Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Behind Adobe Walls

The garden club of Santa Fe holds a tour of private gardens in July and earlier this week we went. The tour is called "Behind Adobe Walls" and has been a successful event here for years.

Somehow I thought it would be small groups led by garden club members, visiting homes in the city to see creative courtyard spaces hidden behind the walls that enclose historic and restored Santa Fe homes. I expected it to be a walking tour around the city, maybe with some shuttle vans to take groups of people here and there. I expected the gardens to be featured and discussed.

It wasn't that.

It was 250 people, assigned to 4 huge Greyhound luxury buses that drove us far out into the hills to see upscale homes filled with art. We saw four homes, all big and expansive and with killer views. Art docents were in each room to explain the collector's vision and the provenance of the artwork.

Each home's architect was mentioned and profiled. The gardens around each house were really "plant installations" -- another form of artwork that happened to be outside or flanking the front entry.

Interesting sculptures were tucked in among the plants. The focus was on the sculptures; the plants were background.

This was not a garden tour, at least not as I expected it. But Jim and I had a good time on the bus, the people were nice, and the homes were fantastic to see.

All were Santa Fe adobe style -- low slung stucco structures with walls and gates and portals and enclosed courtyards, and all were ornately and sumptuously decorated inside. Huge gourmet kitchens and natural stone showers the size of my living room were a theme.

No pictures were allowed indoors.

It was a rare chance to experience what it looks like to live in the hills, with views of mountain ranges all around. The afternoon was unsettled, with monsoon rains threatening, and that made the sky a glorious tapestry beyond anything in the art collections we saw.

I've never been on a garden tour where you had to put on those blue paper hospital booties before taking the tour, but that was how this one operated. And I can see why -- the homes we entered were impeccably kept, made of beautiful materials, and featuring white carpeting.

But for a dirt gardener who wants to see plants grown creatively in conditions similar to mine, blue paper shoe protectors and art docents were not at all what I expected.

Monday, July 16, 2018


Last night the skies opened up and poured a full inch of heavy rain on us. The skylights beat out a rat-a-tat, Big Red the rain barrel filled almost to the top, then tilted over, unsteady on its wobbly base of rocks. I tried to right it this morning, but there's easily 50 gallons of water inside and it's very heavy.

Rain came in under the kitchen door onto the floor mat and tile floor. Water dripped inside from the transom of our new sliding glass door in the living room. It was installed last October, but other than a quarter inch of rain once in May and again in June, and a half inch of light rain another day, it hasn't been tested in 9 months. It leaks.

After a year long drought, July monsoons have come to New Mexico. Days break sunny and clear, but with high humidity, around 25 to 30%. Afternoons cloud over, and by late in the day the skies are ominous and dark.

For almost two weeks now the daily clouds have slid past us, dropping buckets of rain to the east and south of us. It's been so tantalizing, as I stand in the garden watering with the hose, while I watch roiling black clouds just over the hill. But other than a half inch the day after the 4th of July, we got nothing.

Last night we finally got monsoon rain. Even with a leaking transom, a breached kitchen door, and a full rain barrel dangerously canted over, it was welcome. Very, very welcome.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dancing Ground Park

Our neighborhood has miles of paved walking trails, a pool and clubhouse, open meadows, and the builder kept the existing arroyos and drainage swales, siting all the houses around them. It makes this community very natural looking, even though it is densely built.

There is also a park in the middle of everything.

It's kind of interesting -- it's not a swings and basketball park. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it has a very naturalistic look. A lot of the space is given over to big stands of meadow weeds. I can't believe I'm saying this. -- I'm a tidy gardener -- but the billowy out of control weeds look good in this context.

There are big untended stands of red Mexican Hat (ratibida) flanking the walkways.

Yarrow has gone crazy flopping about under some trees.

A grounds crew comes in and chops at things a bit, but it's pretty unkempt.

There are some tidier parts -- a pavilion with benches, surrounded by irrigated lawn mowed neatly, for example.

