Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Evening Stars

or Out of the Spotlight

I have learned a deep respect over the last few years for my Winter Gem boxwood bushes—for any evergreens, really.  I planted the Winter Gems right outside the glass kitchen door because I knew I would want something cheerful and green to look at during the winter, and because they were able to take the extreme conditions in that little strip of land.  I had always thought of evergreens as the equivalent of background noise in a movie—glasses clinking in a dinner scene, papers rustling in an office—the kinds of things you would miss if they weren't there but don't really pay attention to when they are.  Even so, when a handful of bushes grows half a dozen feet from the kitchen table where you sit morning and evening day after day, you do eventually begin to notice them, and once you do, you realize what amazing troupers they are.

In the boxwood bed a sprinkling of ipheion—spring starflowers—that I planted half-heartedly a couple of years ago has begun to take hold.  At the time, I didn't know whether they would do well or whether I would even like them.  Then the first one bloomed; I loved it so much that ipheion became Microcosm's header.  Even though all the froth and exuberance and vividness of spring, the blooming redbuds and tulips and narcissus, are incredibly exciting, I still appreciate the cool quiet of ipheion.  It's like a pool in a forest, like mint leaves in ice water, like the evening star in a twilit sky.  If I could dive into that blue, that green, I would emerge again refreshed.

Just as the evergreens give their best during the—well, even poetic license won't let me call them the "dark days of winter" here in New Mexico, but I hope you catch my meaning—the ipheion show their best in shade.  Somewhere I read a description of their color as skim-milk blue—white washed with a weak tint—and in sunlight and as the flowers age, that's true.  In shadow, though, their gentle colors and ever-so-delicate shadings come forward; the petals gleam in twilight.

I'm beginning to re-envision the boxwood bed as the Light in Darkness (even if it's only metaphorical darkness, or possibly just shadow, or at any rate, not direct sun right at this moment) bed, as a home for plants that shine brightest out of the spotlight—or, put another way, that are still willing to shine even once the spotlight fades, that will give of their best without one.  Some evening primroses, perhaps, and a soft-textured groundcover; a bowl of water in the shadows.  Nothing in it will be a show-stopper.

But even without a spotlight, the show will go on.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Offensive Weaponry

or The Many Uses of Mulch

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have an on-again, off-again relationship with an outgoing, middle-aged, silvery-gray haired cat named Sir Marley, who belongs to one of my neighbors.  What I admire most about him is his taste, as he clearly prefers my garden to anyone else's in the area.  What I admire least about him—well, we'll get to that in a minute.  When he is sitting in a shady corner of the garden with his feet curled under him, blinking contentedly and purring quietly to himself, I am quite fond of him.  Then there's the rest of the time.

Sir Marley and two other neighborhood toms are currently trying to decide just whose territory my garden is, and "mine" does not seem to be one of the options.  That is, they may let me think of it as "mine" in quotes, but my thinking has nothing to do with their reality.  True, watching Sir Marley sit outside the gate, guarding it against all comers, while one of the other cats slips in over a wall, has its entertaining side.  But when I am working in the garden and the scent of tomcat (so nicely enhanced by all that warm sunshine) overpowers the much more pleasant scent of sand cherry blossoms...we stop being amused.  Transplanting young seedlings into freshly turned earth with your bare hands only to discover that it's not all earth has its downside as well.

Kindly hold that thought for a moment—well, maybe not that particular thought, but the general idea of bothersome catness—while I blather for a minute about mulch.  At long last, I finally managed to pick up 120 pounds of pecan shell mulch from one of my favorite independent garden centers.  (Three cheers once more for helpful young men, and for my Dad, who just gave me a nifty hand truck!)  Mulch, of course, is a fine thing, especially in a dry climate.  It suppresses weeds, shelters helpful decomposers, and adds organic matter to the soil; it cools the earth and keeps it moist; and it keeps the dirt from blowing away altogether, at least until the mulch has blown away first.

Pecan shell mulch, with bonus woolly speedwell
Pecan shell mulch is wonderful for other reasons, too.  Since New Mexico is in the "pecan belt"—the tier of southern states where pecans are grown commercially—the shells are locally sourced, from a product that would otherwise go to waste.  (I hear they're good instead of hickory or mesquite chips in a barbecue, too.)  Only local garden centers carry them, and at least one of them will re-use the bags if you return them.  It's also an attractive mulch, with a distinctive regional look.

