Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thinking Out Loud

or Fun with Nuts and Bolts

Well, I don't know whether we'll have that much fun. In fact, this will be the kind of straightforward post I almost never write.  I apologize if it's long and dull, but I'm hoping you'll be kind enough to bear with me and offer me your suggestions. (Apologies also to those of you who aren't into this much gardening nitty-gritty.  We will return to our regularly scheduled program on Sunday.)  I'm still thinking through plans for the garden and beginning to put some of them in practice, but I thought I'd run them past you before I reach the point of no return so you can warn me if I'm doing something insane before I've actually done it.  

The Goal—to create an open-feeling, airy space that evokes the outdoor places I love so much in the high desert landscape, in a 15' x 15' (actually 14' x 14') walled, urban planting area. The point isn't to make it seem bigger, just more airy and less "clogged up."  

Though a bit dark, this photo gives a good idea of the shape.  I've already removed the densest plants and mostly emptied the central bed, replacing the gravel there with pecan shells.  (I'm still waiting for some oomph and inspiration to move the pots of gravel to a new home.)  The sand cherry by the blue bench is kind of a big, hairy monster, but overall I like this level of airiness and now want to fill in the blanks without changing the general feel.

The Conditions—earling morning to mid-day sun for four to six hours, depending on the location. The most open light is right in the center, with dappled shade along the periphery beneath the three small trees and full shade between the two largest bushes on the left. Seriously alkaline soil with fair drainage and no nutrients; mixed clay, sand, and decomposed granite.  An average of eight inches of moisture per year.  USDA hardiness zone 7, AHS heat zone 8.

The Parameters—I'd like the garden to be all of the following:
  1. Interesting in all four seasons.  I'll be out on the patio every weekend morning all winter, so I don't want too many of the kinds of perennials that fade away to nothing, or that look gorgeous for three weeks a year and then have nothing further to say for themselves.
  2. Not very thirsty.  Plants that might look better with additional water, but that can survive on just rainfall are ideal.
  3. Friendly to wildlife and able to withstand the neighbors' cats.
  4. Easy to create and maintain.  I'm really not saying the following because I want sympathy or anything—I really kind of don't—but because it's a critical factor that has to be taken into account.  This year my CFS/ME has worsened; even just this summer I've lost about another 10% functionality.  Literally the only fun, non-sedentary activities left in my life are occasional, vacation-day trips to the outdoors, and gardening.  If the downward trend continues, they will have to go as well.  I'm not planning on that happening, but because I love being out in the garden so much, I want to make sure that I can continue enjoying it no matter what.  I'd like to set the stage for it to run itself a little more if need be without losing its general shape or fizzling altogether.  With my current energy levels, any changes I make will be piecemeal—a few small things here and there.  It will take me a couple of months to do what a healthy person can do in a weekend.  All to say, the easier the better.

There are actually two young sand cherries along the sides, growing slowly in part sun.  I've unearthed the soaker hoses from the mulch so I know where to plant; I currently run them once a week but would like to cut that use at least in half.

The Assumptions—By all means, correct me if they're wrong...
  1. A loosely constructed, naturalistic look will probably hold up better under neglect than a carefully planned design.
  2. A circle path in a square bed by a rectangular house ought to be enough shape for anyone.  With that much geometry in such a small space, a naturalistic look won't descend into chaos.
  3. Seeds:  boy, are they easy to strew about.
The Plan—To leave all the big things in place.  I kind of wish I'd planted one of the desert olives about two feet further west, but I didn't, and now it's happy where it is.  The three trees and four sand cherry bushes will stay where they are, as will the brick path.  That leaves me with a central 5' diameter circle bed in open sunlight, and one continuous, irregularly shaped bed around the perimeter, mostly in dappled shade. 

I'd like to take advantage of that contrast.  The multi-trunked desert olives are already quite airy-looking.  With low-growing (one foot tall or so) plants at their bases, the perimeter beds could have a kind of canopy-and-forest-floor feel.  With the densest plants removed, only the ground-covers are left; they're beginning to settle in, and I'd like to give them a chance.  In the blank spots, then, I'll direct-sow seeds of natives that can handle part-sun—silky thread grass, flax, scarlet globemallow, and at the sunnier edges, California poppy.  (A plant list with links follows, for those of you who are gluttons for punishment interested.)  In sunnier areas, I'll try sand lovegrass, purple prairie clover, and angelita daisies.  Except for perhaps the clover, those are all self-seeders, some of them quite prolific; none of them needs much, if any, additional water.

