Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Different Drummer

or Moving Right Along

These late summer days have had a rhythm of their own, a slow ostinato of shimmering heat and looming thunderheads, of food flavored with basil and sage and savory, of crickets keeping company with the night.  The cantaloupes are in from Rocky Ford, Colorado, the peaches from Palisade—not hard, flavorless, mass-market fruit but the real thing, so ripe that they might as well be perfume.  You slice them over a bowl to catch every last drop of nectar; they taste like sweetened sunshine.  The wind blows the scent of a distant thunderstorm in through the windows, ruffling the pages of a book.  The days, every one so alike, seem endless, timeless.

The honey locust still takes me by surprise; I can't really believe that it's survived.  It came out of nowhere, popping up in the microgarden several years ago, and somehow managed to thrive.  I've moved it to a bigger pot every year since then, and this summer for the first time it's put out a fully fledged branch.

Honey locusts always remind me of summer in Vermont, of drying off in their dappled shade after a swim in Lake Champlain, a hot haze hanging over the Adirondacks and the button islands dotting the lake.  Then again, they remind me of my first spring in New Mexico, in a balcony apartment level with the crowns of locust trees, where evenings would envelop me in the honey-and-rose fragrance of their flowers.

All to say, I love honey locusts.  Every year about this time, I start getting worried, though, because my fledgling tree looks a bit stressed.  A few leaflets here and there start to turn yellow; some of the leaf edges brown a little.  Is it getting too much sun?  Too much or too little water?  Does it need fed?  Are its roots crowded?  And then I remember:  honey locusts are the first trees to turn color in the fall.  This isn't the yellow of poor health; it's the yellow of autumn.

Autumn.  Autumn?  For Pete's sake, it's 95°F outside, with no change in sight.  The sun is still strong enough that it hurts.  And yet this little tree is already tapping its feet to autumn's piping—as are its kin around the neighborhood, I notice.  They're not doing anything radical yet; they're not making any sudden moves, but really, they've already left summer behind.

I'm still just as astonished as I was back in February at the rhythms plants are attuned to—they're so different from ours.  They're certainly affected by the immediacy of weather (as anyone who was on the Eastern seaboard this weekend could tell you), but in normal circumstances it's not their top priority.  They move to the pulse of the seasons, to the slow, inexorable ebb and flow of sunlight, the steady measure of the earth in its promenade around the sun.

The honey locusts couldn't care less that it's 95° out, that the ice cream truck is still circling the neighborhood, that the chile harvest is still rolling in.  The sun has moved on, and they are following.  "It's time," they say.  "It's time."

Taking another peach in hand, I reply, "No.  Not yet."


To my friends in Vermont, be safe—and anchored.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Scary Scenes

or Throwing Down the Gauntlet

No!  Hang on to that gauntlet!  You may want it again, although gardening gloves would probably be safe enough in a pinch.  Probably.
Think of this as one of those movie rating blurbs that tells you why the rating was given—bad language, violence, whatever.   Once I watched something Star Wars-y with my youngest nephew that was rated PG because of "Scary Scenes."  The rating was apt, and I'm afraid it's apt again today.  We are facing real life, PG-rated Scary Scenes, although the following preview has been approved for general audiences:


I've been shifting potted plants around a lot lately.  It shouldn't be a dangerous thing to do, not if I wait for an hour after eating and remember to lift with my legs and not with my back.   And yet, after moving one of the big urns the other day, I found this hanging out underneath its rim:

Oh, good.  A black widow.  (That's really the only Scary Scene.  You can look again now.)  Judging from the coloring, she may still be immature, but that's only mildly comforting.  I could easily have put my hand on her while I was moving the urn.

The thing is, I know better than that.  I may not always wear gloves for actual gardening in actual dirt, but I usually do when messing with the furnishings, for just this reason.  The Widows have lulled me this year.  They've been keeping themselves to themselves, quiet-like, and I've grown careless about taking precautions.