Now, to all those virtues, add the fact that it seems to be prickly enough underfoot that cats dislike it.  I would never have thought of mulch as an offensive weapon, but it seems appropriate somehow—in keeping with the spirit of organic gardening, where everything seems to multitask, and where the best offense is a passive, even indirect defense.  Problems with aphids?  Plant flat-blossomed flowers to attract lady beetles and lacewings.  Cabbage moth larvae?  Put out a shallow dish of water to draw predatory wasps.  Cats?  Well, obviously, put down some mulch.

I can't decide whether it's more like Quakerism or chess, which is a little disconcerting.

We'll see how well the mulch works over the long run as a cat deterrent.  This is only round (what are we up to now, three?) three.  Hopefully, Sir Marley will do more contented blinking and purring from the bench and less of the other from here on.

Otherwise, round four may be a dog...

Pecan shell mulch, with ironic catmint

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mezzo piano

or Soft Focus

Nothing in the world sounds quite like a high school marching band, and very perplexed it made me to hear one while I was outside watering the seedlings yesterday afternoon.  It was quite a good band, as these things go—well in tune, fairly precise, plenty of pizzazz—but a bit out of the blue.  As far as I know, no high school lurks in the neighborhood waiting to spring its marching band on innocent passers-by, and bands don't usually appear out of thin air.  A nearby park occasionally hosts special events, and perhaps this was one of them.

Trombones, trumpets, piccolos, snare drums; the bass drum driving them all along, holding them all together—hot sounds and loud, sounds that surprised me on a cool March day.  The park hosts a summer concert series, and on July evenings I often hear occasional strains of salsa, swing, blues—hot brass, hot guitar licks, hot driving rhythms.  Then, the bright sounds partner well with a summer sunset, with the summer flowers in the garden—neon pink autumn sage, orange marigolds, red geraniums—flowers with saturated colors intense enough to stand up to the southwestern sun, our famously clear light.

New Mexico does intensity well, and that makes the gentle days of spring like today, when the winds die down and the marching bands stay home, all the more precious.  These afternoons hum along at a mezzo piano, a moderate quietness, that is a little more familiar to people in greener lands.  For a few short weeks, the sun is neither so low in the sky as to cast everything into relief nor so high as to wash out details.  Here, at its halfway point, it allows for a soft focus; it is kind to pastels, to the delicate colors of spring.

This would have been a good day to overhear not a marching band but a neighbor idly strumming a guitar on a patio somewhere, picking out bits of a tune, singing a few measures now and then; to catch the gentle murmur of conversation, an occasional laugh in the middle distance.   It didn't happen.  But the finches sang, and the wind was more or less still, and the mourning doves called out their own version of the blues.

The mezzo piano version.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring Is a Verb

or The Winds of Change

On the desert side of the highway, dust devils spun through the four-winged salt bush and cholla—spun, plumed, disintegrated.  On the valley side, where the Rio Grande flows (if water that is half mud can be said to flow), alfalfa fields pinned the soil down, and the dust devils left it alone.  Other patches of green showed—family farms, elm trees alive with insignificant blooms, a faint haze at the tips of the cottonwoods.

My parents just visited for a few days, and we took a drive south of town, where the New Mexican spring with its stark contrasts lay before us, spread out from one horizon to the other.  The desert side of it is suspicious of the calendar and has no intention of greening up (as we think of it, without irony) until there is no possible way, no-how, not at all, nary a chance, that there might be a frost.  As far as the desert plants are concerned, that will be sometime in May.  Perhaps.  (It's usually in mid-April, but why should they have faith in "usually?")  By then, we may also have had some rain—not much, but some—and the salt bush, big sage, and chamisa are happy to bide their time on that off-chance.  They bank most of their energy until midsummer, when the monsoon rains arrive.

In the settled lands, however, especially along the valleys, we believe in the calendar and are kicking up our heels at today's equinox.  We have our garden plants and our water; we cultivate the land and bring green to the desert.  We bargain with frost and grow things that don't really mind it, even if later on these aliens will need shelter from the harsh realities of summer.

And the wind blows.  Short-lived whirlwinds, where cold and warm air meet for a few dizzy moments; gusts that ricochet off the cars on the road and make drivers fight their steering wheels; warm breezes that lure you outside; sudden chilly ones that send you back in again; gentle currents that carry the fragrance of sand cherry blossoms on their backs.

