Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Gold in Them Thar Hills

or Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Nothing with "nauseosus" in its name should smell so good.  Even if the word does just mean "heavy-scented," it doesn't sound like it means anything pleasant, certainly nothing like the heady fragrance coming from the stand of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) on the far side of the parking lot.

The scent bypassed floral altogether and went straight for honey, for thick, musky ambrosia.  No wonder the bees were so giddy—they must have felt as if half their work had already been done for them.

Like no other month, October (in the northern hemisphere, at any rate) seems to show every place in its best light.  Just breathing the air or looking at the sky can be a sonnet-worthy experience.  I always take a week of vacation around mid-month to make the most of the gorgeous sunlight and weather while they last, and try to spend every possible minute of it outside.  Among the short day-trips I took this year was yet another excursion to Elena Gallegos Open Space park in the foothills on the edge of town.

Cholla, juniper, blue grama grass, and rabbitbrush

I'd been looking forward to this visit for months, ever since the first time I drove up the gently curving, suburban road to the park and saw the roadway lined with rabbitbrush (or chamisa, as it's known here) from bottom to top.  Like blue grama grass, rabbitbrush is one of the signature plants of western North America, growing from the panhandle of Texas west to the Sierras, from Mexico to Saskatchewan.  I have loved it since early childhood—Dad used to call it "bunny bush," which for some reason sent my five-year-old self into endless fits of giggles.  Its golden flowers are still among my favorite sights of autumn.

The sky is another.

The park was as glorious as I'd hoped, at least where the rabbitbrush held sway.  It's about the last of the high desert plants to bloom, so it had to hold the fort pretty well on its own.  Here and there on my walk I saw a dyspeptic aster or two, and once a dull patch of mounding peppergrass, but nothing to keep the bees and butterflies satisfied.  Instead all the pollinators descended on the rabbitbrush in droves, making the most of its flowers while they could.

A more or less cooperative variegated fritillary.

I knew that rabbitbrush was an "opportunistic" plant, the kind that colonizes disturbed places.  It's common along roadsides and ditches, and on open range-land it can indicate over-grazing.*  For some reason I didn't expect that to translate into easy photographs, but it did, as the rabbitbrush was wonderfully thick in all the most accessible places—on the edge of the parking lot, beside the paths, near the occasional ramadas.

As thick as the stands of it were, though, they're not long-lasting.  Rabbitbrush sends down deep taproots as well as lateral roots that allow it to take hold fast; they make it valuable for stabilizing the soil and beginning the process of rebuilding.  But for some reason  all those roots and the plant's general sturdiness are not enough to make it a particularly strong competitor.  Once the next phase of succession begins, the rabbitbrush colonies will fade away.  I can't believe I'm saying this with a straight face, but they really do have to make the most of the bad, disturbed, barren soil while they can.

I love thinking back over a day trip later that evening, letting memories bubble up.  A few of them always stand out from the rest and become emblems of the day.  In this case the "signature" of the walk was the fragrance, drawing in the bees and the butterflies (and, less usefully, me) that will help the rabbitbrush set seed.  This winter, those seeds will drift on the wind to the next disturbed place (rabbitbrush:  the Mary Poppins for unhappy soils), where a colony can start over again, and make another autumn day golden in time.  Maybe in a subtler way, too, there was a kinship between the bees and the butterflies and the rabbitbrush and me that drew us together later in my mind—a sense of exuberance, of living it up.

We were all opportunists, making hay while the sun shone.

