Sunday, June 12, 2011

Open Space

A curve-billed thrasher (I think) on cane (or tree) cholla overlooking Albuquerque

or Going Wild

A day for small wildnesses—whiptail lizards, chickadees, scrub jays, the kinds of things you find in the foothills on the outskirts of town in a park where mountain bikers race through and artists stand contemplatively at their easels.  The Elena Gallegos Open Space Park in northeast Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains isn't exactly wilderness, but it flirts with it enchantingly.  I spent a couple of hours moseying around there last Monday, surrounded by the drone of cicadas, and serenaded by the hiss of lizards passing through dried grasses, rustling through dead leaves:

A New Mexico whiptail lizard (I think)

It was a day for remembering what "high desert" really means.  Compared with the shady bosque along the Rio Grande, with its cottonwoods and willows, the piñon-and-juniper habitat in the foothills is exposed and inhospitable (though still enjoyable on a June morning).  And it's parched.  We're holding at 0.19 inches (5 mm) of moisture for the year so far, and up here you know it.  The grasses have "kindling" written all over them.  Where the cool greenery in the river valley offers an easy beauty, higher up, away from the lifeline of water, things are rougher around the edges.  But there's still beauty to be had in plenty.

The view from a well-placed bench—juniper and cholla, with some prickly pear lurking in the grasses

One of those beauties, of course, is the sky—the grandest, most spectacular feature of open spaces in any western landscape.  I wonder sometimes if mountains seem wilder than plains simply because in the mountains you can't see as much of the sky at once.  A huge sky puts things in perspective:  a six-inch lizard (plus tail) would be exciting and wildlife-y in the mountains; its presence would hint of larger and more spectacular things out of sight behind the next tree.  Under the open sky it's a cute little lizard.  Cholla ("choy'-a") can get large enough to tower overhead, but they always look small under the sheer, horizon-spanning mass of sky. 

But even among the spines and barbs closer to the ground, beauty is not far away:  yucca seed pods, opening up like flowers; the perfect domes of cholla buds; the "swallowed coin" roundnesses in the living stems, and the wind-flute airiness of the dead ones; the way prickly-pears echo the tumbled rocks they thrive on, the twists and turns from one perfectly rounded pad to the next.

Yucca seed pods, cholla buds (the flowers are magenta), and living and dead cholla stems
Cholla "trunks"
Prickly pear dribbling down the side of an arroyo, shaded by scrub live oak (I think)

I've been thinking lately about a comment that Dave, the Anxious Gardener, made a couple of posts back, about how on the one hand New Mexico seems like an alien environment (especially to his own garden in Sussex), but then on the other hand we grow some of the same plants and fight the same pests.   Getting out in the open space and taking a good look around made me aware of just how domesticated the gardens here are.  I mean, for Pete's sake, in my last post I was rambling on about Easter lilies, and in this one I'm watching out so I don't step on a cactus.  We really have wrested gardens (and lawns and shade trees) out of a land where theoretically they don't belong.

You can see the green(er) Rio Grande valley near the horizon line, about 1,500' below the altitude of the park.

It's a little nerve-wracking to realize that quite so clearly.  Words like "unsustainable" and, well, "unsustainable" keep flashing on and off inside my head.  I'm reasonably responsible with water now, but am jolted into thinking about the next step—perhaps "undomesticating" a little bit and planting more really wild things.  It wouldn't have to be anything radical—just small wildnesses.

Let the Easter lilies beware...


Desert humor


  1. I love the look of the dead cholla trunks! Even though the desert may not have the traditional look of beauty, I agree that it has beauty in it. And it is amazing the plants and animals that can live in those harsh conditions.

  2. Desert humour? Who knew? But it made me laugh. Any more?

    Lovely photos, Stacy. I really like the curve-billed thrasher and the dead cholla trunks. Please send me the latter. How nice would they look planted up with ferns and smothered in moss?

    Is that 5mm of rain since Jan 1st? Blimey. Amazing - can't feel I can moan too much about the 'drought' we've had here recently. (Just checked - we had 12.8mm of rain in this part of Sussex in May which is very, very low for us).

    By the way, meant to say that lily pollen is terribly poisonous to cats!! You may be aware but I suspect your battle with Sir Marley hasn't escalated to that level?


  3. Stacy - I realised that you live in New Mexico, but after seeing photos of your garden I never guessed you lived so close to a desert. I bet planting prickly pears in your garden would scare the slugs away.