Spring and wind are almost synonymous here, both of them in constant—and not always forward—motion.  The pace of action has been stunning this week, when the temperatures have been in the 70's F every day.  Every time I've stepped into the garden some new change has presented itself:  a new tulip in bloom, another sprinkling of ipheion; the tarragon and walking onions suddenly ready for a generous harvest; leaves popping out all along the Lady Banks rose; seedlings growing their first true leaves and then some.  Town is a mass of ornamental plum and pear trees in bloom, with the occasional forsythia bush on fire in the sunshine.  Songbirds dart busily in and out of juniper trees.  All the season's potential energy has turned kinetic—we've crested the hill and begun to rush forward into spring.

As I was sitting on the patio working through that idea in my notebook this afternoon, a sudden wind chased me inside.  It wasn't so much a dust devil as a dust, dead leaves, and litter devil (does everything have to be more complicated in cities?), and it reminded me that no matter how lovely it is, spring is still an unsettled season, a verb season.  It is one of capricious change, of ricocheting forces, of sudden frosts and fast-moving storm fronts, a dizzying mix of warm and cold air, of giddy pleasure and champing-at-the-bit frustration.

I am telling myself all this because, if the last few years are anything to go by, at some point in April we will have a good ten days of cold, gray, dreary weather.  (New Mexico dreary, that is:  sunglasses may not be appropriate at all times.)  It might even rain.  In the past, this cold spell has arrived after I've put all the warm clothes away for the season and have stocked the refrigerator with cool, refreshing salads.  It has been a grumpy time, because I have forgotten that spring is a verb.  I'm trying to remember this year, to let the wind caution me to be a suspicious desert plant.

But oh, how hard it is to stay suspicious when we're on the valley side of springtime, and we transplants are reveling in the sunshine...


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Insignificant Blooms

or A Delicate Subject

I hope I don't embarrass anyone today.  Some people might consider the topic to be a little outré, a bit "specialized" (hem, hem) in a mildly unsavory way.  If we were in an Agatha Christie novel, sitting with the vicar's wife and the flower committee over tea when someone mentioned it, we would raise delicately penciled eyebrows, glance sideways at the person next to us, and try to hide a knowing half-smile by raising a bone china cup to our lips.  After an awkward pause, the vicar's wife would tactfully change the subject.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm talking about plants with  insignificant blooms.  (Blush.)  I had no idea that they were know... until I was looking through a book on houseplant care and came across the section on parlor palms.  The book recommended trimming off the insignificant blooms—all well and good—but then it added, and I quote, "Unless you're into that kind of thing."

Well.  "Unless you're into that kind of thing."  What else was needed to give insignificant blooms a seedy, pulp fiction patina, to transform them instantly from hum-drum to "Oh, la la...", to make them seem dangerous, risky, maybe just a little beyond the pale?  The life of this houseplant owner suddenly became a lot more racy and adventurous, and I didn't even have to do anything.  But then I looked closer at the parlor palm blooms and trimmed them off, because it turns out that I wasn't really into that kind of thing.

All to say, the "Winter Gem" boxwoods are blooming in the narrow side yard by the kitchen door.  Now, I love these shrubs—they are such sturdy little growers.  They flourish in conditions that are hard even on native plants:  full sun all summer, reflected by a south-facing wall; full shade all winter, right where the wind funnels between the casitas; poor soil even by New Mexican standards.  The boxwoods thrive so happily while making so few demands; they are "salt of the earth" shrubs if ever I saw them.

But they have (insert portentous music here) insignificant blooms.  Right outside the kitchen door, too.

And I'm afraid that I might be into that kind of thing.  My camera isn't—the auto-focus rebelled against them, and I must have at least four dozen slightly fuzzy photos (including some of these) of insignificant blooms.  But I kind of, well, like them.  In such a gentle, subtle way, they look like they've stuck their metaphorical finger in a light socket (not that I'm into that kind of thing!).  Mind you, I wouldn't make a special trip to the botanic gardens to see a swath of Winter Gem boxwood in glorious bloom.  They're no magnolias, and you can quote me, but they're not actually objectionable.  Not really.  (Don't raise your delicately penciled eyebrows at me.)  And surely the blooms are significant to someone, even if only to other Winter Gem boxwoods.

If there's any one moral I've learned while writing this blog—and I'm not just saying this to appease the vicar's wife—it's that looking closer almost always yields some sort of wonder, some awe at the novelty and intricacy and ingenuity and (dash it all!) the sheer beauty of the natural world; the peculiar, "specialized" ways that individual species have to cope with the concerns of growth and survival shared by all.  Significance isn't about scale; it's about accomplishment, about filling your niche.  It's also about paying attention.