* It's also a staple in xeriscape gardens and commercial landscapes, and (for what it's worth) it is one of the all-time most spectacular plants ever in a high wind.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pre-Emptive Strikes

or A Little Help Goes a Long Way

As inspirational garden photos go, this one ranks pretty far down the list:

Exhibit A

It won't be gracing the cover of National Geographic any time soon.  The sky is nice and blue, sure, but you can look outside and see blue sky any day of the week.  Day in, day out, from one horizon to the other, nothing but blue, blue, blue.  Hardly worth wasting pixels on.*

And OK, the trees are losing some leaves up there at the top.  October is galloping toward the finish line, and many of us in the northern hemisphere do expect our deciduous trees to lose a leaf or two in October (although these particular trees generally wait until November).  Then again, we also expect them to be picturesque, not all scraggly and haphazard.  But this isn't seasonal leaf loss, not the disheveled loveliness of autumn, nothing that would make you want to go for a tramp in golden woods, kicking up fallen leaves as you go.

Sadly, this is just what the top branches of all three desert olives (Forestiera neomexicana) look like from mid-August on, until some windstorm in November mercifully tidies the rest of the leaves away.  The bareness can't even be blamed on the leaf rollers that plague these trees every year (just mine for some reason; the rest in the neighborhood—and apparently the entire southwest—are fine).  The culprits are actually some of my otherwise favorite garden visitors, ones I go out of my way to court:  the cheerful, gregarious, brightly-colored, overly communicative, endlessly hungry lesser goldfinches.

"Who, me?"

One goldfinch in spring is a mighty fine thing; a mated pair quite exciting.  Two pairs make your heart go pitter-pat with hope and delight.  When both pairs clutch in late summer, you're thrilled at the wonders of nature.  You enjoy seeing the couples become families, and you laugh sympathetically at the fledglings' accidental antics.  Then the pairs produce a second clutch apiece, and before you know it, two dozen lesser goldfinches are perched in your desert olives, impatiently waiting their turn at the feeder.

Except "perched" isn't quite it, is it.  They're clinging to the vertical upper branches, and sometimes their unpracticed feet slip a little, taking a leaf or a bud with them as they slide down.  One leaf here, another bud there, and pretty soon, what with gravity taking its toll and all, those upper branches have no leaves left.  Since the finches have done the same for several years running, long, bare gaps show on older branches, too, where the buds were sheared off by little bird claws, back when those branches had their turn being the slender ones at the top.

Exhibit B

Don't get me wrong:  I love the lesser goldfinches.  They are not only enjoyable but useful, and I'm quite grateful to have them around.  They're not strict vegetarians like the American goldfinch, and they have dined on many a pest (we'll assume that they were pests—why would a goldfinch eat beneficial insects?) in the trees when the feeder was occupied.  They've even helped keep the leaf rollers under control, and in the most ingenious way.  Not content with just eating the little caterpillars, the finches have gone one step better, making sure that there are no leaves for the rollers to eat.

Is that brilliant or what?  Talk about thinking ahead.  It's almost as clever as taking the gas tank out of your car to make it more fuel-efficient, or turning chickens (gently) upside down so they lay their eggs over-easy.

Almost as clever, and even more effective—and yet, somehow, maybe missing the point?
*Disclaimer:  I wrote this last week, in the middle of a long spell of sunny weather.  We've seen a cloud or two since then.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Up in Flames

or Fourth of July Canyon

A day of contrasts.  The color wheel spun between fiery orange and cool blue, pine green and luminous gold.  In a shining cloud of dust on Forest Road 55, the skeletons of old trees, burned by a previous summer's fire, stood guard; at their feet, young growth played with flames of sunshine.  In the open the sun was warm by mid-morning, but in the dappled shade on the trail, seasons came and went from one step to the next.

I generally think of blue and gold as the west's autumn colors—the deep, unclouded blue of mountain skies, the gold of a sun like hot honey, and the joyful, answering glow of aspen and cottonwoods, Maximillian sunflowers and rabbitbrush.  But tucked away in the Cibola National Forest, in the Manzano Mountains about 55 miles southeast of Albuquerque, is a canyon alive with bigtooth maples (Acer grandidentatum) that turn into embers and sparks, reds and oranges that smolder against the ponderosa pines.

