April 29, 2009

Grow, garden, grow

I finished up planting the garden today: the peppers were last to go in. I had great success last year with peppers which is no surprise since our valley is one of the biggest producers of chile peppers in the country. I don't grow that many hot ones, but the orange bell peppers were outstanding. So I upped the pepper plant count to 12, and hope I did not overplant. The seedlings looked too good to be languishing in a pot anyway.

I always have to take a "beginning of the season" picture because it never looks like this for long, and you tend to forget how it all got started.

For those of you not in the know: all that hardware of various forms is to discourage the wildlife, mainly birds so far, and give the little plants a chance. Once they reach some size some leaf stealing is not a big deal. Notice the picked-over head of lettuce that I offered as a bribe. So far it has kept the birds off the other plants. Some tomatoes already have flowers, as do some of the cantaloupes.

April 27, 2009

Singing the praises of John

Deere, that is. When Dan told me that we needed a tractor when we moved to Arizona and live on our "ranch", I admit I was sceptical. Just another "boy toy" I figured, but I did not argue. Thought it might help with cleaning up after the horses. And my, was I ever wrong! We hardly ever use it in daily horse chores, but I could not have landscaped without it.

Our little tractor is a material mover par excellence. It has moved over 100 buckets of horse manure and several dump trucks worth of sand and gravel.

Now that I am done planting the majority of the yard (the area immediately surrounding the house), it is time to spread gravel mulch. Not only does gravel make the landscape look nice, it also retains moisture and gives a foothold to little seeds that otherwise would be easy food for a desert critter. There are a number of perennial volunteers such as chocolate flower (smells like chocolate, really) and verbena that have happily sprung up all over the yard.

Here is JD at what I call "the landscape yard": the area adjacent to the horses' playpen where we store sand, pea gravel and gravel for the walkways. I could not imagine having to move quantities like these with a shovel and a wheelbarrow.

April 25, 2009

Mom has her ways

Now that several species of cacti are blooming, I have been wondering why their flowers are so spectacular: large and brilliantly colored. No wall flowers, these: they are out there shouting at the world.

But they are so large, bees would need to be huge to pollinate them, so where do little cacti come from? To add to the precariousness of propagation, the cottontails love eating the flowers and just when the bloom is about to unfold and I am poised to take a picture, the whole flower has been eaten to a nubbin. So much for attracting a pollinator that year.

My discovery of the day: this is where the orioles come in. They are not just here to drink gallons of sugar water and delight us with their gorgeous plumage and beautiful song: they are involved in the cacti cycle. And that is why we don't see them except when the cacti are blooming. Mom Nature does know her stuff.

Here is a picture of a cactus we often ride by. It is clinging to the wall of a steep wash, but it must be happy there or it would not be putting on this beautiful display. Here oriole ..., here oriole ....

April 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Kath!

This cactus in the yard only blooms one day a year and today is it, so this must be in honor of your special day. I wish you health and happiness in direct proportion to this exuberant display.

April 22, 2009

Tomato towers

Now that the tomatoes are in the ground and doing well, it's time for phase 2 of the tomato project: support. The last couple of years that I have had a garden here, the tomatoes have been very successful, and huge, as in overtaking the bed in which they were planted. We talked about "the tomato forest", and when you went to pick tomatoes it was going "tomato diving". I had some home-made cages that Dan made for me when we were in Oregon, but I decided not to move them to the desert. This proved to be a mistake because the store-bought ones were plainly inadequate. Too flimsy, as well as too short.

Dan had promised to make new cages and it was time to make good on the promise. This is proving to be an all-out, last-and-final, forever, tomato cage project. The cages are welded out of rebar and are sporting chicken-wire around the bottom to keep the birds from picking at the plants when they are young.

Here is Dan welding, off the shop/shed porch. Welding makes a mess, and he wants the porch to stay pretty.

And the result, installed on 4 of the 12 plants. If this is a typical growing year, the plants will be growing out of the top and sides of these towers.

April 19, 2009

A kite-flying day

Yesterday, after our weekly dinner together with Dave and Barbara, we made kites. Barbara had done this with a class as part of a science project and was anxious to fly the kite in an area unobstructed with power lines and kite-eating trees. After this past week there certainly should be enough wind ... Perceiving a slight breeze we took a break from our morning activities to try them out. Not even on the highest part of our property was there a breath.