If you're into that kind of thing...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Rhythms of Care

or Food and Drink

Work, and of the best sort. 

Yesterday:  a few minutes watering seedlings in the micro-garden; a trip to the hardware store for concrete blocks, rebar, and bamboo poles; an afternoon spent chatting with the neighbors and turning my purchases into a stand for the rain barrel, stakes for the Lady Banks rose (trust me, she would eat a fancy trellis for lunch), and supports for the "Coronation Gold" yarrow, which otherwise will give way to the first windstorm (and every windstorm thereafter).  —An afternoon to water all the beds, as the 0.11 inches of moisture we've received so far this year can't kick-start spring in a young garden; a few more minutes to empty the pots of perennials that didn't survive our once-in-fifty-years cold spell.

Today:  more of the same only better, in 55°F morning temperatures, in a sheltered, walled garden that warms to tank-top comfort levels.  The tasks:  cleaning and filling the bird and bug baths (setting some dried navy beans to soak); moving the "volunteer" feverfew seedlings to containers, where their blossoms will attract beneficial insects for weeks in mid-summer (taking a few moments' rest in the Adirondack chair); watering the seedlings in the micro-garden again (ducking inside for a glass of water); dividing the "Moonshine" yarrow and moving the divisions to a sunnier bed, out of the growing desert olive trees' shade (lying down for an hour's bedrest); moving the Keller's yarrow from the sand cherries' shade to the sunny, more-or-less native bed (putting the beans on to cook); working coffee grounds and tea leaves into our alkaline, "decomposed granite" soil (harvesting tarragon and garlic chives).  Resting, before the white bean salad with Shannon's citrus-tarragon vinaigrette goes on the table.

This weekend, I've been thinking about the rhythms of care—the seasonal care we give to the garden, the daily care; the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary care we give to ourselves; and the sometimes out-of-the-blue priority we give to a work ethic that may or may not be helpful.  It's been disconcerting to remember the extent to which need (the yarrows, in too much shade; a thirsty human) can end up competing with function (the garden could use some filler here; I still have this one task left to finish...).  How do we balance them—work and care? the drive to accomplish something right away and the natural rhythms of growth, of need?  Somehow or other we do, and things either work out or they don't.  For the most part, only small things hinge on our decisions—one human, one garden, a handful of plants, perhaps a few bees; things that matter in a small sphere, that may accumulate to have a wider effect, but that don't (with an ironic bow in the direction of chaos theory) affect the world at large.

From time to time, however, something mammoth interrupts the easy seasonal rhythm of care, reminds us of the world beyond our garden walls, shouts that other gardens need tending, that other humans need the food and drink of compassion.  While our kindred in Japan have a strong and resilient system to cope with natural disasters, the recent tsunami reminds us all how fragile our security really is, how great a leveler nature can be.  I haven't researched the organizations that exist internationally to contribute toward disaster relief, but in the USA, is a starting-point directory of NGOs; other longstanding charitable organizations are accepting contributions as well, of course.

Sometimes care extends beyond our garden walls, and giving becomes our work—work of the very best sort.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Pull of Gravity

or The Top of the Pass

Just at the halfway point between my home in Albuquerque and my parents' in Denver, Raton Pass snakes its way over the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The summit of the pass marks the state line, with New Mexico to the south, Colorado to the north.  As with most mountain passes, while you climb it you can't see much except the pine trees around you and the road winding before you.  You might catch a glimpse of a vista out to the sides now and then, but the road is your only guide to what lies ahead—the ascent is a little too steep for you to see anything else but mountainside.

Raton isn't one of the West's most attractive passes—in fact, as a child I disliked it because it was too "disorganized" (and I don't think I was a particularly well-organized child)—but since moving to New Mexico I've learned to love it.  No matter how many times you've driven it, no matter how well you know what's coming up, the moment when you crest the hill and can see across into Colorado, with the Spanish Peaks towering before you, is one of delightful, breathtaking surprise.  The summit marks such a clear divide—for a moment, in the rear view mirror you can see the high, grassy plains of northeastern New Mexico stretched out behind you, pale golden-green fading into blue at the horizon; in front of you rise the Colorado Rockies with all their buttresses and crenellations.  Then gravity catches you again, and when it pulls you down the Colorado side of the pass, you're in another world.

