Thursday, May 31, 2012

Watching the Grass Grow

or Taking Turns

Baseball is nothing if not a leisurely sport.  For some, the pace is part of its appeal.  A lot of the game is cerebral, with batting order and pitching strategies being at least as important as the actual action.  If you're an aficionado, you know the players' stats, the conditions that let them shine, and the ones that spell bad news.  The slow pace allows you to debate the finer points of strategy at length with any poor soul in the vicinity your fellow fans in between pitches.  Scoring may give you an ephemeral rush, but the real joy lies in the tension that builds bit by bit as the game progresses.  At such a measured, moss-gathering pace, passion has a chance to root deeply, grow, and bloom.  Or so I understand.

Greek germander (Teucrium aroanium), sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), and wood betony,
or pink cotton lamb's ear (Stachys lavandulifolia)

I'm not a huge fan, but do kind of like baseball.  Albuquerque has a minor league team, the Isotopes, and the one game I went to, I had a wonderful time getting acquainted with my neighbors; and then sometimes, something interesting happened on the diamond, too.  In Vermont I used to live close to a college's practice fields and loved to hear the crack of the bat in spring—an oddly thrilling sound, so happy and accomplishing.  I also like the sheer symmetry of the game, with each side taking turns batting and fielding every inning; no matter how the opportunities play out, each team has the same number of shots at success. 

Still, baseball is slow.  My dad thinks that watching a game is like going down to the junkyard to watch the cars rust, or like watching the grass grow.  My mom, on the other hand, is an enthusiastic Colorado Rockies fan.  She looks forward to Opening Day in the spring, knows the overall standing of the team day to day, can spout tidbits about the players' games and personal lives, and arranges her quilting projects so that she can listen to the games at the same time.  But even my mom doesn't mind interrupting a game for an hour-long phone conversation on a Friday night when the Rockies are playing, because nothing happens in the hour that she misses that she can't catch up on pretty easily.  Baseball is a leisurely game, you know.

Silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima), with sun roses (Helianthemum nummularium)
and a really big urn (Urnus maximus giganticus).

All to say, the gardening is done for the season.  Not the routine watering and deadheading, of course, but all of the big things:  planting, dividing, pruning.  Memorial Day is always my deadline to have projects finished, ahead of summer's heat and intense, blasting sunshine.  With the holiday behind us, now it's the garden's turn to take action while I sit in the shade in the Adirondack chair and watch the grass grow.

It's a leisurely process, grass growing, in case you were wondering.  The sand lovegrass, over the last few months, has settled in beautifully and is making satisfying spikes next to the puddles of creeping germander and the uncertain plantings of wood betony.  The silky threadgrass has been setting seed for weeks now and continues to beckon enchantingly from behind one urn or another.  But the blue grama grass in the central bed...well, it's taking its own sweet time to fill in, isn't it.

Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)

In its native short-grass prairie, its slow rate of growth has become a problem.  Once the grass has been destroyed by over-grazing or development, it takes a long time to grow back in again, time it may not have before the vast stretches of ecosystem built around it are seriously damaged.  In the garden, where water and weeding give it a chance to thrive, its pace is only a problem for my own impatient self.  I have to remind myself that this is blue grama's turn at bat, when it can swing at whatever pitches it will.  Or wait them out.  Summer is the garden's inning.

The garden and I aren't in competition, of course, and my garden isn't the major or even the minor leagues.  For most of us, I think, gardening is more like Little League, where a game can go on forever, because you never know whether the six-year-old batters will hold the bat right-side up or run in the right direction or make it to base before being distracted by—hey, look! is that a squirrel? I like your shirt we're having spaghetti for dinner—and where, by hook or by crook, everyone wins something in the end.  With its "let's help everyone do well" attitude, Little League isn't much like the major leagues, except in the slow, leisurely pace.  That easy, breezy tempo, of course, is part of the game's appeal.

Blue grama grass

Sometimes you like knowing that the whole summer lies ahead, to watch the grass grow.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Air Apparent

or Dividing the Pie

I have certainly known cats who got frayed around the edges when their owners were absent for a few days, and were only knitted whole again when the owners returned.  So I'm not endorsing the following New Yorker-ish sentiment.  I'm just repeating it, as something heard years ago that came back to me in the Adirondack chair this week:  Dogs aren't the only animals who suffer when their owners leave; cats, too, go through a difficult phase of they divvy up the space formerly thought of as yours.