Generally speaking, I don't mind—or at least, violently object to—black widows.  They're useful to have around in a way; their messy, shapeless webs are strong enough to hold grasshoppers and waterbugs.  They're unaggressive unless threatened, and they don't seem to want to see me any more than I want to see them.  And after all, their bite won't actually kill you.  Not usually.

So when they all came out of the woodwork at once this week, I was initially pretty laissez-faire about it.  A black widow on the lip of the urn?  Maybe that urn doesn't need to be moved again after all.  Another one in the keypad box for the garage door opener?  Hey, I can just use the remote.  Living in the patio table's hollow legs?  You know, it's really too hot to enjoy eating outside anyway.  In the pineleaf penstemon next to the patio?  I don't really need another super-close-up macro of a fallen salvia blossom in the penstemon's leaves.

Ever again.  Another black widow in the strawberry pot where the thyme and oregano are growing?  Pfff.  Herbs, schmerbs.  Suddenly I prefer the dried ones in nice, safe, hermetically sealed containers from the store.

Admittedly, the patio has been less a place of peace and sanctuary and more like Mirkwood Forest lately, but that's the price you pay for being smugly virtuous chicken green.  Nonetheless, when I found not one but two black widows, a male and a female, setting up housekeeping under the Adirondack chair, the live-and-let-live, they-have-their-ecological-niche-to-fill, all-creatures-great-and-small-ness went flying.  They had thrown down the gauntlet; they had crossed a cosmic line in the sand, and I just let 'em have it.

Somewhere I read that morality is essentially about keeping your own needs and the needs of others in balance.  This week has certainly tested that balance in the miniature ecosystem of the garden, pushing matters to the tipping point that decides the issue for me or for them.  At least now we know what the tipping point is.

It's the Adirondack chair.  No one messes with the Adirondack chair.

As for all the other black widows waiting their turn to enjoy my favorite seat, this is one of the rare occasions when I wish someone big and heroic would just come along and take care of things while I look on adoringly.  More likely, I will use a spray bottle of insecticidal soap to handle the problem from afar.  I'll be wearing gloves.

Gauntlets would be even better.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Turn and Turn Again

or Remembrance of Things Past

A whiff of licorice.  As I brushed past the hummingbird mint, its fragrance filled the air, and I had a sudden  flash of memory from childhood.

We were on a drive through the Colorado Rockies, possibly to enjoy a "three-picnic day," and had stopped at a mom-and-pop gas station on the edge of a tumble-down town.  It was made of logs, and the inside was cool and dark and musty.  Dirty windows glowed golden with sunlight but didn't let much of it through; tiny cobwebs shone in their corners.  At the counter a mountain man with a bush of a beard presided over the cash register.  Lined up in front of him was a row of open glass canisters, filled with long, unwrapped sticks of hard candy in costume-jewelry colors.

Mom gave an exclamation of delight—"Penny candy!"  It actually cost more than that, maybe 5¢, and we children were allowed to choose two sticks each.  They had wonderful, old-fashioned names:  sarsaparilla, horehound.  I chose horehound and licorice, but when we got back to the old Plymouth and tasted our treats, they were disappointing—flavorless, a little dusty.  At the ripe old age of six or so, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the olden days, when penny candy was still good enough to exclaim over in delight.

The odd bite of homesickness for something I had never known made that experience lodge in memory.  Nostalgia for the past got mixed up with that present moment to make a new story, to become a small part of the lore of my life.  Some day I shall inflict it on my niece and nephews, and maybe they'll become nostalgic for family picnics and log-built, mom-and-pop gas stations, for the days when penny candy only cost a nickel.

Agastache rupestris—licorice mint or hummingbird mint—is good at inspiring nostalgia.  The soft, sage-green of its foliage and the salmon-colored flowers have something pleasantly faded about them, like a favorite shirt that has been worn and laundered to softness, or a Polaroid photograph of a long-ago family outing.  The fragrance, too, like licorice (some say root beer) with a hint of rain, is an evocative one; it's overpowering when you're cutting back a whole plant in late winter, but refreshing in small doses.  It always reminds me of the early days in the garden, when I had several agastache growing:  the cool spring day when I planted them and ran my hand through their leaves in greeting; Luther T. Dog coming in from his evening rounds, wearing the scent of licorice on his coat; crisp winter mornings when I crumbled the equally crisp dried leaves to release the fragrance of summer.