For a while over the summer, all of Cibola Forest's 1.6 million acres were closed to recreational use, because the fire danger was so extreme.  Just idling a car for a bare instant too long over fallen pine needles in a road, or letting live cigarette ashes drift on the wind, could start a fire that would send whole mountainsides up in flames.  How lovely, then, to see the wilderness harmlessly catching its own seasonal fire, in a canyon named for a day of fireworks, of sparking, thundering, crackling celebration.

The Fourth of July trail climbs to a spring and continues on to the mountain crest.  I only walked a short spur of it called the Crimson Maple Trail, and even so spent much of the time sitting on the occasional bench.  (One especially lovely clearing had so many benches I wondered if they'd pupped.)  These photos, then, are only of the tiniest part of the canyon, and we may never know what hidden wonders we missed.

Even that fraction of a trail did not run short of wonders, though.  On one stretch of the path you'd walk amid the clean, resiny scent of junipers, or catch the faintest trace of vanilla from a stand of ponderosas.  Around the next curve you'd encounter the sweetness of deciduous forest; each step would release the must of fallen leaves from beneath your feet.  The wind sent white noise rushing through the pine trees' crowns.  It pattered among the maples' dying leaves; branches rubbed together high overhead, creaking.  A gust might fling a host of leaves into flight all at once and then let them settle in a whirl of color and light.  The forest floor, sheltered from the currents in the treetops, let only a light breeze pass, just enough to have hands seeking the warmth of pockets, and to prove the jacket to have been a wise choice after all.  In some places the season was just taking hold, in others the flames already dying out.

And everywhere the light was diffused, deflected, magnified by storms of translucent leaves, by the almost-invisible haze of dust shimmering in the air.

Amid the kaleidoscope of light and shadow, a bench offered a moment of quiet among the trees, a time to listen to the silence behind the wind, behind the hiss of leaves touching down, or the call of a mountain chickadee, the hoarse bark of an Abert's squirrel in the distance.

A day of contrasts, when cool and quiet could make your heart catch fire.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Double Duty

or The Pleasures of Forgetfulness

For some reason salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor, or Poterium sanguisorba) makes me think of water—rills of fresh, cool water.  Maybe it's the way the leaves fountain out of a central point, and then go cascading downward, or maybe it's their cool, blue-green color.  It could just be the simple fact that they have the broad leaves of moist-climate plants.  Or the dark shadows they trap beneath them—dense, woodland shadows rather than the shimmery dappling of most southwestern perennials.  (Ironic, since salad burnet is native to dry, grassy meadows.)  And of course, from dense woodland shadows to rippling woodland streams is but a short mental step (in this free-associating little head, at least).

One of the almost unbreakable rules of thumb I use when choosing plants for my small garden is that everything should fill more than one purpose—provide both spring blooms and fall color, say, or bird sanctuary and summer shade.  Winter interest or windbreak, bee-pleaser or kitchen herb, all of that is fine, but unless it's a tulip or a crocus, a plant has to do double duty at the very least.  Edible salad burnet, with its mild, cucumbery flavor, ornamental shape, and evergreen leaves that shade to red in winter, seemed ideal from its catalog descriptions, but I assumed it would be too thirsty for the southwest.  It isn't.  It has a long taproot (as I found out the wrong way the first time I transplanted one, poor little burnet) and, as long as it's kept in partial shade, can handle almost anything.

For such a soft plant it can be astonishingly sculptural, especially when it's stretching out new leaves in spring or fall:

While its petal-less flowers aren't ornamental, they are definitely intriguing. 

I'm not always sure how to integrate burnet with other garden plants.  It pairs well with rue and other things with fine or dissected leaves, as well as with the taller spikes of irises, but something else is still missing to make them all come together.  (Oddly, I don't care for it with grasses, which in a meadow plant seems wrong.  But there you are.)  Despite that little perplexity, though, I am still as smitten by salad burnet as I was my first year here, after first seeing its winter leaves turn red.