The green lawn is ringed by trees underplanted with glossy green leaved fragrant sumac, a plant I have grown and am attempting to grow in my Santa Fe garden. It's nice to see it sprawling about naturally in big patches edging the lawn.

The watered lawn is big. It's for frisbee and sitting on and for kids to chase each other about. You need lawn for that.

But other parts of the park are not watered. Where there are no weedy meadow plants or plantings of fragrant sumacs, and where the lawn is not watered, this is what you get:

You can toss frisbees and play on this brown open dirt too, but the lawn is much nicer.

The park also has some odd structures. There are stucco walls with bench seats molded in them for sitting about.

And there are stucco walls that don't do anything -- they are not parts of buildings or places to sit, they are just freestanding low walls about five feet tall, with window openings, standing around the park.

Another freestanding wall frames a small plaza, where the plants have gone a little wild. The oddity of this formal plaza in the middle of nowhere in the park, with a non-functional wall with open window holes in it, and plants out of control is somehow unexpected and charming.

The only concession to playscape materials in the park is a beach sand pit and baby slide.

The park is up a bit of a hill from our house, and it's a great place to watch the sun set. Kids play here, boys ride bikes through it, dog walkers walk their pets and ignore the pet poop bag dispensers installed all over the park. Plants run wild, but were clearly thoughtfully chosen and installed.

It's an interesting space -- haphazardly maintained, partially irrigated, obviously beautifully designed, and dotted with odd structures.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Big Red

I really underestimated how shady the garden I created under the dining room windows is. It's deeply shady all day. My plant choices are all wrong.

You can see the big red rain barrel that I moved from the other side of the house. There, it was out of the way and unseen. Here it kind of dominates the dark recesses of what was supposed to be a flowery shrubbery under the windows.

Even the camera doesn't know what to do with so much deep shade.

Big Red sits in the only spot of sunlight this space gets, but it's also where a pool of standing water quickly accumulates from the canale pouring off the roof above it. The rain barrel will capture most of the water when it rains, and keep the garden from flooding. And it will then be a handy source for watering the plants here -- the hose is on the other side of the fence.

Now, instead of a flowery shrubbery, my view from inside is of a red plastic tub. At least it's something to look at. The plants not so much.

Room with a view . .  .            
              . . . . of a red plastic tub.

What to plant here? I thought it would get bright morning sun and then afternoon dappled shade in summer. In the winter sunlight comes straight at this side of the house all morning long. In summer, with the sun further to the north, it sits squarely behind the tall cottonwood all morning, then the house throws shadows the rest of the day.

The agastaches and caryopteris -- sun lovers -- have already come out. Black-eyed Susan was moved. I have several groundcover plumbagos (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) getting started, and they like shade. They'll cover the dirt nicely at some point and they have tiny blue blooms. I also put in some white bellflowers (Campanulas) that will grow low and spread out a bit and they'll take shade.

Annual impatiens are blooming pale pink. They need to bulk up, or I have to plant more.

But I don't want a whole garden of groundcovers and pale little low things. I want to see something out the window. Shrubby St. Johnswort and fragrant sumacs are planted there -- the green blobby things that are visible. They'll take shade, but "take shade" means at least a couple hours of sun and then light shade, not the day long gloom I have.

The blue-green St. Johnswort by the relax sign (Hypericum 'Blue Velvet') is thin looking with bare stems inside the mound of foliage. It doesn't look good, and has declined since transplant. The glossy leaved sumacs looked great and were growing in this shady place, but one succumbed to verticillium wilt right away and had to come out. A second one is showing signs. When the third one gets it and all have to be removed, there won't be any nice big blobs of green to anchor the shrubbery in this garden.

Fragrant sumac and St. Johnswort shrubs will tolerate shade, but not all day.

Start over.

I'll get some tall yellow columbines (aquilegia chrysantha) at the fall plant sales, they are full shade plants. What else can thrive in constant deep shade, grow tall enough and have enough presence to be seen out the window, and offer some color or interest? And handle rapid transpiration in our dry air?

