Friday, November 29, 2019

Laissez Fair Gardening, Or Not

Knowing little about growing plants in the arid, high desert southwest – and having an almost blank caliche canvas in the backyard of our newly purchased Santa Fe home – and (most importantly) being totally awed by the breathtaking, unselfconscious landscaping that Mother Nature (aka Madre Naturaleza) does totally on her own out here (such as this Monet’s Giverny Garden-like vista along one of the trenches into our main arroyo) – therefore we decided to embark upon an experiment in what Jim likes to call laissez-faire gardening, a “policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering” as defined in our iMac’s dictionary.

Well, maybe a little interference. Early on Jim noticed some isolated blades of grass popping up in what we had now come to call our “outback,” perhaps to add a wild, untamed vibe to our landscaping “plan.” Definitely not enough ground cover to require anything mechanized to maintain it. But even one shaft of fescue brought flashbacks of hours spent pushing our Toro – and besmirched our dream of scenery free of eastern greenery. So Jim plucked the little suckers from our rock-hard growing medium, and sprayed those that still remained with our toxic-but-organic weed-killing mixture of vinegar and other secret ingredients. Activities he has continued throughout the growing season.
We also added, with the help of Jose the landscaper, a Spanish Broom and an Apache Plume – and, by ourselves, a Datura (below). Three favorites on the northern NM list of xeriscape plants.

Then we spoke to one of the docents at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden who boasted of how he created his own all-natural garden by gathering seeds on hikes through the countryside, and randomly scattering them around his own private property – much like Mother Nature’s helpers such as the wind, birds and squirrels do. So last autumn, as our local wildflowers were turning to seed, we (in our role as nature’s acolytes) began carrying plastic sandwich bags and pruning shears on our own walks, and likewise scattered the bounty of our high desert journeys in our own outback.
And to our delight as the spring and summer evolved our backyard began filling with various unique unidentified examples of southwestern plants. A few were definitely weedy. But most were actually nice looking – including lots of what the New Mexicans call “mules ears.” In the spirit of our project, all were welcome.
Largely laissez-faire, and overall pleasant to look at – but not quite the work of horticultural art that adorns that arroyo access trench.
Meanwhile, we found a way to scratch that itch we have about missing eastern style gardening. (The yearning is much more on Jim’s side – but we are both taking part in alleviating it.)
El Rancho de las Golondrinas sits in a cienega (wetland) in northern New Mexico’s high desert. And, in keeping with its historical mission, the museum, grows traditional NM crops such as the “three sisters” (corn, squash, beans), pumpkins, peppers, and sorghum in the traditional NM manner (tilled, planted, weeded by hand and watered from an acequia.) The entry plaza however contains several other flowerbeds, which to an eastern observer would appear no different than what might be found at CT venues such as Hartford’s Butler-McCook House or Old Lyme’s Florence Griswold Museum.
On one of our early spring visits to El Rancho we were chatting with J, the “Curator of Agriculture & Bookkeeper” who mentioned that she could use some assistance maintaining these gateway gardens. It was the perfect situation for two former practitioners of east coast strong oversight horticulture who were not set to yet abandon their beliefs in favor of wild west laissez-faire landscaping. Long story short, we have been helping her out on Monday mornings over the past few months.
Back in CT our flowerbeds were a mix of planned plants, volunteers, gifts and rescues from abandoned gardens. To some perhaps a motley collection. But we insisted that they all look well-groomed, and that they respect one another’s space. And we spent most of our time in the garden enforcing those rules.
J’s goals for the Golondrinas gardens were basically the same. So we easily fell into our old CT regime of weeding, dead-heading, and cutting back – all to encourage future growth and allow fair competition among the plants. Plus Jim got to employ his Japanese Pruning Saw – a favorite landscaping weapon that he brought with him from CT and which had been sitting idle in our garage. As well as using the museum’s pole saw because cottonwoods and aspen seem to have an inordinate number of dead branches.
The plants are different – but the process is the same.  Plus there are some practices unique to this part of the country ­– such as cutting down the “clonal colony” of tiny aspen catkins that continually pop up throughout the plots – each one a part of the extensive root system of the initial seedling, and each one a potential full-sized tree intended to keep the community going when the older ones age and die. There also are a locust tree and several cottonwoods with similar rhizome methods of territorial population, which likewise must be controlled lest the area become a shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder aspen-locust-cottonwood forest.
Part of J’s pruning philosophy is to cut back the plants before they have an opportunity to spread their seeds around the garden. This has become one of Marsha’s specialties. As a result we haven’t acquired much in the line of transported volunteers for our outback from our Monday morning labors. (Marsha did however acquire a bagful of seeds from an unidentified small bush near the museum’s weaving area. No, not lamb’s ear.)

