Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Fire After Fifty Years

Fifty years ago today, on February 20, my Dad died. He was 51. I was 18 years old. He never knew me as an adult; I never knew him as an old man or a grandpa. He never met my sons.

There is so little to remember. He taught me how to play chess and how to fly a Piper Cub airplane. I taught him how to ski -- he was not very good at it. He taught me to drive and made me change a flat tire -- I was not at all good at that.

For some reason I remember in detail how he taught me to build a fire in a fireplace. Paper, kindling, prime the flue, and stack the logs in threes -- one horizontal and two angled like a tepee. That's what I remember.

This is how it's done.

It got cold here in Santa Fe finally. After a too warm winter, we had some cold weather and a snow dusting, and on February 20, in the middle of the week, we had a cozy fire.

Jim struggled mightily to get the thing going. Our first attempt last fall smoked us out, and then using fake Duraflame logs after that was too smelly. The former owners left us a small stack of ancient dried wood by the side of the garage, and so on this late February day we tried again, with a wood fire.

After about an hour and 40 minutes of tending, poking, opening doors, using the fan and employing some cuss words, he got a smoky smolder going. The firebox is too small, and the two-way see through opening makes containing the smoke a challenge. But mostly I think the problem is that Jim does not build a fire the way I was taught. His method seems . . . unproductive.

After he went around the corner to the kitchen to start dinner, I rearranged the logs, built a wood tepee, and got it going the way I was taught. It caught.

I pulled the old wood telephone chair around, plunked myself in front of the hearth and it was good. It was hot. It was perfect.

I love the idea of a fire in winter and I like this two way fireplace. But I'm not crazy about the way the fireplace looks. I like the raised hearth and the bookcases flanking it. The tiles surrounding the black metal firebox and topping the hearth are okay I guess -- they're neutral enough.

But the mantels are so dinky.

On both sides, the living room and the dining room, they are just thin shelves, with a board under, and knot holes showing through the paint.

I think a heftier looking, more substantial mantel on each side would add a lot. We talked about a total re-do -- enlarging the firebox, adding river rock stone surrounds, maybe even stucco'ing both sides in an authentic kiva shape.

Even something really simple like the picture below, anchored by a heavy rustic beam, would look nicer. It would not be that hard to remove our beige tiles and re-stucco a smooth, plain surface all around the firebox opening and raised hearth. I really love how this looks (and it's from another house in our neighborhood).

Changing the whole look will be more expensive than just replacing the wood mantels, so at most I think we'll just check out barn beam mantels. They are pretty easy to get and simple to install. So that's our next house project.

I think that's all that is needed -- a rustic wooden beam over each fireplace to replace the skimpy painted wood shelving. Some cold weather. A glass of wine. A good man cooking dinner around the corner, and a few toasty moments by a hot tepee-built fire to remember some of what my father taught me over 50 years ago.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Botanical Book Club

The Santa Fe Botanical Garden is active. They organize lots of workshops, gatherings and events throughout the year. They have a nicely stocked botanical library and run a monthly book club. Recently I decided to go to my first Santa Fe book club meeting.

I miss my old garden book group -- the good friends, the books we read and the easy sharing of garden experience and gossip. I hoped I could find something similar. I was pleased to see the book selections here were exactly what my old group was reading.

You don't join this book club, you just show up at a small meeting room in the education center building. It's a fluid group of people who come each time. At the first meeting I went to, four of us were first timers and five were repeat attendees. There were eight women, including me, and one man. Plus the director of education for the botanical garden, who organizes the whole thing.

All the women were 70+ years of age, and all were highly educated. They wore their intellects the way they wore their silver jewelry, heavily and obviously but very, very tastefully. They knew their horticulture and they had a lot to offer. There were no garden neophytes in the room, these were people who know plants. The discussion was free flowing and really interesting -- I enjoyed it.

