Tuesday, May 22, 2018

It Rained

It rained!! At least I think it did. After an entire winter and spring waiting each day for precipitation that never comes, the weather report showed thunderstorms and drenching rain moving through Santa Fe yesterday and today and I WASN'T THERE TO SEE IT.

It's so unfair. After all this time I wanted to see rain so badly. But the reason I missed it is that Jim and I are on a short vacation to Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado and we are having a spectacular time here. We're seeing the ancient ruins of the Anasazi people who lived here, and who finally, 700 years ago, moved away looking for somewhere to live with more water.

I want to say I can relate, but I can't. Even though I have waited and waited for rain, and feel deprived that I missed seeing it this week, my entire life and clan and future and food security don't depend on fickle rainfall. It's not the same at all.

But it is and always has been all about the rain. I do wish I'd been at home in Santa Fe to see it.

Friday, May 18, 2018

I'm Rusting

The aspen on the right in our backyard pair has chlorosis, the inability to take up iron in the soil. Without iron (and sometimes other minerals), the leaves don't photosynthesize well.

They turn yellow, which is what makes the smaller tree look lighter in color. Chlorotic leaves are yellow in between dark green ribs, like the leaf below on the right. The cluster of leaves below is from the healthy tree, the close up of the yellow leaf with dark veins is from the sick one.

Usually iron deficiency is because the soil is too alkaline, but right next to it a healthy green aspen grows well. They are so close their roots are intertwined. I'm not sure it's soil ph.

Instead, I think it might be drainage. Aspens are sensitive to water -- too much, too little or too slow draining. When I dug around the smaller aspen's roots to amend the soil with an iron supplement, I found waterlogged, soupy mud. In a drought.

I had been watering the aspens during this dry winter and spring, and somehow the dirt on the right side just doesn't drain. All of the trees are planted in small spaces between garages and house structures, and it's probably awful soil. That section is compacted and heavy. Maybe it's better where the healthier aspen sits.

In any event, I moved the gravel away, dug around in the mud below and added iron sulfate at the roots.

We'll see if that will help. It usually doesn't, despite the fact that there is a huge industry devoted to selling us stuff like this. It's hard to change soil chemistry for very long, and it's going to be ineffective if the real problem is soggy drainage.

But I added it anyway. It's iron, just as the bag says. It's a white powder that turns rusty when watered in. The gravel mulch is all reddish brown now and my clothes are rust covered and I can taste metal on my lips. When I come in to wash up there is rusty water swirling down the sink drain.

At least I don't have chlorosis.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Red Yuccas

Well, I'm learning. This is all new to me.

Summer 2017, when we first moved in

The plants that I thought were desert sotol, or dasylirions, are actually hesperaloe, or red yuccas. I've been going to classes at the Santa Fe botanical garden and I've been doing more research on my own, and I'm getting more familiar with what's typically in gardens around here. It turns out I mis-identified some plants.

There are more than a half dozen identical spiky leaved plants scattered about the front yard. Three are planted along the rock drainage path, a few are just out in the gravel randomly, and two sit side by side in a corner garden by the front walk.

These two hesperaloes are much smaller, perhaps still young?

When we first moved here in late summer, each stand of spiky foliage sported a great long stalk of red flowers. The form and leaf shape and the single tall flower spike led me to think these were dasylirions. But they are not. They are Texas red yuccas.

Hesperaloe parviflora - red yuccas -- are not true yuccas. They have thin grasslike foliage, not the stiff yucca swords, and they typically have lots of graceful flower spikes rising well above the clump. The ones here each just had a single tall wand, arching over. A couple plants had two.

One giant arching flower stalk

I'm not sure why all the plants here were flowering singly. They may get too much shade from the pines in the front yard, and that may be the reason their flowering does not look like the pictures I've seen, which look like this:

Texas Red Yuccas - typical flowering
Hmmm, not like mine

So, with little in the way of flowering, I had decided these were dasylirions, a desert plant that has a similar shape and foliage and sends up a single big flower cane.

But the threadlike hairs decorating the leaves are distinctive to hesperaloes, and when I look up close, my plants have these curly white threads.

And the red flowers, as few of them as there were, definitely looked like the pictures I've seen of hesperaloes. On top of that, the nurseries in town commonly sell this plant everywhere.

Yep, that's what is planted all over the front yard here. Hesperaloe parviflora, Texas Red yuccas, not dasylirions. I stand corrected.