In the relatively kind conditions of morning sun and dappled shade, however, the agastache grew twice as tall and wide as they should have—taller than the sand cherries, almost as tall as me.  It became impossible to maneuver around without breaking their stems.  Luther would go outside, look at the impassable jungle, and just give up, and despair is not something I like to see in a dog.  (Or, indeed, anyone.)  The agastache had become a problem, but the decision to dig them out was still a hard one.

I've missed them.  It's probably a bit too soon to call the feeling fully-fledged nostalgia, but not having them around has made the garden feel incomplete.  This summer I'm trying agastache again in containers:  urns this time, to suit their long tap roots.   They generally mark the entrance to the garden proper, but lately I've moved them back closer to the Adirondack chair where they can get more direct sunlight.

The hummingbirds love them.  They have come to tolerate the autumn sage, and they'll toy with the gaura and sample everything else, but the agastache is always their first, most enthusiastic choice.  As they feed, they are so close to me in the chair that I could reach out—not even stretching—and touch them.  Those moments have been some of the most magical of the whole summer.

Nostalgia is such a funny thing.  It's backward-looking yet also somehow creative.  Just as you can never really go home again, you can't really re-create something you've lost; you can never recapture it exactly.  But you can incorporate something of the old into present circumstances and create something new from the mix—something that starts off a fresh round of stories, that creates its own set of memories.

They will become their own source of nostalgia in turn.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thinking Out Loud

or Fun with Nuts and Bolts

Well, I don't know whether we'll have that much fun. In fact, this will be the kind of straightforward post I almost never write.  I apologize if it's long and dull, but I'm hoping you'll be kind enough to bear with me and offer me your suggestions. (Apologies also to those of you who aren't into this much gardening nitty-gritty.  We will return to our regularly scheduled program on Sunday.)  I'm still thinking through plans for the garden and beginning to put some of them in practice, but I thought I'd run them past you before I reach the point of no return so you can warn me if I'm doing something insane before I've actually done it.  

The Goal—to create an open-feeling, airy space that evokes the outdoor places I love so much in the high desert landscape, in a 15' x 15' (actually 14' x 14') walled, urban planting area. The point isn't to make it seem bigger, just more airy and less "clogged up."  

Though a bit dark, this photo gives a good idea of the shape.  I've already removed the densest plants and mostly emptied the central bed, replacing the gravel there with pecan shells.  (I'm still waiting for some oomph and inspiration to move the pots of gravel to a new home.)  The sand cherry by the blue bench is kind of a big, hairy monster, but overall I like this level of airiness and now want to fill in the blanks without changing the general feel.

The Conditions—earling morning to mid-day sun for four to six hours, depending on the location. The most open light is right in the center, with dappled shade along the periphery beneath the three small trees and full shade between the two largest bushes on the left. Seriously alkaline soil with fair drainage and no nutrients; mixed clay, sand, and decomposed granite.  An average of eight inches of moisture per year.  USDA hardiness zone 7, AHS heat zone 8.

The Parameters—I'd like the garden to be all of the following:
  1. Interesting in all four seasons.  I'll be out on the patio every weekend morning all winter, so I don't want too many of the kinds of perennials that fade away to nothing, or that look gorgeous for three weeks a year and then have nothing further to say for themselves.
  2. Not very thirsty.  Plants that might look better with additional water, but that can survive on just rainfall are ideal.
  3. Friendly to wildlife and able to withstand the neighbors' cats.
  4. Easy to create and maintain.  I'm really not saying the following because I want sympathy or anything—I really kind of don't—but because it's a critical factor that has to be taken into account.  This year my CFS/ME has worsened; even just this summer I've lost about another 10% functionality.  Literally the only fun, non-sedentary activities left in my life are occasional, vacation-day trips to the outdoors, and gardening.  If the downward trend continues, they will have to go as well.  I'm not planning on that happening, but because I love being out in the garden so much, I want to make sure that I can continue enjoying it no matter what.  I'd like to set the stage for it to run itself a little more if need be without losing its general shape or fizzling altogether.  With my current energy levels, any changes I make will be piecemeal—a few small things here and there.  It will take me a couple of months to do what a healthy person can do in a weekend.  All to say, the easier the better.

