Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fire Weather

Weather: The solstice is approaching, and nature noticed. The goat’s beard’s been blooming earlier and earlier in the day. Monday, the crickets out back started chirping later, though I don’t know if they were reacting to the sun or the heat.

Until yesterday, afternoon temperatures were in the low 90s. The warm weather curtained the blooming period of all the catalpas that weren’t cooled by their nearness to the river. I noticed more evergreen trees were browning, but this time they were full-sized smaller species.

A pre-solstice hurricane threw water our way yesterday, though the gentle rain didn’t deposit much water. The clouds that kept it from evaporating were more helpful.

Last useful rain: 6/16. Week’s low: 45 degrees F. Week’s high: 95 degrees F.

What’s blooming in the area: Dr. Huey and hybrid roses, yellow potentilla, catalpa, desert willow, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, daylilies, lilies, red hot poker, Arizona and red-tipped yuccas, Spanish broom, Russian sage, purple salvia, hollyhocks, snow-in-summer, datura, sweet pea, hollyhocks, dark purple larkspur, yellow yarrow, cultivated sunflowers, coreopsis. Sugar peas were for sale from a roadside stand on Thursday.

What’s blooming in my yard: Rugosa and miniature roses, Maltese cross, golden spur columbine; foxglove, smooth, purple, and coral beards tongues; Johnson Blue geranium, catmints, Romanian sage, lady bells, winecup mallow, blue flax, tomatillo, pink evening primroses, white-flowered spurge, Shasta daisy, Ozark coneflower, white yarrow, chocolate flowers, blanket flower

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Tamarix, alfilerillo, purple mat flower, white tufted evening primroses, scarlet bee blossom, velvetweed, bindweed, silver leaf nightshade, greenleaf five eyes, leather leaf globemallow, showy milkweed, buffalo gourd, scurf pea, alfalfa, white sweet clover, tumble mustard, Queen Anne’s lace, Hopi tea, fleabane, common and native dandelions, goat’s beard, plain’s paper flower, golden hairy asters, Tahoka daisy; brome, cheat, and purple three-awn grasses

Flowers were dense on a number of cholla plants in one area, but not visible elsewhere. Mine, of course, are still recovering from the ground squirrel. This is an unusually good year for the one field. Cottonwoods were dropping their cotton.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansies, violas, snapdragons; local petunias

Tasks: One person baled a cutting of hay.

Last Sunday morning I began working to save the chrysanthemums. I hadn’t realize when I changed hoses that they weren’t getting water until I noticed more brown than green in the area. By then the deep rooted perennials and cheat grass had moved in.

The first step is always clearing the major problems so I can see what’s actually happening. I started by digging out or breaking off the dandelions, columbines, and leatherleaf globemallows around the edges.

When I’m doing work that involves repetitive motions, - and what garden work doesn’t - I try to work different areas of the yard on successive days. The idea is I vary which muscles are being used. Thus, I did something else on Monday.

Tuesday, I returned to the mums to remove the loose sticks that crisscrossed the area so I could get to the cheat grass, and occasional purple aster. The cheat grass had gotten very tall. When I dug it out with the chisel, the seeds and flowers broke lose and fell on my pant legs, where I had to pick them off to avoid planting them. Underneath, they were harboring dandelions.

I didn’t get back until this morning, when I removed some of the dandelions with a spade and broke others off. Some had come up inside mum plants. I removed a little more cheat grass, then was able to use the chisel to uplift the many columbine seedlings that had come up. Again, many of the seeds had been stopped in their travels by the dead flowering stems and dropped near or inside the mum’s roots.

By the time my hour was up, the bees were beginning to buzz around the columbines, ensuring a new crop of seedlings next year.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, other small brown birds, geckos, sidewalk ants, viceroy and cabbage butterflies, bumble bees, hornets, other small flying insects, grasshoppers, earthworms where I was weeding; small bees arrived on purple flowers

I planted some more melon seeds Monday, and placed a piece of wire mesh fencing over the top of the area. It was weighted by bricks at the two ends. Wednesday I found a deep furrow on one side, too big to have been caused by a bird. I don’t think the animal was able to get under. If things start to come up, I still can protect the seedlings by maneuvering the bricks to raise the fencing a little.

I suspect it was the rabbit, which seems to be more stubborn than smart. The ground squirrel wouldn’t have let a mere sheet of wire stop it. Since it can’t get water by biting into my hoses, it’s loosening them at the fittings. When I went to see why some trees weren’t doing well, I found the end cap wasn’t tight. Then Thursday, I found a hose loose at its connection, where it had been fine two days before.

Weekly update: Fire weather has different aspects. The first to arrive are conditions that make fires possible: high heat and low humidity that prepare fuels, lightening that ignites them, and high winds that fan the flames.

Sunday night the second-hand smoke phase arrived. I woke with my muscles sore from breathing. In the morning, I looked at the weather bureau’s air quality map. Vertical smoke was to the south and east of the Sangres. Tuesday morning, it was surrounding the area, and by midnight the entire state was blanketed.

I’m not exactly sure what vertical smoke means, beyond some measurement of the number of particles in the air. I believe it’s the smoke that’s risen from a wild fire into the upper atmosphere where it circulates. Some must drift down, especially in the night, and mix with the automobile exhaust from cities like Santa Fé. When that mix drops into valley, it only affects the few with compromised lungs.

Wednesday I stopped attempting any work outside beyond watering, and always wore a surgical mask. When I woke from my nap Thursday afternoon it had just stopped raining. The smell of smoke was strong outside. First-hand smoke was arriving from a just ignited fire in Valles Caldera.

