How Careful Observation, Writing, and Gardening Create New Meaning

One week ends another begins, but both seem the same. It’s that sameness that wears on us. The near term is the same, and the future seems clearly uncertain. It’s impossible to make travel plans, not just for now but for the fall and winter. Some people have started referring to 2020 as the “Lost Year.” Imagine how those in my family feel, having lost my Dad right before “the virus” took over our lives.

I am saddened to learn that COVID-19 may be taking a toll on Americans’ heart health even if we’re not infected with the virus. According to new research, cases of ‘broken heart syndrome’ are on the rise among those without any specific illness. This occurs when part of the heart becomes enlarged and is unable to pump blood effectively, preceded by intense emotional or physical stress.

Everybody deals with this kind of stress differently. I think it’s easier for us gardeners. We have something in our lives that brings us daily joy. We can go outside each morning and enjoy the summer blooms! The fact that our plants need us, even marginally, also helps. Let’s face it, we all need to feel needed. This is why we all need to find positive distractions from this sad time in all of our lives.

I relate to these issues more than most. I sometimes pass out from lack of oxygen and am not certain if I will take my next breathe. I struggle daily to find the good in everything, like the 4th of July celebrations on TV last week. I want to feel good about my country again and positive about our future, but it isn’t easy if I watch the news too much.

So I go outside and walk around my garden. I hang out with the birds and bees, literally! I watch the birds taking a carousel ride on Mike’s great purple wind sculpture.

I sit quietly and observe the end to another glorious day, as the sun sets over Mount Mestas to our West.

Sometimes I take photos of the sunny still life developing on my bedroom wall as the sun comes up each morning. My appreciation of my eye sight is increased one hundred-fold as it diminishes with worsening cataracts.

These are the moments that sustain me… What are yours?

A Brief High Country Lesson in Lavenders

Lavandula (common name lavender) has 47 known species of flowering plants in the mint familyLamiaceae. It is native to the Old World and is found from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India.

Certain cultivars of lavender do GREAT in my high (7,000 feet) and dry Colorado foothills garden. I believe they survive because they are woody plants and smell funny to critters who might want to eat them.

This is Lavendula angustifolia next to a flowering Stonecrop. This one is three years old now!

According to my favorite place to buy plants in Rye Colorado, that just quit selling retail 😦 there are two types of lavenders that are hardy in Colorado,

Lavandula angustifolia (the English lavenders-called English, but originally from the Mediterranean) and Lavandula x intermedia (the English hybrids). Other lavenders, like French, Spanish, and various cultivars you may find sold at Home Depot  are not hardy here! We have talked to so many customers who ask “Why does my lavender die?” and it turns out they planted a type that is not winter hardy.  Please don’t make that mistake. The ones we grow are all hardy to Zone 5, and some brave gardeners have had luck with them at 8000′ elevation.”

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’: Along with Munstead, Hidcote Blue tops the list of most hardy lavenders. Hidcote has a deeper violet blue flower and tighter flower clusters and more compact habit than other English lavenders, and it’s our go-to lavender for xeriscape and rock garden plantings. Winter hardy, deer resistant, drought tolerant– this lavender is a good choice for the Front Range. 18″ tall. Zone 5.”

I believe this one is Lavendula intermedia. It’s only two years old.

Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal’: Silver foliage is covered with a cloud of lavender blue flowers for most of the summer. It’s a very tough variety, even outperforming Hidcote and Munstead in many trials. Grows to 30″ tall and 3′ wide. If you want a lavender with landscape pizazz, this is the one for you. Edible, fragrant, deer resistant, xeric….we can’t say enough good things about this one. Zone 5.”

Most of the plants sold at places like Home Depot and Lowe’s will not survive the winter here! Those plants are grown in places like Arkansas.

Note: Can you tell I was raised by a botanist? My Dad hopes so! Much more fun to think about than Covid-19!

Penstemons are my friends!

After five years of trying to get a Colorado foothills garden going, I have discovered how much I LOVE Penstemons!

First of all, I have a very early blooming native, I believe it is Penstemon buckleyi, that volunteers as one of the earliest blooms in my garden!

Then I started some Penstemon Strictus (Rocky Mountain Penstemon) four years ago and look at them now! They also bloom quite early, in mid-May. They spread nicely too!

This year I bought two new versions that are supposed to be red. My garden is almost all purple at this point in time.

Amazingly, the Red Riding Hood variety (Schmidel?) is already in full bloom!

