Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Path to the Apples

Weather: Too warm by half; last major precipitation 2/15/12; 12:20 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Apricot, forsythia, hyacinth, alfilerillo, purple, black and tansy mustards, dandelion.

Burned brome hay field Saturday.

Water running in one of the small ditches.

What’s leafing out: Siberian elms, globe and weeping willows, Apache plume.

What’s active in the area: Salt bush, Japanese honeysuckle, gypsum phacelia, velvetweed, western stickseed, cheese mallow, leather leaf globemallow, alfalfa, loco, broom senecio, winterfat, gumweed, horseweed, strap leaf and golden hairy asters; June, pampas, and needle grasses.

What’s active in my yard: Raspberry, grape hyacinth, daylily, tulip, daffodil, bearded iris, garlic, garlic chives, blue flax, vinca, hollyhock, winecup, bouncing Bess, pinks, snow-in-summer, small-leaf soapwort, Jupiter’s beard, Dutch clover, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, chrysanthemum.

What has active leaf buds: Bradford pear, apple, cherry, peach, hybrid roses, cottonwood, sandbar willow, privet, lilac, Russian olive.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: House finch, other small birds, first ants, earth worm.

Weekly update: Warm afternoons lure you with the promise of spring while subfreezing mornings warn you nature lies.

Though you want to be doing something productive, it’s best to content yourself with the functional - repairing fences, burning weeds, clearing ditches.

Still, you get visions of fountains splaying in rose gardens or parterres filled with herbs. You forget what you know about July before the monsoons. You forget what good garden guides tell you about the difficulties of making changes in existing gardens.

You drive by other people’s ambitious projects and draw no morals. The set of paths that later were filled with stone because only native sunflowers grew. The set of raised boxes that stand empty because only áñil del muerto survived.

You recite your list of grievances: how tired you are of mud and ice in January, how bored you are with keeping Silver King artemisia from overwhelming phlox in August, how weary you are of winterfat taking over the apples you can’t prune or feed.

You head to the lumber yard. They’re most accommodating. It’s been a slow winter. Spring construction isn’t what it was. Sure, they’ll load the block in your trunk.

And that’s where I am. With a pile of thin cap block, a hoe, a small shovel, some hedge clippers and a new linoleum trowel, ready to take on the world. Or rather, build a better access path to the apple trees.

I planted the trees in 2003. Some were bare root, some came potted. Neither did particularly well with the winds, but they haven’t fared much worse than those put in by others at the same time in more favorable situations.

When I saw some of theirs begin to bloom, I decided two years ago maybe mine needed more water in late summer. I was rewarded with my first flowers last spring.

My irrigation system - and I actually had someone install a real irrigation system, not just some ad hoc maze of hoses - was less than optimal. He dug a trench uphill and buried a small line to some sprinkler heads. There was so little pressure, the water would only dribble. The apples got by, winterfat sprouted downhill.

Inspired by the few flowers, I abandoned the sprinkler heads last summer and laid down a soaker hose. Only, I couldn’t get it flat because the winterfat and tall grasses made it impossible to get close enough to the trees to do it right.

That was the genesis of this project. I want the apples to do better, and I want to be able to see if anything I was doing was working.

It’s times like this I’d like to hire someone, only the garden guides are right - you can only do that if you’re starting anew. Building what the books call architectural elements, or what trendy people in Santa Fé call garden features, requires machines and day laborers who don’t know a dandelion from a poppy.

Some of my problems were caused by previous workmen, the man who installed the irrigation and left me a trench to fill, the one who dug the trenches for the natural gas lines and left me more trenches to fill, the man from the telephone company who reopened the ditch I’d just filled because the man digging the gas line had cut the telephone line.

Do-it-yourself is necessity wrapped in a veneer of yuppie sophistication by Bob Vila. Read Gertrude Jekyll carefully. While she was out there with her plasterer’s hammer dividing iris, she was also overseeing a crew of heavy laborers who did what she wanted exactly as she wanted it done. Or, so she let potential clients assume.

My first problem was getting a path from the drive to the apples over the intersection of the irrigation ditch with the gas line ditch. Somehow, there’s never enough dirt to fill a trench and a little indentation is always left. With time, the wind takes the top and the bottom settles. The indentation deepens.

I spent the first morning digging dirt to fill the work area. I suspect my work will erode away, and fear if I move dirt from the drive to fill the low area I’d create a new environment for weeds.

I know I should excavate and then fill with something that won’t heave. But, there are roots there now and I’d have to find some place to put the replaced dirt after I’d filled that one area.

I won’t even think about the problems of finding someone to deliver a small amount of fill dirt, figuring out where to have it unloaded, and how to keep it from blowing before I used it.

