your own gardens.

What comes first?

* I understand (deeply) what the critics say about the authors' self-righteous tone.  But for a westerner (or for anyone from a climate that's light on medieval ruins and mossy statues of Greek deities, and heavy on drought-tolerant grasses, sunflowers, and their ilk), it's a fabulous book.  Its photos show actual western gardens, none of which feature a stark but brightly painted adobe wall, yards of gravel, and a single sculptural yucca.  The photos (and descriptions!) instead show lush plantings that actually grow in the west (i.e., that 50% of the U.S. that is completely neglected by 98% of American gardening books).  When you're used to extracting only general principles of design from a book while discarding all the actual information, it's a pleasure to be able to use the information, too.  (Diana @ Elephant's Eye in South Africa—you might enjoy this one.)

A disclaimer that is not about chickens this time:  I have not been paid a blessed thing to review this book, gosh darn it.  These are my own (all too freely expressed) opinions, independent of the influence of filthy lucre.

** Both genders have what can only be described as insignificant blooms—I promise I'm not obsessed!***

*** But wait until I get going on the salad burnet!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

From the Sidelines

or Between the Rests

Someone, it seems, has been overdoing it in the garden.  I've been sidelined again this week by CFS, and have spent most of the last few days alternating between bed, sofa-and-laptop, and the Adirondack chair on the patio.  The restfulness has been critical, but in between lie-downs, I've been walking the (fortunately very short) path around the garden.  It's been a bit like playing the harp part in an orchestral piece—pages of rest, then a few brief, colorful notes, and then pages of rest.

The garden is that way, too, at the moment—little flurries of activity amid plenty of open space.  While the perennials are beginning to fill back in after their late-winter trimming, and the ground covers, though taking their own sweet time, are starting actually to cover the ground (impatiently, I begin to understand the impulse to plant invasives—bishop's weed would have solved this problem long ago), the effect is still a splash of color against an empty backdrop.  I would make a note to myself to plant more bulbs next fall, but a) I would lose it and b) I will plant more anyway.

In a way, however, planting more might be defeating the purpose.  The harp, after all, is a coloristic instrument in the orchestra—its effect depends in part on the relative rarity of its use.  The splashes of color in the garden grab my attention in the way that a whole swath, or a bed, or a field, might not; I know each tulip in each patch, when it first broke ground, when it started to bloom, when it reached its prime, which of its leaves get in the way of the camera.  (I grow species tulips, as their stems are either short or flexible enough to withstand the spring winds here, and they bloom early enough to please the bees even more than usual.  But the leaves do get in the way.)

Don't get me wrong—I miss being active without counting the cost, more than I can tell you.  I wouldn't mind being a violinist—even a second violinist—in the orchestra for a change, rather than the harpist, just for the sake of doing something, even though really, the part itself might not be any more interesting.  But these splashes of activity in the midst of rest do have their meaning.  The pleasure of being home for our first thunderstorm of the season, when the first rain (rain!  0.03 inches of rain!) fell in 64 long, dry days, is one I won't soon forget.

I suppose it's all about context.  Rain in between dry spells means a lot more than rain in a gray spring full of showers.  When quietness is the norm, you learn to savor moments of fullness:  the rain, the flowers, the experiences—

all the things that happen in between the rests.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bending Before the Wind

or Flexibility

Some of the noises have been truly startling—the thuds and thunks and clanks as patio furniture, garbage cans, and who knows what else have tipped over and gone flying.  The morning started out clear and still, but the forecast 60 mile per hour winds arrived at about noon.  When I sat down to lunch I could see the Sandia Mountains 10 miles away; by the time I'd finished eating, they were hidden by blowing dust, and they haven't re-emerged since.

This morning's sunrise—you can see the Sandias between the houses.
Fortunately, these winds were forecast, and many of us planned our weekends and battened down the hatches accordingly (Thunk!), with varying degrees of success.  Now, curled up on the bench in the kitchen, I'm enjoying the sight of the wind in action.  Through the window, I can see the sand cherries as their remaining petals go flying (I will be surprised if they stop this side of Wisconsin).  Watching the branches is like watching a fire—sinuous, supple, always moving, always different, always the same; it's completely mesmerizing.  The cherries' leaves are too young yet to have much character, but in summer their dark green will have a metallic sheen, and in motion they will look like flickering lights.  They show to advantage in the wind.

No mountains—even the sky is gray with dust.
Through the glass kitchen door, on the other hand, I can see the boxwood bushes.  Their leaves are shiny, and they gleam with every movement, but the movements themselves are stiff, almost arthritic.  (I think about Monday mornings and sympathize.)  The bushes are too sturdy to suffer in this wind, but they don't bend naturally before it.  In their stiffness, they look awkward—the only condition in which I've known them to do so.  From an odd sense of courtesy, I leave them in privacy and turn back to the sand cherries.

A photo experiment that didn't work, but it sure was windy.
Watching that hypnotic, liquid motion, I find myself envisioning a wind garden.  If I had the space to do it justice, I would put in a garden with plants that can not only hold up to the wind but that would look spectacular in it, that would make a windstorm a thing not only of power but also of beauty.  Against that irresistible force I would pose a few immovable objects—some agave and prickly pear, perhaps—for ballast.  The rest of the garden would feature plants that have turned bending into an art form, all of them airy plants to begin with:  Western sand cherries, of course; desert willows, with their curving, ripply branches and long, slender leaves; chamisa, or rabbit brush, its clouds of sulphury blossoms billowing over feathers of sage-green; the flowers of gaura, blue flax, and angelita daisies, dancing on long, wiry stems; undulating tufts of Indian rice grass, the seeds sparkling like whitecaps in the sunshine; Mormon tea, its upright, bare stems quivering like Aeolian harp strings; and Apache plume, its seed-heads charmingly wind-blown even when the wind isn't blowing.  (If water were sufficient in this fantasy garden, which it very well might be, I would add the Rio Grande cottonwood, for the delightful clatter and inimitable twinkle of its leaves in motion.)

All of these plants are able to yield while maintaining their individuality; they don't struggle with the wind or resist it, and yet their own strengths and quirks and characteristics still shine through.  They yield with such grace, and yet they yield nothing of themselves.  They are not flattened, like the plants with insufficient strength, or shredded, like the tender, broad-leaved aliens, or broken, like the brittle ornamentals.  They have not simply hunkered down to endure a bad situation, like the sturdy boxwoods.  They have adapted; flexibility is in their nature.  The wind moves through them rather than against them. 

Paradoxically, it is because they yield to the wind that they can also hold their own with it.