I'm not coming up with much beyond shade groundcovers. Low mounding grasses like blue festuca and Japanese forest grass. Other low things like ferns, lamium, hostas of course . . . I'm not getting very inspired.

So far Big Red is the only focal point for form or color in this garden.

Big Red peeks through the aspens.
Yellow leaves are from the cottonwood, dropping from the drought.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Rockets and Rain

Last night we walked up to Dancing Ground Park to watch fireworks. The town decided, after all the fire hazard warnings and dry conditions, to do a display at the mall a mile from us, visible from our neighborhood park.

Kids ran around with light sticks in the gloaming while we waited for things to start. Parents scolded, teens set off mini fireworks around us, little ones waved sparklers. It was warm and windy and weirdly damp. They set off test rockets, angled to the east to fight the wind to the west. Finally the show began and the finale was awesome. Kaboom.

Today, the day after, the weather was unsettled and humid and at dinnertime the heavens opened and rain fell. Hard at first, pelting our skylights. We have 5 skylights in our house and I am forever going around to turn off lights in the daytime, only to realize it's sunshine from above lighting up the interior of the house.

The skylights beat out a drumming tap dance that announces rain in New Mexico. Ratatat ratatat. Noisy bliss. The sun came out while it was raining hard and everything was sparkly. Then it retreated and dark clouds came back.

My new rain barrel, installed on a sunny day under where I thought the rain would pour off the canale, failed. It wasn't anywhere near the spout of water that jutted out off the roof with such force. It's located in the Employees Only alley at the side of the house, but I need to reposition it.

I need to move it to the other side of the house in front, under the dining room windows, where an ocean pool of standing water formed in my new garden under the canale there. That's where the rain barrel needs to be.

My copper rain chain works. Water poured so beautifully from cup to cup and it sang. It made a delicate metallic humming sound. Huh.

It was only half an inch of total rain, but it was more exciting than fireworks, noisier on our skylights than booming rockets, and a great way to celebrate the 4th.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Rainless Rain

It has a name -- that odd look in the sky when rain falls from dark clouds but never reaches the ground. It's called a virga, a shaft of rain that evaporates in the air.

from the Santa Fe New Mexican

I thought it was such an unusual sight when we first moved here, and was struck by the idea of rainless rain each time I saw it over our neighborhood. Santa Fe art galleries are full of paintings of the skies above New Mexico and they feature this moody, strange scene a lot.

from Wikipedia

But now I know it's a common weather occurrence and we see it all the time. I never knew it had a name until now. The root of the word virga is, of course, the same as virgin -- it's rain that never develops, doesn't produce, stays chastely up in the heavens and never touches the earth.

Now you know.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

There's Hope

I wanted a desert willow tree to plant by the garage corner, and I specifically hunted for a white flowered one. Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) usually has purple pink flowers, and the color is not to my taste. I'm not a fan of magenta flowers. But there are varieties that are light pink, and some that are white.

White flowered Chilopsis linearis (Desert willow)

When I found a chilopsis with a tag that said it was a white flowered variety, I snapped it up. It was Chilopsis linearis 'Hope'. How perfect was that?

A few weeks after I planted it, my white flowered 'Hope' desert willow bloomed:

The tag said "white flowered" and the name
was Chilopsis linearis 'Hope'

I'll keep it, magenta flowers and all. I think it's 'Lucretia Hamilton', a common one with deep purple pink flowers sold by the same nursery and obviously mis-tagged, which is something that happens ALL THE TIME in nurseries.

Chilopsis is a tough New Mexico native that grows in arroyos, so it can take days of standing in floodwater followed by weeks of no rain at all. It wants very hot temperatures and alternating bone dry and standing water conditions.

It's not a willow at all, it just has narrow leaves that look like willow leaves. Despite being a really tough plant, it is covered in showy, frilly flowers and it can be an elegant shape if pruned. I've gotten good at limbing up small trees over the years, and I can keep this little tree shaped nicely. It's close by the garage, and it's what we'll see coming up the driveway. I'll keep it shapely.

