September 29, 2008

But he is so CUTE!

This morning I was checking on the irrigation after installing new drippers on the newly planted plants, and discovered 2 geysers by the earth oven. The oven sits in a corner of the yard and was a birthday gift from my friends David and Barbara. It bakes excellent pizza, but in the summer it is covered by a tarp so the rains do not erode the adobe.

The irrigation problem involved nipped lines and a missing dripper head, and I thought that a rabbit had done the damage. After fixing the problem I lifted the cover over the oven as it can be removed for the winter, and who do I find? A pack rat! A tiny one at that. It has made a nest on the tiled "counter" , and has laid in a huge amount of mesquite beans for the winter. Thankfully it has not found its way into the oven itself.

I know he looks very cute, but an eviction notice has been posted.

September 26, 2008

Shop/shed progress

Dan has been having a great time working in the new shop, and he is making lots of progress. The walls separating the horse trailer and tractor storage from the house storage (seasonal items like Christmas stuff and suitcases) has been framed, as well as the tall wall that separates the storage part (shed) from the shop. A lot of the electrical has also been installed and we hope that by the end of the weekend the horse trailer and tractor will be inside.

Meanwhile I have been working on the planting bed so that the building will not just "sit there", but will blend in more with some plants in front. Some work still to be done there, like putting plants in, but irrigation has been laid in so the plants will have some chance for survival.

Below, Emma contemplating life from the shop door.

September 25, 2008

Landscaping WD-style

Equipment required:
- one backhoe (thanks, Dave), plus operator (thanks, Dan), for digging holes
- one tractor, for hauling buckets full of composted horse manure
- shovel and cultivator

Also required:
- lots of shoulder grease and energy

- dig large planting holes
- tease out the clods larger than 2 inches and pile them up for later removal
- fill planting hole with horse manure (thankfully never a shortage of that)
- add horse manure to leftover fill material
- mix manure and fill
- add plant and water and rabbit protection

Before the house was built it was deemed necessary that the ground be leveled and compacted to ensure a good foundation. The contractors in charge took their job seriously and wetted and compacted soil with heavy equipment for weeks on end. The result was a local version of concrete. When we moved in I had serious doubts that any plant would ever be able to set root here, leave alone flourish. That first year I spent a lot of time with a pick and shovel, and sweated a lot. Surprisingly, a lot of plants have done well and I am pleased with the results to date. With a few exceptions I have opted for planting native plants, or at least ones that do not require a lot of water.

Yesterday it was time to finish the landscaping by the west side of the house. By now I know that the closer to the house the harder the soil, so it was a tough day. But, thanks to the equipment I did get it done. Tomorrow I will have to extend the drip irrigation.

I also planted some hardy natives (plants, that is) in front of the barn, and planted a Velvet Ash by Buggsy's stall to provide some shade in summer. Still left are 5 plants to go in front of the shop/shed.

September 22, 2008


We went out for a ride this morning and I want to tell you about my favorite spots when horseback riding: the washes. They are numerous here and no matter where we go, we get to cross some. When I first started riding here they were a bit intimidating as some are 30 feet deep, with steep walls consisting mainly of loose rock. Dan was still wrangling, so Bueno and I would ride along the side of some wash trying to find a way across. Whenever I would stop, Bueno would look back at me with this look of " Cross here?? You must be joking!".

The washes are certainly not the horses' favorite parts. It takes coordination and strength to manage them with a load on your back (us, as riders), and when that load then specifies that you cannot run through them so your momentum will carry you back uphill and you have to use those huge butt muscles, well, that's a pain. However, there is usually some grazing reward at the top.

But the washes are cool because of the diversity of life. All kinds of plants will grow there because if there is any water, that's the place, and you can ride through some of them and get enveloped in heady fragrances provided by some of the plants, such as the bee balm. Plants grow there that do not grow anywhere else in the desert, and that is where you find the majority of the trees.