Imagine my surprise when I was idly looking through an old garden notebook from the Vermont years and came to the end-of-summer assessment, which said, "Salad burnet:  dull as dishwater.  Don't bother with it again."

Huh.  My standards of excitement were maybe a little higher ten years ago than they are now, and yet... what more did I want?  There's no knowing, since I didn't even remember having grown burnet in Vermont until finding that notebook.  It's just as well that I did forget, or I wouldn't have bothered with it again and so wouldn't be enjoying a garden full of salad burnet now.

That notebook is a funny one—at least on the surface it was a typical attempt to record what worked and what didn't, and to keep track of weather patterns and all those good things.  But the entries are detailed and enthusiastic only from the moment I planted the first indoor seeds in March until just after the last frost, around the first of June.  Then they come to a screeching halt until fall, when the weather there starts getting nippy again.  The journal seems to have done double duty, helping me track the biggest transition seasons, yes, but also jollying me along through the tail end of winter, letting me start the growing season early and hang onto it late, even if only on paper. 

I came across a Slate article by Libby Copeland the other day about Susan J. Matt's Homesickness:  An American History and still find myself thinking about its last sentence, which describes rootedness "as an expression of a basic human craving: continuity with the past."  Many of us who have been nomadic seem to long less for a particular place than we do for continuity.  We want to feel that the disparate parts of our lives have some ongoing link between them, and not as though we have been cut-and-pasted from one life into another.  (Chronic illness, I think, presents the same challenge, an ache for some sort of connection with who you were before.)

Gardens are certainly generous givers of continuity; many of you have written about cuttings or seeds or plants you cherish because they came from gardens of people you love.   Even when the link is less direct, it can still be strong.  Despite burnet's sturdy compatibility with growing conditions in the southwest and its grassland provenance, at some not-quite-conscious level its shape and color evoke for me a land of broad-leaf forests and shadows and streams; a land of ferns.  It's a tiny thread connecting the third of my life spent in the northeast with the present.  It doesn't quite "go" with much of the rest of the garden, but it still belongs.  Like the Vermont garden notebook, its real purpose is turning out not to be the one I thought it was.

As if being edible, ornamental, and evergreen weren't enough, now it has yet another job to do. 

Salad burnet with native silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima)—hmm.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Inflationary Pressure

or Changing Planes

The only things missing were the balloons.  For the last two weekends I've been comfortably ensconced in the Adirondack chair at 08:15, sunglasses on, camera, coffee, and crossword ready to hand, just waiting for a little floating poetry to drift by.  It never did.

I'm not an avid enough spotter to go out of my way to find hot-air balloons, but usually during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which just wrapped up today, I don't have to.  Some of the gathering's 500+ balloons typically come this direction and sail past within hailing distance; this year was apparently the exception.  Contrary winds were possibly the culprits, winds being contrary by nature, although the Albuquerque box effect often overrides them.  When the box is working, winds closer to the ground blow from the north, while at higher altitudes they blow from the south.  Pilots can choose either direction by moving vertically, changing from a lower to a higher plane.  Since I live south of Balloon Fiesta Park, wind direction doesn't usually keep the balloons away like this.  Ah, well.  Maybe next year.

The closest I came to seeing a balloon was this:

The tomatillos in the microgarden are producing enthusiastically these days—producing, but not ripening.  Even the largest and roundest husks are as full of air as any balloon.  The tomatillos wait to set on until the weather cools down, which happened unusually late this year.  Now the pressure's on them to fill out those husks in the few weeks remaining before frost.  Their performance so far hasn't earned them a place in the microgarden again next summer; they've just been wasting water and prime real estate.  The clock is ticking on them in more ways than one.

One of my friends likes to start knitting projects.  Eventually something else claims her time, so she unravels her work and winds the yarn into a tidy ball, and then the next time she has a chance to knit she starts all over again.  Her philosophy is that a ball of yarn is easier to store than half a sweater, and even if she never finishes a project, she's enjoyed the time she's spent knitting, and enjoyment is really the point.  The doing is the fun part; getting anything wearable out of it is a bonus, a happy accident.  She has been cheerfully knitting for years, and so far as I know is still working on that same ball of yarn.