Now that the older plants in the garden are well-established, the new ones have begun to "take," and I'm irrigating less, the three other elements seem to be divvying up the space formerly thought of as water's.  Earth... The ants continue piling it up in heaps, in all of the gravel beds.  Those beds are expanding in the sunny areas in any case, as I plant more drought-lovers that prefer poor soil and rocky mulches.  Fire... the sun is taking a toll now on the more delicate greenery as we top the 90°F mark, even as it brings the warm season grasses and Mediterranean and high desert plants to life.  Anything that makes it through the coming baptism of heat and light without water to quench it is a garden stalwart indeed.

Air.  I've been trying to foster a greater sense of airiness in this small, walled space—to get away from the dense layering of wetter, eastern gardens (even using xeric plants) and allow the plants (and me) more room to breathe.

Silky thread grass (Nassella tenuissima), desert olive (Forestiera neomexicana), and prairie flax (Linum lewisii)

The more I learn to know and love plants adapted to the desert, the lighter the textures in the garden become.  I'm beginning to have hopes for my strategy of low ground covers (if they ever fill in) with a few taller, airier things that have space to move freely in the wind

and to toss a little sunlight around while they're at it.

It's taken me almost five years to re-invent the wheel (not that I'm done yet); the planting style I'm aiming for is one more or less recommended in my favorite books on New Mexico gardening, though not in so many words.  It took a while, though, for a particular set of garden dreams to vacate my brain, and then a while longer to divvy up the mental space that formerly belonged to them and make new ideas at home there.

I've never felt so much like a cat.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


or Small Graces

I think of them as "rain in the desert" experiences, those moments of refreshment and ease that come to you out of the blue and green you up again.  Some dear friends visited from Denver over the weekend, and suddenly I understood vines, sending up inches of bright new growth overnight after a rain.  With the friends came another small refreshment:  the thought of a job in Denver, with the best colleague possible.  The details turned out not to be workable, but for a couple of days I was considering leaving Albuquerque for my home town.

Elena Gallegos Open Space Park, Albuquerque

Mixed in with the hopeful excitement of opportunity, though, was a level of regret that surprised me, a fierce ache at the thought of leaving this landscape.  I had thought that I just loved it as I do the west in general, and that in my heart New Mexico was more or less interchangeable with Colorado, only with less snow.  It isn't.  It has its own place, and to leave it, no matter for what other gains, would also be a loss.

Colorado... I do still miss it sometimes.  Compared to New Mexico, it has such an easy beauty, both more spectacular and more...traditional.  The Rockies there are higher and craggier, not like the comparatively rag-tag (sorry, New Mexico!) mountains here at the tail end of the range.  After high-desert aridity, the semi-aridity to the north seems lush and green.   New Mexico, on the other hand, can be harsh and (even more) prickly, inhospitable and, outside the mountains, endlessly brown.  Its spectacular places are more odd and twisted (though that's part of their fascination).  The less spectacular places demand a lot of you.  You have to work harder, look closer, engage further, to love them for what they are.

Which just makes the rewards all the sweeter when they come.

Yucca glauca (I'm pretty sure)

The day before my friends arrived, I had taken a vacation day to mosey around in one of my favorite places, Elena Gallegos Open Space Park, in the foothills at the eastern edge of town.  I'd never been there before when the yucca was in bloom.  Yucca grows all sorts of places, from Iowa to Texas to Alberta.  It grows in Colorado; it's hardly unique to New Mexico.  Somehow it comes across differently here, though, more as a burst of frivolity than as a sign that you've reached "here be dragons" country and are about to get stuck by sharp leaves.  In New Mexico you already know you'll have dragons (or similar) to deal with, and may well have already been stuck by a prickly pear or cholla (or similar), so the beauty of yucca in bloom is pure bonus, a grace, an unexpected gift in a dry land, from the deep color of the unopened flowers:

to the way they pale as they open, and let the creamy inner petals show through:

to their unexpectedly delicate stippling.