The man in the group was a wiry youngish farmer with a long black pony tail, an Oklahoma twang, and good ole boy manners. He was an odd counterpoint to the upper class silvered ladies of the club, but they welcomed him and engaged him and had a great discussion with him about the qualities of wind howling on the plains compared to wind blowing in northern New Mexico. He seemed happy to be in the group and he had read the book.

This being Santa Fe, each of the ladies was a little offbeat too. Just slightly. Caroline hadn't really focused on the book because of Proust. You know, Proust. He gets in the way when you are reading and occupies your time too much.

Victoria, who runs a garden design business, went on a bit of a riff about her clients, and how her dance training and theater work helped her design their gardens. Yes, this is Santa Fe.

Candace was quiet but offered the observation that trees are migrating northward more and more as warming winters change their habitats, and eventually all our trees will be in Canada "safely escaped from Trump". Nods and murmurs around the whole room. Santa Fe is liberal.

Barbara writes a plant of the month article for the botanical garden newsletter, and was coming up empty on how to make lichens romantic enough for the Valentine's Day issue. The talk eventually got into how lichens aren't even plants anyway, they're a fungus / algae combo and then she stunned us all with her description of a strip of glistening moss in a patch of lichens after a dusting of snow revived its emerald green softness. It was lovely.

I like the book club. We had a good discussion about the book and wandered into other topics too, especially environmental issues that a fragile ecology in the southwest faces. Everyone was friendly but not overbearing, well informed but not know-it-all --- well within my narrow New Englander's tolerance for other people.

I'm planning to go back next month.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Six Cents a Gallon

I have an excellent book on New Mexico gardening, and it starts with one simple fact: there is no gardening here without irrigation. Period.

Baker Morrow: Best Plants for New Mexico Gardens

Ancient Pueblo Indians had no crops without irrigation, and the current citizens of the city have no gardens --- even xeric, water-wise, drought tolerant gardens well mulched --- without watering them.

Santa Fe gets about 14 inches of rain a year, so I thought I knew what that meant: just over an inch a month.  But I misunderstood. It does not rain an inch a month here.

It rains 5 or 6 inches in brief half hour bursts in summer that fill arroyos with flash floods and then it doesn't rain again at all. Not a drop. More quick bursts happen sporadically and eventually it totals 14 inches for the year, but the stretches between short rain events are long and uninterrupted. (Then there's this year, which is in the midst of a totally rainless drought.)

What the gardening book meant is that you have no crop, no ornamentals, no plants at all unless you provide all the water in the long months when no rain falls. Street trees are on drip systems; the water to irrigate the ones in our neighborhood are paid for in our HOA fees. The Santa Fe Botanical Garden features native, dry-loving plants, and all are on drip irrigation.

Santa Fe Botanical Garden
Drip irrigation is well concealed, but the whole garden is irrigated

I did not understand that rainfall is not only scanty, it is highly intermittent and sporadic.

Surprisingly, our home water bill in New Mexico is less than what we paid in New England. Municipal water rates are very high here, but our usage is low, and our net outlay for water, averaged for a year, is a considerable savings.

We are not irrigating a lawn, which took an enormous amount of water in Connecticut, so that's the main difference. I don't take many baths, which I kind of miss. I have a 2 gallon bucket standing in the shower stall -- as I wait for the water to heat up enough to get in the shower, the bucket fills. After every shower I tote 2 gallons out to the aspen trees and give them a little water.

The Santa Fe river runs through town, and meets the Rio Grande west of the city.
It doesn't actually have this much water in it right now.

Santa Fe is at the top of the nation for water rates -- we pay over six cents per gallon (and if you exceed 7,000 gallons a month the fee is a whopping 21 cents per gallon! Our household uses 3,000 gallons a month so we don't hit that second pricing tier, but it's a real motivator for bigger homes and businesses.)

For comparison, the average per gallon rate for other states is less than one cent per gallon.

But Santa Fe residents are at the top of the nation for water conservation too. Nobody has a lawn. Everybody is aware of water use and rain capture. There's a phone app that tracks gallons of usage by the hour, by the day, by the month and on and on, with bar graphs and color charts. I check it often and it keeps water conservation top of mind. There's a leak detection app for your phone too.

