Monday, March 19, 2018

Man on a Ladder

It took some tools and some silicone adhesive and a man on a ladder to attach the brass sleeve to the canale to hang my new rain chain.

I love the look of it. It finishes off that corner of the house and starts to make it look like a garden and not just "the side of the house along the driveway".

I can't wait to see this whole area with the new garden planted up, some flowering containers on the tiered plant stand, and the cottonwood and aspen trees all green and leafy.

I can't wait to hear gentle rain burbling down the chain. I used the plastic brown urn I got at Home Depot years ago in Connecticut and debated moving -- it was cheap and many years old, and it didn't seem worth paying to move a bulky plastic item. But I filled it with wrapped kitchen utensils and put it on the moving truck.

It's perfect now for this use. I put big rocks in it so it won't tip over in the March winds, and it has a drainage hole so water, slowed by the chain and by the rocks inside, will drain out gradually.

Whether the chain and the rock filled urn actually do that is all theoretical until it actually rains in Santa Fe. 

Some day.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ski Season

I did not go skiing this winter. I had planned to. Having a major ski area just outside of town, Ski Santa Fe, was one of the reasons we picked this town to move to, rather than moving to a warm winter place like Arizona.

Ski Santa Fe is 18 miles from Santa Fe, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which are the very southern tail end of the Rockies. The ski area is visible from town all winter long. It's the slash of white in the center of this shot, and I see it every day when I am out.

The white slopes of the ski area are visible anywhere in town.

The rounded white peak on the left is Mt. Baldy. It's over 12,000 feet high, and for part of the winter it had natural snow. The ski area is also 12,000 feet high and did get natural snow, but in this dry winter they had to make much of their base, and it was a struggle for them to keep all trails open.

Because I can see the ski mountain every day from our neighborhood, I kept feeling guilty that I wasn't getting out there. Look at it! Some snow! I should go! But I had no one to go with, and that intimidated me when considering I'd have to scope out a new area, and a big one, by myself.

Driving into town, you face the white caps of the Sangre de Cristos.

Jim and I joined the Newcomers Club here, and in addition to all the other activities it organizes (it's a really active, well run social group of mostly older newcomers who moved here 10 or 20 years ago), there is a skier's group that meets at the ski area every week. At a luncheon recently I got talking with a couple and although this season is pretty much gone by, they got me excited about going next year.

They also mentioned that there is an informal group that just shows up at the base lodge coffee shop each weekday morning at 8:30 to ski together. I asked who they were, and was told " Old people. Elder skiers. Just show up and you'll have people your age (I'm elder??) to ski with."

I could do this.

The snow looked pretty decent in this facebook ski area shot from March 8,
with the city of Santa Fe spread out below.

In Connecticut I had my younger sister to ski with and we'd meet once a week in the winter to spend a couple hours at a small local area. But she refused to move to New Mexico with us, and so abandoned me (I think she feels it was the other way around). Now I think I can find some people my age to ski with, if I can just get my act together to go next season. I do miss my sister as ski partner though : (

But I'm still a little intimidated. The road there is a long, twisting, winding mountain snake through canyons and I don't really want to tackle it, even in dry weather. But there is a $5 shuttle bus that leaves from a park downtown and makes the long trip twice a day. I might try that.

Also, I'm daunted by the altitude. I've adjusted to life at 6,900 feet, but Ski Santa Fe's base is over 10,000 feet and the top is 12,000. Would I be able to handle that?

Another facebook shot from the ski area, showing the snow making going on.

And I'm concerned about the whole concept of skiing in a drought in a warming climate. A lot of their snow is man made, and although they harvest water and recycle it carefully, it feels weird to go skiing on it when I'm lugging shower water out to my trees and turning off the faucet when I brush my teeth in order to conserve every drop. Something about the whole snow making enterprise feels wrong.

Still, I should do this. I felt bad about not being more adventurous this year, but Jim assures me we didn't have to do everything in our new environment all in the first year here. And now that I am starting to socialize with skiers my age and I could find partners to go with, I'm getting my nerve up for next season.

If only it would snow more in the Sangre de Cristos next winer.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Making a Garden

At the classes I've been taking at the Santa Fe botanical garden, I am learning about gardening in the high and dry. I'm finding out about best plant choices and I'm getting some good design ideas.