Does it matter what these plants really are? Well, not to you, dear readers of this blog, I know. But it matters to me and I'm loving the research and discovery process. It's like a puzzle, and I'm having fun getting the pieces to fit.

Friday, May 11, 2018

La Rosa

At the last book group discussion at the botanical garden we got talking about roses and I said it surprised me how they are such a big thing in Santa Fe. Yes, I've learned they grow well in this dry, sunny, summer-cool climate, but so do other non-native plants. Why are all the garden centers, even the native plant nurseries, filled with so many roses?

It's the Spanish influence, the SantaFeans said. Europeans brought rose cuttings to New Spain and treasured the familiar flower that grew so well for them in the new world.

Of course. Now I get it. Roses are iconic images in Mexican folk art. The flower is a signifier of Spanish culture that has been incorporated in Mexican history since the 1500s.

Spanish Europeans were conquerors in the new world. Unlike the Puritans who came to North America with their families and remained an intact culture apart from the natives, the Spanish sent waves of single men --soldiers and adventurers -- without women. They quickly and inevitably mixed with indigenous women, creating a complicated fusion of people over the centuries that gives us what we think of as Hispanics today.

And the key elements of New Spain's conquest and dominion -- Spanish language, Catholic faith, horses and cattle, sheep herding, and even roses -- are still symbols of what it means to be Hispanic in this part of the world. Mixed with native horticultural elements of corn, chiles, beans and dahlias, the modern Hispanic identity is a rich one.

Santa Fe was the farthest northern outpost on the frontier of New Spain. The Spanish came north looking for gold (there wasn't any) and native souls to convert (there were a lot). Despite conflict, a famous uprising, and years of brutal subjugation, the Spanish customs mixed with the native, and to this day there are emblems of that mixing that still retain European Spain's overwhelming influence in this area.

Including roses.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Shade and Sun

It's May and the Gardens at Walking Rain Ranch are finally getting planted. The challenge I have here is that there is too much shade. I know, go figure.

When I lived in wooded New England my gardens were too sunny out in the middle of an open, bare builder's lot. Here in New Mexico, where the sun shines ferociously almost all year, I have too much shade.

We have a city lot, and my gardens are closely surrounded by buildings -- not just our house, but the neighbors' houses and garages that are angled differently and abut our lot. And we have a six foot courtyard fence all around the back, with shady aspens in the corner and by the dining room windows. And mature pines in the front. My gardens here get too much shade.

The offset is that plants that need full sun can actually take some shade here. Because of our elevation, the UV rays from the sun are 30% stronger. The gardener needs sunblock and the plants can use some shade. So I'm working with that.

Because of all the buildings and angles and fence corners, the light is highly variable throughout the day. Until the sun rises over angles and rooflines, some plants are in shade for a few morning hours, then full sun, and then shade again later as the sun moves behind some trees.

Others get morning sun for only as long as the coffee holds out, then sit in shade all day, only to get early evening sun again as the sun goes down between the walls of two houses, shining straight onto a patch of garden.

The plants I got that like shade do get high, direct sun for some periods in the day and it's strong. The sun loving plants I got are shaded for a lot of the day, although the tree canopies are high and the ambient light nearby is always bright.

I've been trying to buy southwest adapted native plants, but those all want full sun all the time and that's not what I have. There is nothing really adapted to high desert shade.

So I'm experimenting with some sun loving natives, some shade tolerant plants I used to grow back east, and some classic xeric plants. All of them have the word "tough" in their descriptions. We'll see what can thrive in confused light conditions.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


We've had a busy month with visitors. We've been hosting family here on three separate weekends and we flew east for a family birthday in the middle of April, and a neighbor from many years ago back east stopped in, and I've been loving it all.

We've also had hummingbird visitors at the feeder. I'm pretty sure they are black chinned hummingbirds.

adult black chinned male from hummingbird ID site

The ruby throated hummers we saw in Connecticut were smaller, more iridescent, and their wings made a soft buzzing sound as they flew past. The red throat was unmistakable.

The hummers here in New Mexico are a little bit bigger but more slender, and their tiny bodies look dark. When they fly in to the feeder it sounds like mechanical wind up toys whirring overhead. These black hummingbirds are noisy in the air.

female black chinned hummingbird from ID site

Our little visitors perch on the aspen tree by the deck or right on the fence, then rotor in to the feeder even when we're sitting on the patio. Yesterday two hummingbirds engaged in aerial combat, diving and swooping all afternoon over the feeder. One would approach, the other would drive it off, and back and forth they went in rapid chases to and from the feeder.