I also bought two Penstemon pinifolius and put them in. According to my book exclusively on Penstemons, “Penstemon pinifolius is an attractive low-growing evergreen plant with showy, scarlet flowers in June to August.” Mine are just tiny this year. I hope they bloom next year!

My point is that these are the kind of plants to grow here because they are natives! The critters don’t eat them (at least not so far…). They spread nicely and fill up their space by a foot or two, and they love it here!

Want to learn lots more about penstemons? This is a wonderful book for that purpose: Penstemons: The Beautiful Beardtongues of New Mexico.

Leaving the city behind for a new, rural lifestyle – My Colorado experience

Six years after leaving the suburbs of Fort Collins (50 miles from the Wyoming border), for a new lifestyle west of Walsenburg (50 miles from the New Mexico border), I feel I have a good sense of what that kind of major change feels like.

The first thing you must do if you are considering a similar change is to let go of any romantic, idealized illusions you may have about finding pastoral perfection.

Think of this move as a complete ‘leap of faith” That’s what it felt like to me! And in case you didn’t get the memo yet, in this lifetime, perfection is a mirage… I didn’t have any delusions of grandeur, I was just plain scared. What if I hated it??? It was definitely a precipitous move on my part. I just didn’t know what to expect. On the other hand, Mike was certain this was the right move for us. So we did it anyway, with all of my anxieties and fears fully intact…

When we arrived in Walsenburg with our full-to-the-brim U-haul truck , we moved into an ancient miner’s cabin, the only ‘decent’ rental in Walsenburg or La Veta in June 2014, and yes, it was as dirty and disgusting as it sounds. Then we started to work on finding an architect and a blueprint for the passive solar home we had been planning in our heads for years. We had already bought a few acres of land twelve miles west of town on a hill overlooking the Spanish Peaks. But because there was only one building inspector for the WHOLE COUNTY…

it took over five months just to get a proper heat-absorbing slab on our land.

But after ONLY eight more months, our 1,400 square foot passive solar home was completed! Building in this rural area is DIFFICULT and agonizingly slow! Did this surprise us? Somewhat. Timing was the source of much of our frustration and stress.

Our view of the Spanish Peaks the day they put up our roof!

But we (and our relationship!) survived, and the final product was as close to perfection as I have ever experienced. We joked around about the following cartoon before we moved down here:

But, as it turns out, this is actually true for us. For months after we moved in we would sit and stare at the mountains right outside our windows, drinking in complete silence and serenity every time we looked out.

It felt like we had moved into a deluxe foothills retreat as nice as anywhere we had ever stayed before. Almost daily I experienced inexplicable fear that the resort management would be coming around soon to kick us out!

With Mount Mestas to the west.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Looking for a lot more details about my rural Colorado experience? Check out my memoir here!

Send me an e-mail and I’ll give you a great price on a copy of your own: MidlifeCrisisQueen@gmail.com

Building a Southern Colorado Foothills Garden From Nothing – Summer Solstice 2020

So we have been living in rural southern Colorado for six years now, after a precipitous (on my part!) move down south from our nice home in suburban Fort Collins in June 2014. It took over a year to build our passive solar home here, because building in this rural area is DIFFICULT and agonizingly slow! Then came the garden…

Here is where we started out in 2015. Empty ground, which quickly turned into volunteer sunflowers and weeds in our first year here.

Four years later we are here.

The reason my garden is named after my brother John is because he came up from Arizona for a few years in a row to help us finish the hardscaping. He was here when we laid concrete out there. He was here the next May to help Mike lay out the stone walls…

John & Mike (above) finally laid down the gravel last May. Mike has also put his heart and soul into this project! And I should add, none of us have good backs in our mid-60s!

What a satisfying achievement though!

Through a few years of testing out a number of different native xeriscape plants, I have narrowed my selection down to those that actually survive the winters here and that terrible wind we get regularly.

Lavender and Spanish Peaks 2018.

Now I know what type of lavender luxuriates in this climate…

I also know Penstemons LOVE it here, as well as many kinds of birds, lizards, beetles, and butterflies!

A native Showy Four O’clock, Blue Mist Spirea, Yarrow, Red Knight Knautia and Catmint thrive here!

There have certainly been a number of frustrating moments in this process, but I love my garden now. It gives me GREAT and continuous JOY, especially in the spring & summer months…

BEAUTY IS THE GARDEN WHERE HOPE GROWS!

Are there “Superblooms” in Southern Colorado?

