Plant Love Stories
Local gardeners talk about their favorite plants.
Succulents, penstemons and herbs like lavender and rosemary win "favorite plant" status from some of the area's most savvy gardeners. The appeal extends beyond exemplary hardiness — for indeed these plants literally rise to the occasion in spite of poor soil, rocky sites, limited irrigation and intervals of neglect. To the gardeners who love them, favorite plants are much more than resilient green berets. They are akin to friends whose character, reliability and pizzazz enhance one's life.
At the Lawrence Garden, the chartreuse bracts of Euphorbia rigida provide an eye-startling stage for a spiky ball of sotol, blue blooms of rosemary and an ocotillo (right corner).
Photo by Phoebe Lawrence.
So voila! Some plant love stories.
Although the Silver City gardens of musician Jeanie McLerie and potter Phoebe Lawrence are a short, vigorous hike from one another in the Boston Hill area, the plots differ in scope and scale.
Author of one of the first books on organic gardening (Eat and Enjoy, 1968), today Jeanie plants and putters as time permits, since music is her lodestar. "My parents were big gardeners," she says, "and in the 1940s you composted and ate vegetables from your garden. I learned how to do it all."
Jeanie also continues to use the red worms and seeds collected during her hippie epoch in Berkeley, Calif., where she provided song and fresh produce to her buddy Alice Waters, in exchange for Chez Panisse dinners.
"The lifestyles of a traveling musician and gardener don't go together," remarks Jeanie, who sings, fiddles and strums with her husband Ken Keppeler as Bayou Seco. The couple maintain a performance schedule that takes them abroad. Neighbors are relied upon to water outdoor and indoor plants until the troubadours turn homeward in late summer.
When that occurs, they are greeted by a fig tree full of fruit and favorite blooms — purple spikes of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), airy blue mounds of catmint (Nepeta) and the soft, silvery foliage of Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) — all of which resist visiting rabbits and deer.
Phoebe Lawrence also takes a laissez-fare stance on visiting critters, but is vigilant about garden keeping and design. Where Jeanie was an organics pioneer, Phoebe advocated xeriscape in the early 1970s, influenced by a friend on the Denver Water Board. Before there was general awareness about gardening techniques that promoted water conservation, Phoebe's grassless lawn created with berms, rocks, succulents, grasses and, of course, her own clay sculptures, made the pages of the Rocky Mountain News.
Today those key elements remain visible here in her sloping hillside garden established on rocky, clay soil.
During my visit on a sunny morning, some of the succulents that she adores are abloom in chartreuse or orange pointy bracts. One of them, Gopher Spurge (Euphorbia rigida), proclaims its writhing shape among Phoebe's immaculately kept borders in view of downtown.
Using succulents, Phoebe can express the strong forms, sizes and colors ("the more outlandish, the better!") that appeal to her artistic eye. Their placement in the garden acknowledges the space required to enhance each plant's individual character.
"I see a potential for beauty where others may not," Phoebe says.
Glancing around, one discovers adorable little birds — Phoebe's clay creatures — who seem silently entranced by the garden's drama. Her pondlets — small clay bird baths — provide water for a live resident roadrunner.
Growing desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), a favorite plant that Phoebe describes as a "taxi-cab yellow" wildflower, remains a major challenge, even though the reseeding and long-blooming plant can be seen thriving near Arizona highways.
"In spite of my inability to grow them, I just ordered nine more from the Native Plant Society. Of course, a neighbor a block away grows them with no trouble at all, " laments Phoebe.
Such perseverance is a mark, or perhaps the stigmata, of a true gardener.
To friends, Phoebe recommends growing Damianita (Chrysactinia Mexicana) because "they are so cheery and don't complain about awful soil." Damianita is a mounding evergreen plant with a golden yellow, daisy-type flower and aromatic, pine-like leaves.
Equally generous with both plant recommendations and specimens are Josh Reeves and Kyle Meredith, self-described "guerilla gardeners." For six years they have been creating an oasis in the Ridge Road area, south of Silver City, on vexatious caliche. Using mostly cuttings, they have achieved a domain of ornamental and edible plants irrigated from a well and two rainwater tanks.
Josh's Prickly Pear Syrup
(Three gallons of purple prickly pear fruit make approximately one gallon
Using tongs, pick the fruit pods and place them in a bucket. Wearing thick gloves, wash the pods and use a scrubbing pad to remove the glochids. Liquify the pods in a juicer. Add 2-3 cups of sugar (to taste) to the liquid. Next, boil until the liquid is reduced by one-fourth.
At this point, you may add one cup of fresh raspberries and simmer the mixture for another 20-30 minutes.
Let cool. Pour into a glass bottle and refrigerate.
Note: Josh and Kyle enjoy the syrup poured over cobbler and apple crisp, as well as ice cream, yogurt and waffles.
Josh, a lapidary, and Kyle, a sculptor who also landscapes part-time for Karen Danhauer, both gardened in Colorado for 30 years before being drawn to our area's opportunities for rock hounds, hikers and artists. Another lure, of course, was a longer growing season.
At present, the guys are propagating favorite varieties of penstemon from seed to intermingle with an existing landscape that includes red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and prickly pear (Opuntia species).
"Everything," Josh emphasizes, "looks great with penstemon."
To better work the site, the gardeners use a handful of gypsum at the bottom of plant holes to help break up hard soil. Next, they add compost and fresh horse or llama manure that has set for two weeks.
Pyola spray ordered from the "Gardens Alive!" catalog is used against insect pests.
Also enlightened foodies, Kyle reports that almost everything they eat is made from scratch. "But," Josh adds, "we're not grinding wheat yet." This summer, however, chickens may debut on the menu as well as help lay siege against grasshoppers
The partners grow red and blond raspberries and harvest other fruit from their orchard to guarantee a surplus of toppings for beloved waffles and yogurt. This breakfast preference is reinforced by a collection-in-waiting of antique waffle irons.
Josh's recipe for prickly pear syrup to pour over waffles is reprinted below.
Moving from caliche to rich, loamy soil involves a trip to Santa Clara, where Judy O'Loughlin, home economist for the Grant County Extension Service, enjoys her favorite plants: roses, shasta daisies and herbs. Assisted by her husband John, she gardens on two acres that include an orchard and a potager.
Living by a creek rewards them with "good dirt," but also yields weeds — especially horehound — that the couple pull up by hand.
Judy cultivates two plants for sentimental reasons: peace roses, loved by her grandmother, flourished on the family ranch in Buckhorn, and Shasta daisies were her late mother's favorite flower.
As part of her job, Judy leads Extension Service demonstrations using herbs from the potager. She delights in rosemary's blue flowers and suggests using the stems as kabob skewers. She saves the leaves for seasoning, then briefly soaks the stems in water to prevent their catching on fire.
Besides herb butters and infused oils, participants also learn how to make mint water as an alternative to energy-intensive plastic-bottled water. Along with other choices like sliced lemon and cucumber, flavored water is a delicious way to mask the taste of chlorine.
I have drunk the lemon-cucumber mixture that's offered at 10,000 Waves spa in Santa Fe. Its lovely flavor is amazingly thirst-quenching.
Next month, we'll discover more favorite plants here as well as in Pinos Altos and Las Cruces.