On our windmill ride there are washes that are steep and narrow, as well as one huge one that is like a road when you ride down it. There was evidence this summer of large quantities of water having rushed down it, like a true river, but we have never seen that in person. There can be lots of water when it storms, but an hour later there is hardly any of it left.

The washes sometimes appear out of nowhere. You are riding along a depression and suddenly, for no apparent reason, there is a drop off of a couple of feet and in a matter of a couple of yards, this little rivulet has become a huge canyon with towering walls.

The desert has all kinds of surprises.

September 19, 2008


More than 5,000 acres in the Sulphur Springs Valley are dedicated to growing chiles. They are grown in crop circles, or pivots as they call them here, and this is harvesting time. The chiles ripen to their gorgeous red color on the plant and when a field has just been harvested you can smell the peppers in the air.

In the couple of years that I have been gardening here, I had not had much luck with chiles, or any other peppers for that matter. Not this year. We have a bumper crop, as do some of my gardening neighbors. The orange bell peppers are huge, sweet, and thick fleshed: delicious stuffed. But the amount of chiles from 6 plants is amazing! Here is what I gathered from those 6 plants in one morning. And the plants are not done yet.

Having been raised on European food, spicy-hot is not one of my got-to-have tastes, but I use some jalapeno and poblano chiles in Mexican cooking. I planted one variety of chile though that beat all the other plants, and its chiles are fiery hot. Well beyond my tolerance for heat. Rather than waste all that beauty and abundance I decided to make a ristra, a chile braid, which is commonly seen around here at this time, and hung it by our front walk. It is supposed to bring good luck (as if we need any).

September 18, 2008

Wild night.... (blog by Dan :-))

It was a wild time in the country last night. A couple of hours after we went to bed, I heard a dog barking nearby. This is not too unusual since the neighbor a half mile away has four or five dogs who often bark. Sound travels pretty well around here as quiet as it normally is. In this case, the barking was really close, and there was other noise like metal dragging. The horse next door was restless as well, so I knew something was up. I got up, dressed in my robe, flashlight in hand and wandered into the night thinking one of the dogs had somehow gotten into trouble.

After the shop/shed construction, we had some leftover siding and downspouts that we stacked on the backside of the building before disposal. A number of animals, including bunnies, have immediately taken up residence. It turns out that a cottontail had taken refuge in one of the unused downspouts laying on the ground. A local coyote had noticed this and dragged the downspout (with bunny inside) away from the pile and into the driveway. The coyote couldn't get to him, but sat at the opening, barking and trying to drive the bunny out. The amazing part was that the coyote had a partner who was silently sitting a few feet away from the other end just waiting for the bunny to make a run for freedom. Very devious, but a great strategy.

Fortunately for the bunny, when I showed up, the 'yotes ran off. As I was examining the teeth marks on the downspout, I noticed the bunny was still inside. I lifted the tube and the bunny slowly slid out, and then ran for safety under the tack room where an entire community of bunnies reside. So everything ended well, except for the coyotes who went hungry.

After this excitement, Emma started having nightmares, presumably about coyotes, which she dislikes. In any case, she kept everyone awake. We are all a little bleary and cranky this morning.

September 16, 2008


There is a war going on on the back porch. There a high pitched screeching sounds, like missiles flying by, and should you venture outside you run the risk of being skewered by a hummingbird beak, or at least being whacked upside the head by one hummer chasing another.

A rufous hummingbird, one of the smaller varieties of hummers, has taken over one of the three feeders. (I apologize for the quality of the photo, but it is the best my point-and-shoot camera can do.) He is a rotund little fellow, he does eat from the feeder every now and then, but most of the time he just sits on the hanger and screams at anything else that happens to fly by. He does not even tolerate a bee in his presence. If anyone does violate his no-fly zone, he leaves his perch at high speed and turns on his afterburners in full pursuit. Once the intruder has been chased off he returns to his perch and screeches some more.