Rain brought some relief yesterday. This morning the vertical smoke was gone, but we faced what I call the third fire weather phase. They’ve been dropping water and fire retardants on the San Antonio fire. I assume some of that lands on the ashes, and together they become part of the soil surface that dries out in high heat and low humidity. Once turned to dust, they’re picked up by high winds anytime during the year and blow, usually to the northeast towards the Española valley.

Notes on photographs:
1. Pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) and perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolia) blooming together, 16 June 2018.

2. Goldfinger potentillas (Potentilla fruticosa); smooth brome grass (Bromus Inermis) has colonized the area in front, 16 June 2018.

3. Maltese crosses (Lychnis chalcedonica); Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) leaves are in back, 16 June 2018.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dead Evergreens

Weather: We had rain last Sunday, and by Tuesday the humidity level was back down to 5%. I decided that number didn’t mean much, because it didn’t indicate the source for the water in the atmosphere. In much of the country, 90% of the moisture comes from oceans, lakes, and rivers, and the rest from plants. [1]

That number is deceptive because it includes the moisture from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Ronald Hanson separated near and far bodies to water to suggest almost all the precipitation in the southwest came from plants, rivers, reservoirs, and the soil. [2]

During the summer monsoons we might get some moisture churned by a hurricane if it survives its transport across the intervening deserts. This past week, Aletta emerged off the coast of México and one could see its tail of water vapor reaching the Río Grande valley on Satellite images, but nothing showed on the radar scans taken closer to the surface.

Aletta’s water served a different purpose. It diffused some of the solar radiation, even though afternoon temperatures were still in the low 90s. The sun’s heat, and implicitly the journey to and from the solstice, remain what drives our weather.

Transpiration, or the release of water by plants, is a function of photosynthesis. When temperatures rise, plants open their pores and release water. [3] The moisture then creates a cooler zone around the plant. The wind moves that cooled air away, forcing the plant to emit more water to protect itself. Thus, the winds and high temperatures caused by a lack of cloud cover reinforce each other in producing drought conditions. [4]

Different categories of plants handle extreme heat differently: some like grasses have changed their metabolic cycles to operate at night, and others like cacti slow themselves. Seeds that have sprouted wilt by noon and stop growing, peony buds die unopened, and daylily, hosta, and morning glory seedling leaves lose color in the sun. Evergreens reflect less light than desert sands, and so retain their heat and suffer more. [5]

Last rain: 6/3. Week’s low: 43 degrees F. Week’s high: 93 degrees F

What’s blooming in the area: Dr. Huey and hybrid roses, yellow potentilla, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, daylilies, lilies, red hot poker, red-tipped and weeping yuccas, Spanish broom, Russian sage, purple salvia, hollyhocks, Jupiter’s beard, snow-in-summer, datura, sweet pea, hollyhocks, dark purple larkspur, yellow yarrow

We had the apricot and cherry frosts this year, but were spared the catalpa one in late spring that destroys emerging leaves. As a result, the tall, white-flowered trees were in full bloom everywhere this week. The one in my yard was fragrant and had more internal leaves than it had last year.

What’s blooming in my yard: Rugosa and miniature roses, desert willow, cultivated tamarix, Maltese cross, golden spur columbine; foxglove, smooth, purple, and coral beards tongues; Johnson Blue geranium, catmints, Romanian sage, winecup mallow, blue flax, tomatillo, pink evening primroses, Shasta daisy, Ozark coneflower, white yarrow, chocolate flowers, coreopsis, blanket flower

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Cholla cactus, alfilerillo, purple mat flower, white tufted evening primroses, scarlet bee blossom, velvetweed, bindweed, silver leaf nightshade, greenleaf five eyes, leather leaf globemallow, showy milkweed, buffalo gourd, scurf pea, alfalfa, white sweet clover, tumble mustard, Queen Anne’s lace, Hopi tea, fleabane, common and native dandelions, goat’s beard, plain’s paper flower, golden hairy asters, Tahoka daisy; brome, cheat, purple three-awn, and rice grasses.

Three awn and dead western stickseed were releasing their seeds.

What’s coming up: Zinnias and African marigolds were putting out their second leaves; the other seedlings were in remission.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansies, violas. At least two people had put petunias in containers.

Tasks: Now that I finished clearing the garlic chives from the pinks and snow-in-summer bed, I started salvage operations in the main garden. I began by cutting down the white sweet clover that had reached three feet in height. Heavy blades like loppers and pruners don’t cut green stems, and the smaller nippers can’t handle the thickness of the stems. I did managed to get the much abused, dull loppers to do it anyway, because I didn’t care how much they tore the stems.

When I cut down the unwanted sprouts that had come up far from the parent black locust, I discovered the elms they were hiding. Neither can be controlled by simply chopping them down, and both come up in the middle of other plants where they can’t be poisoned.

Animal sightings: Small brown birds, geckos, sidewalk ants, cabbage butterfly in alfalfa, bumble bees on sweet peas, small bees, hornets, other small flying insects, grasshoppers eating flowers of Shasta daisies; heard crickets

Someone imported a herd of goats to mow down its grass; it was gone an hour after I first saw them.

Thursday morning I discovered a small trench where I had planted melon seeds on Tuesday. It wasn’t there when I watered the area Wednesday noon.

Strong, twisting winds around 8 pm Wednesday brought down more dead wood in the black locust. This particular limb had been there several years, and was taller than the newer growth. The birds used it, rather than the utility line above, as their sentry point.