There's even a city hotline to call if you see water being wasted somewhere. Phew.

I can track that it costs me $1.20 every time I take a long hot shower, using about 20 gallons. Or I can skip a shower one day and spend $1.20 to water the pine trees in front -- that takes 20 gallons as well. I know this stuff now. I see every last gallon as it's used on my phone bar charts.

As I think about the gardens I want to put in here, I need to plan how I'll water them. I need to consider not just what drought tolerant plants to put in, but how to totally support even the most xeric plants for all their water needs for the long stretches when there is no rain. I'll have to figure out how often to water and when and how much.

Right down to the gallon.

(Excited update as of February 15 -- we got three quarters of an inch of steady, soft drizzly rain overnight! The morning broke gray and cold and damp -- conditions I detested in Connecticut, but welcome here.)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Vinegar and Dirt

I have convinced myself that the thing to have here in my Santa Fe walled courtyard is a sweet smelling winter flowering large shrub: Hamamelis mollis, witch hazel.

Hamamelis 'Arnold's Promise' -- how great would this witch hazel be by my fence in winter? 

In this unusually warm Santa Fe winter we are spending a lot of time out on our patio. The air is cool, but the sun is so warm, and we spend most afternoons sitting outside without a jacket  -- in the sun it's comfortably, drowsily, nap inducingly warm. Hot, even.

How great would it be to have the clear, spicy perfume of a winter flowering witch hazel right there? The color of yellow blooms, the structure of a small tree by the back deck where I spend time in the winter sunshine.... just the perfect thing.

Witch hazels bloom in winter, looking like very lovely early forsythias. Only nicer.

But I'll probably have to grow witch hazel in a large pot. That means it will stay small, and never become a spreading elegant shape like the beautiful pictures above. But it can be done, and they will bloom -- Dan Pearson has grown them successfully in containers.

I could even get several and grow
witch hazels that bloom in different colors.

In the same article linked above, Dan says he has grown hamamelis in limestone soil in the Cotswolds in England, even though witch hazels need slightly acid to neutral soil to grow best. The soil issue is the big reason I didn't think I could grow a witch hazel here. I was sure I had a high alkaline level, and finally decided to test it.

There's a simple chemical reaction that can determine if you have high ph: pour a little vinegar on the soil and see if it produces any bubbles.

So I went out one sunny winter afternoon and poured vinegar on my dirt. Aaack. 

It bubbled and effervesced and fizzed and made a mound of frothy suds. It was the Mt. Vesuvius of erupting dirt bubbles. The reaction was enough to move small boulders. Uphill.

No inconclusive or possibly uncertain results -- I got what soil guys call Vigorous Fizzing. I have soil that is essentially lye.

This was the reaction I got from vinegar poured on my
garden soil, except it was brown and full of dirt.

You want to know what ph actually measures, don't you? Of course you do.

It's the weight of hydrogen, or Pounds of Hydrogen. When something acid enters water it gives up a hydrogen ion to the water and has fewer hydrogen ions, so it weighs less. When something alkaline contacts water it takes up a hydrogen ion from the water and weighs more. Pure water is neutral, it has an equal number of hydrogen and oxygen (technically hydroxide) ions.

That's it. Vinegar and bubbling dirt are irrefutable predictors that a witch hazel would not grow well here.

But I decided to try one in a container and see how that goes. And here it is: Hamamelis 'Sweet Sunshine' newly arrived by mail order and just potted up. It's February, but it's 60 degrees out, and potting plants in the mild sunshine made me feel like I was gardening in spring.

It's looking a little pale and distressed from its journey in a shipping box in mid winter. It's only a few twigs right now, with some blooms that have gone by at the bottom.

I need to let it settle in and adjust to the light and air. I am giving it the safest possible home, in a pot, out of the alkaline soil, and in shade for now until it gets established and can handle some New Mexico sun.

