Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pools of Light

or Intensifying the Flame

Light is so cheap and easy these days.  You flip a switch and brightness leaps to do your bidding:  fluorescent, incandescent, LED, neon, halogen. Darkness has been consigned to the back of the closet, to the space under the bed with the dust bunnies.  It comes out to roam the house during our sleeping hours, but it doesn't govern our waking ones.  We can work or play games or read fluffy novels until 3:00 in the morning if we want to (or even later!), all without damaging our eyesight, because we have all the light we want at our disposal.

Before Thomas Edison changed the world, though, light was a precious commodity.  When night fell, darkness waltzed right indoors as if it owned the place.  It reigned everywhere except in the small pools of luminance that radiated around a flame.  One way to broaden those pools was to place a candle in front of a reflective surface—a metal wall sconce, perhaps, polished to a shine—that would intensify both the flame and the hazy glow around it.

Sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) with silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima) behind

Light at the end of December is still a precious commodity, no matter what electricity can accomplish indoors.  We may have turned the corner, as one of my friends always says; we may have passed the solstice, putting the longest night behind us and turning eagerly once again toward the light; but just barely.  The days will begin to stretch out longer in front of us, but so far the difference is still imperceptible:  tomorrow will have only a few seconds more daylight than today.  We appreciate those things that intensify the sun, that broaden its pool of influence, that give the chill light of winter a little of the hazy glow of warmth.

This is the time of year for celebrations of light. To those of you who join me in celebrating the Light come among us, the birth of the Christ child, I wish you a very merry Christmas!  To those of you from other traditions, I open my arms in warmth and friendship.  May it be a time of joy for us all.

A time to intensify the flame.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

End Runs

or Fooling Old Man Winter

I think of it as my "stealth gardening" outfit—the multiple layers of black that make sitting in the sun enjoyable this time of year.  In summer black gets hot enough that it almost burns you.  In December, as long as you're out of the wind, it keeps you roasty-toasty, especially in a small, walled garden.  This weekend the temperature was only about 30°F when I went outside in the mornings, but wearing black in the sunshine let me make an end run around the cold.

Gardening is like dressing to outwit winter in a way—a set of tricks of the trade that let you make the most of nature's gifts while circumventing its extremes.  You grow things that will thrive in your climate, but you also water new plantings more carefully than nature would so that they grow deep, strong root systems.  You loosen and amend the soil.  And you mulch.

Since losing a fair amount of newly laid pecan shell mulch in a recent windstorm, I've been stealthily tracking the portions of it that just went into hiding to their lairs:  in the mess of suckering growth beneath the largest sand cherry, tucked into the corner with the scariest spider webs (why couldn't they blow away?) beneath the blue bench, or drifted up against the grasses.  I coax it out with a gentle hand fork and then rehome it to the barest spots.  It's not much insulation, but it might be enough to fool Old Man Winter if he doesn't look too closely.

As I was sidling around the garden hunting for errant patches of mulch, I spotted this in the central bed:

One of the sylvestris tulips (I think) is coming up—actually, quite a number of them are.  I've never grown them before so don't know if they normally break ground before the first day of winter or if this is jumping the gun.  Did I plant them too shallowly? too early? too late?  I'm not sure whether they have a clever strategy for making an end run around winter or whether they're trying to steal a base—to sneak over to third while the pitcher isn't looking.  If the latter, I'm dubious.  How often does that succeed?

You can do a lot to trick Old Man Winter, but I don't know if he's going to fall for this one.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Much Ado about Nothings