But the seasons change and the undomesticated flora along our community’s walking trails are offering their own propagating pips for our personal purposes. So once again pruning shears and plastic bags are a part of our hiking ensemble.
In general we are happy with version 1.0 of Madre Naturaleza’s backyard mural – although she seems a little heavy on the yellow and way light on the purple for our tastes. She also seems to rely too excessively on mule ears  which can spread out to about a foot wide. So, in preparation for the next spring’s wave of germinating seeds we have removed about three/quarters (twenty or so) of that overabundant yellow desert flower. Our plan is to cover the vacant spots with small stones and strategically scatter our foraged seedlings (mixed with mushroom compost) amongst the rocks. Plus we are explicitly seeking out purple aster seeds and pretty much anything else that is not yellow, to hopefully create more color variety.
One other aspect of our quasi laissez faire landscaping that seems to be working really well is the partially planned profusion of hollyhocks. The abundance is intentional, the placement is up to fate to decide. The house came with two established examples of the tall, showy member of the mallow family in our placita (plaza).  We let some of those seeds fall where they might. Then harvested others and combined them with still more from Monica’s & Bram’s own burgeoning, multi-colored hollyhock forest – and scattered them around our placita, in our outback, and even on the open space immediately behind our own abode.
A decade ago we tried cultivating M & B’s ‘hock seeds back in CT with mixed results. They grew. But more rain than they were used to resulted in rust infected, haggard looking plants. 2012 featured New England’s version of a drought. The hollyhocks evidently loved this meteorological mistreatment. Two of them shot up to ten feet in altitude. Other shorter, but still formidable, ones surrounded them. From then until our 2016 departure, the flowers appeared again and again in smaller numbers at lower heights in slightly different parts of the garden with no noticeable problems.

From that experience – and our spring and summer spent in the South Capital area of Santa Fe, where hollyhocks appear from sidewalk cracks, roadside curbs and resting against adobe walls – we learned that these plants seem to thrive on what would kill most of the flowers we were used to, i.e. unending sunshine, lack of water, miserable “soil” and inappropriate locations.

So we knew that somehow, some way they would succeed pretty much anywhere that we let their seeds drop. And they did – in the spaces between stone slabs on our placita, in one of the yard’s hand-placed natural rock French Drains, and in the gravel border of our adjacent common land. All proof to us that, given the opportunity Mother Nature’s landscape design is both creative and resilient.
But sadly impermanent. On a recent walk we discovered that Jose’s annual bushwhacking of parts of our community’s open spaces has resulted in the decimation of the arroyo access Giverny Garden vista that began this essay, in favor of unobstructed drainage for raging rainwaters – and reduced wildfire tinder.

In truth it wouldn’t have lasted anyway. The purple and yellow flowers would change into dried up seed pods, which would then drop or blow away leaving pale, lifeless skeletons. Others would shrivel up, each in their own way, and lie dead or dormant on the seasonally lifeless desert floor.
Until next year when, like Monet who painted myriad images of his beloved ornamental grounds, Madre Naturaleza returns once again to redecorate her own much grander canvas
As the Roman philosopher Plutarch put it, “this nature itself has no permanence, nor ‘being,’ but is becoming and perishing according to its relation to time.” And that is the joy of (even quasi) laissez faire gardening. If you want something that lasts – take, or paint, a picture of it.

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