So despite my frustrations at once again getting a mislabeled plant (I've had it happen so many times), how could I not keep a plant that wants to grow in homicidal conditions and blooms its heart out at 4 inches tall? It was just planted a few weeks ago, in hot dry sand by the driveway,

Would you want to grow in these conditions?

Look at the conditions it's growing (and blooming) in. I'm watering the little thing frequently to get it started, but even so, this is the definition of hope in a garden.

I just wish it was actually 'Hope', the beautifully named white one I thought I bought.

Flowers of 'Lucretia Hamilton' in sunshine -- more pink, less magenta.

Jim looked out at the driveway the other day and said "what's that dirt spot there?" I told him that dirt spot was where a small, elegantly pruned magenta flowered tree would be some day, whether it ever rains enough again or not.

He looked very skeptical, but I told him there's hope, and there is.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Three Sisters Garden

In horticulture The Three Sisters refers to the plants that have sustained populations for millennia: corn, beans and squash.

Grown together in one planting, it's a perfect agricultural family. The corn grows early and tall to provide support for the vining beans when they come up later. The beans create nitrogen for the soil, and the big wide squash leaves come out last after the others have sprouted in the sunshine, to shade the ground in summer, keeping moisture in and weeds out.

Eaten together, it's a complete diet of carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. Planted together, it looked to Europeans like lazy man's farming. Where were the rows of single crops that needed hoeing and tending and weeding and work?

The Three Sisters have become an iconic symbol of the Americas. I am one of three sisters (the middle one) and there are so many ways to extend this symbolism of interdependence and sustenance to family relationships . . . . .

I heard from an old friend back east last week, and she inquired about my new gardens before going on to complain about hers -- she is endlessly pulling out poison ivy vines and getting so very tired of it.

It reminded me of the three sisters of despair in my old gardens: multiflora rose / oriental bittersweet / poison ivy.

Those three sisters -- all vines -- were the opposite of the life sustaining crops that feed people. Each was a thug, not just because they are aggressive and overgrow everything else, but because of multiflora rose's thorns and density, oriental bittersweet's growth habit that literally chokes and kills the trees it grows on, and poison ivy's terrible toxins. Three nasty plants that I tried and failed to control in the woods and meadows around my Connecticut garden.

Toxic poison ivy, strangling oriental bittersweet, and dense, thorny multiflora rose

Those were the worst to try to get rid of, but everything about gardening in the northeast was about eliminating growth.

Before we moved, I too was getting worn down by constantly weeding encroaching vegetation, whether it was lawn grass that wanted to grow in my beds, goldenrod that thought my borders were too devoid of six foot tall yellow flowers, or those three troublesome vines that overtook everything.

Gardening here in the arid southwest is the complete opposite. It's about nurturing, tending and encouraging growth, not eliminating it. I don't have to weed. Nothing grows here unless I plant it, water it and take care of it.

Although there are plant and landscape challenges galore in the west, the fact that nothing grows in my garden without my bringing it into being suits my inherent need for control.

My sisters would agree I'm a control freak. They have their fine qualities too, and like a Three Sisters Garden, we have grown separately but together for six and seven decades now, successfully. I'll let you ponder who is the squash, which one is corn. and who is beans.

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Nice Story

In over ten months since we left our house back east, I have rarely thought about my former gardens, first because there is so much new and exciting to experience here, and second, because I am well aware my gardens there are no longer mine. I don't want to know. Not mine.

The view from our driveway in Connecticut in 2017.

A few months ago the woman who bought our house in Connecticut sent me an e-mail with some questions about roof maintenance, and she added this nice story:
I want to share a garden story with you, since it's clear that you put much time and love into creating it. We decided last fall that a few items needed to be removed, and one of them was the blue spruce at the top of the driveway. It was growing into the paperbark maple (which we love!) and, in consultation with Bartlett, we decided to let it go. Last fall, we befriended a young family who had just moved to Hartford from Egypt so that the father could pursue his PhD at Hartford Seminary. So when we cut the tree, we took it over to their home and set it up, with a stand, lights and ornaments, as their very first-ever live Christmas tree! The couple and their two young daughters loved it! I thought you'd appreciate knowing that it served to bring some joy to this immigrant family for the holiday.
How lovely to hear what happened with one of my plantings, a blue spruce that I knew before we moved was getting too big for its space. If it had to go, it had a very nice ending.

