Unrelated nonsense

Madness, Despair, Wonder: My Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program Application

Garden with a sighting of the Flower Fairy holding her Popsicle Wand

As you can see, many of my plants, trees, and habitat in general are very young…thus the sidewalk chalk and tricycles fit nicely as part of an overall theme.  You thought it was unsightly clutter, but it’s carefully curated yard art.

When we moved into the house, the front yard had two Texas red yuccas and a pair of doomed lavender plants–with 8 inches of gravel over TWO layers of eternally-accursed weed cloth, held in place by “garden staples” rusted enough to cut your hand but not enough to loosen their miserable chokehold on the earth. There used to be grass and a cottonwood, but the whole thing was ripped out when the cottonwood’s roots compromised the water pipes.

Part 1, Summer 2020

Since the heat of July is unquestionably the worst time for planting in Albuquerque, that’s naturally when I was struck by the irrepressible compulsion to transform Satan’s armpit into something lush and green. When I asked for help picking out a tree at local nurseries, they stared in gentle disbelief before explaining that it’s best to plant trees in fall. But I couldn’t wait; I needed GREEN!

One bucketful at a time, I moved the rocks from my front yard to a pile by the side of the house. It was unbelievable how much work it took to clear a 2x2ft space. The previous owner generously hadn’t skimped on gravel. My dad and husband snickered as I labored over my “personal patch of Death Valley.”

A patch of weed cloth poking out through red gravel rocks, surrounded by flagstones making a small path.
I hate that weed cloth. If it blocked weeds effectively I’d give it a grudging respect, but it doesn’t even do that. The grass roots spread underneath and the weed cloth ends up protecting them from being pulled out completely.

I got the chinquapin oak and frontier elm in the ground. Probably they’d be bigger by now if I’d listened to advice and planted them at the appropriate time, but I’m clearly on some kind of personal journey here (think of the growth metaphors!), so let’s just celebrate the fact that the trees are growing like gangbusters. They will provide excellent shade in a couple of years, eventually becoming big and strong enough to bust the water pipes themselves! (The roots won’t cause problems if I water the trees properly, but since I don’t seem to do anything properly, it’s a crapshoot. But: GREEN!).

That first summer was pitiful. I plopped a few unlucky flowers into the burning ring of fire that was my front yard and anxiously watered their brave little botanical souls while humming Eliza’s “stay alive” refrain from Hamilton. Noting the desperation in my eyes as they walked by, neighbors chirped, “Looks good!” It didn’t.

But I’d been hooked.

My baby desert globemallow that first year.

Part 2: Summer 2021 – 2022

I spent the next winter reading about southwestern plants, and armed with all the wisdom and experience of book knowledge, I confidently pulled out my shovel for some serious garden action when spring rolled around.

I made pathways from a random assortment of used flagstones free or cheap online and liberated larger patches of soil from their gravel oppressors. I’m not sure how to fit mulch into that questionable metaphor, but I added it, too.

My kids and I threw down a ton of seeds, and a bunch of them sprouted! Then died. Turns out you really do need to water them at first, so my preschoolers got an important lesson about death and returning to the soil. A few little sprouts survived thanks to accidental shade from abandoned garden tools and buckets, and I was unduly proud of those hardy successes that survived thanks to my disarray.

My whole yard is very much a work in progress.  Many of my plants are babies and it will take at least another year for them to “fill in” and flower.  

Neighbors walk by looking worried instead of pitying. They don’t quite understand what I’m up to, and I have the unfortunate habit of starting a new garden project before finishing the last one. It is, admittedly, chaotic. I didn’t make a plan with graph paper and forethought, I’ve just been shoving stuff in the ground, then transplanting it when necessary, clearing gravel-free patches and cutting out weed cloth as I go. I wince when I consider how horrified Judith Phillips would be.

Even so, I love my garden.  It amazes me that in just two years, I’ve created a space where I like to sit and just look, a place that’s already welcoming critters.

A roadrunner came to inspect the birdbath only an hour after I put it in the front yard (sadly, the roadrunners don’t usually stay long because of the neighborhood cat patrol). The autumn sage is incredibly popular with shiny, black carpenter bees and white-lined sphinx moths. There’s a constant insect bustle around the blue flax, gaillardia and globemallows—this morning was overcast, and my five year old excitedly called me over to see the bee still nestled asleep in the blanketflower bloom. Birds are usually swooping about, while the evening primroses and desert four o’clocks keep the critter party going after the sun sets.

I plan to conscript my brothers into helping me finish the walkways and patio in a few weeks, and I’m calling around for estimates for gutters and rain barrels. Hopefully that will be in place before next year. For today, I need to transplant a few winecups and plop a Penstemon superbus in the ground somewhere.

I’m also submitting my application to the Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program. Their goal is to certify 570 acres worth of mini-habitats throughout the city of Albuquerque to match the 570 acres of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Whether you’ve got potted plants on your apartment balcony or a big back yard with a field of flowers, you can apply for certification and be counted towards the wildlife refuge goal. Every little bit helps!

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