Weekly update: Drought is insidious. One can see the damage on the surface, and one hears about changes in the levels of the water table. What one doesn’t observe what happens between those two levels until the tall evergreens start turning brown. Then, it’s too late to do much.

I first noticed the problem with deep water levels in 2011 when the leaves on my catalpa turned white. As I wrote on 21 August, the immediate cause was a lack of iron. I reasoned that sufficient iron was in the soil, else the tree wouldn’t have grown. However, iron was water soluble, and I thought it possible enough water had been pulled from the level of the tree’s roots so the iron no longer was dissolving at the same rate. I started giving the tree more water, hoping some would seep down to the lower roots.

Most do nothing because the trees don’t die, and appear normal the following spring after the winter has replenished the soil. The etiolation doesn’t begin until mid-summer. The week of rain last October may have done as much for this year’s catalpa florescence as the spring frost cycle.

Many of the tall evergreens that died were near houses that were vacant, had changed hands, or become rentals after the original owners died or moved because they were too sick to remain in their homes. The new people may not have cared, or assumed that trees simply existed without care. They usually were quick enough to call someone to cut down the carcasses.

Some, especially piñons may have been killed by bark beetles. However, my understanding is they attacked plants that already were having problems.

The first to die were what I thought were Douglass spruces. I was never sure because the range of Pseudotsuga menziesii menziesii is 7500', and this is much lower. [6] That alone would explain why it was the first tree I saw die in 2013. Another went in 2015.

Those trees were all close to the river, maybe 1000' to 1500' away. Two years ago three tall evergreens died on a property along a road that was twice as far from the Río Grande. It had been vacant for a year, and while I never saw anyone irrigating, someone must have been running a ditch somewhere in the vicinity.

Last year tall trees died in three more places.

Notes on photographs:
1. Remains of what had been a row of five tall evergreens after the house was vacant, 23 May 2018.  You can see the roof of the one-story house at the bottom left.

2. Dead evergreen in area where other trees are doing OK at house with a neglected yard, 23 May 2018.

3. Dead evergreen towering above a one story house, 23 May 2018.

4. Dead evergreens fifty feet from an arroyo that no longer runs freely, 23 May 2018. They all are above the roof of the one story house in the foreground.

End notes:
1. "Evapotranspiration - The Water Cycle" on the U. S. Geological Survey website.

2. Ronald L. Hanson. "Evapotranspiration and Droughts." 99-104 in National Water Summary 1988-89--Hydrologic Events and Floods and Droughts. Edited by R. W. Paulson, E. B. Chase, R. S. Roberts, and D. W. Moody. U. S. Geological Survey, 1991. Abbreviated version on U. S. Geological Survey website.

3. Evapotranspiration.
4. Hanson.
5. Hanson.

6. E. O. Wooten and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico. Washington: National Museum, 1915. 25. They identified the species as Pseudotsuga mucronata.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Garlic Chives

Weather: The only plants that likes this combination of cool mornings and hot afternoons are the roses. The Doctor Huey rootstock is prospering everywhere. Seeds either haven’t come up because of the cold, or stopped with their first leaves because of the heat. Cool loving flowers like lilacs had truncated blooming periods, while leaves on the warm season daylilies are losing color if they’re in sun.

We had rain a week ago Monday and Tuesday; the ground was dry at least two inches down where I was working last Sunday. All the humidity in the air is coming from the river, ground, and plants.

Last rain: 5/22. Week’s low: 36 degrees F. Week’s high: 91 degrees F.

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, yellow and pink species roses, Dr. Huey and hybrid roses, privet, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, daylilies, red hot poker, red-tipped yucca, Jupiter’s beard, snow-in-summer, purple salvia, datura, sweet pea, oriental poppy, pink evening primroses, dark purple larkspur, yellow yarrow

What’s blooming in my yard: Rugosa and miniature roses, yellow potentilla, beauty bush peaked, cultivated tamarix, chives, peony, Bath pinks, Maltese cross, coral bells, golden spur columbine, foxglove and smooth beards tongues, Johnson Blue geranium, catmints, Romanian sage, winecup mallow, blue flax, Shasta daisy, Ozark coneflower, white yarrow, chocolate flowers, coreopsis, blanket flower

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Apache plume, alfilerillo, purple mat flower, white tufted evening primroses, scarlet bee blossom, velvetweed, bindweed, silver leaf nightshade, greenleaf five eyes, fern leaf globemallow, showy milkweed, scurf pea, alfalfa, wild licorice, tumble mustard, fleabane, common and native dandelions, goat’s beard, plain’s paper flower, golden hairy and strap leaf asters, Tahoka daisy; brome, cheat, and purple three-awn grasses

What’s coming up: watermelons planted 9 May; Canary Bird zinnias, Crackerjack marigolds, and California poppies planted 18 May

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansies, violas; local petunias

Tasks: One person cut his hay; another who is not irrigating this year burned areas along his fences.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird, small brown birds, geckos, sidewalk ants, hornets more common than small bees, a few bumble bees, other small flying insects, earthworms where I’ve been weeding; heard crickets

When I was working Friday morning the bird on the overhead utility line started making more noise than usual. I though it odd, since I’d been out for at least half an hour. When I went around to the front of the house I startled the neighbor’s cat who apparently comes over when the young kids get too rambunctious.

Weekly update: Garlic chives serve many purposes, beyond the culinary. As I mentioned in a post years ago, they can be an effective ground cover because the leaves only get about 8" high and curve like grass. More important, they perpetuate themselves by reseeding, which they did in the shade under the black locust.