In 2017 this blue spruce was too big next to a paperbark maple.

I thought it was a dwarf blue spruce when I first planted the little ball, but in less than a decade it grew to be a big upright evergreen, taller than I ever expected.

The blue spruce looked like this seven years before, in 2010.
I thought it would remain a rounded dwarf bun.

This spring, as my new gardens struggle to establish in a dry Santa Fe courtyard, there are times when I am overcome by an intense longing to see what all my gardens in Connecticut look like now.  Sometimes I ache to know, to see pictures, to follow what is happening with favorite plants.

Other times, I'm just fine not knowing. I don't want to have a relationship with the new owners -- we're friendly and have occasionally communicated back and forth and they are very nice people -- but I do not want to get pulled back into an emotional connection with what I left.

It's all theirs now, not mine. They took down a tree I planted and they will do far more to their garden (not mine anymore) in the future and I won't know and don't need to.

But it was delightful to hear the nice story of what happened to the blue spruce at the holidays. I have to admit I'm curious about her comment that they had to "take out a few things", only one of which was this tree. What else did they chop . . . . .

              . . . . Wait. Stop. It's not my garden any more.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Ladies of the Canyons

Georgia O'Keeffe's ashes are spread on top of Cerro Pedernal, the angled mesa you see in the picture below. She painted it often when she was staying at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu just north of Santa Fe. When we went to visit, it looked eternal and unchanging, just the way she saw it.

Cerro Pedernal means Flint Hill in Spanish.

Ghost Ranch was a dude ranch of sorts in the early part of the last century and it was where Georgia O'Keeffe summered for years. She loved the place and painted its rocks and mesas and scenery over and over and over.

The ranch is now a conference center, but the ranch buildings are still there and the dining hall, and there's a stable of horses for conference attendees or day visitors like us to take trail rides into the hills.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a lifelong committed Dude. Off and on over the years my family has gone to a dude ranch in Wyoming and I always love every minute of it. I've never painted it, but like Georgia O'Keeffe I'll have my ashes spread on a hilltop at the ranch.

So it all felt familiar when we went to visit Ghost Ranch one day in June. Something about a dude ranch . . . it feels like home to me, even though the landscape here looks different than "my" ranch near Wyoming's Big Horn mountains.

Several buildings at the retreat center are small museums. One has dinosaur fossils, which continue to be found in the rock sediments at Ghost Ranch. Another museum houses ancient native items and it's a good overview of indigenous history.

And . . . in one small room there was an exhibit of photographs and clothing and tools and artifacts called Ladies of the Canyons
"Ladies of the Canyons is an exhibit based on Lesley Poling-Kempes’ book of the same name that tells the true stories of remarkable women from the East Coast, among them Ghost Ranch founder Carol Bishop Stanley. She, along with a handful of other pioneering women, left the security and comforts of Victorian society and journeyed into the rugged terrain of the American Southwest in search of discovering their individual potential within the rapidly changing world of the early 1900’s."

Pampered ladies pioneering in the west!
Remarkable women! Dudes, even!
East coast transplants in rough terrain!!

I could totally relate to it and was fascinated by this exhibit. Jim quickly wandered away, but I spent 40 minutes examining everything.

Click to read the rather enthusiastic book description

We didn't take a horseback trail ride on our visit, we weren't dressed for it. There is a bus tour that drives around and narrates Georgia O'Keeffe's story and the landscape, but we'll do that another day. Out in one meadow there is a team building challenge site for groups -- an obstacle course -- that looks out of place.

They hold weddings at the ranch, and there was a youth group attending a conference the day we were there, with a friendly man in a golf cart zipping around ferrying people to the dining hall. So the place feels institutional and awfully touristy.

But at heart it's a dude ranch surrounded by rugged scenery and this east coast lady will always be there for that.