Sunday, July 31, 2011

Character Flaws

or A Small Problem

The trick with flaws is to get the right kinds in the right measure.  Sam Spade has a fair share of them and yet manages to be a more or less good(ish) guy; the grimy patina, one suspects, can still be polished away to a nice bright shine.  Hamlet, on the other hand—well, look what having the wrong flaw did to him.

Gila Wilderness Area, southern New Mexico, fall 2010

I've been thinking about "acceptable flaws" this week while planning ahead for September.  (Fall is the best season for gardening here, as new plantings take less water to establish.)  (It's also just the best season.)  The two side beds I'm quite happy with—they're young yet and need to grow into themselves, but their bones seem strong.  They have a couple of minor weak spots of the kind I can either live with or fix, depending.  The flaws are acceptable, the "eating too much dark chocolate" kind, not the "wandering around with poor Yorick's skull and having an existential crisis" kind. In the grand scale of gardening, they're not really even flaws.

The main garden is another matter.  In five years I have never yet been satisfied with it, to the extent that I have to wonder whether the flaw lies in my gardening or in my attitude.  This wouldn't be the first time I've found it difficult to be pleased with my own work.

Gila Wilderness Area, fall 2010

This time, however, I don't think that's the issue.  I've had a lot to learn since moving to New Mexico:  new plants, new growing conditions.  The insect pests ran amok for a couple of years, and getting them in balance took a while.  Townhouse micro-climates of shade and wind present their own challenges.  And so on.  All these things take time.

But more than anything, it has taken me a while to learn what I want from my garden.  In fact, I only realized it about a month ago, after a visit to one of our Open Space parks.  Walking around on a hillside surrounded by low grasses dotted with broom snakeweed and prickly pear, cholla and juniper, looking out over the Rio Grande valley to the horizon or upward toward the heights of the Sandias, with the sky leaping into the stratosphere all around me, my heart just sang.  Despite the drought, despite how parched everything was, that landscape made me feel like I could fly.

Elena Gallegos Open Space Park, June 2011

The Hamlet-sized flaw in my gardening became clear:

     What I love is open space.
     I have a walled garden.
     And I am mildly claustrophobic.

Ah.  Well.  Or perhaps, "Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!"  Of course, small, walled spaces do not have to feel confining given the right approach.  But I've been trying to create a traditional, densely planted garden with "normal" sized plants, and I find myself always feeling a little...cramped, a little uncomfortable.  In a small garden the steps from lush to jungly to stifling are short ones indeed.

The bosque at the Rio Grande Nature Center, May 2011

So I'm working on (yet another) master plan, one that I'm really kind of excited about.  I hope to evoke the airiness and shimmery light that to me are the essence of a southwestern landscape.  The general structure of the garden—the shape and the anchoring desert olive trees and sand cherries—should be able to stay the same.  I'm using the photos above and below from various outings in the last year for inspiration, more for the general feel than for ideas of things to plant.  Just be warned:  I'll probably keep telling you all about it, whether you want to hear it or not, because I'm going to be obsessing for a while.

Call it a character flaw.


Feel free to ignore these—I 'm just trying to pull ideas together in one place for now, and this is pretty handy.

At Elena Gallegos OS Park—the rabbit gives a sense of scale among the grasses (and it's cute)
At Elena Gallegos OS Park
Gila Wilderness
Gila Wilderness

The bosque—February
The bosque—May


  1. Stacy, I found myself doing the same thing when I move to NM. I tried taking preconceived ideas about gardening and applying them to the high desert landscape. It wasn't until I happened upon using native plants that I had my gardening epiphany and the a-ha moment.

  2. You always get the best ideas for a garden by rooting around and sees what grows locally whether it's in the countryside or a neighbour's garden. Olive trees and sand cherries sounds inspiring and hot!

  3. GirlSprout, for me I think the "aha" is more about texture than anything. I've been going for a "layered" look with low plants in front giving way to taller ones in the back of the beds, and I think what I really prefer is all those airy low plants with feathery tops catching the light. We'll see if I can create a miniature short-grass prairie and open woodland in a 15' x 15' area...

  4. Janet, you're so right. I've come across all kinds of useful information in books and catalogues, but the best inspiration always seems to come from being outside. The olives are the kinds of desert plants that look delicate and lightweight and are really tough as nails; the sand cherries I love because they're lush and green, and we don't see nearly enough of that around here!

  5. Well, at least you know what you want from your garden. Now you can plan accordingly. The transformation will be the fun part. Good luck!

  6. Yes yes yes. Tell us more, step by step.

    And can you use borrowed scenery? Your neighbour's tree, a distant mountain, or cheat with a mural (using one of these images blown up?), or some dead branches against the wall to add a further layer?? And make the most of the l o n g diagonal axis.

    This is fun - the top picture - plant the grass and wild flowers, the shrubs you have - then do just a suggestion of the mountain on the wall.

  7. I think I can't wait to see what you do!

    Keep us posted!

  8. I think there is beauty in various climates and landscapes. I can see how you would feel like flying in the New Mexico landscape. It will be interesting to see your garden evolve. Fantastic photos!

  9. Stacy, This is such an interesting design challenge -- creating a sense of expansive openness in a smallish walled garden. I will be very interested to see what you do. -Jean

  10. I also love open spaces. I learned that when traveling once upon a time. I need to "see".

    What a wonderful idea you have. I am also anxious to see what developes!


  11. I hope your ideas turn to reality. Always the fun part seeing how it evolves.

  12. Holley, I’m hoping that I’m right this time… That poor garden has already been an exploration of geometry, a potager, an eco-potager, a traditional mixed-bed garden, and a mess.

    Diana, your enthusiasm is wonderful! I’ve been giving some thought to your questions and am really taken with the borrowed scenery idea. There isn’t actually much to choose from—all the trees in the neighborhood are still young, and when I’m seated at the patio I can’t really see them. But the sky, now. That’s a bit of scenery I’d love to make the most of. You’ve got me thinking about ways to draw the eye up. Thanks!

    Elisabeth, I’m kind of on the edge of my seat, too… It’s so sweet of people to show this much interest—that’s the joy of preaching to the choir, I guess!

  13. Sage Butterfly, yes, beauty and such distinct character. For whatever reason some of them just set an extra-sympathetic vibration in motion. I hope I can do this one justice.

    Jean, I think the key word is going to have to be “evoke”… That will probably be enough for my purposes, and in the meantime it’s fun to have a challenge to tackle.

    Elaine, it really makes a difference to be able to see OUT, doesn’t it? I know of people from back East who come out here and get agoraphobic, though, and can’t wait to be surrounded by trees again.

    Donna, I just wish I knew what I was doing…

  14. Gorgeous photos...and I can really feel the open space you are talking about. Isn't is a great feeling when you can pinpoint what it is that needs changed? And then you can get to work on a "master plan" to see it through. Can't wait to see what you come up with!

  15. Oh how fun! Love what you have to work with, there is beauty in everything no matter how "different" I too am excited to see what you come up with!! Also, love the yellows of the grassland...gorgeous!

  16. Hanni, thank you--it's really wonderful country, once you stop expecting it to be green... Yes, it's a great feeling! After you've pinpointed the main issue you can start seeing what you want in your head.

    Julia, those yellows are my favorites--such sunny colors! Thanks for being so enthusiastic. I'm feeling a little daunted all of a sudden, which means I should probably put the garden design books down and go plant something.