The hummers on the other feeders seem unperturbed. They just lean back a bit to let him go by and then go back to loading up.

September 14, 2008

Expanded chicken yard

On Saturday Dan and I spent some hours adding fencing (read: poultry netting) to the existing chicken yard. After the coyote incident the hens have been cooped up in their yard, and after having given them a taste of freedom, I felt bad for them. The new yard about triples their previous scratching grounds, and it has a lot of scrubby mesquites and other plants to be checked for bugs. I do wonder what will happen with all the rabbits living there, but they are probably resourceful enough to relocate.

It did not take long for some of the hens to venture out: they must be the ones beating down the gate every time I come in to give them something delicious from the garden. Some are still cautious, but at least the opportunity for exploration and getting away from whomever is picking on you is there.

I thought that I would miss the chickens wandering around the house, but I now realize that the quail who cruise by here on regular schedules have returned. So there are some birds scratching around close by.

September 12, 2008

Oh, how I wish...

... that I had a telephoto lens as long as my arm, and a camera that could take an adequate picture of what I just saw!

I put the chickens to roost and went over to the neighbors and on my way back I saw a Great Horned Owl perched on the anomometer of the shop/shed. The moon is waxing and the sky was blue and still had some light in it, and there he sat: one foot on the windvane, one on the meter support... I tried to ignore him while walked back to the house, and was able to get Dan to see him before he quietly flew off.

We know that a Great Horned has been hanging around for awhile: we hear his "hoot hoot hoooot" from time to time, and have even heard a young owls screech. Wow, this was so cooool!

Desert Tunas

It is late summer, and after having lived in cities my entire life, it is interesting to me to see how in the country each season has its own charm and peculiarities. Right now the grass has taken on that tawny color and the prickly pear cacti (opuntia engelmannii) are sporting their beautiful dark red fruits that they call "tunas" here.

These are edible fruits, and several animals eat them. I find the red outer peel on my path, although I do not know how the animals (javalinas?) get past the spines to get to the flesh. I know that people make jam from them and I once had a tuna lemonade that was just delicious. In this patch of cacti a packrat has made its nest (good protection from predators!), but I am not sure whether the tunas are part of his diet.

There is a patch of these prickly pear cacti close by in the National Forest that is about 20 acres. In the spring they have these beautiful yellow flowers, which turn into tunas this time of year. By the end of winter all the tunas will have been eaten, and the cycle starts anew.

Back in the saddle again...

I was happy that we rode our horses a lot before the shop/shed arrived as its construction put the horses on ice (so to speak) for about a month. They had been watching our progress from their play pen, but the whole thing was starting to get boring for them, I am sure.

This morning the weather was perfect for a ride, so we took Bueno and Cody out on our favorite ride: the Windmill. I still marvel at our good fortune to just be able to saddle up, ride out from our ranch across some Arizona State land and be at the border with the Coronado National Forest in a matter of 10 minutes. The ride to the Windmill is across some scrubby grass land and across some good-sized washes to a corral and water tank that in the past were used for cattle. It affords the horses some good grazing opportunity this time of year, which is much appreciated.

After the Windmill we ride through a large wash, up the hill and through some mixed oak forest, back to the base of Blacktail Hill and home again. It is about a 2 hour loop, with great views and great variety. That's why it's a favorite ride.

Russian Thistle

My morning walk with the dogs takes us down our dirt road, across some undeveloped land, along the boundary with the Coronada National Forest, and down some Arizona State land. I particularly like the part that is just cross-country because of the diversity in vegetation, and I have a great view of the Sulphur Springs Valley as well.

Today I was dismayed at finding Russian Thistle (Salsola kali var. tenuifolia) along my path. Some people call it Tumbleweed because of its nasty habit of rolling along in the wind when it has died (it's an annual). This is how its seeds are spread (it is also brought along by people, or rather their vehicles), and grows on any disturbed soil as along roadways. Here I found it where surveyors had been. I am vigilant about fighting its progress on our own place because it is invasive and can take over the native vegetation in a matter of a couple of years.