or The Power of Fluff

Such a tiny feather, just a 3/4" bit of down that was as white and billowy as a fair-weather cloud.  It came to roost among the thyme-leaf speedwell early last month and stayed for several days.  Next to its airy softness, the speedwell leaves looked thick and heavy; not for them the joy of floating effortlessly on a breeze.  The feather rippled in winds so slight that they were imperceptible to me, dressed against a November morning.  Even when I set my hand right next to it, I wasn't sure whether I was feeling a breath of wind or of imagination.  But then, down is especially good at trapping air, at holding it close against a beating heart, a small body of hollow bones and flight feathers and hunger, where it can warm and insulate.  It is a cushion against the jagged edges of frost.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Late in November the lone seedpod on the milkweed finally burst.  I have never yet been able to resist the feel of the seeds' downy floss, and its touch sent me instantly back to childhood:  pressing my thumb along the inside seam of a seedpod to break it open, easing apart the featherbed inside and teasing out the individual seeds, then sending them flying, one by one, on a breath.  Those days, I wasn't particularly interested in the seeds, only in the parachutes that held them so magically aloft in ways that the swingsets at school just couldn't manage. I didn't give a thought to the responsibility those bits of fluff carried with them, to keep their own lifeline going.  But they did teach me the joy of occasionally casting your fate to the winds.

Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis)

The speedwell didn't mind the frost the other morning any more than it had minded the feather.  Just to give you a sense of scale, its leaves are only about 1/8 inch across.  The ice crystals on them are tiny, indeed.  Some had been just pinpoints of water vapor before alighting on the colder surfaces of the leaves, where they condensed and froze.  It's hard to believe such delicate particles had the power at their backs to fell the milkweed overnight, to cast it into a deep sleep as surely as a bite from a magic apple.  

Even mid-December has days of fair-weather clouds—"decorative clouds", as one of my favorite weather forecasters calls them.  You don't expect any moisture from them, and they don't really get in the way of the sunshine.  They just cast softly shifting patterns across the sky that mesmerize you with their fluidity.  They float along in such an easy way, like milkweed seeds held aloft and slowly spinning, drifting on the wind.   That effortless buoyancy, though, belies their enormity.  They carry 350,000,000,000 water droplets per cubic foot (according to the The Cloudspotter's Guide).  "Modest-sized clouds" weigh as much as a 747 or possibly 6,268.75 blue whales—about as many as you can shake a fish at in a day.  Even smallish clouds stretch to a kilometer in diameter.

And from here they look as light and insubstantial as a bit of down.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Change of Clothing

or Autumn Slips Away

I wonder sometimes whether hummingbirds recognize people.  My guess is that they don't—I'm not sure whether they even recognize people as people, let alone have the ability to recognize individuals.  If I wear pink or orange out in the garden, the hummingbirds are much differently aware of me than if I'm in green or blue.  Pink and orange qualify me as Potential Dinner.  Yellow might let me be Worth a Shot.  But blue and green?  They just make me blue Not-a-Dinner or green Not-a-Dinner, equally uninteresting in either case.  A change of clothes is worth a whole new role in the ecosystem.  It's practically an existential makeover, in hummingbird terms.

The 'Wild Thing' autumn sage looks thoroughly chastened.  Winter stalked through the garden this week in a grumpy-neighbor "Some of us have to work tomorrow" sort of way and shut down the party, slam!  Now the riotous blooming by the patio is at an end, and the loud outbursts of color have gone quiet.  Let's hope 'Wild Thing' doesn't look in the mirror until it's gotten some rest.

'Wild Thing' autumn sage (Salvia greggii) when it's at home

Winter really did let us have it, at least in the Albuquerque scale of things.  On Monday the temperatures reached record lows for that date, dropping to the single digits F; some parts of town (though not mine) had several inches of snow.  The unusual cold pushed the garden forward into winter by about three weeks, if not into a whole different growing zone altogether.  The Jupiter's beard and 'Goldflame' honeysuckle, usually green through December, are blackened mush.  The ipheion, which comes up in fall and was beginning to make a bright, grassy (if somewhat threadbare) carpet under the sand cherries, is limp and flattened.  Even the more or less evergreen 'Lady Banks' rose has lost most of its leaves.

The changes are a little disappointing this early in the season—I was hoping for more life in the garden this winter and am sorry to lose it before winter even starts.  The changes are also a signal, though, that it's time to reframe my idea of beauty, to reset it to winter's standards and let autumn's slip away.

Crocus speciosus, on a bed of cotula and cat hair

The days of leaves and seed pods are yielding to the days of stems and trunks, stalks and buds, to the play of light and shadow, to grass seeds backlit against a low, white sun.  A new wardrobe, a new role in the ecosystem, an existential makeover.  The new clothes may well turn out to be striking, shapely, and chic.