The area directly under the windows behind the rock bed is where I want to make a garden.

After rain and water issues, the big garden topic here is soil. Our dirt is rich in minerals, because there is no rain to wash mineral content away. But it's low on organic material, fungi and bacteria. You have to add compost to get the soil ready for the living microorganisms to come.

I bought bags of stuff called composted cotton burrs, which was recommended by the nursery. Because cotton is a high input crop (it takes a lot of fertilizer and water and add-ins to grow cotton), the chopped up, composted remains of cotton plants make rich stuff for gardens.

Rich stuff.

But now I'm worried I have over-amended the area below the dining room windows where I want to put in a small shrubbery. I'm planning on putting in low woody plants that all want dry, lean soil. 

To get to workable dirt, I had to remove the gravel mulch and the horrid disintegrating landscape fabric, and what remained was root filled hardpan. You can see it in the central area, while the areas to the left and right have been amended with the composted cotton burr material.

Ugh. Scooping up gravel, tearing up landscape fabric. Messy, dusty, hard work for an aging gardener.

Removing gravel was a week long chore. Raking did not work, so on hands and knees I scooped up what I could and hauled a half bucket at a time out to the front yard to fill in bare areas. It took forever. The early March weather was lovely and warm and pleasant while I scrabbled around in the dirt, so I didn't complain, although my knees lamented loudly at every opportunity.

In the end there were tons of pebbles still left in the sand, so I called that "drainage enhancements" and added bagged topsoil and the cotton burr compost on top of it. Too much, I think. 

I needed to raise the level of the soil here. In the brief downpours that do come, rarely but heavily in summer, rainwater pools. The drainage path gets overwhelmed. 

Too much water at times in summer.

I need to redirect some water from the overhead canale (I'm researching rain barrels). But I also needed to add enough soil to absorb the water, and now this new garden area is rich and fluffy and soft and more even with the edge of the rock ditch. 

This will be my major experiment in southwest gardening. Can I make it work? Here's what I have:

Water -- too much at times but mostly dry all year
Soil -- over enhanced now, probably
Light -- southeast sun, late afternoon shade and high tree canopy shade
Competition -- roots from mature trees
Protection -- right up against the house

This empty area will be filled with low mounding shrubs. I may tuck in colorful perennials too.

Here's what I plan to put in, not all natives, but all suited to dry conditions and poor soils:

Agastache -- tough, a dry loving native, I got a rose pink flowered one
Hypericum (St. Johnswort) -- Blue Velvet, an indestructible workhorse
Caryopteris -- a dry lover, this one has dark blue flowers
Rhus aromatica (Gro-low) -- low mounding sumacs with glossy foliage
Ceanothus (NJ Tea) --  beautiful low lilac-looking plant that wants no water, lean soils

This is what will fill the garden space under the dining room windows. 

When the shrubs fill in you won't see the demarcation between soil and gravel around the aspen trees. When the shrubs are little, I may add some taller perennials -- that will fill up the area for a while.

Try to imagine the area filled with rounded shrubs and beautiful forms and blooms. I can see it. Can you?

Doesn't that deep black soil / compost look too rich for what I have planned? Will my selected plants, chosen for their dry loving, low nutrient ways, just up and die on me in this rich artificially enhanced garden?

We'll have to see. It's all an experiment and I am here to learn . . . .


Thursday, March 8, 2018


We took a drive to Corrales one afternoon this winter. It's 50 miles from our house, an easy drive straight south down the Can Am highway. It's only 15 miles north of Albuquerque, a suburb of the city I guess, but it's really its own little burg, and a real throwback to another time.

It's a small village of less than 8,000 people, wedged in the narrowest strip of land between the Rio Grande river and the sprawling immense suburban monoculture of Rio Rancho tract homes and malls and the Intel Corp. campus to the west.

The commercial tree farm in Corrales stretches along the main street, with an
awesome view of the Sandia mountains on the other side of the Rio Grande

Corrales was, and still is, a farming community. The look and feel of wineries, a wholesale tree farm, horse stables and garden plots makes this little place seem like it belongs to centuries past.