Instead, I’ve been scraping the top of the ground trying to level it with the trowel and block. After all, I tell myself, if it’s not even it doesn’t matter. I’m the only one who’ll be using it and it’s meant to be utilitarian, not beautiful. I wouldn’t be using cement block if I expected beauty.

It would be nice though if the path could be straight, but there’s the winterfat. The last time I tried to dig one out, the root went down more than a foot then branched. The hole I left was as large as the shrub I removed. If I did that here, it’d take all my energy, and no block would get laid.

Last summer I tried Round-up on some winterfat that’s in the way of another desired path. It took several applications, and the last I looked it wasn’t dead. Those shrubs were in the open. These are too close to the apples to treat.

So, I cut them to the ground and threaded the block between them. Maybe, I can harasses them to death.

Garden guides may tell you curved lines are more aesthetically pleasing than straight ones, but this isn’t what they meant. What they meant is it’s impossible to get a straight line straight enough.

No matter how hard I try, using one machine made rectangular block to align the next, the lines aren’t perfect. The blocks aren’t regular. They won’t fit into a plane that’s sloping at two angles. Masons use grout to hide the spaces, but I can’t. If I filled variable cracks with dirt, weeds would take root.

I tell myself, it’s OK. I’m the only one using the path. The neighbors couldn’t care less. They have their own failed projects, the sodded lawn that didn’t get watered one summer, the vegetable gardens begun with great enthusiasm in what became drought years and since abandoned.

There is one benefit in laying the block myself. I’ve uncovered a few earthworms, as well as a few other zoological and botanical specimens I’d rather not have found. Still, I know in a way you can’t know watching someone else work, even with neglect, the soil around the apples has slowly improved.

Hobhouse, Penelope. Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening, 1983, compilation of writings by Jekyll with commentary by Hobhouse.

1. Half built path by apple trees with suckers that need pruning, 22 March 2012; dead grass and winterfat just beyond the path end, uncut alfalfa and grass before; jog for another winterfat stump.

2. Neighbor’s raised beds, 11 January 2012; for a while tall cosmos grew in them, then they hired a landscape company who graveled everything and planted xeric plants; they left a few tasteful Buddhist rocks in the boxes which now get colonized in late summer by weeds.

3. Sunken ditch to the left with rocks stabilizing the path until I figure out what to do, 21 March 2012.

4. Path through winterfat stumps, 21 March 2012.

5. Path through winterfat stumps, 21 March 2012.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Yellow Mustard

Weather: 45 degree temperature changes every day with some afternoon winds; last major precipitation 2/15/12; 12:05 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Alfilerillo, purple, black and tansy mustards along shoulders; hyacinth in a wall garden near some low solar lights.

Apricots and forsythia coming into bloom.

Village ditch meeting was yesterday.

What’s leafing out: First Siberian elms and globe willows.

What’s active in the area: Japanese honeysuckle, gypsum phacelia, velvetweed, western stickseed, cheese mallow, alfalfa, broom senecio, gumweed, dandelion, strap leaf and golden hairy asters; June, pampas, and needle grasses; biological crust, moss.

First pigweed seedlings up.

What’s active in my yard: Hyacinth, grape hyacinth, daylily, tulip, daffodil, crocus, bearded iris, garlic, garlic chives, blue flax, vinca, hollyhock, winecup, bouncing Bess, pinks, snow-in-summer, small-leaf soapwort, Dutch clover, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, chrysanthemum.

What has active leaf buds: Bradford pear, apple, cherry, peach, hybrid roses, sandbar willow, privet, lilac, Russian olive.

Male cottonwood leaf buds beginning to differentiate at the ends of branches.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

Weekly update: Along about my senior year in high school some of the more religious girls began wearing clear plastic pendants containing single mustard seeds. I can’t testify to their usefulness in moving mountains - I rather prefer the ones here stay put - but they do seem to be a reliable harbinger of spring.

Right now, purple and tansy mustards are coming into bloom, often between patches of alfilerillo along the shoulders. They’re still short, and only are few in favored locations are open, but they promise much more.

More interesting is a yellow colored mustard that’s been blooming since late January in only the most select areas. After all, officially, there’s no such thing as a yellow mustard that blooms here in winter. Nothing is supposed to be a clear yellow until the tumble mustard comes out this summer.

It's most likely black mustard, an annual which has only been found in San Juan and Socorro counties, but it might be field mustard, a biennial found in Catron and Doña Ana counties. The one Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley said was common, Indian mustard, is a perennial grown as an annual that’s thought to be a Chinese hybrid of the two. They mentioned Española as one location it had been found early in the twentieth century.

The first, Brassica nigra, can get to be four feet high and is the source of the mustard seed used in cooking. The second, Brassica rapa, gets to be two feet high and comes in many varieties. Some are better known as turnips, some are a source for canola, and others produce brown mustard seeds that now are more commonly used for mustard flavor. The third, Brassica juneca, can get six feet high and is the primary source of canola oil in Canada.

