Find an old adobe home in New Mexico's pinyon-juniper country. Junipers planted along the north side of the property might offer a windbreak. An elm or so to the southwest, close to the house, will extend shading arms. Otherwise not a single thing will be growing near the house—not a lilac bush, not a weed. The house will be surrounded by bare earth, hard-packed by the tires of pickup trucks and booted feet and the paws of the lanky mutts who come running to greet you. Walk on that bare ground, and you won't raise a cloud of dust. Walk on it barefoot, and you'll feel the give of the land and its gently uneven texture. It may not be soft like grass, but it's friendly underfoot, more yielding than concrete or flagstone or brick.
Once upon a time, not that many years ago, my garden had earthen paths.
|January, 2008, right before the sand cherries and their pals took over.|
I liked walking on them barefoot on a hot summer's day, but I didn't think living with them long-term was a good plan. When I lived in Vermont or in western New York, where Precipitation Happens, dirt all too often turned into mud. Luther was a great tracker of mud on clean floors. He was good at escaping from towels, running through multiple rooms, and then leaping onto the sofa to give himself a zealous grooming on the upholstery.
|Luther T. Dog, Champion Dirt Tracker|
In damp kinds of places—the kinds of places where gardening books almost all seem to be written (perhaps because they're good places to garden?)—hard-surfaced garden paths are useful. Gravel, brick, pavers, bluestone, flagstone: they all keep mud from your door, and give you stable footing over soft, wet ground.
Deserts, if I may keep stating the obvious, don't often have damp conditions. When I started my garden here in Albuquerque, Luther tracked wet dirt—you couldn't really call it mud—into the house a good three, four times a year. Even after a rain, the ground just doesn't stay damp for long. Now Luther's gone, and nobody has to track dirt in at all. If my shoes are wet, I can just slip them off and take awestruck photos of them at the door.
So why did I want brick-style pavers? Probably because I was still in Soggy Northeastern Mode. But also because pavers, or flagstone slabs or travertine tiles or whatever, stand for a kind of polish. Their usefulness may not translate well to this climate, but they still have a certain social cachet. Gardens in magazine photos do not have packed-dirt paths.
It's a pity that I don't actually like the paved paths as much as I liked the bare earth. Why, I'm not quite sure. Maybe they add hardness in an urban environment where hardness already abounds. Maybe they make the circle shape of the path too strong and obvious. Maybe they seem a little too highfalutin for my low-key lifestyle (let alone this mostly very lowfalutin state). Maybe not every hard surface in the garden has to be terra cotta-colored.
The pavers get hot underfoot in summer and shelter waterbugs under their cozy, sun-baked warmth in winter. They glare in sunlight.
|(A not particularly xeric section of) the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, April 2012.|
Even the crusher fines used here—a great choice for constant foot traffic—glare in the light.
It's that last bit that's pushing me to rebellion. They glare in sunlight.
Social cachet is such a silly thing. It may have its genesis in usefulness, but once that usefulness has been sloughed off (by scorching desert winds), cachet does not get to trump comfort in my book. And when that cachet is an idea you've imported from abroad, with no basis in the culture where you now (happily) reside, it's time to eat a bowl of green chile (or red, if you prefer) and get your perspective on straight. So I'm about to throw polish to the winds.
Dirt paths are cheap. No goods have been conspicuously consumed to create them. No one will be impressed by their elegance. But they go well with New Mexico's rough-and-tumble landscape and informal lifestyle, its long history of old adobes and haphazard coyote fencing, the rough shagginess of native plantings. Sometimes you just have to observe, and think, and realize that people in old adobe homes did know what they were doing, and let social cachet and garden magazines be hanged.
|An Albuquerque garden featured in the Native Plant Society's garden tour, August 2012.|
To me the randomly placed flagstone shows how soft and comfortable the dirt paths really are.
I won't do anything radical yet—those pavers took six weekends of precious physical energy to put down, and I'm not in a hurry to pick them up again. But they'd make a good sized raised bed on the patio by the kitchen door, just right for a cold frame of winter veggies.
Now that would be useful here.