It was mid winter when we visited, but in summer you can tell the town is green and leafy, with mature shady trees and small scale agriculture all around. The river isn't much -- it's the Rio Grande, after all, which is a poor excuse for a river to my New England eyes, but in New Mexico it is everything. Tilled fields hug the banks, and the town's only commercial street follows the river.

We had lunch at the Indigo Crow, sitting near a blazing fireplace. Like most of Corrales, 
it's not much to look at, but it's quaint and authentic and cozy, with good food.

What struck me was how Corrales has found that sweet spot between a quaint village that is still a working, living community, and the precious Disneyfied, upscale, frozen-in-time artifact for tourists that it could have become.

There are a couple cute cafes and bakeries; the agriculture now is wine grapes and landscape trees and farmer's markets, no longer goats and chickens and truck farms. But it has kept its old time feeling, its small scale, and enough old utilitarian buildings that it still feels like a modest, working class town.

Farmer's markets and cafes are the thing in this
little agricultural town now.

However, it is close to a major urban area, and there are some upscale homes, especially on the river. There are festivals and town events clearly intended to bring in tourists (art shows, harvest fairs, parades, an event called The Running of the Tractors. . .)

Every June there is a garden tour of lovely southwest style gardens at homes in town, and I plan on going this June.

I'm looking forward to seeing Corrales in the summer season. Homes have lawns, and fields are green. Trees, both at the extensive tree farm and in town yards, will be in leaf. Apparently the river provides the irrigation for this farm town, although this is still New Mexico, where rain is just a vague promise.

I'll post about the garden tour when we go.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Squeak is Gone

Our entrance gate no longer wobbles or squeaks or has to be jimmied to close. Our new gate now makes a hefty kerklunk when the bronze latch is lifted and the sturdy cedar door now swings open smoothly.

We'll wait a couple weeks before putting a finish on the wood. Luis wants the gate to settle on its hinges before he applies sealer caulking to the joints where the panels meet -- apparently keeping rain out of the interior panels is important, and caulk is needed although I can't fathom why, when it never EVER rains in this climate.

Besides, it's too cold to paint or stain right now. Waiting a couple weeks gives me time to ponder how to finish it. So. .  .

1. Should we paint it Santa Fe blue to match the adjacent garage side door?

2. Or should we stain it medium brown to highlight the nice cedar grain and keep a rustic look?

3. Or should we leave the raw cedar to age naturally to a silvery gray over time?

Those in favor of the first option should move to the right side of the room. Those who favor the second, move to the left, and if anyone thinks aging the unfinished cedar is best, stay in the center.

I always thought I'd want a red gate, but we probably won't do that. I have a couple weeks now to ponder my choices.

I also am pondering what to do with the antique hardware we kept from the old gate. The fixed handles weren't functional in any way to latch the gate, but they are really quite attractive and would make interesting accents somewhere.

They are heavy, aged bronze and forged iron. Each could be used as a stationary hook or a decorative hanger if I could figure out where.

I spent a lot of time this winter looking at samples of gates for design inspiration. Ours had to fit existing dimensions, including that matching narrow panel to the side that swings open on its own for wider access, so both sections needed to be custom built. Between the cost of cedar and the cost for custom building, it was expensive. In the end, I just kind of turned the design over to Luis and said "make me something simple, with rails or a grilled opening at the top". I didn't expect recessed panels, but they look classic and structural.

He did a fine job, and he seemed shyly proud of it, asking a couple times "Te gusta? Do you like it?"

I do. I totally love our new gate. Es muy bueno.

            (Here's what the old one looked like.)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Empty Alley

What would you do with this empty corner? This is a small utility alley on the right side of our house, facing the street. The fuse box is on the wall behind the big green shrubs. It's the north side, with little sun, and no windows.

The neighbor's house is to the right, ours is the wall on the left. These pictures are all from summer when we first moved in.

There is a rock drainage path, edged with spiky dasylirion hesperaloe plants. The rock bed begins, abruptly, at the edge of a square of salmon pink colored gravel. The fence that encloses the pink gravel area has no gate, no entrance into the back yard. It's just a fenced in, closed square space.