  4. Oh those pix are wonderful! What beauty there is to behold. I like how you look closely enough to "see" and share with us.

    I love the tree trunks.


  5. Stacy, I can see from these photos that the contrast between garden and wildland is particularly dramatic for you. I can see the dilemma that can create -- do you create a garden that serves as a retreat from the high desert environment, one that mimics the high desert environment, or is there some way to marry the two harmoniously?
    BTW, I love your new blog design. -Jean

  6. Lovely photos you have there, and you are successful in showing us desert's beauty. Whoever says it's not beautiful, ...who cares, it is in the eye of...I haven't seen those plants yet, as the desert i've been to doesn't have trees, just sand! But i love those chola trunks, very artistic on its own.

  7. It is easy to say go with what works in your climate without watering, etc. because I live in the mid-Atlantic and can grow most things without watering. But maybe that's because the true magnificence of ornamental desert gardens has not be explored or publicized as thoroughly as temperate gardens. Still, even with our abundance of water, I would never plant a plant that I had to water (except in containers).

  8. Holley, aren't the cholla trunks great? The adaptations plants and animals have made to these conditions are just fascinating. I'm glad (but not surprised) to hear that you enjoy the desert's beauty, too, Madame Texan.

    Dave, that's all the desert humor I've come across so far. I'm probably just not getting the rest of the jokes. The cholla trunks would look charmingly incongruous with ferns and moss--they would definitely make a Statement.

    Yes, I'm afraid that's since Jan. 1--I can't recall if it's a record low, but it's sure close. We would normally have had about 3 inches by now. I would actually think a drought would affect you all worse, since your trees, etc. are adapted to a rainier climate.

    There is no end to the botheration of cats! I've been keeping an eye out and think Marley (his latest name tag has demoted him) is safe from the lilies--they're at the back of the bed where he'd have a hard time getting to them, and he doesn't seem interested in any case. But I'll take out the anthers anyway.

  9. b-a-g, the northern part of the state is more "semi-arid", but in the central and southern parts it's pretty much all desert, except right along the rivers. In a way, Albuquerque might actually have been greener at one time, because the Rio Grande was a wider, slower river and flooded annually when the mountain snows melted. Now it's been engineered to be deeper and faster and more predictable (which is handy in other ways, of course), so the desert begins a little closer in.

  10. Diana, it is winning, and doesn't it look affronted about the whole thing? I think that's what cracks me up about it--the rock was so obviously there first, and the tree is the one saying, "Oy!"

    Elaine, thank you--I'm so glad you enjoyed them. I hope things are well with you.

    Jean, I don't normally see the contrast quite so starkly--the view from the park was pretty dramatic. Teasing out all the parts of the dilemma isn't easy. On one hand, the shade and cooling effect of traditional gardens helps offset the city's heat island effect which allows us to use less energy. On the other hand, even a "waterwise" garden still needs some water, and the supply is so finite. I'll probably wrestle with that here off and on and will appreciate any input.

    Thanks re: the blog design--I actually revamped it just so I could post the thrasher picture in a larger format. :) Its eye just didn't come out otherwise.

  11. Andrea, thank you. Our deserts are more "scrub" deserts than sand deserts (thank goodness--we have to dust enough as it is). As I was walking I came across a number of families with small children, and every child was carrying a little piece of cholla trunk. They have such a huge appeal!

    Carolyn, I think you're right that "true" desert gardens haven't been given enough of a chance. Even now when you see one in a book or magazine, it's usually the typical modernist "sculptural yucca plus gravel" affair, which always looks hot and sterile. I think that's turned a lot of people off of "xeriscape" and they don't look further.

    But it's harder than I thought it would be to grow natives in a city, especially on a small lot, just because there are walls everywhere that provide too much shade! (What an odd thing to complain about.) The desert plants aren't happy, so you plant the sun/part shade ones, and they take more water. I'm still trying to find the right balance.

  12. Hahahahaha!!! your last photo!!!! :) :) :)
    Just. made. my. night. :D

  13. For a dry desert area, you have done amazing things with your garden!! I love the pic's here, so much raw beauty, love the tree trunk. Thanks for helping me appreciate the rain =)

  14. Fascinating post! Recently I was learning about the famous Kaufmann House in Palm Springs (OK, I know that's a completely different state, but as a Brit I fondly imagine it's similar to New Mexico). The house is often described as having a desert garden, but in fact most of it is irrigated lawn and swimming pool, with just the odd yucca and large rock as a nod to the surroundings. It's interesting that there really doesn't seem to be much of a tradition of true desert gardening.
    Good luck with your attempts to "undomesticate" your own garden a little.