But, not about to give up, we decided to just have a glass of water while the wind decided to pick up. Lo and behold, we got them up in the air. No sooner did the kites gain elevation and about a dozen turkey vultures flew over to check out the "new birds". Perhaps they were showing off their flying skills, or as Dave said, perhaps they thought these foreign girls were decked out very fine. The best breeze hit while we were on the porch, but it was just too intermittent for a successful flight.

Meanwhile, I did get the tomato plants into the garden, and not a moment too soon. Some of them were already sporting flowers. I also put the pepper plants into bigger containers and started more sunflower seeds. It was a beautiful (temps in the 70's) day, with abundant sunshine, and I am bushed but happy.

April 16, 2009

I feel the need for heat

So much for the folktale that when the mesquites leaf out there will be no more frost. They have been leafed out for a couple of weeks, and there was ice on the birdbath and the wildlife dish this morning. This after a big wind storm yesterday. Thankfully the winds were not sustained, but we had 50 mph gusts. The house creaked and we have hummingbird nectar on the windows that blew across the 8-foot porch. I spent the entire day inside with a book and some knitting but a day is about all I can take.

All is well again this morning, other than it being "bracing". Sun's out and the forecast is for warmer days ahead (80 by Sunday). Good thing because those tomatoes HAVE to go into the ground.

Amazing that your blood thins when you live in the desert for awhile: cold never used to bother me. Will I complain about the heat in a couple of months? Not as long as it cools off at night, and it usually does. And talk about thin blood, what about the red racer (=snake, for the uninitiated) who streaked across the road this afternoon? Who woke him up so early?

Just to include a picture, I'd like show this encounter between a cottontail and the yard chipmunk. Both of them eat the seeds that I throw out for the birds.

April 14, 2009


We had a discussion the other morning: do birds have to be drab to have a beautiful song? There seem to be a number of LBBs and LGBs (little brown birds and little grey birds) here that have nice songs, but are not much to look at. The orioles are the exception: they are gorgeous and have a beautiful call (can't really call it a song).

Orioles are harbingers of Spring, and generally arrive around April 1. They are nectar feeders, like the hummingbirds, and also love grape jelly. There is a feeding frenzy for a couple of weeks and then they are gone until next year. I have not seen them in the fall when they are heading south for the winter, as we see certain species of hummingbirds again when they stop by to load up on food before their great trek south. Like the hummers, orioles spend the cold months in Mexico or South America.

There are three kinds of orioles that we see here. Most prevalent is the Scott's oriole (above), and we see a lot of hooded orioles (below) too. The most beautiful is the Bullock's oriole, but I have only seen them a couple of times. It is easy to spot them in the landscape because of their color, and their song, but they are shy and do not like to have their picture taken.

April 13, 2009

Garden beds

After a typical Easter weekend, the weather has returned to its perfect state. From cold, windy, and a little wet to no clouds, no wind and in the 70's. I took advantage and laid out the garden beds this morning. So call me anal, but any job worth doing is worth doing right, and with tending garden in the desert you have to be conscious of water use. This means that I prepare the beds as level as possible and add a small soil wall around the edges so water does not run off.

The garden is big, 16 beds, but we share the spoils with friends and nothing goes to waste here. What is not fed to humans goes to the dogs, and what does not go to the dogs, goes to the chickens.

To my dismay I find that the asparagus crop this year is a total failure. Nobody to blame but myself. I should have fertilized and composted them; after all they are a perennial crop. Nobody flourishes on just water and air alone. Note to self: take care of asparagus this fall and winter.

Meanwhile the horses thought this was a total waste of a perfect riding day. What could be better than going out for an easy walk "out back" and snatching a little green grass after the rain? Even Emma quietly protested by sitting right outside the garden fence, heaving heavy sighs. What about a little hike? Never mind that she, and Shawna, went for a 40 minute walk at 6 am this morning ...

The seedlings in the cold frame are reaching large proportions. Hopefully I will be able to plant soon because I have another flat sitting on a heating pad in the laundry room: sunflowers for the Great Sunflower Project!

April 11, 2009

Happy Easter

Too bad this is not the Easter Bunny gathering goodies for an Easter basket ... Enjoy the holiday!

April 10, 2009

Council Rocks

There is another weather system moving in and it was already a bit breezy early this morning. So rather than spreading rocks around the garden to deter, or at least slow down, the onslaught of the local wildlife on my yet-to-be-planted tender little plants and getting blown about, we decided on an outing to Council Rocks. We had not yet visited there and it is a local point of interest.

Our area has a lot of history: the Cochise Stronghold was the last holdout of Apache Chief Cochise, and Council Rocks is where he is rumored to have signed the peace treaty with General Howard to end the hostilities in 1872.