For some reason, this past year I've become fascinated with cusps—tipping points, verges—those moments of balance, of poise, between one thing and another, when suddenly you reach the top of a pass and can see all around you, when for the space of a breath you feel as if you're free of the pull of gravity.

With the equinox just around the next bend, we'll soon have reached one of the year's most important cusps; we'll be crossing the Great Divide between sleep and wakening, cold and warmth, dark and light.  But in the long, leisurely New Mexico turning of seasons, we have many smaller divides to cross as well, each with its moment of balance, its pause at the crest of the hill.  The crocuses have already passed the summit; the tulips are still in the ascent.  The sand cherries are right on the cusp, poised, taking that deep breath before momentum pulls them forward into a bright, new world.

In the rear view mirror, you can still see winter, fading into the horizon.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


or 4 x 4

The quilting materials my mother inherited from my great-grandmother some 25 years ago were a jumble of tiny jewels—diamonds and triangles of fabric that had been cut but not yet pieced together, or that had been pieced into building-blocks but not joined into larger sections.  Really, the fabrics were just "plain goods"—calicoes, bits of feed and flour sacks, simple cottons—but they were old, some dating to the early 1900's, and so somehow exotic.  In the box, pale yellows jostled lurid pinks and lavenders, softer aquas, true reds; delicate florals and tiny dots hobnobbed with bold checks and pinstripes.  They were fascinating fragments of cloth (of a woman's history, of an era), probably leftovers from other projects; there weren't enough pieces of any of them to make a completely matching quilt.  But they were what great-grandma had, and she made the most of them.

My mom finished several of the quilts.  It's astonishing how the pieces disappear into the larger pattern, all those separate vivid prints and colors, all the mismatches turning into subtle shadings as they take their place in the design.

I was thinking about parts and wholes today while looking at the garden.  Its winter identity has been shorn away, all the seed heads and stems and branch structures that gave it dignity and integrity.  They have been reduced to an awkward, gangling mess of spikes and stalks and lumps that have no apparent relationship to one another, no balanced proportions, no sense of shading into a whole.  The crocuses, while lovely on their own, are too newly planted to be more than random dots of blossom—rather than blooming en masse, each one seems to be following its own rhythm.  Instead of providing charming swaths of color to distract from the spikes and stalks and lumps, they are acting as charming exclamation points drawing attention to every little awkwardness. 

Until the spring growth fills in, it's a scrap-bag of a garden, a jumble of fragments divorced from a design.  But how fascinating those fragments can be... One 4 inch by 4 inch patch of ground, for example, home to a handful of waterlily tulips, kept me occupied for longer than I care to admit.  The tulips' leaves are just beginning to stretch out in earnest, and they are a study in curves, from nautilus spirals to new-moon arcs to flamenco swirls.  They capture light and funnel it along the leaf edges; they radiate warmth in the morning and cool in afternoon shade; they are a good argument for wearing vertical stripes.  They are still so small that they can barely be seen from the patio; once they bloom, the leaves won't be noticeable at all; once the sand cherries leaf out, the tulips will disappear into the larger pattern of green.

In the meantime, they are what we have—let us make the most of them.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Walking Softly

or Quiescence

Even the wind chimes are only murmuring today, an aimless tune that starts and stops, starts and stops, starts.  Occasionally a housefinch sings in duet, but mostly it is busy watching me from the corner of the roof, bright-eyed, curious.  Now and then it offers a pithy chirp—a word of advice, perhaps, the kind of thing that would be thought wise by other finches.

This is the first afternoon that has been warm enough to sit out on the patio.  Since the garden faces east it is shaded once the sun crosses the roof-line and generally too cool for comfort.  Today, however, even the shadows are pleasant.  The weather is so springlike that I expect all the other lives in the garden to have quickened with the crocuses, but it's early in the year and late in the day, and except for the finch and the wind chimes, the garden is quiet. 

In this warmth it seems odd not to hear the buzz of honey- and bumblebees, the click of the occasional locust, the trill of hummingbird wings; not to see ants trudging in ragged lines, hoverflies feeding at feverfew and yarrow, cabbage moths making their drunken progress (if progress it can be called) in the breeze.

But the garden is still hushed, quiescent.  Only the crocuses have come fully to life, and even they walk softly over winter.  They respect its dead; they barely disturb the fallen leaves as they grow.  Their colors are gentle with the past. 

Spring has wakened but not yet roused—this is the calm of somnolence, the stillness before dawn, the pause between one breath and the next.

A small spider floats from a tree branch on its silken tether and drifts silently to the ground.