A view the other direction, showing the general shape of the funkiest desert olive tree.

The central bed will be more of a "bowl of sunshine" out in the open, with short-grass prairie type plants  (also from seed).  Blue grama grass will be the primary planting, with rough menodora, long-flowered gilly (an annual), and more flax, all of which are 12-18" tall (according to my books).  (An experimental milkweed is already growing there, and as it's doing well, it may as well stay and make some more of itself.)

I do have vines planted, but they're still either in their sleeping or creeping years; hopefully next summer they'll begin to leap and cover the walls in earnest. 

The Concerns—I'm hoping the prolific re-seeders will help the garden be more self-sustaining, but I might end up making too much work for myself with extra weeding.  When sturdy, native, drought-tolerant, indestructible grasses with six-foot deep roots start coming up between the bricks in the path, I might really regret this.  An alternative might be to continue planting a tapestry of groundcovers of different heights and textures. Also, what I'm hoping will be kind of an unbuttoned, easily natural look might just end up being a mess.  Thoughts?  Warning bells?

The Plants
Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)
Sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) (This doesn't get to 5' in NM—the seed heads top out at more like 2', and they're all air.)
Silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima)
Angelita daisies (Hymenoxys acaulis)
Blue flax (Linum lewisii)
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Long-flowered gilly (Ipomopsis longiflora)
Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
Rough menodora (Menodora scabra)
Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea)

The Note of Thanks

I really do appreciate your help on this.


  1. I wish I could help, but know very little about plants for your climate. Just wanted to say that it's really fun to see your whole garden in one shot - I love being able to place the closeup pictures in my mind. And also, I think it's going to be fabulous.

  2. I'm very excited that you have a garden vision and are willing to do so much to achieve it. I love that you are planting grasses, and seem to have done a lot of homework. I've never planted any, so I can't really help with that. While I was reading, I kept thinking that the middle round bed would be nice planted in a tall grass from about noon to 3:00 (not actual time, but placement) so that you could see part of the path, but part would disappear, drawing you in and giving the illusion of being bigger. Then you said you already had a vision of a bowl of sunshine, which sounds lovely. I hope you get lots of input, and also check out - not sure, but I *think* that's the look you're going for.

  3. Tall grasses behind the birdbath sound good. In a small garden you don't want to have too much variety because it makes the eye bounce around. You need a place to rest the eyes. Plant repetition, color repetition, shape repetition all do this. I have so many plants I want to put in my garden I have to stop myself or it would look chaotic and I prefer a peaceful garden instead of a riot. So maybe grasses in the back two corners as well as behind the bath. Then maybe some shorter grasses in front or some shorter flower which are again repeated in the perimeter somewhere at least in color palate if not in actual plant. Garden Gate does lots of small garden layouts and they supply plant lists for different areas of the US. Their website is

  4. You have quite a daunting task. I truly wish I could be of more help, but I am not familiar with southwestern plants. A book that may help is, Best Plants for New Mexico Gardens and Landscapes. I had a friend who used it when she moved to New Mexico. Good luck, and I look forward to seeing your final garden.

  5. Hi Stacy,

    As soon as I saw the picture of your space two ideas came to me. First, paint the walls white. Second, get pea gravel (small round whitish stones) and spread it on all the beds. Then plant (or leave) just a few special plants in the gravel. Like a rock garden or desert scene. Rounded stones will fit in well too. The bird bath should move to a corner or middle of a wall, not the middle. Have low stuff in the middle.

    Radical, I know, but just picture it!

  6. White walls, white stones? That is going to make it all feel hotter, and lose the inviting oasis feeling. I just went to visit - Elizabeth is in Ontario with a marsh and a beaver pond. That's exotic to me!

    Bertie at Whatho Hidcote, writes about planting airy bronze fennel up front, so you look thru a veil at the rest of the garden. For low maintenance - something like Susan J Tweit. She lives just over your mountains in Colorado. Apart from her veg garden, the rest is low water and annual dethatching.