This is an example of what I hope my new 'Sweet Sunshine' will grow into -- in a few years, perhaps -- complete with the fragrance I'm so eagerly anticipating:

______________________________________________________   By the way . . . . 

For those of you who followed my gardening blog in the past, you'll remember I grew witch hazels in my Connecticut garden and despaired with them. They held on to their brown leaves all winter and looked ugly. The hybrid I got, "Diane' had stunted looking flowers, sparse blooming and little scent. When they did bloom fitfully it was always too snowbound to get out in the yard and see or smell them. Witch hazels were not a success for me even though they grow beautifully all throughout New England.

So with that history, why am I even thinking of growing witch hazel in Santa Fe?

Well, as every gardener understands, this time will be different.

Also, winter is cold enough here to give witch hazels the deep chill they need to bloom, but not so harsh as CT, so we're outside a lot. And in a pot I can put it right on the deck and enjoy it close up. The scent really is lovely and I think I can make it work.

Like I said, this time it will be different.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Rain Chain

It hasn't rained here for months. The last rainfall was October 5. I'm keeping track of these things since this climate is so novel to me. We had a dusting of snow in December that evaporated, and an inch of snow in January that only lingered in shady spots but is long gone.

It's also been too warm. Too warm. The locals are very concerned, the ski area is a little desperate. For days our winter afternoons have reached 60 degrees and in the bright sun it's much hotter. We sit outside in shirtsleeves and need to find a spot of shade. Everyone tells us this is unusual for Santa Fe in February.

It's pleasant --- really, really pleasant -- but oddly unnerving. Even Alexa is spooked. Her voice wavers uncertainly each time she gives us the forecast for the day.

Nights are still cold, in the 20s, but in the daytime sun it's hot. Plants warm up and then freeze, over and over.

I'm thinking about rain a lot. I ordered a rain chain for the front corner of the house. See where the canale spout juts out from the top of the portal?

It's warm here this winter, but not this summery. This is a shot from last August.

That's where I'll hang a chain to direct water downward instead of splashing out over the gravel and back onto the cement floor of the porch where it puddles. Or at least it did form a puddle that time 4 months ago when it rained.

It's a long string of copper cups hung on a chain from the canale, to capture and slow the rain as it pours off the roof. It creates a soothing sound and it directs the water straight downward in a staged, checked flow.

Laura had one at her house (the Air BnB we stayed at last year), but the way it was hung meant it was decorative, not a functioning chain to direct water. She just had the chain attached by an eye screw directly under the lip of the canale. That isn't going to work. I do love her red gate, though.

When rain pours out of a canale, it doesn't run straight down, it arches out. For a rain chain to capture that fall, water has to pour directly down, not out.

So we need a rain chain canale adapter, which is a thing. They sell a sleeve that fits over the spout and extends it a bit, with a hole in the bottom. The chain is then hung from the bottom hole.

That will work. So I'll get a sleeve adapter for the canale and a lovely copper chain of cups to slow and direct the water whenever and if ever it rains again in my lifetime.

Installing the chain and the sleeve adapter will require a man with a ladder to go out and put it up. So this is going to take negotiating, possibly some cajoling. A long term project for sure, but not to worry . . .  it's not going to rain any time soon.

Friday, February 2, 2018

We Need a New Gate

We need to replace the gate from the driveway into our kitchen courtyard.

I like the rustic look, made of untreated mesquite wood, but it's falling askew, and pieces keep popping out of the frame. It squeaks and wobbles as we come and go. There is only a sliding bolt latch on one side, so opening it from the other side takes some maneuvering.

Our homeowner's association is very strict about what you can do to the outside of your home. That's a good thing; keeping the Santa Fe pueblo style look consistent makes this neighborhood cohesive and pleasing.

But gates -- that's where creativity is allowed. Every back or side courtyard here is surrounded by either an adobe wall or a coyote fence of rough wood poles, and the entry gates are all different. Some have artistic flourishes and look expensive, others are simple and functional. Some are painted. Some are actual doors, especially the ones in the higher adobe walls. The designs are all interesting and varied.