Of course, anything that can successfully reseed has the potential to become a problem. The locust stand is above the retaining wall, and the heavy seeds blow down into the bed below which is reserved for pinks and snows-in-summer. They fall between the matted stems, and come up between the desired plants, often close to the roots.

Each summer I weed that bed twice, taking out the garlic chives, winecup mallows, hollyhocks, and golden spur columbine that have invaded. I’m never very successful because they all have deep roots I can’t dig out without destroying the plants around them.

I didn’t do any weeding last summer, and the garlic chives took over. There were areas where nothing else was growing. A couple weeks ago, I used the spade to dig out what I could safely. That loosened dirt around other plants that I clawed out with my right hand.

I basically used the muscles in my forearm and back, but I still thought I can’t keep doing this. I tried to visualize the ideal tool. Forked dandelion sticks and narrow weeders never worked for me because they were too cumbersome. I have a heavy cast aluminum narrow trowel, but even it’s too wide to be unintrusive.

I had a vision of something like a wood chisel when I went to the local hardware store for inspiration. The first place I went didn’t have single chisels - it sold packages of four for thirty dollars. The clerk suggested alternatives like auger bits, but they had the same problems as dandelion diggers: their handles were too long and so narrow I would have to use by right thumb to grasp them.

The second hardware store had what I had decided I wanted, a 3/4" wood chisel with a short, fat handle. And, it worked. It was the width of a garlic chive’s bulb. After I dug the trowel down to create a crevice, the flat back side worked as a lever that slid under the root base and lifted it.

Allium tuberosum are in the Amaryllis family. Once I got a good look at its roots, I understood why I had never been able to do much more than cosmetic work. The leaf stems turn white at the base, then red where they attach to a bulb about an inch underground. That’s where they break because under the bulb are roots that radiate out more than an inch in every direction. The chisel was able to get under those anchors.

I also discovered plant clusters were more difficult to remove because their individual sets of spokes were entwined into mats that could only be removed by yanking them with my left hand from underneath. Then I could use the chisel to remove the satellites.

I finished the first round this morning, and planted sweet alyssum plants in the holes left by their removal. The alliums do doubt will return. I don’t know if the broken roots that remain in the soil will regenerate themselves, but I’m certain there are seeds down there and more will arrive in late summer. I’m hoping the alyssum will survive the coming heat and cover the empty spaces like a ground cover shield that protects against invaders.

Notes on photographs:
1. Doctor Huey hybrid rose, 30 May 2018.

2. Single garlic chive plant root, Allium tuberosum, 27 May 2018.
3. Cluster of garlic chive roots, 1 June 2018.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Digging Holes

Weather: The weather forecast had predicted a 60% chance of rain Monday, followed by cooler temperatures. That usually means no water, but maybe some relief from the heat.

Around 3:45 in the afternoon, the weather bureau reported "severe thunderstorms were located along a line extending from 7 miles southwest of Los Alamos to 8 miles southeast of White Rock, moving northeast at 45 mph. [...] 60 mph wind gusts and quarter size hail." [1] Ten minutes later our lights flickered, then went off for six hours.

We got strong winds and rain, but I don’t know how strong or how much. We don’t have a weather reporting site, and nothing happened in Los Alamos or Santa Fé. The heavy rain lasted for about an hour, then continued for another half hour. The elms were the noisiest amplifiers of the wind’s roar. Temperatures fell to 42 degrees or less; I had to use a manual thermometer since the digital one relied on electricity and only used it once.

When I ventured out, I found a dead trunk in the black locust copse had come down and some water puddled in low places I had created in the morning when I was grubbing out dandelions. Everything else seemed ok. I realized it was the first rain the bedding plants and new perennials had ever experienced.

We got more rain, with less wind and a little hail on Tuesday. This time, the storm was in the east and touched Santa Fé. Los Alamos also had a little rain and winds to 33 mph.

The local paper didn’t mention the outage in our area in its Thursday edition. The ones Amanda Martinez described started twenty minutes later and were caused by blown down poles and loosened lines. She also did not mention the wind velocity, but did say a science center in Alcalde reported .3" on an inch Monday and .2" on Tuesday. [2] I think the storm dissipated by the time it got that far north, and that we had more water.

Martinez also reported the county commissioners banned all burning on 10 May. [3] We officially are in an "extreme drought," with the Four Corners as the epicenter of an "exceptional drought." The weekly status appears on a map at

Last rain: 5/22. Week’s low: 41 degrees F. Week’s high: 88 degrees F. Lowest relative humidity this past week: 4% in Santa Fé.

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, yellow and pink species roses, Dr. Huey and hybrid roses, pyracantha, snowball, black locust tree, purple-flowered locust shrub, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, red hot poker, peonies, Jupiter’s beard, snow-in-summer, purple salvia, datura, sweet pea, oriental poppy, pink evening primroses, blue flax

What’s blooming in my yard: Woodsii, rugosa and miniature roses, yellow potentilla, raspberry, beauty bush, cultivated tamarix, Russian olive, privet fragrant, chives, Dutch iris, vinca, Bath pinks, coral bells, golden spur columbine, Johnson Blue geranium, catmints, winecup mallow, Shasta daisy, Ozark coneflower, white yarrow, chocolate flowers

I wasn’t surprised when my rose-pink sweet pea produced an offspring with white flowers a few years ago. I was surprised Friday when I found a pink flower amongst my white peonies. I had planted some Monsieur Jules Elie in 2000, but gave up on ever seeing them in 2002 and planted the white Festiva Maxima. Fifteen years seems a long time for sometime to remain dormant.