    Now I can see the whole garden - I still think a very gentle suggestion of one of your inspirational pictures on the wall, to add depth and perspective, make the walls dissolve ...

    For drama and interest one very special to you plant with large leaves.

  7. Zoe, it drives me nuts to show something in a half-way done state, like writing sentences with no verbs in them or something, so I'm glad to hear that it's valuable anyway. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Holley, thank you so much for the link to the planobluestem blog! That's the general look, though I will go for something simpler just because my space is so much smaller. I like the idea of a taller grass in the noon-to-3 area. The sand lovegrass might work well—it's not so tall as to dwarf the other plants, but its seeds (tiny, sparkly ones) would be high enough to hide part of the path. I'll have to see if it would throw the rest of the bed out of balance. I really appreciate the suggestion!

    Baffled, thanks for the reminder about continuity. I'm hoping that the grasses—all mild-mannered minglers, not stars like pampas grasses or pennisetums—will provide those calm places to rest the eyes. The flowers' foliage textures are also fairly similar to one another, and only a couple of them will be blooming at a time—trust me, I don't want a riot on my hands either! Thanks for the Garden Gate recommendation. If it's the one I'm thinking of, my sister-in-law hoards her copies of it enthusiastically.

    Michelle, that is a wonderful book—I love that it recommends plants for particular cities. (My favorite, though, is Judith Phillips' New Mexico Gardener's Guide.) I suppose I'm not so much concerned about whether a certain plant will work as whether my general premise is sound, that naturalistic, self-seeding plantings will be hold up well and not create more work for me when I can least afford to do it. At least no one has out-and-out shrieked with horror yet, so maybe I'm on the right track...

  8. Elisabeth, I also appreciate your reminder that in a desert setting, not every square inch of space has to be filled in. I love the tufty, dotted, pointillistic textures of the mesa-top deserts, and even in mountain woodlands here there's a lot of open ground. In fact, that's probably key to making the texture work. That's given me something good to ponder—thank you. I do think Diana (Elephant's Eye) is right about the white walls and gravel, though. The photos are misleadingly dark. Almost all my garden pictures, at least from April through September, are taken in early-morning or late-afternoon shadow, because by the time the sun is actually up, even at 7 a.m., it's too strong. The bounce-back from all the walls is pretty intense when they're sunlit, and if they were white I'm afraid the glare would be unbearable.

    Diana, yes! Susan's meadow is the look that I'm after, even with some of the same plants. (Some of the others I've tried and don't have quite enough sun for.) I'm so glad to know that her garden is light on labor. That's a big help. I like the veil idea, though maybe not right at the very front; the sand lovegrass would work perfectly for that. I picked up a couple of pots of it this week and have been moving them around for the last couple of days to find the most effective places. As Judith Phillips says, if you want twelve of them, plant three...

    I was interested in your suggestion for a mural on the wall before, but frankly, I doubt my abilities to make it come off right.

    Drama and interest—yes. All the airy, feathery textures might end up lacking some needed oomph. That's a lovely suggestion. Thank you for all of them!

  9. Boy Stacy, I am out of my element with your south western plants. Your list sounds good with the ones I do know. I agree some grasses would be nice, and the poppies. Do Mediterranean plants do well in your soils? They would take the heat. They like gravelly soil and you mentioned having some with decent drainage. I have clay soil and I add gravel to grow lavender.

  10. I can't give advice on garden design ... but if you're looking for a plant that needs very little attention I recommend sun rose (cistus purpureus). I inherited this plant and never bothered to water it, yet it's covered in magenta flowers all summer. The only drawback is that it has a pungent scent that stays with you.

  11. I know NOTHING about gardening in a dry climate (this wet summer means that the water table is currently less than a foot under ground level... Watering? Not necessary!), but I actually like the look of your microcosmic garden already. I would perhaps move the bird bath, just to shake up the geometry a bit, but I think you're right that the strong statement of the circular path will mean your garden won't descend into chaos no matter how riotous the planting.

    Your plan sounds lovely (without knowing the specific plants) and I look forward to seeing how it develops.

  12. This is beautiful. I love the feeling of space and the circular warm bricks. It looks like a place that will be rejuvenating without too many plants clamoring for attention. The only possible warning bell I have is with the grasses, I'm in Ca and I often get non-native grasses entwined with the nice native ones, so after prolific weeding, I've given up on them for now. I think it may be different where you are, and the fact that there is so much hardscaping and separation should contain things. It really feels like a sanctuary. I like your plant list, the blue flax should look particularly beautiful next to those walls.