  15. I love the high deserts of NM and AZ but especially NM and I love the mtns too...while visiting NM I found the xeric gardening...I use this for my hot dry areas in my incredible place with incredible landscapes...

  16. Hanni, thanks. :D You'd think with a whole desert to choose from, that tree could have found another place to sprout.

    Julia, thank you--I don't actually have that exciting a garden, but after this outing, it sure looks lush and jungly to me. Any time I can provide a small community service and help you appreciate the rain, just holler. :)

  17. Jill, in some ways Palm Springs is similar to NM, at least in the sense that it's quite dry. The Kaufmann House grounds strike me as typical of houses important enough to be named--it's what I think of as "Sunset Magazine" style (a Western lifestyle magazine geared primarily to California with a modernist and highly materialistic bent), and probably, in the 1980's or so, the biggest exporter of the yucca-and-rocks approach that we all still remember so painfully...

    CA has generally been a wealthy state, and NM is one of the poorest, which may be part of why we don't have as much of a gardening tradition in general here. There may be broader cultural reasons, too. I was driving through some Pueblo tribal lands this week and looking to see what they had for gardens and landscaping, and it was literally nothing. Gorgeous farms, but not even a shade tree in a yard--just packed earth. I was hoping to find out what those with the longest history of caring for the earth here did to take care of it, and their solution seems to be to leave it alone. (Please take that for the superficial, uninformed observation that it is.)

    I've seen some Spanish Colonial style gardens in books that were quite lovely, and many Santa Fe gardens have a style that is really, really nice, but for the most part we're transplants from greener states and have transplanted the general principles of garden design from there, even if not the actual plants. Sorry for such a long answer, but I've been thinking a lot about this since writing the post!

  18. Donna, I thought of you when putting this post together--I know you love this part of the country. Xeric principles make so much sense, but I'm beginning to wonder if what we accept as xeric out here is really an uneasy middle ground between utterly irresponsible water use and no extra water use (once plants are established) at all.

  19. Xeric walls sun and shade. Have you looked at Pam @ Digging. She is in Texas. I wouldn't plant my garden like that, but I love to visit her blog.

  20. Diana, thanks for steering me to Pam @ Digging. Her garden style is actually what I think of as a real western/southwestern style (in a good way--lots of great, tufty textures getting the spotlight, vibrant colors, and hardscape that really echoes the history/culture). We plant a lot of the same plants here, and they're reasonably drought-tolerant. But I'm wondering if we're being too soft about "reasonable" here in "the Q". Austin gets 32 inches of rain a year; even Santa Fe gets 14-15. We get 8, and have half the population of the entire state.

    In xeriscape garden books, they always tell you to have a small "oasis" (heavier water-use) zone, a larger transition zone, and then a fully xeric zone on the edge of your property. Most of us plant primarily "transitional" plants, but that's probably not sustainable over the long haul. Transitional I can do in part shade. Fully xeric--I don't know. Of course, my 400 square feet of garden are probably not going to make a huge difference one way or the other...

    Good heavens. I should just write a whole new post.

  21. Stacy, I was discussing desert gardening with splendid fellow blogger Slotharium, after she sent me images of a truly jaw-dropping garden in Abu Dhabi, with massed Victorian-style bedding and 3000 hanging baskets. In the desert. You can see images if you search for Al Ain Paradise. Brace yourself!
    But more seriously, she also suggested a couple of more appropriate desert-style gardens that you might like to see. I won't send links, for fear of being trapped in your spam filter, but they are the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, designed by Ten Eyck, and the Mesa Arts Center by Martha Schwartz. I hope they may provide some inspiration. Jill

  22. Jill, after looking at Al Ain Paradise, I'm not quite as worried about whether catmint is really xeric enough. What an extraordinary garden--in all kinds of ways!

    Thank you so much for sending along the other suggestions. I especially enjoyed the Ten Eyck designs and looked at some of their other work. That's the kind of thing I (nebulously) had in mind--completely sustainable plantings, not too heavy on (heat-intensifying) hardscape, great textures, plenty of spaciousness, and more or less naturalistic. It's similar to the work of Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden of Plant-Driven Design, but goes that one step further that I was looking for. Thank you for continuing to think about this--especially as you must have hundreds of other things on your mind right now!