But they won't be party clothes any more.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ambient Brightness

or A Good Explanation for Everything

The nursery worker looked at me strangely.  "Where did you move here from?"  "Vermont," I answered.  "Ah," she said wisely, as if that explained everything.  "Forget the plant tags.  You can grow a lot of things here in less sun than they say, because of the ambient brightness."

"Ah, yes," I thought wisely, "the ambient brightness."  As if that explained everything.

I had just moved to New Mexico, to an apartment with a north-facing balcony, and was looking for suitable plants at a local nursery.  The first person I chanced on there was the kind of worker you trust automatically.  She may not have had a floppy hat—the gold standard for knowledgeable plants-people in these parts—but she did have the right sort of outdoorsy, weathered smile-lines around the eyes.  She suggested 'Winter Gem' boxwood (Buxus microphylla japonica), even though the plant tag recommended full to part sun and the balcony only knew sunlight by hearsay.  And she was right:  the boxwood bushes were perfectly happy and didn't resent the shade at all.  Not that they resent much of anything, but they seemed actively pleased with all that ambient brightness.

Over the next few months I paid close attention to the plants I saw growing and blooming smack up against the shady north sides of houses:  lilacs, roses, Russian sage.  The ex-Vermonter in me was astonished and took the lesson to heart.  When I moved to my townhome a year later and toddled off to a nursery specializing in plants of the southwest (Plants of the Southwest, it's called) looking for natives for my part-sun garden, a worker in a floppy hat stopped me from making a purchase:  "That one needs full sun."

"Oh," I said brightly, "Isn't that just what the tag says?  It ought to do OK in less sun, because of the ambient brightness."  He looked at me strangely.  "Where did you move here from?"  "Vermont," I answered, dimming a trifle.  "Ah," he said.  Because that explained everything.

Since then I've learned a thing or two about provenance.  "Full sun" means something different to a desert plant than it does to one from a milder climate, where skies can be cloudy all day (or even longer!) and sometimes ambient brightness is the most a light-hungry little photosynthesizer can hope for.

My appreciation for these nuances of meaning ("sun":  it's complicated) got bumped up another notch when I planted an ivy this past spring.  Ivy is well-behaved here, not invasive, and useful in full-shade areas where you have a wall to cover.  I'd been growing this one as a houseplant in the sunny upstairs bathroom for several years—the only place humid enough to keep spider mites at bay—enjoying its bright green leaves, but finally decided it would be happier in the Sanctuary for Shadows along the garden's north-facing wall.  It's settling in well, but it isn't bright green any more:

It's variegated.  I'd forgotten that.  For several years the ivy had received a couple of hours of direct sun a day, with bright indoor light the rest of the time, and even with all of that the variegation had long since disappeared.  Now, outdoors, in December, on the north side of a wall in full shade, it's well-enough lit that those beautiful highlights have come out again.

Sometimes you need a tangible object lesson to understand apparently simple things like "light."  On the scale of brightness, I would have put a half-morning's direct indoor sun about on a par with full, outdoor shade—maybe even a little ahead.  In terms of my own appreciation of light, I'd vote for a sunny east window over a shady northern exposure any day of the week.  Apparently, though, human perception doesn't have much to do with botanical reality.  Maybe the difference lies in the gap between luminous flux—the amount of light visible to the human eye—and radiant flux—the total power of light across its spectrum (if I'm using those terms correctly); maybe it's just a charming quirk of chlorophyll. 

But it's probably because of the ambient brightness.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


or Building Character

After a howling beast of a windstorm Thursday night and a fussy, festering day on Friday, Saturday morning gave us a snowfall, the first (and for all we know, only) one of the season.  It was just an inch, but it fell beautifully, and its .11 inches of moisture helped to offset the desiccating effect of the earlier winds.

Offset, but not negate.  The snow didn't compensate fully for those drying easterly winds any more than it returned the two inches of fallen leaves and four inches of pecan shell mulch that used to protect my garden beds.  The wind scoured them down to bare dirt in places, and I have no idea where, this side of the Grand Canyon, all those pecan shells ended up.  Perhaps the next time a west wind comes along it will return them, but that may be a little too much symmetry to ask for.  (And may I just say, it is really exasperating to lose 240 pounds of mulch the very week that the cold weather hits.)