Anyway, I spent about a half hour pulling it up. Russian Thistle has great survival techniques: it is prickly, the roots break off easily at soil level, and it loves to grow among other plants, such as the scrubby (and thorny) mesquites. I was lucky that it had rained about 0.25" last night, so it let go from the soil pretty easily, and most of it was not yet in bloom. Hopefully I will have stopped its progress, or at least slowed it.

It made me late for breakfast and got Dan worried, who came looking for me. The dogs stuck with me though; perhaps it just gave them more opportunity to poke their noses into rabbit holes...

September 9, 2008

The Shop/Shed is DONE!

It was a bit of a push, but we got the shop/shed finished today, including installing the anomometer for the Blacktail Bajada weatherstation as a windvane. We are proud having put this building up in exactly 4 weeks, without killing or hurting ourselves (or each other). This is what the site looked like on August 13

and here is the building today.

I know, the fun is just beginning. The doors beg for paint, and the building could do with some landscaping. We also want to add an 8 foot porch on the south end, where the normal size door and most of the windows are. It will add a bit of character and make it a nice place to do some welding, or just hang out. Next year I want to plant some fruit trees in front of the porch, as well as along the east side of the garden. No lack of plans here :-)!

Tomorrow Dan will contemplate his next steps for the shop/shed inside: electrical, plumbing, and dividing the space into a storage room for the seasonal items, storage for the horse trailer and tractor, and the workshop. I am looking forward to months of gardening (although I do not consider pulling weeds gardening). I may have to invest in a weedwacker next year. But, in addition to all the cleanup I am looking forward to adding new plants in the back and side yards, as well as in front of the horse barn and shop/shed.

September 8, 2008

Eating locally

When I moved here in 2004 I did not think that our garden would be more successful than the one I tended in Oregon. There stuff GREW, but it was difficult to get some veggies, tomatoes and peppers in particular, ripe. Here all you do is keep the wildlife at bay (do not underestimate the tenacity of hungry birds, animals, insects), and add water. After 2 fencing schemes, I think I have found one that deters most critters, although in addition to the fencing I also use hardware cloth tents to protect seedlings.

Now is the time of harvest for those aforementioned tomatoes and peppers. Frankly, we are drowning in tomatoes, and so far I am loving it. Here is a picture of my friend Barbara with one of many such buckets full of tomatoes.

The peppers are doing great this year as well, bell as well as some hotter varieties. No surprise really because a lot of the nation's hot peppers are grown in the Sulphur Springs Valley, "down the road" from us.

Although we have been eating vegetables from our garden since March (love those asparagus), the season is winding down. Insects have sucked the life out of the zucchini, the green beans are tired, and the cucumbers have succumbed to mildew. There are several beds planted with winter greens however, and I look forward to seeing (and eating) them thrive as the weather cools off.

September 7, 2008


It is late summer, and here in the desert every season or part thereof seems to have its own special insects. Right now there are a lot of different grasshoppers. Some are doing damage in the garden, but others just seem to "be". In the shop/shed construction we find them just sitting on the siding or the windows for hours, seemingly not participating in life.

Here is a Horse Lubber that has been eating the grapevine leaves, or at least he did until I disturbed him to take his picture (he was very reluctant). He is indeed male, as I read, because he flew off, exhibiting beautiful red patches on his wings. Only the males can fly (so what's up with that?). By the way, the Horse Lubber grasshopper gets to be about 2 1/2" long.

The hens loved hunting for grasshoppers in the yard, but after the coyote incident they have all been kept in the chicken yard until we get more fencing to expand their scratching quarters. Now Emma goes after them, and being a Labrador, probably eats them too...

September 5, 2008

Could it be...?

We worked on the shop/shed roof today. Got it done, actually (yeah!). This meant that I spent quite a bit of time on the scaffolding; hanging on to the building with one hand (I am a height wuss) and usually hanging onto a piece of metal with the other, waiting for Dan to position and fasten a panel.

