Monday, September 11, 2017

Que Transtulit Sustinet

The last gardening thing I did in Wethersfield, Connecticut at our now former house was to uproot the blooming yellow dandelions that had appeared in Marsha’s and my otherwise healthy green front lawn during the last week of April.  My first landscaping task at our new abode in Santa Fe, New Mexico was the same one ­– except out here at the end of August the unwanted plants were only slightly less desiccated than the hard, dusty dirt (I hesitate to say soil) within which they were growing.
Mano-a-mano eradication of the bright yellow weed with my snake-tongued weeding tool manually had become pretty much of a joyous obsession with me over the forty years that we lived in our former home – and it was a pleasure that I thought I would have to leave behind when we moved to the southwest.  So I have to admit I was actually overjoyed at the sight of the “lion’s tooth” (from the French “dent-de-lion”) mocking me as I surveyed for the first time what the house-seller was touting as a “natural desert” backyard.
Marsha and I spent the sixteen weeks in between the two houses at two different Airbnb rentals in two different sections of Santa Fe that we had hadn’t visited much at all in during our twenty-five years of visiting New Mexico’s capitol city.
Initially we spent three and one-half months in a small “casita” (“little house”) in what is called the South Capitol section of town, and the last fourteen days in a larger place at the beginning of Upper Canyon Road.
According to, “Rail traffic and an expanding middle class fueled the development of South Capitol, Santa Fe NM in the early twentieth century. A rich and appealing collection of single family homes, condos, and small compounds, South Capitol charms with its architectural diversity. Craftsman bungalows intermingle with Pueblos, Pueblo Deco revivals, Victorians and Territorials. Construction materials run the Santa Fe gamut: adobe, brick, Pen-tile (a term for hollow bricks formerly made at the State Penitentiary) and framed stucco. Mature trees abound thanks, in part, to the WPA. Yards range in size from postage stamp patios to 1 acre spreads.”
Many of the streets, which we explored on a daily basis, follow the narrow curvy contours of pre-twentieth century alleyways and paths.  And several of the alleys remain as such with tiny casitas along them.  It was these narrow thoroughfares that convinced Marsha and I that no vehicle larger than the small Jeep Renegade we purchased out here could survive in “the city different”.
Our rental was a small one bed, one bath casita in a compound of six similarly (or smaller) sized units on West Burger Street.  How small was it?  I am 6’ 5” tall.  In the kitchen I could spread my arms and touch both walls without extending my fingers.  The queen size bed allowed about two feet on one side and less than 12” on the other and when we did our morning Pilates sit-ups the knuckles of my outstretched arms scraped the ceiling.  Not to get ahead of ourselves here but yesterday Marsha decided that most, if not all, of that casita could fit into the living room of our new 2,100-foot house.
Then for the second half of August we stayed at a larger place in the Upper Canyon Road section of town, described by realtor site as follows “The historic eastside neighborhood boasts some of the most photographed adobe Santa Fe homes and gardens, with some homes dating back centuries. Hosting a mix of multi-generational families and newcomers, the historic eastside homes, often hidden behind high walls and accessed by narrow dirt lanes, recall the city’s early history and lend Santa Fe a unique style. Views can be scarce here, but authenticity and atmosphere dominate. Long famous for its galleries, restaurants and specialty shops, Canyon Road has become one of Santa Fe’s most popular attractions.”
And that is pretty much what we saw as we walked the streets early each morning.  But interspersed among the “most photographed adobe Santa Fe homes and gardens” were a lesser number of way-smaller, older, less well maintained casitas that presumably still house one or more (but not too many more) members of the multi-generational family owners.
“Throughout much of its history, Canyon Road existed as a quiet farming community on the city's outskirts. Its turning point came in the 1920s when a group of painters settled on the then dirt road and began selling artwork from their homes. The presence of these nationally recognized artists, known as ‘Los Cinco Pintores,’ slowly transformed Canyon Road into a thriving art community.”
Our Airbnb was on Apodaca Hill immediately off Upper Canyon Road – an area referred to by locals in the 1970s as “Dogpatch”, at the time an almost-rural, popular party spot.  But wealthy home-seekers started moving in and began the piecemeal gentrification of the area. According to the Santa Fe Reporter “In the late ’90s, many locals had to put historic east-side properties up for sale that had been kept in families for generations due to exorbitant tax hikes. A resident’s tax bill could go up 50 or 100 percent back then and sometimes more, according to Santa Fe County Tax Assessor Gus Martinez….
“…With such expensive land up for sale, ‘your typical person,’ Martinez said, couldn’t afford property in a barrio now considered Santa Fe’s upper end. Many Hispanic families were displaced as a result. …. Now, a house could go for $300,000 in the rest of the city; one in the barrio of yore costs upwards of one million dollars.”
We stayed in the lower part of a recently built house on a hillside (worth probably two million or more) next to a similarly “fancy-schmancy” adobe – both of which sat between which sat between (on one side) two casitas needing renovation roughly the same size as our West Burger rental and (on the other side) by a family house with cracked stucco walls and four perpetual-work-in-progress motor vehicles in the driveway (which was basically the front yard).  Further along the street were several similar pairings of architectural style.  “Santa Fe charm”, as our city SF resident daughter-in-law describes it.