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Apache plume, alfilerillo, purple mat flower, white tufted evening primroses, scarlet bee blossom, western stickseed, bindweed, Silver leaf nightshade, greenleaf five eyes, fern leaf globemallow, scurf pea, alfalfa, wild licorice, tumble mustard, fleabane, common and native dandelions, goat’s beard, green amaranth, plain’s paper flower; June, needle, brome, cheat, purple three-awn, and rice grasses

Needle grass is beginning to release its seeds. The tails, which are supposed to screw into the ground, entwine instead and attach themselves to my pant legs. The western stickseeds also are releasing triangular maces that catch at the base of my sweat pant legs.

What’s reviving: One of the cholla cacti that had been attacked by the ground squirrel put out new growth after the rain. I had been watering it, but I think it’s more dependent on water it traps from the air.

What’s coming up: Corn in one market garden was 6" high Monday; first zinnias from seeds planted 5/13. The first things up after the rain were wild lettuce where I’d planted some watermelon seeds, dandelions where I’d just cleared them out, and, of course, pigweed.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, pansies, violas. One person had petunias blooming in front of an overturned whiskey half-barrel.

Tasks: I had planned to transplant two rose bushes on Tuesday, if temperatures cooled. Instead, the first thing I did the morning after the storm was deal with the downed locust trunk. I didn’t look carefully. I just assumed it was like the one that still laid across an open area because it hadn’t detached completely.

I cut all the small branches I could that reached into the drive. I have no upper arm strength, so I put one handle of the loppers on the ground and used all my weight on the other to push its blade down. My diameter limit is less than the capacity of the tool.

I was then ready to try to move the trunk a bit away from the drive, but couldn’t because those were the branches that the Dr. Huey rose had climbed into. It was only after I removed what canes I could and sacrificed the others that I discovered the trunk had broken free. I yanked on it and was able to drag it to the burn area, leaving a trail of gouged ruts in the gravel.

One thing about locusts and Dr. Huey roses is you do nothing to them without wearing a thick sweatshirt, hat, and heavy gloves. The other thing I know is you can’t don leather gloves with a thumb brace. So, in addition to trying to cut the tree branches and rose canes, I had to think about which parts of my hands I was using.

Animal sightings: Quail on back porch, small brown birds, geckos, ladybugs in the alfalfa, sidewalk ants, hornets, other small flying insects. Bumble bees visited pink evening primroses, sweet peas, and beauty bush because there’s nothing blue in bloom. I heard crickets for the first time the evening after the second day of rain. I hear a humming bird in the early evening, but never see it.

Weekly update: A little over a week ago, John Kelly said immigrants from México and central American couldn’t assimilate into "our modern society" because

"They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth,- fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English, obviously. That’s a big thing. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well. They don’t have skills." [4]

I wondered when the Marines’ general last had to dig a hole to plant a rose bush or tree. Since I can never dig a hole large enough for a rootball, I know there’s a skill that I don’t have and all the paper instructions I’ve read provided no enlightenment.

A year ago when my frost-free hydrant failed, the plumber and his crew had to dig down three feet to get to the plumbing junction, without destroying my driveway. I watched what they did, and they did not use a round-pointed blade like I do.

The plumber had a long, narrow piece of steel he struck into the ground to loosen dirt. Then the other two used a square-headed, long-bladed shovel to remove the dirt.

When I later remarked on their methods, the lead plumber said they weren’t the best diggers. They had one man who could dig a trench in an hour that would take them at least four times as long. It wasn’t a matter of tools or methods. He thought the man just had better skills than they did.

Backhoes and ditch witches may have obsoleted the need to dig holes by shovel for large trees, and port-a-potties may have eliminated the need to excavate long trenches. However, they’re only good in areas where they’re free to operate. Residential plumbers don’t have that luxury. They almost always are repairing problems in areas where landscaping and drives are in place. They have to take their shovels.

I dreaded digging holes for the roses. The ground is always too hard or, if I’ve run a sprinkler in the area, too wet. In addition to no arm strength, I have a weak knee. I have to put the point of the shovel in the ground and stand on the folded-over shoulder and rock it back and forth to get it to sink into the ground. Then, when I use the blade to remove soil, dirt from the sides falls into the hole while I removing a small load. I barely get ahead of gravity.

Tuesday morning the ground was wet enough that the shovel sank to the shoulder when I stood on it, and less dirt collapsed into the hole. The potting soil was mostly bark, and somewhat dry, despite sitting in the Monday’s rain. It was easier than usual to pry and shake it loose. For the first time, I had a hole larger and deeper than I needed. It wasn’t skill, but luck and the weather.

Notes on photographs:
1. Pink and white peonies, Paeonia lactiflora, 25 May 2018.

2. Black locust, Robina pseudoacacia, branches across by drive, 22 May 2018.

3. Two of the shovels I inherited from my father. I only use the one with the round point because it has a short handle. Long handles are impossible when you’re five foot or 60.5" tall. One important difference between the two is the length of the section that holds the handle. It’s several inches longer on the one, giving it more strength and hence more leverage. I now use that one to move things about when I’m burning.

End notes:
1. NOAA. Thunderstorm warning issued 21 May 2018 at 3:44 pm.

2. Amanda Martinez. "High Winds Cause Power Outages throughout Valley." Rio Grande Sun, 24 May 2018, page A5.

3. Amanda Martinez and Wheeler Cowperthwaite. "Burn Ban Imposed by All Local Governments." Rio Grande Sun, 24 May 2018, page B1.