Being elevated like that does have its high points (I know, bad pun). You get a different perspective on the immediate surroundings: the yard, the garden, the horses interacting with each other. I got also checked out by a number of interesting looking insects, and was even buzzed by a hummingbird. I was wearing a red bandanna to keep the sweat out of my eyes.

But in surveying the garden, I noticed Towhees, I presume the parents who had been tending young in the grapevines but whose nest was abandoned after the rainstorm a few days ago, still with insects in their beaks as if to feed chicks.... They ignored the nest site, but jumped off the fence and scurried under the asparagus fronds. Could it be that the babies were able to hop there for shelter, and that they are still alive? I will be very careful in the garden now to not scare them away as they were nervous parents before: they flew off the minute I entered the garden. I think the chicks will be safe there as the fronds are "mondo", as they say here, and the garden is well-fenced from predators. I am hopeful. It would be so cool if the chicks had survived after all.

September 4, 2008

Life is tough in the country

Not a good day today. This morning Emma found a newborn bunny, maybe a day old, still blind and helpless. It looked like it might have been flushed from its burrow in the storm last night. It was not harmed, so I put it under the tack room, where the animals go in and out. I know that bunny moms live under the tack room, and perhaps one of them will take pity on him/her.

Then when I checked on the towhee chicks in the garden, they were gone. The one remaining egg was still there, but no sign of the birds and nothing underneath the nest. Were they flushed away? The parent(s) are still hanging around.

Just a few minutes ago, as I was here at the desk, a coyote came and snatched one of the hens (Rhode Island Red)! I went after him but he was too fast of course, and then his buddy came cruising by for his dinner. The other hens stood in stunned silence at their yard and went in willingly. Yikes! Now, what a dilemma! The hens love being out, it is good for them to be real, scratching, bug-hunting chickens, but if they all get picked off by the coyotes..... Dan says to keep them locked up. I haven't made up my mind yet. Sad day.

September 3, 2008

Never a dull moment...

Here I thought I would not have anything of note to report today... Wrong! Dan called me out about 30 minutes ago to admire the rainbow in the yard.

Then the wind picked up and I ran to the shop/shed to rescue some of the materials that we had been using in roofing this morning as they were about to be blown away. Lightning struck and thunder rolled and the rain poured in. The building is 40' long and the rain blew from one end to the other. I was trapped, watching the water just pour through our 3/4 completed roof. After about 10 minutes Dan ran in who had driven out in the car to rescue me!

It rained in all about 20 minutes and the weather station reported almost 0.5" of rain. I just went out to check on the hens (all cozy on the roost), but there is still water running in the backyard, and the "pond" is filling up. That will make Emma happy, her swimming hole has been restored!

September 2, 2008


I know, you probably think: "grass? in the desert?" Well, here in the Arizona desert there is quite a bit of it in the summer, thanks to our monsoons. The grasses are all setting seed now in the late summer and on my morning walk I find more than a dozen varieties. Talk about diversity! I like the native grama varieties (Bouteloua species) best as they have beautiful seed heads. This is sideoats grama.

Before the Sulphur Springs valley was grazed by cattle, grasses predominated the landscape. Now there is a lot of scrubby mesquite (prosopis velutina). Here are Emma and Shawna running through the grass.

September 1, 2008

"Pastured" Chickens

Our hens, a mixed flock of Plymouth Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Auracana and Astralorps have been laying eggs for a year now.

In spite of the fact that we built them a Chicken Taj Mahal and have been keeping them safe from coyotes and raptors in a good-sized yard, they are apparently bored and are cannibalizing each other. (Chickens are sharks in feathers, I was told). So now, in the afternoons, after the laying business should have been concluded, I let them out in the yard.

The hens are loving this, and it is fun to see them go cruising by the window in search of some yummy bug.