Her approach is admirable in many ways (to those who don't need or want scarves, sweaters, and woolly mittens)—really on a higher plane than a tit-for-tat, "if I put something in I want to get something out" mentality.  The journey is more important than the destination, and all that.  I get the sense that most of us take a similar approach to gardening, at least to some degree.  Overall I do, too, but not so much where edibles are concerned.  If I plant an edible, I really do want something to eat by summer's end.  Or at least, someone should get something to eat, and that someone had better be more interesting than an aphid.  As I wrote a couple of posts ago, the amaranth may not have fed me this summer, but it's fed all kinds of other things, from katydids to goldfinches, and has been more than worth the resources it took to grow.  But the tomatillos?  Even the bees aren't that enthused.

On the other hand, their shy blossoms really are endearing, and their leaves beautifully sculpted. The papery husks are fascinating to watch grow.  When they get big and round you feel like you could blow on one, just a gentle puff of air, and send it soaring like a balloon.  (Whereas actually, you can't.)  (That is, you can blow on it all you like, but it's not going to go anywhere.)  But those rangy, gangly plants are nothing I would give garden room to if I weren't expecting an actual tomatillo to eat at some point.  A big crock of chili verde is calling me, and I cannot answer, because of those slowpoke tomatillos.

I clearly need to put some gardener's version of the Box Effect into practice, move up to a higher plane, and change mental directions.  After all, I fully enjoyed the mornings on the patio with camera, coffee, and crossword (and sunglasses—very important), balloons or no.  They would have been icing on the cake, but weren't necessary to my happiness.  Why not enjoy those irritating lollygagging endearing, sculptural, and fascinating tomatillos for what they are, and forget what I want out of them?  I'm not going to hurry them along by sniping at them.  Most likely.  Or even, apparently, by giving them regular water and the occasional dose of fertilizer.  I'll just put the cookbook away again.

Ah, well—maybe next year.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


or Ambivalence

In the last moments of darkness Orion is almost straight overhead, his stance firm as he tracks the night westward.  He steps across the roofline, and the sky lightens behind him.  His belt and shield gradually fade from view; soon only Betelgeuse at his shoulder and Rigel at his foot remain.  After lingering alone for a while, Cheshire cat-like, they, too, wink out in the growing dawn.

Mornings on the patio have a different flavor these days.  In summer, by the time I settle in the Adirondack chair with a mug of tea, the day is already moving along.  The goldfinches are working on their second course, the hummingbirds on their second squabble, and the garden is lively with light and sound and color and motion.

Now it is still dark when I go outside, the sun barely up when I head back in to get ready for work.  The hummingbirds have taken their squabbles south for the winter, and the goldfinches are still abed.  The crickets have gone silent.  These mornings I cradle the hot mug gratefully between my hands, both for warmth and for company; I had forgotten what the garden is like when it's quiet.  The only sound is the white noise of the highway, the sleepless truck traffic on the long haul to California or Tennessee.

Most mornings are clear, and the distant stars yield gracefully to our own in skies of pale, liquid gold and pink, of Alice blue.  Other mornings are thick with constellations of clouds, nebulae that pulse with energy as the sun glances off them.

Yesterday morning was altogether different, with pearly skies and fresh, moist air.  We had had rain the night before, the kind that lulls you to sleep with its quiet music on the roof and takes care not to wake you when it goes.  It left behind an inch of moisture and washed even the sky clean—the morning was white with thinning clouds, lustrous in the dawn light.

It wasn't a morning for flowers, even though the autumn sage and marigolds and agastache were glowing like jewels under water.  Instead it was a morning for leaves, washed clean of a month's worth of dust, gleaming in the diffused light, gathering, funneling, clinging to each droplet of rain before finally releasing it to quench the earth below and satisfy the thirsty roots at their feet.  A morning for greenery and the cool of serenity.  A morning just right for quiet.