Just this year I learned a new term that I find fascinating: SUPERBLOOM! Having never lived near one, I never gave them a thought. According to Wikipedia, a superbloom is:

A rare desert botanical phenomenon in which an unusually high proportion of wildflowers whose seeds have lain dormant in the soil, germinate and blossom at roughly the same time, like these California poppies to the left. This phenomenon is associated with an unusually wet rainy season. The term may have developed as a label in the 1990s.

Yellow fields of tea flowers in Navajo Ranch west of Walsenburg Colorado!

Well, I’m here to tell you, we have had two of these just since 2014 when we moved here! We are at 7,000 feet in the high desert of southern Colorado. When we first moved here we were receiving far above average spring rainfall in Walsenburg, where we lived from June 2014 to July 2015. Walsenburg averages around 15 inches of precipitation per year, but in May of 2015 we received over 6 inches of rain in one month! In 2015-2016 we received over 23 inches total for the water year!

That’s what helps to create a superbloom!

My first experience with a superbloom is documented in the header of this blog. In June 2015 we had fields full of Navajo tea flowers along Highway 510 on the way into our place. I had never seen such a thing!

Then in the summer of 2017 Navajo Ranch was inundated with sunflowers! We have had a regular crop of sunflowers around our new home, which we attributed to the soil we had to bring in for building, but this was big fields of sunflowers everywhere!

I love a nice crop of volunteers around our home each summer!

The bees also love it!

Garden Notes – Critter Control!

After five years living here, on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 7,000 feet, I’m beginning to see that my critter problems will change from year to year. Part of the problem is that I have to continually guess who the culprit is. Then I have to figure out what plants they won’t eat.

In the first year or two the most obvious culprits were the deer. They would amble up here and graze for a while, partially because we had a water source (bird bath) and it is super dry around here. We decided to add a small water source down below the garden, and then this year Mike made a few wind sculptures and placed them in the garden. Presto chango, no more deer!

Then we noticed the portulacas being eaten, but that was easy to fix. Just place them a foot or two off the ground. Bunnies don’t seem to bother plants above ground level. A couple of years later we had two squirrels. I do not like squirrels, so we made them uncomfortable enough to leave.

June 2019 record blooms!

Last summer was great. We had so much rain in the spring that nothing seemed to threaten my plants! This May is a different story. With the dry conditions we have chipmunks for the first time I can remember. They seem to have the most annoying habit. Instead of eating my plants, they just eat the FLOWERS! OK, let me get this straight, I wait for a whole year to see a little bit of color out there and right before I get to see my flowers, THEY EAT THEM! This is all out war! They especially love portulaca flowers, but they aren’t too picky. Anything down at their level they eat. They apparently can even climb up a few feet to access flowers.

Luckily I have an amazingly talented and creative partner to help me. Last evening Mike designed and made a wire cage to protect my flowers in a large wooden planter he also made a few years ago. It is on a hinge and he even plans to make a lock if we need it. Take that you nasty but adorable varmits!

Unfortunately, every morning I must go out to see what’s been eaten lately. For example, I’ve had gaillardia plants out there for a couple years now, but this spring SOMEONE is eating off the flowers right as they start to come out. Mike made a cage for that plant too. I’m hoping we won’t need the covers forever, but that’s what we have to do for now. Does anybody have advice about scaring the chipmunks away? Mike has tried shooting bb’s at them to no avail… Please help. I have never had this problem before!

Garden Notes – Mid-May 2020

My Sky Garden is developing very slowly this spring. We just aren’t receiving the 5+ inches of rain we got last March, April and May. I’m adding new plants everyday, but they develop so slowly!

My garden last May!

I took a trip up to Perennial Favorites on opening day, May 1st, and bought mostly plants that I had previous success with like Catmint, Penstemon Strictus, Yellow Yarrow, Blue Mist Spirea, Turkish Veronica and Gaillardia plus a few alternative Penstemons, Jupiter’s Beard, and Cinquefoil. I’m even taking a chance on a drought tolerant Honeysuckle this year!

This part of my garden has two native volunteers, penstemons & yucca

This spring we have received less than two inches so far, and May is not looking promising, so far just lots of wind. YUCK!

My Portulacas from last summer!

The only annual I buy is Portulacas. When I first moved here the rabbits would eat these if they could reach them. Now I have a new problem, chipmunks who climb up and eat all the flowers off. GRRRRR…. And that’s even when they are three feet off the ground! Mike says he can help me solve that problem.

If only I controlled the weather & the critters, my sky garden would look like this again!