The simplest thing would be to rebuild what is there in the exact dimensions but in a stronger wood (cedar probably) and leave it unstained as the current gate is. New hardware, so we can open it easily from both sides.

But we could do something a little different too. So I started a Pinterest board and have been collecting pictures for ideas.

I'm partial to a red gate. We stayed at an Air BnB last winter on Don Juan Street, and she had a red painted wood gate that just popped, especially with the coyote fence.

Her fence was taller, ours is a lower height. So something a little smaller would work better, like this.

But red next to our garage side door, which is painted turquoise, might be too much color. Here are some that are painted a softer blue, but I could paint mine to match our turquoise door.

These could also be painted red if I go that route. Or stained or left natural. What I like about these blue gates is the open grill area at the top. Here are some more ideas I gathered for gates with an open grill at the top.

But they would be more expensive probably. A simple gate of solid boards would be fine too.

I'm having trouble deciding. Painted red? Top grill opening? Curved top? Painted turquoise to match the garage side door? Straight lines? Stained, or left natural to age? It's only a gate, but I have too many choices.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Orange Moon

I got up at 5:15 this morning and watched the lunar eclipse. The sky was clear, the moon was a perfect bright circle and I stood outside in my bathrobe and saw the shadow encroach at the edge and the moon turn orange. It was 28 degrees out, cold and dark and serene.

Not my picture. My cameras failed me. But it looked like this.

But by 6 a.m. an urgent balancing act was in play. The sky was starting to turn pink in the east. The moon in the west, now almost totally eclipsed, was quickly sinking below the rooflines of the nearby houses. I could only see it through the bare branches of the aspens between my two neighbor's houses.

At 6:30 -- at "totality" -- the eerie dimmed moon was almost gone behind the houses and the sunrise was spreading a fiery magenta over the houses on the other side. A battle of heavenly proportions was taking place above me from two different directions.

The sky got lighter, the strange diminished moon faded, then finally hid behind the roofs where it disappeared from my view. I couldn't get over how metaphysical it all was -- the fierce bold sun vanquishing an eclipsed, bloodied moon in the frigid sky above my head, and me, so insignificant and cold standing below in my jammies.

At 7 a.m. I went in and made coffee and tried to warm up.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

High Country Gardens

When I first began my gardens in Connecticut over 10 years ago, one of the mail order plant catalogs I loved was High Country Gardens. I ordered a lot from them over the years, even though they specialized in western adapted plants and I had a garden in the wet northeast.

High Country Gardens was one of the better online sources in the garden world, mostly because of its founder, David Salman, a horticulturist who introduced many new varieties, spoke extensively at plant conferences, and was well known. The High Country Gardens catalog was one of the best presented and most informative about plants.

I was vaguely aware at the time that the physical location for High Country Gardens' mail order operation was located somewhere in the west, Colorado maybe?

It turns out it was in Santa Fe. On Rufina Street, three miles from my house. A block from my hairdresser. I drive past it frequently as I'm out doing errands in town.

In addition to offering mail order plants, David Salman ran a retail garden center at the Rufina St. location, named simply Santa Fe Gardens, which the locals adored and still talk about.

It closed a few years ago, well before we moved here. The mail order business was sold to American Meadows, a wildflower seed catalog company in Vermont. They still operate the mail order catalog under the name High Country Gardens, with plants supplied from growers in Denver and from David Salman's operation here.

His garden center on Rufina Street is now the wholesale breeding business, no longer selling plants at retail. The site looks industrial. But on several weekends in May they open to the public and sell stock, and it's already on my calendar.

The former Santa Fe Gardens retail center -- now a wholesale plant propagation operation.

David continues to write blog posts about southwestern plants, and that's on my reading list now.

I contacted him about the May weekend sales, looking for a couple plants I had back east that I would like to replicate here in my courtyard. David got right back to me, and said yes, he'd have exactly the two I'm looking for, in 5 inch pots this spring.