There are actually two young sand cherries along the sides, growing slowly in part sun.  I've unearthed the soaker hoses from the mulch so I know where to plant; I currently run them once a week but would like to cut that use at least in half.

The Assumptions—By all means, correct me if they're wrong...
  1. A loosely constructed, naturalistic look will probably hold up better under neglect than a carefully planned design.
  2. A circle path in a square bed by a rectangular house ought to be enough shape for anyone.  With that much geometry in such a small space, a naturalistic look won't descend into chaos.
  3. Seeds:  boy, are they easy to strew about.
The Plan—To leave all the big things in place.  I kind of wish I'd planted one of the desert olives about two feet further west, but I didn't, and now it's happy where it is.  The three trees and four sand cherry bushes will stay where they are, as will the brick path.  That leaves me with a central 5' diameter circle bed in open sunlight, and one continuous, irregularly shaped bed around the perimeter, mostly in dappled shade. 

I'd like to take advantage of that contrast.  The multi-trunked desert olives are already quite airy-looking.  With low-growing (one foot tall or so) plants at their bases, the perimeter beds could have a kind of canopy-and-forest-floor feel.  With the densest plants removed, only the ground-covers are left; they're beginning to settle in, and I'd like to give them a chance.  In the blank spots, then, I'll direct-sow seeds of natives that can handle part-sun—silky thread grass, flax, scarlet globemallow, and at the sunnier edges, California poppy.  (A plant list with links follows, for those of you who are gluttons for punishment interested.)  In sunnier areas, I'll try sand lovegrass, purple prairie clover, and angelita daisies.  Except for perhaps the clover, those are all self-seeders, some of them quite prolific; none of them needs much, if any, additional water.

A view the other direction, showing the general shape of the funkiest desert olive tree.

The central bed will be more of a "bowl of sunshine" out in the open, with short-grass prairie type plants  (also from seed).  Blue grama grass will be the primary planting, with rough menodora, long-flowered gilly (an annual), and more flax, all of which are 12-18" tall (according to my books).  (An experimental milkweed is already growing there, and as it's doing well, it may as well stay and make some more of itself.)

I do have vines planted, but they're still either in their sleeping or creeping years; hopefully next summer they'll begin to leap and cover the walls in earnest. 

The Concerns—I'm hoping the prolific re-seeders will help the garden be more self-sustaining, but I might end up making too much work for myself with extra weeding.  When sturdy, native, drought-tolerant, indestructible grasses with six-foot deep roots start coming up between the bricks in the path, I might really regret this.  An alternative might be to continue planting a tapestry of groundcovers of different heights and textures. Also, what I'm hoping will be kind of an unbuttoned, easily natural look might just end up being a mess.  Thoughts?  Warning bells?

The Plants
Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)
Sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) (This doesn't get to 5' in NM—the seed heads top out at more like 2', and they're all air.)
Silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima)
Angelita daisies (Hymenoxys acaulis)
Blue flax (Linum lewisii)
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Long-flowered gilly (Ipomopsis longiflora)
Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
Rough menodora (Menodora scabra)
Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea)

The Note of Thanks

I really do appreciate your help on this.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Depth Perception

or In Praise of (Dry) Grass

Elena Gallegos Open Space Park, Albuquerque, August 2011

When I lived in Vermont, May and June confused me. They came along in between the first flush of spring and the onset of summer flowers, and they were green, green, green. The meadows were a uniform, deep green. The Green Mountains were, of all things, a uniform, deep green. The cornfields were that same U.D.G. Nothing but lush, healthy greenery met the eye for miles.  (It was really, really green.)