  13. Donna, yes, Mediterranean plants usually do extremely well here and often can take more shade than the natives, which is helpful. Most of them need a little more water, though, too. Rosemary is the exception--I have some growing in a side bed and in another season or so it probably won't need any additional moisture at all.

    b-a-g, thanks for the recommendation. Cistus does well here, too, though it's a little larger than what I'm looking for. It must look lovely with all your roses.

    Søren, it's hard to imagine two such different climates as yours and mine. Whenever I read about your drainage project it sounds incredibly exotic. Thank you--I really appreciate your perspective on this. I'll think about the bird bath. It's actually been hard to find a place for both the feeder and the bath where they are far enough from the patio not to make a mess, far enough from each other that the feeder doesn't foul the water in the bath, and far enough from the exterior walls that the neighborhood cats can't pounce.

    L.C., thank you so much for visiting and for your comment--rejuvenating and sanctuary are exactly the overall feel I'm looking for. Thanks also for your warning re: the grasses. I've been wondering whether I'd be weeding them out of the ground covers all the time, and from what you say, it sounds like I will... All the ones I'm considering are natives, so at least invasiveness isn't an issue, but that doesn't mean they can't still be a nuisance. I'll go think some more. Thanks again!

  14. Stacy, Like others, I really enjoyed getting to see the context of your whole garden. Unfortunately, also like others, I am pretty clueless about plants and gardening for your climate. Do you have any contact with Noelle at Ramblings from a Desert Garden? She is a trained professional with expertise in desert gardens, and I wonder if she might have some really good suggestions for you. -Jean

  15. It seems so shocking, Stacy, to see all of your garden. In one sweep - all of it. Almost indecent somehow ... but it does underline your skill in photographing and writing about such a small space. But of that, I had no doubt.

    You've had much good advice and I know nothing of desert gardens or desert plantings - so what to add?. My only advice (for what it's worth) would be to move the bird bath off centre and use that central space as a planting pocket; something quite substantial - that you can't see wholly through. A different kind of Hairy Monster. I think it a shame if, when entering a garden, you can see the whole layout, all the planting, everything, without venturing out into it. So yes, light and airy and see-through is all lovely and important; tall grasses with their seed heads (beloved by you), Verbena bonariensis and fennel (as suggested by Diana) would all work well but I think maybe (as well as the HM) if you can create a baffle, a screen of some sort at the front ... you then introduce an element of "Ooh, what's over there," and "Hmm, wonder what's behind that." I know you have a limited space but hey, you knew it wouldn't be easy!

    Good luck with it all. I'm sure it'll look marvellous whatever you decide (that sounds glib but is heartfelt). But please - I'm honestly not sure I can handle many more full frontals!


    P.S. Going by that last photo, you could just leave the garden well alone, sit back with a cup of Earl Grey and gaze upwards.

  16. Jean, so little of what I write is actually about the whole garden that it never occurred to me that people would enjoy some context... Thanks for suggesting the Desert Garden blog--I'll take a look.

    Dave, thank you for such a lovely and thoughtful response. I don't think I've shown the whole garden since maybe about a year ago July--I can probably hold off for another year before doing it again. The "all in one sweep" thing is probably not something you could really do at the Priory... Well, not without aircraft.

    I understand what you mean about a HM in the central bed. The thing is, until about a month ago, I had it planted mostly in yarrow that came up to the top of the bird bath. (Hence the blocks--to make the bath tall enough that the birds could find it, poor things.) The garden was definitely more of an adventure to walk through, for all the reasons you give. On the other hand, the view from the patio seemed too short, like you'd met a wall 4' in. That's actually what prompted this whole airiness kick in the first place--the feeling of encountering too many walls. I suppose it's the difference between a garden that's mostly for viewing and one for rambling around in. There doesn't seem to be a reason why both can't be satisfactory, though. I shall Think. And look at plant books.

    A reclining chair: the key to all garden conundrums. The sunrises for the last month or so have been amazing.

  17. Yes, indeed. A plant book or two, a reclining chair and a think. It's the only way. Go to it!