After twenty-five years of visiting New Mexico’s capitol city Marsha and I knew that neither of our two rental areas would be where we would settle down.  And our realtor D quickly reaffirmed that “you will not find the house you want for the money you want” in those parts of town.  But it was kind of fun to imagine the possibility – even after one of the very diminutive casitas in our Burger Street compound sold for $250,000 while we were there.
Our plan was to rent for May, June and July giving us, we thought, more than enough time to find our “dream home” (or at least some place where we could sleep pleasantly).  It wasn’t – necessitating our move for the second half of August to Apodaca Hill because our Burger Street Airbnb was rented to someone attending Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market (a really big bucks, big show which draws ardent shoppers and collectors from all around the world.)  And during those three-plus months, between open houses (our Sunday ritual), and what realtor D showed us, we saw probably thirty candidates. 
We began our search in the same Casa Solana part of town that our son and daughter-in-law have their home ­ – not out of any “Everybody Loves Raymond” fantasy, but because we really like their house, the fact that it is in a “mixed” neighborhood, and its proximity to town (although not within walking distance like either of our rentals).  But (a) there were not many houses on the market there, and (b) those that were smaller than we wanted, or had issues that could have turned into a bigger project than we were interested in taking on at this point in our lives.
Our Sunday open house trips took us about thirty minutes from the city center and into what in the Hartford Connecticut area (from where we were moving) would be “the burbs” – an unincorporated part of Santa Fe County with a (probably less prestigious) Santa Fe zip code and situated among the dry-land high desert rolling hills with low-scrub-shrubs and stucco adobe style HOA communities distinguishable from the earlier Tiwa and Tewa Pueblo Indian villages that the early Spanish colonists saw by, among other things, the rooftop satellite dishes.  (BTW - HOA is a Home Owners Association, not the name of another southwestern pueblo tribe.)
We seriously considered two houses – made an offer on one that was accepted –and then backed out after the inspection.  It is never a good thing when you walk in on the home inspector and before introducing himself he says, ”You’ve just got to see this.”  We were able to get a copy of a previous prospective buyer’s inspection of the second and chose not to go any further.
So, as I am sure frequently happens, we upped our price range and on a late July Sunday afternoon wandered into an extremely well-maintained house on Brilliant Sky Drive (who wouldn’t love that name), and within days were under contract.  It passed inspection with flying colors.  We closed on August 16.  Our furniture and other stuff from Connecticut came on the 25th.  The beds that we had made for us out here were installed six days later, so we could have officially moved in then.  But we wanted to see the final episode of the telenovela “Queen of the South” and there was no TV connectivity at Brilliant Sky.  Therefore we spent that night at Apodaca Hill and officially took occupancy of the next chapter in our lives on the first day of our fifty-first year of marriage (9/1).  (Not part of our original plan – but much, much cooler.)
The property overview from describes our new abode as, “Located in the Rancho Viejo Village, this lovely, light-filled home bespeaks the ease of living here. Oversized windows pour sunshine into the living spaces and kitchen from the secluded courtyard garden, landscaped to perfection. The curved wall of the dining room gives charm and a view to the garden as well. A wonderful space for entertaining family and guests. Minutes from the Community College where classes and fitness facilities are available. And 10 minutes to Target! The original Rancho Viejo village features a manicured park, space to share with neighbors, as well as a small market. Don't forget the great trails and open space available to the entire community. The Luminaria model was popular from the beginning and now welcomes new homeowners again.”  
The house was “move-in ready”, Santa Fe adobe style, in a really mixed neighborhood – and pretty much love at first sight.  It is landscaped with a variety of local flora, most of which we don’t know and some of which we do (lavender, daisy, a small struggling rose) – plus the aforementioned archenemy dandelion.
And there was one more former friend, now an instant enemy, pushing up through the moistureless sod in our “outback” – the small walled-in, west-facing, area from which we (and our future guests from their guestroom window) can watch a largely unimpeded view of the sun setting behind the thirty-miles distant Jimez Mountains. 
Our new nemesis is grass – something that as New England homeowners we could not get enough of, but now as a born-again southwest xeriscape cult members it is a plant whose tinge of greenness assaults our eyes with the same sting as the bright yellow of the dandelion once did.
So the other morning, while inside the house Marsha watched the cable/internet guy reconnect us to the 21st century, I knelt on my rubber gardening pad in the bone-dry outback and, by hand, pulled out every tuft of turf that dared to impinge on our otherwise one-hundred percent “natural desert” backyard.
And you know, it felt just as natural as my last gardening act in Connecticut did.
Looks like we’ve found a home.