The one growing on the shoulder by the orchards is only a foot high after three months. The only reason I suspect it’s black mustard, is the flower color is a clearer yellow than the ones I’ve seen in photographs of Indian mustard. Otherwise I’d accept Wooton and Standley.

When I first saw the plants in January, small heads of four petaled flowers just rose above wide rosettes of deeply lobed gray-green leaves. I saw other seedlings which have since turned out to be purple mustard and a second group of yellow mustard blooming about a mile away along the village road, nearer the river.

When I went back in February, the only plants blooming along the orchard road were against a south facing lava stone wall. Then they were about six inches high with the flower heads still buried in leaves that had grown upright.

When I went back this week, I found the plants had created a bit of a colony, but a very limited one. The plants were growing along the black stone wall, and stopped at both the east and west ends when the wall was replaced by wide mesh or barbed wire fences for orchards.

I saw only one blooming plant directly across the road in the open. The other plants were to the west toward the river, in front of a lighter colored wall. Part of it appears to be sandstone

and part a tuff.

West of the lighter colored stone wall, only purple mustard was blooming, with tansy mustard poking through.

Whichever species it is, the mustard apparently germinated during the January thaw when the ground was mucky and the air warm in front of walls that retained heat. This is not the first year I’ve seen something yellow standing above clumps of green in late February in front of that wall, only the first year I’ve gotten out of my car to look. In the past I thought I might be a dandelion.

Peterson Field Guide. A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northestern and North-central North America, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny with illustrations by Peterson, 1968.

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. New Mexico county distribution maps for Brassica nigra and Brassica rapa.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

1. Yellow flowered mustard in front of lava stone wall, 15 March 2012.

2. Yellow flowered mustard in front of lava stone wall, 23 February 2012.

3. Yellow flowered mustard along shoulder of village road, 19 January 2012.

4. Yellow flowered mustard in front of lava stone wall, 23 February 2012.

5. Yellow flowered mustard in front of tuff stone wall, 15 March 2012.

6. Detail of sandstone wall, 15 March 2012.

7. Detail of tuff stone wall, 23 February 2012.

8. Purple mustard with small tansy mustard plant in front of another orchard to the west, 15 March 2012.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lady Banks

Weather: Winds are turning bare surfaces into soft sand; last major precipitation 2/15/12; 11:50 hours of daylight today.

What’s active: Hybrid roses, Japanese honeysuckle, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, crocus, blue flax, tansy and black mustard, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, western stickseed, biological crust, moss.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on young chamisa; leaves on native yucca, sweet pea, snakeweed, chrysanthemum, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.

What’s red or purple: Cholla; branches on sandbar willow, tamarix, apples, apricots, spirea, wild roses and raspberry; leaves on beardtongues, pinks, soapworts, purple aster.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, golden hairy aster.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae; weeping and globe willows.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geranium, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Small birds. Large house fly has hatched and won’t die.

Weekly update: The winds have returned.

I learned that line when I was a child about the lion and the lamb, but never saw any relationship between it and the weather. It was simply one of those things one absorbed that unconsciously developed one’s sense of poetic imagery.

Then I moved to Abilene, Texas. The winds never stopped. The flags were always spread full. I learned to tack when I drove a car whose interior had dust blown into crevices that never would come clear.

When the winds start here, I just tell myself, it’s not as bad as Abilene. The sun doesn’t turn silver at noon. I don’t have sand in my mouth. Lady Banks has survived.

I bought a yellow Lady Banks rose in Abilene, and watched it bloom the first year, prosper in the summer, and die in the winter. When I moved here I bypassed the pots in the local stores until I visited Phoenix when they were in full bloom draped over yard walls. Then I did one of those faux cost calculations, the ones that go: it’s not that expensive, what can I lose?

I bought two in 2000, saw the winds batter them soon after. They went out of bloom in a few weeks, and, in late summer, the canes started to grow.

The next spring, the winds came again and one died. The other didn’t bloom, but started growing in August.

The cycle started repeated itself. Luxuriant summer growth, leaves persisting into winter when the snow buried them. The stems eventually died, came back and produced no flowers. The yellow rose, introduced from China into England in 1824 by John Damper Parks, blooms on old wood. I slowly realized I wasn’t going to get any thing unless the winter and spring were mild.

In 2007 I finally got my reward, a few scattered flowers. Not the thick clusters of tiny, double roses I'd seen in Phoenix, but enough to keep me dealing with the dead canes.

Then it became a nuisance. In the early years, it grew up sides of the wooden walk where I could wind the flexible branches back into the rails.

The root got stronger with every monsoon, and it started to take over the walk. The branches wouldn’t stay in the rails. I didn’t use that door very often, but I was beginning to get tired of the summer pruning that took several days. I told myself, at least it has no thorns.