I grew up in Colorado with parents who taught their children to look for beauty in the arid plains by tracing the contours of the landscape, the subtle changes of color as one kind of grass yielded to another, the stippling of the different textures, the play of light and shadow. You had to be willing to engage with what you were seeing; it wasn't the kind of easy beauty that you could passively let wash over you. Bringing the same approach to the U.D.G. in Vermont, though, to that untextured, late-spring landscape, I felt as if I'd entered a two-dimensional world or been deprived of one of my senses. How can you orient yourself in scenery that's monochromatic, where everything is the same, easy-on-the-eyes green? What entry point can you find? How can you perceive depth or distance or difference?  It was only when the grasses began to flower and set seed and the Queen Anne's lace and chicory began to bloom that I found my bearings again.

Let's fast-forward now to this summer.  Two months ago I sat on a well-placed bench at an open space park in the foothills and looked out at this scene:

At the time we'd had no significant rainfall in six months, and while the junipers and cholla were plugging along fine, the grasses were brittle and dry, dead to all outward appearance. Since then, however, the foothills have had an inch, maybe (if we don't mind a little hyperbole) an inch and a half of rain, a few millimeters at a time. An inch (and a half) of rain doesn't last long, not with afternoon highs still in the upper 90's. Even so, yesterday, from the same well-placed bench, the scene looked like this:

(With a bonus, which totally made my day):

Southwestern paintbrush (I think) (Castilleja integra)

The grass isn't exactly rainforest green, but then, it never will be, no matter how much moisture we get. It's mostly blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), a native to the western half of North America, and like most western plants, it is generally trying not to photosynthesize any more than it absolutely must; it doesn't have much chlorophyll to begin with. What you see in the photos is pretty much its deepest color, more of a spring or golden green than emerald or kelly. But it's still green, on an inch (and a half) of rain in eight months.

Just because the grass is greening up, though, doesn't mean that the brown has all gone away.  No one is running around the foothills de-thatching them.  Since we don't have heavy winter snows or rains to flatten the past seasons' growth, it's still standing tall, blue grama's hallmark "eyelash" seedheads still fluttering in the wind.

Those seedheads, waving above the new growth, also catch every ray of light and gleam with it.  The "floor" of the landscape really has two layers:  a green "substance"  layer and a floating, golden "shimmer" layer.  In the top photo, you can almost determine the contours of the land, every little dip and rabbit hole, by tracing the light on the grasses alone.  The distance is marked, tuft by tuft.  In the photo below, even the weight and solidity of the stone in front and the juniper's shadow behind can't overwhelm the shimmer layer's delicate airiness. 

In case you hadn't noticed, I am a westerner through and through.  I am in love with that year-round, gleaming light like nobody's business, and with textures and contours and subtle contrasts.  I enjoy a landscape that doesn't give up its secrets easily, that asks you to invest yourself in it first, and then rewards you with dramatic mountains when you need some easier beauty for a while.  (I do appreciate green, lush, gentle landscapes, of course; they're just not my native language.)  Every time I get to spend time outside—really outside, not "around town" outside—all those things I love hit home again.

They live in the shimmer layer of memory.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


or Tenacity

"Tendril" is such a lovely word, with all the swirling delicacy of a sumptuous Art Nouveau design.  Depending on which dictionary you check, its source might be the Latin word tener, meaning soft, tender, and yielding.  Or it might come from tendere, to stretch or extend, or maybe from tenēre, to hold.

Quite possibly in a stranglehold.

I goofed up this year.  When it came time to plant summer squash and cucumbers in the microgarden—the 2' x 4' raised bed where I grow vegetables—I reversed their planting positions.  I should have sown the squash in the roomy center divider where it could bush out, and the cukes next to the trellis where they could climb.  Instead the squash are now glowing with health in front of a trellis they have no interest in, and the cukes, eager to cling to a trellis, are having to make do with whatever they can find—a marigold leaflet, a scallion.  Fortunately the amaranth has come to the rescue yet again, sturdy enough to sustain another species without losing vigor itself.