I sat in the living room and watched it for an hour until they must have exhausted their tiny selves.

Black chinned hummingbirds are generalists, happy in the southwest's desert lowlands and forested mountains and urban back yards, as long as they have a high tree perch, a selection of flying insects, and some nectar from flowers or feeders. I'm happy to have them as visitors here, even when they buzz the patio with their loud motor wings and fight over the feeder.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Spanish Broom

We inherited a big rangy looking rounded shrub in the back yard when we moved in. In fact, there were several, apparently lots of seedlings from the main plant had spread about. We took all of them out, but left the one big parent plant.

It's Spanish Broom, Spartium junceum. It stayed evergreen all winter. It's upright, coarse looking, and  the foliage is thin, stiff, and needle-like.

Now, in late April, Spanish Broom is flowering. It has pea-like yellow flowers all over the thin stalks of foliage. It's hard to photograph -- the leaves are so narrow and the flowers are tiny.

And boy, is it fragrant. It's a heavy smell, very spicy, sometimes musky and unpleasant, but mostly just strongly sweet and noticeably perfumed.

The flowers are either butter-and-sugar white with pale yellow, or strongly golden yellow. I can't tell if they are different colors as they mature -- starting out one color and then turning another -- or if the plant really has two different flower colors at once.

Half the shrub has these pretty cream colored blooms . . .

 . . . . and half the shrub sports sunny golden yellow blooms, all at the same time.

For such a rough looking plant, it has delicate flowers. It's a tough one -- it grows in adverse, dry, lean soil conditions and is great for erosion control. It's invasive in California.

Most sources say it's cold hardy to zone 8 or zone 7 -- which is odd, since Santa Fe is colder than that in most winters, but here it is, happy, thriving, setting many seedlings  and now blooming fragrantly.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Things I've Heard and Read

Commenting on how the wind blows the dust around in spring, my neighbor said:
"Oh my god, did you see all the enchantment blowing around yesterday? I have piles of enchantment collecting on the windowsills"

To appreciate the west, the author Wallace Stegner once remarked,
"You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale". 

Describing New Mexico's landscape in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather wrote:
"Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky."

Then there's this:
"New Mexico is so windy because Texas blows and Arizona sucks."

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Watering is my Job

Watering the plants here is constant work but so much easier than it was in my former New England garden.

My courtyards here are small and a coil hose reaches everything easily. Our water pressure is adequate but it's much lower than we had in Connecticut. I used to despair over connected lengths of hoses that always leaked at the junctions, and faucets that spewed, and needing pliers to get hose fittings on and off.

An iron stake at the corner of the house stores a coil hose upright.
The gravel strip it's standing in is going to have some lovely plants this spring,
and then the hose won't be the only thing you see.

Here it's so easy. Hoses connect with no problem by hand, nothing leaks, nothing shoots water sprays in all directions. When an open hose end drops on the pavers or gravel it stays clean, and I don't have to struggle with getting mud off the hose end to get it to connect tightly. I miss having pressure for a strong spray at the kitchen sink, but the dishes still get clean enough.

Most Santa Fe gardeners have an underground drip system, which is supposed to be the most efficient and most consistent way to get water where it's needed with no waste.

But I agree with the speaker at a class I took at the botanical garden: he maintains that hand watering is best because it forces the gardener to go out and spend time looking at each and every garden plant. You notice things when you are standing there for many minutes at a time holding a hose directed at the ground.

We don't have a drip system here. I hand water, aiming the hose at the drip line of the trees, making sure to stand with the sun at my back to warm me on cold days.

A flow meter tells me how much water I'm using as I use it. Every gallon counts here.

I have a cheap plastic flow meter attached to the hose. It's probably not that accurate, but I do get an idea of how many gallons each tree or each garden space gets.

Rain harvesting is important here -- when it ever rains -- and I am going to get a 50 gallon barrel installed to collect rainwater from one of the roof canales this summer, so that I'm not so dependent on using city water (and paying the high rates for it). My new copper rain chain is decorative and it should slow the flow coming from the canale above, but it doesn't store rain for use later.