Then we had one of those winters that are good for roses. The first flower of 2009 was deformed. The next two were barely formed. That was all. Rosa banksiae lutea blooms early in the season, so early its flowers form here before there’s enough water in the soil to support them.

I finally realized Lady Banks was never going to do well here. Or rather, it was never going to bloom here. The canes were doing even better.

Then came the bitter cold of February, 2011. Some branches greened as usual, but it never put out leaves. This time, when I cut a path to my door, I said to myself, this is the last time. Never again.

I cut everything, and finally saw the main trunk. The branches had always kept me at a distance.

That’s not going anywhere soon, but the columbine will cover it until it rots. Maybe, it will leave some organic matter in the soil.

Then I noticed it hadn’t just grown up the sides of the walk, but had come up through the bottom. There were branches I couldn’t cut because I’m not agile enough to prune lying on my back on an uneven surface.

The branch that looks so skinny from the bottom, isn’t so innocent on the other side. It’s too thick for my clippers and threatens to trip me.

So now the winds have returned. I’m watching my roses in the back drip line putting out the first nubs of red leaf buds and hoping I don’t see the stem color start to fade. However, if I see even a hint of green on Lady Banks, I will avenge.

1. Lady banks stump, 9 March 2012.

2. New growth, 1 May 2010.

3. Scattered flowers, 20 May 2007.

4. Canes, 21 July 2007.

5. Canes, 12 October 2008.

6. Limited flowers, 22 May 2009.

7. Canes, 12 July 2009.

8. Stump buried in a bed of golden spur columbine after it was cut, 20 August 2011.

9. Cane, 9 March 2012.

10. Other side of above cane, 9 March 2012.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Levee Cottonwood

Weather: It’s felt like we’ve been trapped under great masses of clouds headed somewhere else, leaving winds and warm afternoons, but only spits of snow or rain; last major precipitation 2/15/12; 11:36 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming: Biological crust, moss, mushroom.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on young chamisa; leaves on native yucca, grape hyacinth, Japanese honeysuckle, sweet pea, tansy and black mustard, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, snakeweed, chrysanthemum, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.

New leaf/stem buds on roses are emerging.

What’s red: Cholla; branches on Russian olive, tamarix, apricots, spirea, wild roses and raspberry; leaves on pinks, soapworts.

Color fading on sandbar willow, getting darker on apple trees.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, beardtongues, golden hairy and purple asters.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae; weeping and globe willows.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geranium, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

Weekly update: The day was warmer than usual. In Michigan, where I was a child, it would have been a false hope, signifying tornadoes more than spring. The winds arrived here that evening, and have been dislodging tumbleweeds ever since.

But before I received that grim reminder of what was to come, I walked the wide arroyo to its mouth.

Let me clarify my geography a bit. I live between two arroyos, the ones I call the far and the near. To get to the main road where those Russian thistles are prowling, I cross three arroyos: the near, the deep, and the wide. They have names on maps, but I’ve never heard anyone use them.

I began at one of my favorite cottonwoods, one that’s forced the runoff from a ditch to track around it.

I followed its ditch back to a point where it entered the arroyo. To the right I saw the beginnings of a levee.

I’d been told, before the bridge was built, the arroyo ran so hard it flipped a car and killed the driver. Perhaps when the built they bridge, they built the levee to direct the flow or protect the adjoining land now owned by complaining taxpayers or maybe the bridge itself.

When I walked along the bank, its wild side could still be seen in a wide wash where little grew but snakeweed.

As I got away from the bridge, salt bushes and chamisa took over with an occasional narrow leaved yucca. Then came the trees everyone hates, the tamarixes and Russian olives.

And finally the bosque began.

This bosque spread wide on the horizon. The levee disappeared behind a fence, and forced me into the arroyo. The bosque enclosed the path, blocked my view. It made clear I had left the world of alien species and entered an older world.

One even blocked access to the river.

I followed the left bank back, which took me into the river forest. The trees were tall with unbranched trunks, competing with each other to reach the sky. Nothing grew through their mulch of dried leaves except a few straggly junipers. It was strictly a world of cottonwoods.

When I left the enchanted wood, as everyone eventually must, the levee on the right bank was higher and wider than on the left, the gap between it and the residential land narrower.

I saw something I’d never seen before. Instead of single, thick trunks with multiple, low branches, I saw what looked like clusters of trees from a single base. Perhaps strands of cotton had landed in particularly propitiating spaces and more than one seed had sprouted. Instead of one dominating and smothering out the others, each spread in a different direction.

The levee, with its trapped moisture on both sides of the divide, had created its own brand of cottonwood.

Photographs: Except for the one of the oxbow cottonwood taken 23 December 2010, the rest were taken in the wide arroyo 23 February 2012.