Monday, February 17, 2014


This year’s new crop at the Meehan Homestead will be cactus.
It is the latest step in the gradual New Mexication of our landscape that Marsha and I have been nurturing over the past few years.  There are a couple of reasons for this horticultural mode of travel.  First, New Mexico is where we ultimately plan on living – but until then we will make do by bringing as much of that locale into our immediate surroundings as we can.
We began with our family room, which fittingly sits in the southwest section of our casa – note the subtle introduction of the Spanish motif – the walls of which are decorated with various arts and crafts from “The Land of Enchantment” that we have acquired or been given over the years.  Among them are three “retablos” (paintings on wood) of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers and gardeners who, according to legend, was discovered by his master praying while an angel was doing the ploughing for him.
While I am certainly not spiritually in a place to deserve any divine yard-helpers the religious icon’s presence nonetheless inspires me to emulate to a lesser degree some the Madrid native’s horticultural feats.
Which brings me to our second reason for New Mexicizing our local terrain – if ordinary mortals in one of the most sun baked and arid areas in the U.S. of A. can grow this stuff – then why shouldn’t we, sitting here in the rich, deep, alluvial soil of the Connecticut River Valley, be able to grow them even bigger and better.
We started with hollyhocks, which, while certainly not unique to New Mexico, nonetheless have gone on to become the floral symbol of the town of Taos and proliferate the southwest countryside throughout the summer and fall.  Depending upon whom you choose to believe this colorful cousin of hibiscus, okra and cotton was brought to the region by either the daughter of the territory’s first governor who purchased them from a St. Louis seed salesman or, Sueño, a near-sighted angel, who while escaping Herod's wrath took the Holy Family to New Mexico by mistake.
Either way, they are like-everywhere out there.  Actually even that's an understatement. I would say that you couldn't swing a dead javelina in Santa Fe without hitting one of these drought-tolerant, heat-loving members of the mallow family.
We got some seeds from our daughter-in-law and son’s front yard in Santa Fe and planted them in our first potentially faux New Mexico garden.  Year uno – nada.  Year dos – more seeds followed by more and more and more rain.  Mucho agua = drowned hollyhocks.  Year tres – the rains held off and the ‘hocks soared.  Last summer – not so good.  But hope is an integral part of gardening, especially with hollyhocks.
Next we added “Maximillian Sunflowers” (this time from our d-in-l’s backyard and harder to smuggle x-country) – another perennial (more reliable) that also can withstand poor soils and intense heat, and churns out large yellow flowers from midsummer onwards.  And tall.  Like really, really, tall.  Like cut them back in June, then August, and in September they are still eight feet high tall.  No problemo with these southwester imports.
So, what next?
Now New Mexican cactus is not showy and big-limbed like the steroidal, tree-like saguaro that can grow up to as much as seventy feet in the Sonoran desert of Arizona.  Instead it is the considerably more modest prickly pear – short plants with flat, rounded cladodes (also called platyclades) that are armed with two kinds of spines; large, smooth, fixed spines and small, hair like prickles called glochids, that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant.
Only this time Marsha and I are not planning on secreting these paddle-like cacti in our carry-on luggage – those pointy needles can be a real turn-off, trust me – and we probably won’t be going to NM until after the CT growing season anyway. Instead we are going to sell out a little and seek the plant locally.
Or so we intend anyway.
Sometimes when New Mexican Catholics don’t get what they want after praying to their retablo saints they put the icons in a drawer or out of sight in some other place to express their anger.  So should you drop by our house this summer and you notice three San Isidro plaques hung with their faces to the wall – don’t even ask me how our prickly pear project went.
On the other hand if Isidro’s unsmiling face is looking you square in the eye (saints never grin after all) then you are welcome to visit our latest little bit of NM in CT.
More to come.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

We Are Not Amused

Our local NPR station is doing fund raising this week, which cuts into some of its regular programming.  One of the things that’s omitted is the brief, humorous news piece that starts off the second half hour of the “Morning Edition” news program – a feature that Mars calls the “amuse” (as in amuse-gueule, a small, savory item of food served as an appetizer before a meal.)

It has become a part of our wakeup ritual so, better late than never, in mid-afternoon I found the missing segment on the Morning Edition website.

“Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. When its tough tabby took off, the horse barn housing the LAPD's Mounted Platoon could have been overrun by rats and mice. But enter two new officers from the feline corps - partners Willie and Harry. Harry, by the way, is the talkative one. They're the newest grads of the Voice for the Animals Barn Cat Academy. Top of their class - rats take note. As the mounted police equine keeper told the LA Times: They know the beat. It's MORNING EDITION.”

Intrigued, we found more info in the online San Bernardino Sun.  “’Cats are a top-line predator,’ said Melya Kaplan, executive director of the Venice-based nonprofit [that provided the cats]. ‘When rodents meet a top-line predator, they leave … It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful.’”

The phrase “top-line predator” was new to me.  But I understood exactly what it meant because of something Mars and I had witnessed just a few hours earlier.

First I need to set the stage a little.  Our town had about a ten-inch snowfall a few days ago and because of the cold temperatures at least eight of those inches are still on the un-shoveled parts of the ground.  About five feet in front of our family room window is a path of pavers that runs across the yard from our driveway to the sidewalk on the other side. In addition to cleaning all of the walking and driving surfaces I’ve shoveled a ten foot long path from the driveway into our bird feeders – parallel to the pavers and about six feet away from them.

Just before lunch Mars and I were watching the bevy of small birds and pair of squirrels that were ground feeding on sunflower seeds when a longhaired gray-and-white cat that we have seen in our yard before appeared on the scene.

He skulked onto the pavers and paused just about across from the location where the two tree-rodents were blissfully chomping away.

 “He’s going to try and catch the squirrels”, I commented incredulously to Mars thinking to myself I have never seen this or any other feline succeed in the act. 

Within five seconds the mouser was over the snow bank in hot pursuit of the squirrels down in the snow canyon beneath the feeders.   And he quickly emerged onto the driveway with a limp furry red-spattered gray carcass dangling from his smiling mouth. The predator paraded down the path as if to display his trophy to the stunned audience, then turned and trotted off across the driveway and out of sight. 

“Well”, Mars asked, “Do you still want to eat?”

A check of the yard a short time later showed absolutely no signs of the incident, and within fifteen minutes the remaining squirrel and birds were back in their regular places doing their regular things.

A top-line predator indeed, but definitely not an amuse-gueule – at least for us anyway.