I like this red barrel. It will be installed on the
"Employees Only" side of the house,
but I still want it to look good.

Sprinklers are something that are simply not used in Santa Fe. There is no point. Spraying water overhead to land on the plants is inefficient, with much of the spray evaporating in the dry air. No one irrigates using sprinklers.

It's been so dry for so long and although I don't have my new garden spaces planted yet, I've had to hand water the trees and shrubs all winter. We had a tenth of an inch of sleet one evening at the end of March -- it arrived just as our neighbors were walking over to join us for dinner. After an entire long winter of sun and endless dry weather, they caught the single 20 minute window when it was wet and icy and icky and a mess to walk in.

Despite wet shoes and bulky umbrellas, we all smiled and marveled at the brief minutes of delight of ice and sleety slush.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Chocolate Elixirs

The ancient Olmec Indian word for chocolate is kakawa, from which we get cacao, the word for the plant that produces chocolate. On a windy April afternoon, good for staying inside, Jim and I went to Kakawa Chocolate House near the center for a little bit of heaven in a tiny blue cup.

They serve chocolate elixirs -- a mini mug of thick, rich chocolate liquid essence, warmed up and spiced up with different flavors. It's just a few sips worth, but a full and lasting experience.

I had a chile elixir, the drink the conquistadors were first served when they met the civilizations of Mesoamerica. The balance of intense chocolate with a tingle of zing in the back of the throat was exquisite. The physical jolt to the body is powerful.

Jim had a more complex spiced elixir, called Aztec Warrior, which was flavored with herbs and flowers and chiles and vanilla and nuts. Also exquisite. And very manly, definitely warrior-like.

Kakawa serves elixir recipes that the ancient Aztecs and Mayans drank. They also serve favorite recipes that Europeans developed when chocolate arrived in French and Dutch kitchens. And Thomas Jefferson has handed down his favorite for history, which is chocolate spiced with nutmeg.

You can get Zapoteca too, which is simply unsweetened, unspiced, bittersweet chocolate, nothing added. Pure essence. The owner gave us tiny dixie cup samples to try of that and of all the spiced recipes, and it was hard to choose a favorite.

It's a fun place. The owner is enthusiastic, and is apparently a chocolate historian who has researched the ancient uses and culture of chocolate in the New World and the recipes that spread to the old. And then he makes up his own flavor combinations and tries new ones all the time.

They make their own homemade ice cream too, and they sell chocolate candies and truffles, so there is no end of reasons for us to go back again. And again.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What to do About the Aspens

Aspens are signature trees here. Almost every yard has at least one planted. Nurseries are full of them potted up for sale. They are the perfect small, upright shape for limited space in tight courtyards, they are pretty, the trunks are beautiful and they turn a gorgeous yellow in fall. They flutter and glitter in a breeze.

Santa Fe is leafy with aspens everywhere. We have two side by side in back and two shading the dining room windows.

The neighbors have a beautiful clump just over our shared fence. It is a focal point for our back courtyard even though it is on the other side of the fence.

But aspens can be trouble. Our back yard aspens are definitely in trouble. They were planted 20 years ago, as most in the neighborhood were, and aspens don't live long.

They need cool weather, water, compost and care. They are a native tree all over the Rocky Mountains, where they thrive without any care in cool forest duff, but down below in a city, in stressful conditions in gravel, they aren't so happy.

Our trees were not tended or watered by the former owners, and when we moved in late last summer, one of the pair in back had taken ill. Leaves were skimpy and thinning out, and the branches had swellings that are the telltale sign of twig gall fly, which can be a fatal problem in an already stressed tree.

When one tree has it, it spreads to others, and if those other aspen trees are stressed at all, they won't be able to fight off the twig gall fly.

Now, this spring I notice that my sick tree also has an orange weeping spot on the trunk, which is canker, a serious vascular trunk disease.

I can get a tree service here to spray and do soil injections and maybe that will help for a while. But a sick aspen is a hard thing to spend money on. Once it is infected, it is open to other pests and an old, stressed aspen can be a lost cause no matter what interventions are tried.

What to do? Here's the plan:

   I'll water and fertilize and see if that helps.
   I may call a tree service and have the aspens treated and see if that helps.
   I'll wait this summer and evaluate how they are doing.

Then after all that I'll end up calling the tree service back, have them take down the aspens and plant something else. It's a matter of time.