4. John Kelly. Interview with National Public Radio aired 11 May 2017. Reprinted from the taped archive by NPR on 13 May 2018 as "Fact-Checking What John Kelly Said About Immigration."

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Potting Soil

Weather: The weather continues to be difficult. The winds and low relative humidities in the afternoons made it hard to keep seeded areas "evenly wet" as the packets recommend. The low morning temperatures may have discouraged seeds, while the high afternoon ones prematurely ended the blooming times of flowers that like the more normal May weather.

Last rain: 4/8. Week’s low: 33 degrees F. Week’s high: 87 degrees F.

What’s blooming in the area: Austrian copper, yellow and pink species roses, Dr. Huey and hybrid roses, pyracantha, snowball, purple-flowered locust shrub, silver lace vine, broad leafed and narrow leafed yuccas, red hot poker, Dutch iris, peonies, Jupiter’s beard, snow-in-summer, purple salvia, datura

What’s blooming in my yard: Woodsii, rugosa and miniature roses, yellow potentilla, beauty bush, Russian olive, black locust, chives, vinca, Bath pinks, pink evening primroses, coral bells, golden spur columbine, blue flax, Johnson Blue geranium, catmints, sweet pea, Shasta daisy

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned more than once, I have no sense of color. So, instead of planting contrasting colors, I dedicated different parts of the yard to plants of a single color: reds/pinks, yellows, blues. I only planted whites along the garage after I saw someone’s house that had white trim on creamy navajo white stucco. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise this week to discovered how many flowers were white. The shrubs and trees hadn’t been planted by color but by function.

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Apache plume, tamarix, alfilerillo, purple mat flower, white tufted evening primroses, western stickseed, bindweed, greenleaf five eyes, fern leaf globemallow, scurf pea, alfalfa, tumble mustard, fleabane, common and native dandelions, goat’s beard, green amaranth; brome, rice, purple three-awn and June grasses.

Needle grass heads were waving in the wind on local grasslands.

What’s reviving: Buddleia

What’s coming up: Heavenly Blue morning glories and bachelor buttons planted 5/10; sweet alyssum planted 5/8; pigweed where the soil was disturbed to plant seeds

Tasks: In several of the market garden fields where plants had come up, men were out with hoes clearing irrigation furrows.

One man was putting out tomato plants on Friday. He always places white cylinders around them, probably cut from something like plastic gallon milk bottles. I suspect he has even worse problems than I do with rabbits.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, quail on back porch, small brown birds, geckos, bumble bee on beauty bush, sidewalk and harvester ants, hornets, other small flying insects

Saw my first brown, inch-long grasshopper. Before that I noticed the petals on the Shasta daisies were being eaten.

Weekly update: When I was putting in some bedding plants this past week I removed a pansy that had died. The soil was wet as was the outer edge of the root ball. Inside was a hard dry lump of potting soil that must have killed it.

I did my first such autopsy in Michigan when some azaleas died that had flourished for a few years. When I dug them up, I discovered the roots had never left the root balls. Instead, they had coiled and recoiled within their original habitat until they had starved themselves.

That was the last time I followed the instructions about disturbing a root ball as little as possible. I now look on potting soil as my enemy to be eradicated as much as possible.

Sometime back then, in the 1970s, some plants came in something resembling real soil, but most did not. Practically, there was only so much usable dirt available, and other mediums were adopted by nurseries. The pansy’s grower said a good growing medium contained "composted bark, peat moss, and other ingredients that do not include earthen soil." [1]

The soilless mixes were sterile which meant they were less likely to nurture fungus and other diseases. They also could pass state lines, and weighed less in trucks. The pansy grower’s headquarters were in Alabama.

When people grew frustrated when their bedding plants died, a new idea was promoted. Build a raised bed and fill it with similar potting soil and install drip irrigation with a timer to keep it wet. Theoretically, the plants’ roots wouldn’t notice the difference and would spread into the surrounding medium.

I wouldn’t know. I haven’t tried it. I’m sometimes tempted to ask the men I see behind me in checkout lines with bags of the stuff how they get it to work in this area.

I did once try mixing peat moss into the soil and found all it did was create a dry layer. If I watered, it absorbed everything from around itself, creating a larger dry area hidden underground. Now, I dig out the old potting soil when I remove dead plants in the spring.

The nursery industry became a closed system. Seed breeders adopted the same mediums to test their experiments, knowing they had to survive the artificial mediums used by commercial growers. It got harder and harder to buy seeds that would grow outdoors, under natural conditions of sun, rain, and garden dirt.

Somehow, this doesn’t make ecological sense. When I first established beds here, I put in layers of sand, manure, fertilizer, sawdust, [2] and local dirt. I assumed over the years it would mix itself. If I got time in summer, I threw out more composted manure and powdered fertilizer and let the water leach it into the soil below.

Then, like this past week, when I put in new plants, I removed as much of the potting soil as possible. The roots almost always exist only on the outside of the pots and pool at the bottom. There’s nothing in the center, no matter how large or small the container. The danger is killing the roots by mere contact or breaking them if they’re fine. The alternative is they will die anyway.

I’ve tried to kept to remember whose potting soil holds so little water that it’s hard to keep their bedding plants alive until I plant them. When I go into their nurseries, I’m often charmed by the beauty of the flowers, but I’m no longer tempted to buy anything more than I went there for.

All I can think is other people have better luck than I, although where those all those plants go I see in the big boxes remains a mystery. I rarely see bedding plants blooming in fronts of house in this area.