Council Rocks is on the west side of the Dragoon Mountains; we live on the east side. We took the truck over rough Middlemarch Pass to get to the other side of the range, and scenery there is spectacular. The Stronghold is even more forbidding here, and it is not surprising that it is a popular destination for rock climbers. It is obvious this area gets more rain than we do as there are more large trees and the grass is abundant.

After about 8 more miles of dirt road we arrived at Council Rocks. Apparently this formation has been used for a long time by people seeking shelter and some petroglyphs are still evident. The historical sign indicated however that Cochise signed the treaty at a site more north, at Dragoon Springs. Nevertheless, it was well worth a visit as the rock formations are awesome, and reminiscent of those in the Chiricahuas, on the other side of our Sulphur Springs Valley.

April 6, 2009

Shop/shed porch done!

Under watchful eye of the hens we finished laying the pavers on the shop/shed porch this morning. Dan laid the pavers, I was the supply line. And, as the pile of pavers was whittling down, who did I find between the stacks? Might it be baby-bunny 007, or perhaps it was 008? I kept the dogs at bay while Dan took him back to the tackroom again.

I could not resist the temptation to hang a hummingbird feeder from the porch (already very popular), and add a pot of flowers.

April 5, 2009

Garden prep

We are currently between wind storms so Dan and I decided that, although we would rather be working on the paving for the shop/shed porch, this morning would be a good time to till the garden. I had already added a tractor-bucket of horse manure to each bed a week or so ago, so getting this done would be a snap.

I borrowed the little Mantis tiller from friends and while I loosened the soil with the spading fork, Dan worked the machine. I much prefer brute manual labor to walking behind a noisy machine that stinks to boot.

The beds look good now, and just need to be shaped. Gardening in the desert does require some adjustments. No raised beds here (they dry out too quickly). Here you rake the beds very flat and add a small wall of soil all around so that the water does not run off when you irrigate. I have learned a great deal from George Brookbank, an Englishman now living in Tucson, and his book Desert Gardening. Tuscon, in the Sonoran desert, is lower and warmer than here in the Chihuahuan desert, so planting times differ, but his principles have served me very well. I have had better gardens here than in Oregon.

Our soil is really quite fertile, witness the pepper farms and pecan orchards in the valley. Here on the bajada the soil has a lot of clay, rather than sand, and is a bit rocky here and there, but with the addition of some organic matter (never a lack of that, thanks to Buggsy, Bueno and Cody), all you need to add is water.

All in all I don't really know why I was in such a hurry to get the garden ready for planting. Last night the temperature was 32 degrees. It is probably the tomato plants in the cold frame that are pushing me along: I have had to transplant them into bigger pots already.

I just noticed that the quail approve of the nice, loose soil: great for taking dust baths. I will have to be vigilant to keep them out of the garden once the seedlings emerge.

April 2, 2009

The bloomin' desert

It is still early, and there is a lot of bud setting, especially on the prickly pear species, but I wanted to share this beautiful hedgehog cactus bloom.

There are many shrubs blooming too, but most of the flowers are inconspicuous, although not to the insects. Desert shrubs and trees have small leaves, and their blooms are tiny. Not the blooms of the cacti, or those of the ocotillo. These blossoms appear at the ends of gray thorny branches, often without leaves. The leaves appear after summer rains, in about 72 hours. The plant looks totally different then, soft and fuzzy, but beware the thorns among the leaves.

The Schott's yucca is now in full bloom in the yard.

Who says the desert is a dry and lifeless place?

April 1, 2009

Spring training

It was just a happy coincidence that when we moved to Arizona we were within driving distance of a major league baseball team's training grounds. Tucson Electric Park is where the Arizona Diamondbacks hold their spring training games, and we have enjoyed seeing a couple of games a year there.

The park is small and beautiful, and it is fun to see the players close up and be in the game atmosphere that is lacking on TV. This year we watched a game with our friends Lucy and John: Dback vs Giants, and we lost. Yesterday Dan and I attended our last game this year: Dbacks vs Dodgers, and we lost again. Frankly, we have never seen the Diamondbacks win in person. Yet, I have embraced them as "my" team, unlike a lot of transplants who live here but keep loyalty to their team "back home". Shame on them!

We start off our experience with a Super Dog, some soft drink or water, and ice cream for dessert. Then it's just all about sitting in the sun, listening to the crowd and whooping (or moaning) it up. It is a great spring outing.