Other things were blooming, too—white New Mexico evening primroses (except that it was morning), tiny daisies, spiky blue penstemons, all pleasant surprises as you round a bend in the path and find a new patch of bloom amid the dry grasses.

Claret cup hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) (I think), one day too soon

Musicologist Donald Tovey used to riff on the idea of purple prose by talking about "purple patches" in music:  moments of lush harmony or texture or orchestration that interrupt a more straightforward context.  They're the moments you remember after the concert, or that you rewind and replay over and over at home, the ones that melt you into your seat.

New Mexico is thrifty—stingy—with many things but generous with its purple patches.  Sometimes you grow weary of dust and wind and sunshine so bright that it hurts and hard-scrabble poverty everywhere you turn, but if your eyes are open, somewhere around a bend in the path a moment of beauty will be waiting to take your breath away.  I find those moments extra-moving here, in this harsh, prickly, inhospitable desert.  They command intense loyalty, because they ease such deep thirst. 

Small graces, like rain for the soul:  the visit of friends, an inkling of change.  A stand of yucca in bloom.  A sprinkling of daisies. 

A purple patch, brightening the way home.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Species

or The Boneyard

(Warning:  Nothing but creepy crawlies ahead.)

They're beginning to haunt my dreams, those lines of gray marching across the pecan shell mulch, oozing out from under the bug bath's pebbles when I replenish the water, or protesting at the sudden sunlight when I move a sheltering pot.  I wouldn't call the dreams nightmares, because it's hard to be too haunted by roly-polies.  (Try it sometime.)  They aren't even anxiety dreams, really, just minor irritants bumbling across the fertile ground of sleep and pausing to nibble on an image here and there, in the way that real roly-polies bumble around among the growing things in the garden. 

A typical scene of late.

Roly-polies (or pill-bugs, Armadillidium vulgare) are mostly useful, harmless creatures that munch on decaying matter.  But there are so many of them this year.  They're everywhere.  Every time I turn over the tiniest bit of earth, there they are.  When I water the new plantings, the roly-polies climb the house walls, turning them in places from terra-cotta to black.  When I loosen the plastic pots from not-so-recent nursery purchases, the bottoms of the root balls are covered with roly-polies.  Established plants that were sending up good spring growth have withered away, and when I dig into the soil to investigate why, all I find are roly-polies.  Dozens of roly-polies.  Not content with the mulch, they're beginning to feed on the roots.  They're beginning to haunt my dreams.  Or have I mentioned that already?

The thick layer of mulch is probably the culprit, the extra moisture and organic matter making it possible for the 'polies to breed and feed beyond what the land would normally allow.  Otherwise the mulch has been good for the garden.  The soil beneath the biggest sand cherries, where I've let the leaves lie every autumn (another culprit) before covering them with pecan shells in spring, has almost become "woodland" soil after four years.  It's loamy, friable, and dark brown.  It's a pleasure to dig.  It holds moisture beautifully.  The decomposers are doing their work, and even earthworms make themselves at home there.

Digging into the gravel-mulched beds, on the other hand, is like digging into brick.  The soil is pale sand and clay with bits of decomposed granite, suited to the more rugged plants growing in it.  It doesn't attract roly-polies, but boy, does it attract ants.  They, too, are useful; their tunnels keep the soil aerated, and their appetites account for many a grub and miller moth.  They push soil out onto the patio, and I sweep it back into their nest; they push it back out onto the patio, etc.  We all get a little gentle exercise.

This year some of the ants have made their home in one of the big urns of licorice mint.

"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."  Unless you're an ant.

Very busy they are, climbing the steep outer sides of the urn and under its lip to bring their heavy loads to the top.  I have a front-row view of them from the Adirondack chair, and see more of their struggles than is perhaps absolutely necessary.

Some of the struggles are jaw-droppingly epic.

Many a roly-poly has been carried up the side and disappeared over the rim.

But then the ants abandon them on top of the soil in the urn.  Why?  Why have they gone through this enormous labor, defying gravity the entire way, only to change their minds?  I suspect that they do bring the pill-bugs into their nest at first, where they eat or store the tasty parts and then spit out the "bones," leaving the inedible chitin to decay elsewhere.  The rounded hulks slowly fade to white among the equally hollow hulks of pecan shells.  Their skeletons serve as...warning? decoration? mulch? in the ants' front garden, until the little decomposers decompose, gradually disintegrating into the soil where they feed the roots of the agastache.