Notes on photographs:
1. Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, 19 May 2018.
2. Bridal Veil spirea cluster, Spirea vanhouttei, 12 May 2018.
3. Festiva Maxima double peony, Paeonia lactiflora, 19 May 2018.

End notes:
1. "You Must Use a Good Potting Mix." Bonnie Plants website.

2. I’ve since read sawdust was a bad idea because it would dry out and become a fire hazard. I think the author was discouraging its use as a surface mulch.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Long Lot Development

Weather: The seasons unofficially changed Monday when the first tropical depression was reported in the Pacific west of the heel of México. It also went from too cold to hot to plant before May had much begun.

We’ve had no rain since the beginning of April, and no real moisture since last October. Instead, we’ve had front after front come through with water that didn’t fall. Some of the native plants have been able to thrive on atmospheric moisture. The tufted white evening primroses are having a good year, and the needle grass in the prairie has greened.

Unirrigated cultivated grasses are doing less well. The alfalfa in hay fields is up, but the brome grass is still brown in many places. It’s flourishing as an unwanted volunteer in my yard, and even putting out its first flowers.

Last rain: 4/8. Week’s low: 34 degrees F. Week’s high: 91 degrees F.

What’s blooming in the area: Austrian copper and yellow roses, spirea, snowball, broad leafed yucca, Dutch iris, peonies, oriental poppies, Jupiter’s beard, snow-in-summer, blue flax, purple salvia

What’s blooming in my yard: Woodsii and rugosa roses, beauty bush, skunk bush, chives, vinca, Bath pinks, pink evening primroses, coral bells, golden spur columbine, Shasta daisy

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Apache plume, tamarix, alfilerillo, hoary cress, purple mat flower, white tufted evening primroses, western stickseed, bindweed, greenleaf five eyes, fern leaf globemallow, scurf pea, fleabane, common and native dandelions, goat’s beard, green amaranth; brome, needle, rice, cheat, purple three-awn and June grasses

What’s reviving: Roses of Sharon, buffalo gourd, showy milkweed

Some things didn’t survive the harsh winter in my yard: four shrubs, moss phlox, blue flax, and oriental poppies. Since they all had been planted in the past two years I assumed they hadn’t developed strong enough roots. However, I haven’t seen moss phlox blooming in the usual places yet.

When I was in Santa Fé last week, a friend told me none of his flax hadn’t survived, though his neighbor’s were blooming profusely. When I was in a plant store, I overhead one woman tell another a third person’s plants at died despite having their roots in the shade and their tops in the sun. I suspect part of the problem is stores sell cultivars rather than the natives that perpetuate themselves with seeds in bad years.

What’s coming up: native sunflowers

Tasks: I started putting in seeds; the afternoons were too hot, too dry, and too windy to transplant bedding plants. The area where the moss phlox died wasn’t level. I think it was one of the places that was eroded before an uphill neighbor dug some trenches to reroute water that was washing down the hill. The bed was edged with bricks, but they had sunk into the ground and were tilted. I put a new row behind them on the surface, then leveled the area with dirt before scattering seeds.

Animal sightings: Two rabbits, quail, small brown birds, gecko, sidewalk ants, hornets. Harvester ants were stealing seeds as I was planting them, but I couldn’t find their hill.

I sprayed the aphids I saw on a rose bud. I also cut every goat’s beard I saw. They get covered with ants and black debris, which makes me suspect them of harboring aphids. The sap in the stems was so thick, I had to scrub the pruners with a brush and soap each time.

Birds were noisy around the peach and black locust trees. I didn’t see any nests. I think they’re lodging in nearby buildings, and using the trees as stoops and watch towers.

The past several winters the ground squirrel has been eating all the new growth off the cholla cacti, and stripped the bark from the stems. I try to keep them going by watering them in the summer, but they that just made them better winter food. Two of the three put out new growth this week.

Weekly update: Long lot ownership governed post-World War II development around Española. While developers in many places were taking advantage of government programs to provide housing for veterans, new homes here were built by individuals, probably on family land.

When someone finally did develop a tract with a plat that would be familiar to a Levittown resident, it was in the area around McCurdy School that originally have been a Brethren settlement, then became generally Anglo. It had cross streets and thematic names.

Elsewhere, individuals who owned long lots sold land along their drives. When the county was assigning addresses to meet 911 requirements, they had no formal plans. It designated some county roads and some private drives while ignoring others. None were maintained by the county. People who actually lived on state roads considered them private drives that can be closed at will.

When the lots weren’t big enough to develop, homeowners subdivided the land around their houses. Wherever you drive in town, you see a house on the street, and possibly an older house, converted outbuildings, or trailers in back. In the country, farmers kept the land nearest the acequia in hay production, and sold the land that was farther away without water rights.

One result was there are a few long roads, with no cross streets. If the main road is closed, there’s no way to get in or out. In an emergency, everyone will be funneled into the main arteries, none of which are more than two cars wide.

Notes on photographs:
1. Tufted white evening primroses growing among native grasses, 11 May 2018. In good years, they blanket areas with splotches of white.

2. Levittown style layout in town between a main road on the left and the acequia on the right. Land beyond the ditch must have been owned by someone else. That road doesn’t go through, but stops before another ditch. Map derived from Google Maps.

3. Long lot street layout in the country between a main road on the left and the acequia on the right. Map derived from Google Maps.

Sunday, May 06, 2018


Weather: It got down to 30 on Thursday morning, and some surviving lilac buds began opening. The same day, one pansy and one viola, which weren’t in bloom when I bought them, responded to the cool by blooming. Morning temperatures Friday and Saturday were just at freezing, and they continued to flower.