Monday, March 20, 2017

Here and There

March 14, 2017:   
Wethersfield CT versus Santa Fe, NM

Here: one foot of snow.
 There: seventy degrees of sun.
 And we’re moving why?

Saturday, March 11, 2017



In a nor’easter

With snow covering the ground

You can see the wind.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

It Grows As It Goes

Mars and I have lived in "Ye Most Auncient Towne in Connecticut” for the past forty years, but our plan now is to relocate southwest to Santa Fe, New Mexico, established by Spanish colonists twenty-four years before the birth of Wethersfield – and the self-declared “City Different”.  

Even those totally unfamiliar with these two locales could probably identify many dissimilarities between them – Connecticut River Valley vs. high desert; English Colonial houses vs. Spanish adobe dwellings; lots of green vs., lots of tan; 59” annual rainfall vs. 14”; etcetera.  But they also resemble each other in many ways – at least as seen through the eyes of this amateur gardener and lay horticultural historian.


The official state motto of New Mexico is “Crescit eundo”.  I suspect that almost no one knows that – or its translation to “It grows as it goes”.   And even less people can explain what the phrase actually means. (It comes from the epic poem De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things”, by the Latin poet Lucretius and refers to a thunderbolt increasing in strength as it moves across the sky – a symbol of dynamic progress.)

On the other hand just about every New Mexican can recite the Official State Question and Answer – and probably says it at least once a day.

Q. "Red OR Green?"

A: "Red AND Green” or “Christmas."

And every visitor quickly learns exactly what that means – just as we did twenty-five years ago.  On our first night in the Land of Enchantment we went for dinner at a local restaurant specializing in New Mexican food.  We explained to the waitress that we were new in town, unfamiliar with the food, and (coming from the moderately seasoned New England culinary tradition) pretty much spice-wimps.  After guiding us through some entrée selections she posed “the question.”  And told us how to answer it.


Most New Mexican food (including, as I discovered, Tuna Florentine) is served with chile – which in New Mexico means a sauce made from the pungent pods of either red or green chile peppers, not the concoction of spices, meat or beans known in other places as chili con carne.  Sometimes the red sauce is hotter – i.e. higher on the Scoville Scale of capsaicin sensitivity.  Sometimes it is the green.  So THE question with every meal is “red or green”.  And the most appropriate answer is “red and green” or simply “Christmas”.  Usually the sauce smothers the dish.  So, for those of us without asbestos covered taste buds, the waitress said to always ask for it “on the side”.  We did that night.  And a quarter of a century later we still do.  Leaving the sauce dishes 95% full at the end of the meal no longer embarrasses us.