As autumn grows I am aware of night not so much as the waking sphere of hawk-moths and crickets, the appointed time for secret feline rendez-vous, but as the realm of dormancy, of quiet and dreaming.  Dawn is no longer a shifting continuity, the changing of the guard between one set of lives and another, but a boundary between stillness and activity, a line dividing oblivion from alertness.  In the last minutes of darkness out on the patio I am aware of upstairs lights coming on as alarm clocks go off, the rumble of a car starting and the crunch of gravel under tires, the first chirp of the earliest bird turning into a sleepy chorus—aware of each day really being something new, clean, its own, isolated thing, and not the continuation of the moments before.  I'm not sure whether this is good or bad or neither.

Lately, by the time I finish my tea, the last swallow has grown cold.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tall in the Saddle

or Worlds Unto Themselves

'Kerala Red' Amaranth

The south winds are the worst.  The garden is fairly well protected from our prevailing northwesterlies, but there isn't much shelter for it to the south.  Last Thursday night a windstorm came through, the kind that bends the upper branches of the trees at right angles and has all your perennials leaning to starboard for a day or so.  It was a night of sudden thuds and thumps, of wondering idly whose patio furniture was going to be where by morning.

The raised microgarden took a hit, more than the plants at ground level.  I had just planted carrot seeds—lightweight, insubstantial, surface-sown carrot seeds—and have no idea whose yard they're gracing now.  Judging by where they've begun to sprout, the arugula seeds drifted up against the amaranth on the microgarden's north end before finding safe harbor; perhaps the carrots have done the same.  The tomatillo plants, which are just now setting on nicely, were pushed over into the amaranth, too, and some are still leaning heavily against it.  Without its support, they might have blown over altogether.  I've almost begun to think of amaranth as my right-hand man in the garden—I don't know what I would do without it.

Not that it fared particularly well.  Wind is its Achilles heel, and its oldest, windward leaves are looking extra shreddy and battered now.  It's been having its own private little autumn for about six weeks anyway; it has flowered and set seed and is nearing the end of its life span.  Despite all that, despite age and weather, it's still sitting tall in the saddle, its stems like laser beams keeping the north end of the patio alight, its younger, leeward leaves luminescent in the sun.  It's still feeding the goldfinches (and I do wish they'd let me get a photograph).  When I pulled the spent summer veggies last week, two mantises emerged from the amaranth's shelter to protest, one of them pawing at the air with a front leg, for all the world like a dog, if a dog were green and angular and thought mostly "Oy!"

I begin to understand why the Aztecs gave amaranth a central role in their most important ceremonies, why Montezuma demanded it as tribute, why the Spanish banned the growing or eating of it after the conquest:  it's so useful, and on so many levels, that you begin to revere it.  It gives shelter to beneficial insects, feeds the birds, offers support to weaker plants, thrives in the heat of summer.  I'm impressed and never even got around to eating it this year, which was, after all, the whole point of planting it.  Had I spent the summer tossing together quick sautés of the leaves like I usually do (olive oil and onion, a little lemon and chipotle chile powder), I might feel impelled to salute.

"Tall in the saddle" is the way you sit when you've done yourself proud. Online definitions vary, but they all hover in the vicinity of staunch, resolute, and heroic. 

I don't really think that amaranth is heroic, you know.  It's a plant, growing the way its genes have told it to.  But some plants need care and fussing and nurturing before they'll reward you with a bloom or a fruit; some cheerfully do what you ask and no more.  Some, though, astonish you by doing more than you ever expected when you planted them, thinking one-dimensionally about summer greens.  From seeds as tiny as grains of sand they become worlds unto themselves, worlds of shelter and nourishment and strength, useful to the lives that depend on them even when they're ready to hand the baton to next summer's seeds, to fade back into the soil.

They do themselves proud.