The winds have not stopped, though some days have been calm enough to be encourage false hopes. Earlier this week I was finally able to break off a black locust branch that had come down several years ago. I put it on top of the burn pile as a weight, and may remove it when I burn until the winds stop. The only problem is even the base of the 2.5" diameter stem has thorns.

Last rain: 4/8. Week’s low: 30 degrees F. Week’s high: 81 degrees F.

What’s blooming in the area: Spirea, few lilacs, broad leafed yucca, Dutch iris

What’s blooming in my yard: Fruiting crab apples, sour cherry, Siberian peas, tulips, lilies of the valley, vinca, blue flax, pink evening primroses, coral bells

What’s blooming outside the walls and fences: Alfilerillo, tansy mustard, hoary cress, purple mat flower, oxalis, white tufted evening primroses, western stickseed, bindweed, greenleaf five eyes, fern leaf globemallow, fleabane, dandelions, goat’s beard, green amaranth; needle, rice, cheat, and June grasses

What’s reviving: Virginia creeper, catalpa, desert willow, trees of heaven, skunk bush, buddleia, Russian sage, regreening arborvitae, baptisia, perennial four o’clock, goldenrod, coreopsis, purple leaf coneflower

What’s coming up: Stickleaf, tomatillo, reseeded larkspur. Onions are up in one of the market garden fields.

Tasks: I’m still picking dandelions everyday to keep them from going to seed, and have the brown and yellow stains on my hands to prove it. The first comes from the milky sap in the hollow stems. The flowers open about midmorning, and not all at once, so I have to go looking for them several times. Even then, some sneak by and are scattered by the afternoon winds before I find them.

I finally planted the pansies and violas I bought more than a month ago. The roots hadn’t developed much, making them just as fragile as they were when I first put them out to harden up. Once morning temperatures had stabilized around freezing, I discovered another reason I couldn’t plant them. The pansies were going into an existing bed, and the hostas hadn’t come up yet. The violas had to wait until the lilies of the valleys emerged. When I dug their holes I discovered the shrubs that were more than 6' away had sent their roots over and I had to scrape out spaces without disturbing them.

Animal sightings: Quail, small brown birds, gecko, hornets, sidewalk ants. My neighbor has a family of chickadees who’ve been nesting in his metal building for years. The sentinel seems larger this year, but doesn’t seem to bothered when I walk by in my drive.

Weekly update: Mother’s Day has become the traditional day for nurseries to sell plants. It’s not simply because it makes for nice advertising to suggest one take one’s mom out shopping for something for the backyard, but the last projected frost date has passed.

It’s also getting so warm it’s hard to transplant things safely, so I start shopping the end of April. Prices go up every year, but this season seems like the one that definitely separates the rich from the rest of us.

I decided I wanted three small potentillas for a very narrow part of a bed that was on a slope and edged with bricks. Dutch iris were already in the area. I needed something in a small pot to fit the space.

When I was in Albuquerque Monday I stopped in one garden store where the only yellow potentilla was in a five-gallon pot and cost $31. With tax, three were more than a hundred dollars. The other two places I looked didn’t have them, or much of anything yet.

The next day I was in Santa Fé and stopped in two places. Both had the same brand, the same size, and the same price. I also checked out the two big boxes and the two local hardware: none even carried potentillas.

Friday I had to go back to Santa Fé and tried one other place. It actually had exactly what I wanted: potentillas in half-gallon pots for $11. They came from another nursery.

I read somewhere that the nursery offering the large pots had serious financial problems after the real estate crash of 2008. For a couple seasons, few new houses were built, which meant few new landscapes were created. Their stock of unsold pots accumulated, and had to be wintered over or sold at reduced prices.

The crash also meant financing became for difficult as banks consolidated and local ones disappeared. We no longer have a locally owned one here in Española. The combined effects of more stringent lending requirements and non-local owners has meant local businesses have a hard time getting the credit they need to buy spring inventory.

If there’s a 50% markup on goods, then those thirty dollar shrubs cost them fifteen. If they can get the seasonal loan, it can buy less. One striking feature of many places I went this week was how little they were carrying.

Even bedding plants have become dear and hard to locate. Several years ago, the big boxes converted from six-packs of plants to single pots. The marketing idea was they could get more money per square inch of shelf space with the single pots than they could the six-packs.

Apart from price, they were the same problem as the five-gallon shrub. They required too big a hole in beds with other plants. They were designed for decks and raised beds filled with matching potting soil.

When I was looking for pansies I was in a big box in Santa Fé where someone put two flats in his cart. When I got to the plants I saw they were singles, and walked away. I thought, while I stood behind the man at the checkout counter, he must be a gardener for someone who didn’t worry about cost. No, he was a homeowner and put them back when he was told instead of two flats he had to pay $1.59 for 48 pots. Pansies weren’t worth $75.

My local hardware stores still carry locally grown six-packs. The one gets them from McLain’s Greenhouse in Estancia, and the other has other sources. The latter are expensive: five dollars for a six-pack means that man’s 48 pansies would be forty dollars.

Neither store carries as much as they used to. On the one hand they can’t compete with the big box prices. The one had no trees or shrubs this year, and very few annuals or perennials. The other still had a full range, because loyal customers know it tends to provide better plants, so they don’t lose as many when they pay the higher price.

Notes on photographs:
1. Viola that came into bloom after temperatures few below 32 degrees, 4 May 2018.
2. Siberian pea tree flowers, Caragana arborescens, 2 May 2018.
3. Gold Star Potentilla fruticosa in its narrow bed, 6 May 2018.