Like the ubiquitous chiles in “The Land of Enchantment” the Red Onion is equally ever-present in Connecticut’s oldest village.  Wethersfield has no official question and answer.  But if we did it would probably not be “cash or credit card?” but rather “Can I pay for that with Onions?”  The answer to which would be, “Not since the 18th century.”


From 1730 until the mid-1830's the major agricultural activity in Wethersfield was the cultivation of a flat burgundy colored onion that came to be known as the “Wethersfield Red.” – earning the town renown throughout the world, as well as the sardonic sobriquet of “Oniontown.” 

Strung together in long “ropes,” (or “skeins”) the onions were shipped all around the world, most importantly to the West Indies where they were used to feed the slaves on the islands’ huge sugar plantations in exchange for sugar, salt, tea, coffee and spices – as well as molasses from which we New Englanders made our own rum.  In 1774, its biggest year, Wethersfield exported about one million of these knotted bundles. In the United States, even President Thomas Jefferson grew “Wethersfield Reds” at Monticello.  

In like manner the chile industry may be the only business in which New Mexico is ranked first nationally.  With a direct economic value of more than $57 million in 2009, plus the indirect benefits jobs and tourism, the economic impact of the spicy peppers could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  No wonder that strings of drying red chiles – called “ristras” – commonly decorate adobe houses throughout the “Land of Enchantment”.       


Back here in Wethersfield onions likewise were everywhere.  Ropes of red onions, looking like Christmas ornaments, adorned the rafters and doorways of houses and stores.

Onions were even used as medicine – as fictionalized in the children’s novel “Witch of Blackbird Pond”, set in Wethersfield.  And you could actually pay for just about anything with the famous flat, red onions.  In 1764 the town leaders levied taxes to build the First Church of Christ Congregational meetinghouse. Many residents paid their fee in the form of onions, causing the building to be known as “the church that onions built.”   To this day our local historical society symbolically pays its annual rent on an 18th-century warehouse not with money, but with Wethersfield Red Onions – and tee shirts, ties and coffee mugs proudly display the beloved burgundy bulb.

From whence the Wethersfield Red?  The first Pilgrims brought their own onion sets with them from England.  And the initial Wethersfield settlers who came down from Watertown, Massachusetts Bay Colony to live and farm likely carried with them some of their own pungent, edible bulbs.  Native Indians also harvested wild varieties. The deep, rich soil along the banks of the Connecticut River was an ideal place for agriculture and the “Wethersfield Red” was developed here by the local onion growers themselves.  Producers such as the Wells Brothers began raising them commercially in the 1780s in heavily fertilized beds that were never rotated – the same technique used in the cepinae of ancient Rome. 

The demise of the plantation system in the West Indies and a Civil War-era blight known as pinkroot brought the reign of the red onion to an end.  In New Mexico the end of the chile is a long ways away from being in sight.

But even after the decline of the onion trade local seed companies including Comstock Ferre & Co. (still in business here in town under the ownership of the Baker Creek Heritage Seed Company) sold red onion seeds across the country and Europe – but from what I have read not in the desert southwest.  The 1856 Comstock catalog said, "It is the kind mostly grown at Wethersfield. It grows to large size, deep red, thick, approaching to round shape, fine-grained, pleasant flavored, and very productive. It ripens in September, and keeps well."