They are both honeysuckle vines that are proven to grow well in this climate. With all the fencing around my back yard, I finally have great places to grow vines and there are two I loved that I want to try again.

The first one I want is a red trumpet honeysuckle called 'Major Wheeler'. I never had a structure it could grow on in my old garden so I ended up giving it to my sister, who planted it on her pool fence in central Connecticut where it now thrives.

It's a gorgeous colorful vine, adaptable to New England and reliably suitable for this climate. The profuse deep red blooms will look nice behind the red chairs and I have the trellis all ready for it.

Nancy, whose courtyard is on the other side of the fence, will get to enjoy the flowers too, as they spill along the top of our shared fence.

The second vine I want is 'Kintzley's Ghost' lonicera reticulata, a strange and goofy honeysuckle that I first saw at the Denver Botanical Garden years ago. I had just planted one in Connecticut but it was only a couple years old before we moved.

Now I get to try it again, and I'll put it on the fence by the kitchen door.

I drive by the Rufina St. location of High Country Gardens all the time, and it doesn't look like much since it's no longer a retail center. It's a wholesale operation behind a chain link fence, not welcoming to shoppers.

But in May I'll be there to pick up these plants and surely to find other treasures offered as well.

There is so much that feels happily right about our move to Santa Fe, and finding High Country Gardens so near, with the plants I want available and David Salman accessible --- it's truly a bit of garden serendipity.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Cold Snap

With so many parks and towns and sights to visit in New Mexico, it's hard to plan where to go next. We decided to see some of the southeastern part of the state last week, thinking it would be nice in mid January to be somewhere a little warmer when it's cold up here in Santa Fe.

So Carlsbad Caverns, 275 miles to the south, down toward the Texas border, was a logical mid winter trip. No school kids or crowds in January was a bonus.

The temperatures there are consistently 10 or more degrees warmer than here, usually around 58 degrees on a January afternoon. Not summery, but nice with a light jacket on.

But it was colder there than at our house. Much colder.

Our drive took us down the old cattle drive route along the Pecos River, past wide open treeless cattle ranches, through vast oilfields, past the impressive military institute in Roswell, and by the pecan orchards of Artesia.

As we drove further south it got colder and colder, and when we arrived in Carlsbad it was 32 F, with a biting wind.

For our entire stay in Carlsbad it never got out of the 30s and nights were in the teens. The wind was sharp.

But our bed and breakfast (Fiddler's Inn) was welcoming and cozy, breakfasts at the charming Blue House Bakery next door were delicious, and dinners at a restaurant we found, sitting next to a lit fireplace, were delightful. We went there each night, it was so good, not even venturing to try other restaurants in Carlsbad.

Blue House Bakery in Carlsbad next to our BnB

It was too coldly unpleasant to do the river walk along the Pecos; Carlsbad is a nice town with a lovely riverfront. But we went mainly to see the caverns, and they were not only spectacular, but . . . they are underground. At 750 feet down in the earth, the caverns are always 55 degrees, warmish and humid. Out of the wind and in our parkas below ground, we were hot.

I simply can't do justice to what we saw in the caverns. Like the Grand Canyon, it is the scope and scale and sense of awe that dazzles, not the individual sights that a camera can capture in one frame. It was phenomenal.

The caverns are artfully lit, keeping the place dark and eerie, but lighting the incredible formations to see them. At one point our park ranger guide shut off the lights and showed us what it was like for the first explorers to be in total and complete darkness so far below the surface, with only a candle or an oil lamp to throw shadows on the strange walls.

The paths are all paved, but steep and long and a challenge for Jim's back. Despite that, we spent hours in the cave, first on the guided tour with the ranger, which was really informative, and then on our own, almost entirely by ourselves wandering past incredible wonders. There were no crowds on a midweek winter day.

The cold snap in Carlsbad was brief. After we left it was 71 degrees the next day. We just managed to be there for the few days it was unseasonably cold. Still, it was a great winter getaway with awesome sights and pleasant lodgings.

Our national parks are treasures.