The greatest challenge facing the cukes where they are—the biggest reason they have to climb—is to reach sunlight.  I usually wait to plant curcubits until after the 4th of July to starve out the squash bugs, so when the cukes were still seedlings, the other, older plants in the microgarden were already fully grown and casting shade.  Tendril by tendril, inch by inch, the cucumbers have been struggling to make their way through the established plants and into the sunshine. 

Their progress has been impressive:  steady, relentless.  Spindly, leggy growth is not in these cucumbers' destiny; they will not settle for anemic pallor.  "Sunshine or bust" is their motto.

Knowing the strides they've made, I look at their tendrils now, and I don't see delicate curls.  I see the botanical equivalent of pitons, driven into rock, anchoring mountain climbers who move one foothold, one handhold at a time in their dangerous contest with gravity.  I can understand why clinging has such a bad name—just ask the scallion, squeezed in two, how it feels about those tendrils.  But the flip side of clinginess is tenacity, the ability to hold tight and not give up.

To keep pulling yourself toward life, one stubborn inch at a time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mistaken Identities

or Comedy Tonight

For low-brow humor, it's hard to beat well-placed weeds.  Not that weeds are usually knee-slappingly funny all by themselves, but it turns out that they're mighty fine prompts for funny behavior in others—as good as a ladder and a bucket of whitewash to a clown.  When I wrote last month about wanting to see what would happen if I let an unexpected evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) go to seed in the middle of the desert olive tree where it's been growing, my expectations were really pretty feeble.  I mean, I thought that perhaps new seedlings would come up in other unlikely places.  Is that lame or what?  What's actually happened is that the primrose has turned my little garden into a nonstop Vaudeville act that has had me laughing for weeks.

The primrose itself is about six feet tall, growing up through the ten foot desert olive.  Its stems stick out through the tree branches at unlikely angles; on random days they bloom at the tips.  (I've been taking some plants out, so the ground in the photo is embarrassingly bare.)  The upper stems blend into the tree—even those of us who know what we're looking for don't find it easy to tell where one ends and the other begins.  For those like, say, the two families of fledgling lesser goldfinches who hang out in the trees and who haven't yet learned that things are not always as they seem, it's flat-out complicated.

The thing about a tree branch is, it's sturdy.  When you're not entirely sure of your wings to begin with, sturdy is good.  But when you land on what you expect to be a sturdy tree branch and get a flexible primrose stem instead, things can get a little slapstick.  Down bob the stems—whoops!  Frantic flapping.  Up bounce the stems—surprise!  More frantic flapping.  Squawk!  Squawk some more!  Bob, bounce.  Equilibrium returns at last, and then along comes one of your siblings, to land on that nice, sturdy "tree branch" with you.  Bob, bounce, flap, squawk. 

Over the last few days, the goldfinches' balance has improved.  They've learned that the primrose stems have tasty seed pods, and all is well again.  Perhaps half a dozen of them, juveniles and adults, are seated on the stems or in the tree at a time, yellow feathers radiant, looking like fluttery primroses themselves.

Make that scruffy primroses.

But as entertaining as the finches are, they are just the warmup act.  Our star comedian is this young fellow, a black-chinned hummingbird:

Doesn't he look gullible sweet?  He's spent quite a lot of time exploring the garden the last couple of weeks.  After making the rounds, he comes to rest on the lowest branch of the olive by the patio, maybe five feet from where I sit.  He makes himself comfortable:

Lately he's been trying—successfully, so far as I can tell—to impress this little charmer:

A hummingbird needs some serious feeding to support all that activity.  Fortunately our hero is an enthusiastic, undiscriminating eater.  He has been taste-testing every blossom in sight—the 'Wild Thing' autumn sage (at last!), agastache, gaura, dwarf plumbago, 'Blue Twister' allium, arugula, basil, the primroses...  The primroses.  To the hummingbird, the primroses grow on what is apparently a primrose tree.  And there are two other trees just like it in the garden.  He checks them over regularly for flowers.  He doesn't find any.