Some accounts assert that cultivated chile peppers were introduced into the U.S. by Captain General Juan de Onate, the founder of Santa Fe, in 1609.  Other historians suggest that they came with the Antonio Espejo Expedition of 1582 – 1583.  In any event, after the Spanish settlement in 1598 the crop spread throughout New Mexico.  Even in New Mexico’s dry climate, distinct regional varieties or “land races” such as Chimayo and espanola peppers have been adapted to their particular environments – and many are still planted today in the same fields in which they were grown centuries ago    


Mars and I have never attempted to grow either our local onions or our someday-local chiles.  However when we finally do relocate to the desert southwest I think I would to keep in touch with my east coast roots by trying to cultivate some Wethersfield Reds.  I have instructions on how to grow the eponymous edible bulb in a pot.  And I’m already planning on using one of the large blue glazed containers from Jackalope Pottery in Santa Fe.  The heirloom Comstock Ferre seeds are still available – so I think I have a better than even chance of becoming the first successful New Mexico harvester of what will by then be my former home town’s most beloved symbol

After all, Connecticut’s own State Motto does tell us “Qui transtulit sustinet”  – "He who is transplanted still sustains".  It is time for Mars, me, and “Wethersfield Red” to test the New Mexican waters (or lack thereof) – to go, and hopefully to grow. 

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

My Subject Rather Chose Me.

I like to consider myself a gardener.
Now Mars and I are moving to the inhospitable growing climate of northern New Mexico.  I deeply enjoy working my shovel and my hands in the cool spring soil, placing plants into the earth, watering them into life, trimming them when they impinge upon each other, cutting them back when their growth season has ended, and raking off the leaves and discovering the first green buds of spring. Things that I'm almost certain are not going to happen in our new southwest home.  But I think what I will miss more than anything is the most mundane of all gardening activities – mowing the lawn. Grass grows in Santa Fe – but not in the quantity that merits the term “lawn”.  And even those small green areas are few and far between.
The yard that I now have takes about an hour and a quarter to cut.  My parents always rented and neither one had any interst interest in things horticultural.  So, other than some work I did one summer as a teenager for my hometown’s Parks Department, my yard is the only “lawn” that I have ever manicured.  And I have come to really enjoy the work.
But such was not always the case.  Mars and I took occupancy of our house in early spring of 1977 – just in time for everything floral, arboreal and vegetative on the property to begin their annual growing cycle.  And there were a lot of things – most of them unknown to me – but the one that even I could recognize was the lawn. 

A newly acquired mortgage, and a single, less-than-affluent income told me that paying someone else to do the job was not an option. So after a quick trip to Sears for a red Craftsman mower, I began what quickly became my Saturday morning mowing drudgery.  Inexperience, plus too many years of physical inactivity and forty-plus hours a week of demanding computer work left me ill-prepared me for this Sisyphean project.  Like the rock-pushing Greek King condemned by the Gods to an eternity of laborious and futile labor, I was doomed.
And then…    

As I have described in more detail elsewhere I was soon rescued from this fescue funk by the hired lawn-slinger who maintained the property of the older-couple diagonally across the street – and who had, at least in my semi-literate mind, a great physical resemblance to the American novelist Ernest Hemingway.  Inspired by “Ernest’s” energy (he was easily as old as, if not older than, his employers) – but mostly by his technique, flair, and fashion (when he was done the lawn was uniformly short and clean, like his hair and beard) –  I began what has become a life-long fusing of the literary and the down-to-earth. 
The mowing became less tedious and I realized more about how the work affected me, and the effect that I had on the lawn – as well as the effect that other gardening work could have on the rest of our yard, and myself. 
And I began writing about it.
The Men’s Garden Club that I joined a year or two after acquiring our house was kind enough to let me share my floricultural musings with its membership on a monthly basis.  Our local town newspaper occasionally published some of my other essays.   When I retired from my day job, our son and daughter-in-law presented me with an online blog into which I can pour any other such writings. And concurrently my interest in things horticultural continued to grow as I found that my labors in the loam provided more food for thoughts.
Mars likes to say ­– more in reference to my horticultural skills than to my artistic adroitness – that I am a writer who happens to garden, rather than the opposite.  That’s probably more true than not.  I’m not great at either – but I certainly wouldn’t be either without the other.  Fortunately one of the two pastimes is transferable to New Mexico where I will hopefully find plenty of new fodder on which to chew.
As the real Ernest once said, “I never had to choose a subject - my subject rather chose me.”