The snow didn't return things to neutral.  It didn't right the balance, but then, I'm not really sure we had a balance to set right; a lack of equilibrium is what gives New Mexico its character.  The relations between earth, air, fire, and water are normally out of kilter here, heavy on the first three and light on the last, and this year water has been nudged almost off the scale altogether.  The snowstorm helped it hang on a little longer is all.  We're just happy that it settled the dust—and oh, it smelled so fresh. 

By the time the day was bright enough to allow photos on Saturday morning, the snow was beginning to melt.  It was in that nameless in-between state, neither frozen nor liquid water, not even properly slush, where it still had snow's ability to negotiate with gravity, but the negotiations were beginning to falter.  It balanced or fell at random places, filling out the wrinkles in some of the withered sand cherries and turning them almost round again, sliding from others and leaving them gleaming wetly along every ridge and fold.  Each little bit of branch and stem shaped water differently.

On the sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), the water droplets dwarfed the tiny seeds they haloed or came to rest at odd places along the symmetrically branching stems.  They reminded me of a hanging mobile, all delicate weights and counterweights and wires that are just unbalanced enough to move at a light touch, to create a new shape every time they come back to stasis.

Generally speaking I'm a confirmed—nay, obsessed—symmetry fiend.  I don't mean to be; it just happens that way.  So there's a certain irony in my singing the praises of unevenness and imbalance, the way they give rise to character and beauty, the way they bring particularity into the foreground.  A talk with a friend today and other bits of happenstance recently, though, have reminded me of the joys of letting a passion throw your life out of balance—or put another way, of finding an idiosyncratic balance among out-of-kilter elements. 

It will either build your own character, or the characters of everyone who knows you...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

or The Little Potato That Could Couldn't Hasn't So Far

Sometimes potatoes just go overboard with optimism.  Take this one, for example:

Nov. 24, 2011

I planted it five years ago, in the bed that now holds the Sad Sand Cherry but at the time was home to a Truly Miserable Golden Currant (Ribes aureum x Tristissimus).  The idea—brilliant, so far as it went—was to grow the potatoes just inside what would become the currant's drip line once it matured.  In the meantime the spuds would fill a large space in the infant garden with swaths of greenery, practically for free.  Since I would be giving the new plantings extra water anyway, the potatoes would get all they needed to flourish.  Gently unearthing the tubers with a small garden fork at season's end would loosen the compacted soil again, and the currant's roots would have an easy time spreading into that area their second year.  And then there would be potatoes to eat. 

The delicate bubble of genius, alas, was no match for the freshly sharpened tungsten carbide circular sawblade of reality.  The potato leafhoppers moved in for the kill, drat them, and none of the potatoes survived for more than a month or two.  That fall I planted other things in their place and then forgot about the potatoes altogether.  Great was my surprise the following spring, when one little spud sent up a hopeful shoot amid the tulips and yarrow.  It grew in a small (3- or 4-inch) way until June, when the heat and aridity (and leafhoppers) proved too much for it.  Then it withered sadly away, to hoard its resources for the following spring.

Every year since then, it has done the same thing.  I have begun to look forward to seeing the potato raise its little hand every spring, in the way that normal other people look forward to the first lily or allium leaves.  I cheer it on but don't give it any extra water, which by now its xeric neighbors would resent.  The leaves always die away again in a few weeks.

Lately the tenacious tuber has changed tactics.  If summer is too hot and dry, it seems to be thinking, then why not come up in the fall?  A few weeks ago, in a bed that by now is in deep shade, this frost-sensitive, sun-loving plant began sending up a hopeful shoot.  I showed it the calendar, with the average first frost date marked in red; I showed it the blackened basil and marigold leaves in the garden's less protected places, to no avail.  Sometimes a potato just will not recognize the difference between hope and denial.  It will not be discouraged.

Nov. 29, 2011

At least, not until it's too late.