What he does find is a lot of goldfinches.  Primrose-colored goldfinches.  In the "primrose" trees.  If they are primrose-colored in the primrose trees, they must be primroses, right?  You can practically see the "Q.E.D." flashing through his mind.  He dives in enthusiastically for his dinner.

And lo and behold, his dinner objects.  When I wrote last year about a hummingbird trying to feed off a goldfinch, I thought that was a fluke.  Apparently if you're a goldfinch it's just an occupational hazard.  As the hummingbird—not a quick learner—tries to sip at every single finch, each one swats him away with the kind of bored irritation you or I might use on a housefly.  But some of them are still sitting on those flexible primrose stems, which the swatting sets in motion.  Bob, bounce, flap, squawk.

They've been performing this routine at least once a day.  Sometimes the squawk comes before the flap; otherwise they don't really vary the schtick.  Is it wit?  Is it irony?  Is it subtlety?  Well, no.

But when you want a good laugh, sometimes you just can't beat a pratfall.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Air Dreaming

or Looking Up

I've never actually met any asthmatic dragons.  That doesn't keep hot air balloons from making me think of them, though, with the wheezing sound they make as the propane burners light, and the hiss of hot air from nowhere, bare seconds before a glowing behemoth drifts into view across the roofline.

One of those gasping breaths sounded the other morning as I was pouring tea in the kitchen.  I ran out onto the patio to look, mug in one hand, camera in the other, to see a whole fleet of balloons (a float? a bubble? What is the collective noun for a bunch of balloons?) sailing by.  Albuquerque is a mighty fine place for hot-air ballooning, and it's not unusual to see one or two on a pleasant morning shortly after sunrise.  To have seven or eight of them gliding past en masse, though, is rare except during the International Balloon Fiesta.

These were all commercial balloons, "regulars" that I have photographed from the patio many times.  Even though I know they're only going across town and will probably land in a vacant lot somewhere, they always manage to suggest adventure to me.  As I wrote last year, seeing them in flight awakens the urge for discovery, for travel into the unknown, for going anywhere so long as it's yonder.  Some crisp autumn morning when the cottonwoods in the bosque are glowing with their own internal sunshine, I'd like to go ballooning and follow the trees down the Rio Grande like a migratory bird.  In the meantime, watching the balloons go past reminded me again of the pleasures of looking up, up, up, when often the focus in the garden is out or down.

In my last post, I embarked on a quest to evoke a greater sense of space—of airiness and light—in my garden, and Diana of Elephant's Eye asked in a comment whether I could make use of any borrowed scenery. I do have little bits of views here and there, a snippet of the Sandias, a snatch of downtown, but not much that can be seen while seated on the patio.  My garden very much needs to be a resting place; the seated views are the ones that matter most.  From the Adirondack chair I can see rooflines and satellite dishes, the very tips of young trees, and not much else—or so I thought.  Then I looked farther up.

Oh.  Yes, I'd say that's some scenery I could borrow.

Why didn't that occur to me before?  New Mexico and skies go together like, well, like scrambled eggs and green chile.*  Even in the mountains, sometimes the most spectacular views happen overhead.  Perhaps the best thing I could do to create a sense of open space—not as a substitute for airier planting, but as a complement to it—is to provide reasons to look up.

Oddly, as vertical as they are, trees don't seem to do that, not at short distances.  They focus attention (at least, my attention) on or under them, not at the sky.  Maybe a trumpet vine to climb the stark east face of the house?  A mirror in the shade, angled to show the sky?  (Surely it would be natural to want to trace the source of the reflection.)  An artwork?  I've long wanted a sculpture, mounted high, of a bird about to take wing, capturing the moment of that leap into the blue.  Like the balloons, just the suggestion of flight might be enough to make the heart soar skywards.

If all else fails, lying down in a reclining chair would probably do the trick just fine.

* With a little melted cheddar, all rolled up in a lightly toasted tortilla.  Yum.