Our Parents’ Spirit Lives Inside Of Us!

I just watched a marvelous story on CBS Saturday Morning, where a young woman lost both of her parents at age 18. The thought floored me. I do not know how I would have survived such an overwhelming blow to my own spirit. And then she said,

“Their spirit is in me.”

I lost my father one month ago, right before this terrible virus started ravishing the entire human race. But thankfully, I see everyday how his spirit is in me. My Dad was a born teacher. He taught others his whole life. We are now learning how many of his past students saw him as a powerful life mentor. The part of his spirit that only spoke to me in the second part of my life was his love of native plants. I have kept a native plants garden since my 40s, learning more each summer about why certain plants thrive in Colorado’s higher, drier elevations. Since moving to a semi-arid Pinon Juniper woodland in 2014, I continue to learn how to plant and nurture the plants that my Dad loved and the ones that love this arid climate. Now that spring has arrived…

I go out to tend my “sky garden” everyday, with its unobstructed view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, knowing full well that I never would have chosen to live in such a quiet, natural place if my Dad hadn’t taken us out camping as children and taught us to appreciate everything about nature. Mike has developed a love of the local birds, which he feeds and provides water for everyday. We have learned to recycle our inedible leftovers by leaving them down the hill for every variety of animals, including ravens and vultures.

We feed the earth as it feeds us...

And speaking of eating, my Mom taught me to produce healthy, nutritious meals for my family by her excellent example. She was not taught to cook by her mother and only began learning when she married my Dad in 1951. Then she turned that skill into an amazing art. By junior high school, when my Mom started working full-time, I began making our family dinners, great training for life!

Mom also followed her grandmother and mother’s tradition by taking up sewing and turning herself into a top-notch seamstress. She first made really pretty dresses for us as kids, and then graduated to beautiful quilts and other meaningful gifts for her friends and family:

Mom-made from Grandma Carter’s bedspread

All of these wonderful pastimes and useful skills dim beside the myriad of intangible lessons learned from my parents like respect for others, intelligence, science, solid research, good communications and a lifelong desire to learn more everyday.

I saw a very powerful program on PBS this week about the Windermere children. This is the story of some Jewish kids who lost every member of their families in the German death camps in World War II. They were generously given a new lease on life at the Windermere Estates in England after the war. This is a story of AMAZING strength and resilience, and fascinating in terms of early child psychology research and the use of art therapy. Please check it out sometime. This story strongly reinforces my gratitude that I was able to know my parents and grandparents for as long as I did.

Their spirit lives inside of me!

Fort Collins versus life outside of two small Colorado towns

Yesterday, while waiting for Mike in the car at the Big R store in La Veta, I started thinking about how our lives would be different if we still lived in Fort Collins. We only go into Walsenburg or La Veta Colorado every few days when we need to do something or buy something. We generally go to Walsenburg for groceries and La Veta for the library, the great bakery, yoga or to see my one friend there.

It seems funny that after over five years I still compare in my mind how my life has changed by moving to rural Colorado. If we were still in Fort Collins we would be spending a lot more time standing in line in traffic. That’s for sure! And that is what I so wanted to leave behind. Of course I rarely had trouble breathing in Fort Collins, but I was breathing in lots more toxins everyday there.

Mainly I remember standing in line for just about everything in cities. Sure there are lots more choices of placing to go to buy things, but there were almost always lines at the grocery store or anywhere else. I have had to get used to NOT HAVING crowds and lines here. I still sometimes think, “We better hurry. There might be trouble parking or lines…” But then I remind myself that there never are lines, even at the two stoplights in Walsenburg, which we can generally avoid by going a different way.

Mike and I talked about it on the way home from La Veta yesterday. We agreed that the only time this rural area gets “busy” is in the summer. That is when the city people come down to escape the city. Then things do change a bit. The summer busyness sometimes reminds me of cities, because city people are so pushy and anxious all the time. Their life back home does that to them. How do I know this? Because I used to feel this way myself.

Especially with the difficult changes in my health in the past few years, I feel I belong in a place where things move much slower and the people I meet are more likely to help me when I need it. It is definitely less of a ‘dog eat dog’ world down here. It’s like when we still lived in Fort Collins and we would drive down here for a few days. I always noticed when the traffic on I-25 switched from “Get the f*** out of my way!” to a more relaxed, non-judgmental style of traffic. I still notice that now when I need to go up north. I truly dread the traffic up there now.

That is one of the many reasons I LOVE coming back home.