Sunday, November 06, 2011


Weather: After weeks of morning temperatures just below 32, they fell to the low 20's Thursday; last rain 11/05/11; 10:36 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses.

Even before Thursday’s cold temperatures, trees were dropping their leaves.

Beyond the walls and fences: Cheat grass bright green under Siberian elm in wash; Siberian elm leaves getting golden bronze tinge; choke cherries turned red-orange.

The arroyos and prairie: Chamisa in sheltered locations, broom senecio and purple asters going to seed; new loco plants up; more gypsum phacelia and stickleaf seedlings up.

With last week’s rain, the soil crust became active in the prairie and arroyo and other places near my house I explored. Bright green moss appeared and more of those grey-white mushrooms pushed through, and didn’t seem to have been affected by Thursday’s cold. I also saw one cream colored, flat-topped mushroom along the ranch road.

Juniper berries on the tree I visit near the far arroyo disappeared. Since it seems a little early for local birds to have striped the tree, I assume something passing through ate them.

Four-leaved saltbush, whose root was exposed when water washed away the surrounding dirt in the arroyo, put out tiny leaves along the exposed area.

In my yard, looking east: Large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose.

Looking south: Floribunda roses.

Looking west: Flax leaves beginning to turn yellow.

Looking north: Sheltered blanket flowers, chrysanthemums; privet leaves have burgundy leather look.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragons.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Goldfinches on Maximilian sunflower seed heads; bee on florist mum.

Weekly update: Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Belgian born detective, told Dr. Burton that when he had time “I am going to attend - seriously - to the cultivation of vegetable marrows,” not as a mere gardener, but as someone who improves their taste.

Then, when he’d actually had time to grow them, he told Dr. Sheppard that “a man may work towards a certain object, may labor and toil to attain a certain kind of leisure and occupation and then find that, after all, he yearns for the old busy days and the old occupations that he thought himself so glad to leave?”

My retirement coincided with a change in my garden. I’d never before been in one place long enough to get beyond the discovery phase, the one where you buy all sorts of new seeds and plants while trying to learn what will actually grow.

After some 15 years, my garden has been refined to what works here most years. I could still be lured into buying things just to see how they do, but the economy has caused nurseries to retrench, to offer less and less, to grow what banks will finance. Few new plants have been introduced recently to tempt me. There’s little left to read about.

I began wondering what to do next. I could see how people might concentrate on the one or two plants that thrive and give pleasure, how one could, in fact, become a rabid rosarian.

However, I also knew that, if I truly cared about deadheading and weeding, I’d have found a way to do it before now, that the demands of my job weren’t the real reason my garden was always a bit slovenly - Bohemian or natural I’d say - but overgrown and slovenly none the less.

To escape such tedium, I’d begun creeping out onto the prairie to discover the local wildflowers and weeds, for I’ve never been snobbish about anything that blooms. For a while there was always something new. Then, given the limits of this arid environment, I encountered fewer and fewer new species. I’ve now written about all the ones I can identify.

What to do next?

Now that I actually have quit working, I’ve discovered that after a certain time each day, I can’t stand to be in the house. This doesn’t mean, like Poirot, I want to return to some sort of volunteer version of what I used to do.

It means literally, I can’t stand to be in the house. I want to be out walking beyond my old paths or driving about the area.

Two weeks ago I stopped when I saw something red in a field, and discovered those peppers I photographed. To get a better angle, I’d done something I almost never do, crossed through someone’s barbed-wire fence. After all, I had time. I was only going into town to finish something the new person didn’t need to learn. I could get there whenever.

On my way out I noticed someone across the road watching me unhook my sweater. When I went across to say hello and otherwise defend myself, I discovered Rod, for that was his name, had graduated from Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Farm School sometime around 1950 and lived in a trailer on land owned by the man who also owned the pepper field.

He told me about the family that had leased that field to grow vegetables and that he and the land owner had helped put up that pesky fence after people like me had stopped to look. Only they had helped themselves to the produce.

I’d been watching that field all season, had noticed it seemed to have three sections, squash on the north, corn in the center, and something that didn’t seem to have done much on the south. I’d seen the man, his wife, and children out cleaning the fields.

Then, the middle of July I noticed weeds were taking over the aisles.

I thought they were like so many people here who begin ambitiously with a new vegetable plot, improve the soil, keep things neat, then retreat with the heat of summer and find themselves overwhelmed when weeds germinate after the monsoons. Just when the weather’s most foul, the work doubles and triples.

Like Poirot when he threw a marrow over the fence because, after some months of effort, he’d become enraged with its failure, people simply give up mid-summer.

I noticed the same thing happening in another field where someone had planted some kind of melon for the first time, then let pigweed take over. However, they may simply have abandoned the crop in early September after the listeria breakout make all melons suspect. This week they finally got around to plowing the field to remove the weeds, but left melon remnants.

When I made some comment to Rod about people here not understanding the dangers of weeds as competitors for resources, he denied the people across the road were unwise. They’d gotten several sweeps of their peppers before they cleared the dead vegetation the end of September. This week they removed the last vestiges of the chiles.

Now I think those weeds were left deliberately to prevent people from seeing the bright colored vegetables, for it was that part of the field that was most overgrown. Pigweed may have been a useful camouflage, for we all react negatively to it. It had become a defender, not a predator.

Poirot discovered “we miss the daily toil.” He hadn’t grown marrows before, only thought about it. He found his continuity as a private investigator.

For me, the routine of work has always been a way to support my hobbies. I’m not ready to substitute manicuring a garden for paid labor. I still want to explore, do something new, but without moving again.

Nature is still the greatest source of surprise. Only now, novelty is no longer some new flower, but the ways of the familiar. I want to find a way to comment on the pepper farmer and the melon field when I notice them, not wait until I can focus on some plant.

The immediate challenge won’t be in the noticing, for nature trains you to look, but in finding a way to describe the seeming mundane. I don’t know what format will work best as I change from writing about specific plants to writing about the processes of growing, but something always arises from experiment.

Christie, Agatha. “How It All Came About” in The Labors of Hercules, 1939, first quote.

_____. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926, second quote.

Photograph: Melon field overrun by pigweed, 26 October 2011.

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