I like all the elements -- rock creek beds, color contrast gravel, coyote fence enclosure, spacious area, all visible in the front to the street -- it could be a nicely landscaped garden area. But standing on the sidewalk, looking at the front of the house, the right side just sort of disappears into shadows.

Because it is around the side of the house and there is no access to the back yard through the fence, it's not an area I ever go into and I can't easily get the hose there, so I would never water any plants in that corner.

And it's the north side, fenced in and also bounded by tall house walls on both sides. It just isn't an area for a garden. So it has remained an empty corner.

But it wants something there.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Master Bath

Love this house, didn't love the master bathroom. It needed improvements on many fronts. It actually needs a total gut and remodel, but instead we have been chipping away at each issue.

Lighting. As soon as we moved in, I installed LED bulbs with higher lumens and I added a small lamp on my marble top vanity table, and that was a huge help.

Heat. I got an electric space heater. Without it, this room stayed at 60 degrees, even as the central furnace roared. We fiddled with the heat vents, but the bathroom stubbornly refused to reach the same temperature as the rest of the house.

With this faux urn heater I can boost the temp up to 70 degrees when I shower, but mostly I keep it at 66. The unit rotates and it's very quiet. It hasn't seemed to add much to our electric bill and it's been a godsend.

I can sit at the little table and try mightily to make some magic happen with jewelry and make up. It's a lost battle at my age, but I'm warm now and the bears are less grumpy.

Blinds. Two skinny, super tall windows over the tub and over the toilet are odd. I got honeycomb shades with a wand long enough to operate them, and had those installed last fall. It looks better than what was there. But the shades always stay closed, they aren't really for opening.

Paint. I disliked the flesh pink walls in this room. The tub surround and shower tiles are taupe, the vanity top is rough cream tiles, and the cabinet is orange knotty pine. The floor is reddish Mexican tile. It's far from the sleek marble-white dove-gray tones that are so popular in bath decor right now.

But I don't want the trendy cool whites that look so minimalist and generic. As with our old fashioned kitchen, I'm happy with the warm colors and dated vintage wood and tile. I'm okay with "rustic" in an age of "sleek chic".

I repainted the pink walls neutral, unsure what else to do. It's Benjamin Moore "Cotton Balls" which seemed like the right color for bathroom paint. I like the clean, brighter look.

Hot Water. The master bath is far from the hot water tank, and it took a minute and a half for warm water to get to the sink. 90 seconds doesn't sound like much, but that wasted well over a gallon of water down the drain each time. I measured it. And that was multiple times a day.

But worse was waiting for the start of lukewarm water for that long, just to quickly wash my hands or rinse something off, so I never did it. I washed up in icy water all the time. It felt like we lived in a cold water flat.

So we got a tiny Bosch hot water tank that plugs in under the sink. It's only two gallons, heated and kept at 100 degrees -- really it's just a large glass lined thermos.

It's enough warm water to wash my hands or fill the dental water pik, or moisten a cloth for washing. No more cold water pouring down the drain while I wait. No more bracing myself to plunge my hands under running ice water. I rarely use the whole tank up, but if I do, by the time I've used the immediate two gallons (about two minutes), the main water heater flow has reached the faucet and there's running hot water if I need more.

It still takes a while for the shower to heat up, but I put a 2 gallon bucket in the stall and fill that to use in the garden, while waiting for the shower water to heat. You have to put up with the sight of me lugging a bucket out to the back courtyard every day, my hair wrapped in a towel and sloshing water on the way, but just don't look.

Sinks. This was a repair issue -- both sinks in the master bath vanity had to be replaced. There was a thin crack in the porcelain bowl in one, which we knew when we bought the house and figured we'd live with. The other sink was fine, but a couple months after moving in, the pop up drain mechanism broke in two so the drain could not be closed. The sinks and the faucets / drains all got replaced at the same time.

So here we are, with a brightly painted master bath that has warm water on demand (aahhh), good lighting, enough heat, and brand new porcelain sinks and faucets. It's not trendy looking at all, it's not remodeled to current tastes, but it's comfortable now.

I even embraced the rustic old cabin look in earnest and put up my Wyoming bucking bronco plaque. Really. What else would you want to see stepping out of the shower?

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.