In a desert garden pecan shell mulch and gravel occupy different worlds, the former belonging to (comparative) moisture, broad-leafed greenery, and partial shade; the latter to aridity, feathery gray-greens, and scorching sun.  In a very small garden, I wonder sometimes whether those worlds can live side by side and be at peace.  The mulch loving roly-polies concern me when they get out of hand; they're a sign that maybe I've skewed the balance too far toward moisture and greenery.  But then, the gravel loving ants are still here to keep them in line, more or less.  Maybe the balance is working.

Pleasant dreams, everyone.

In case you can't get enough, Donna has an entertaining post on ants over at Garden Walk, Garden Talk.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Movable Quiet

or Quelling the Riots

Keller's yarrow (Achillea x kellereri)

Riots break out in pockets in my garden—explosions of glee and excitement from the flowering kingdom, but only in places.  Except in early spring, when the tulips and sand cherries and ipheion come to life, I don't really have a garden that flowers all at once; I don't have the knack of planning beds for succession of bloom.  Or, more kindly, I've chosen in a small space to prioritize perennials with evergreen foliage instead, and to let the flowers happen as they will.  The garden has bursts of color here and there:  sun roses and California poppies, and over yonder some other sun roses, and then in another bed one of the flax plants but not the others.  And some scutellaria in the corner.  Oh, and some daisies and gaura off to the side, not to mention 'Wild Thing' autumn sage, which has kicked off its own party again beside the patio.  Some parts of the garden are very colorful right now, in a random, hither and thither sort of way.

Sometimes my brain ends up in the middle of the same kind of hither-and-thither riotousness, when a feast for the senses gets out of hand—an excess of randomness or color or sound or light or input of whatever kind.  Too much sensory stimulation affects me like a tapdance in an echo chamber, or like electrically amplified bagpipes with a good dose of feedback, or like purple and chartreuse stripes with mustard-yellow polka dots.  All to say, sometimes a little less stimulation is OK.  That's heresy, I know, in this multi-tasking era of more-bigger-faster-louder, but there you are.  Not everything has to excite. 

Even a garden can be noisy, with its patches of brightness, or clamorings for water or transplanting or pruning or weeding, or squabbling birds or barking dogs next door or distant traffic sounds.  I've been thinking about noise and quiet while trying to decide what to do with three Keller's yarrow plants that didn't show to advantage beside 'Wild Thing'.  I had hoped that the cool of the yarrow would be striking against the heat of the sage, but it wasn't.  The yarrow just looked put-upon, with all that riot and rumpus going on next to them all summer.  Now the three of them are sitting in containers, waiting for inspiration to strike.  (To strike me, that is.)

I'm glad to see the yarrow up closer these days.  This variety is a quiet one and easy to overlook in the garden.  It is forgiving enough of most dry-climate conditions that once you plant it and it "takes" you can pretty much forget about it; it will need some water on occasion, but not babying.  It's small, maybe eight inches high and a foot or so across, with narrow gray-green leaves and small clusters of flowers from mid-April to mid-June or later.  I suppose the white blossoms are bright enough to be showy in their way, but they fall a long way short of spectacular.  Like many plants that become my favorites, though, no matter how unassuming Keller's yarrow may appear, it rewards a closer look.  Otherwise you might miss the creases and scallops of its clean, white petals, the gentle yellows at their center,

the way the leaves arch like quill pens, and their fine sculpting. 

Once you start exploring, this is a plant you can get lost in.  Tracing the lines of the leaves, you find yourself mesmerized, immersed in an active quietness, a kind of meditative pleasure.  The color is a gray-green so soft that you could go to sleep in it.  Jangled nerves slowly come to rest. 

I may just leave the yarrow in containers this year—I'm enjoying being able to move a little bit of quietness around to where it's needed, like the anti-matter version of a boombox, or a musical rest that you can carry with you and "sound" at will.  Not everything has to excite.

And not all excitement has to be loud.