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!

Unrelated nonsense

A Tale of Woe and Wonder: Flying Flamingos and Beavertail Blooms

Forget prickly pear, it’s more like prickly peril.

My mom gave me a beavertail prickly pear as a housewarming gift when I moved to New Mexico a few years ago. I was pregnant, constantly vomiting and short of breath while taking care of my toddler, so I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for a cactus.

My husband dug a hole and tossed it in the ground, right above the water pipes that had to be replaced before our arrival because of destructive tree roots (I’ve christened the dead cottonwood tree “Norma Jean” so I can sing “Candle in the Wind” to her lingering ghost every time I slam my shovel into an old root).

Two years later, in the middle of a covid lockdown, I decided to turn my desolate front yard into a water-wise oasis. I shoveled, mulched, and planted like a woman possessed by a particularly aggressive tree nymph—probably the spirit of Norma Jean.

The prickly pear was quickly overshadowed by desert plants with green leaves and flowers. You know, things that are actually pretty. The prickly pear meandered, got a little wider, but remained short and squat, a greenish-purple non-color that is a decidedly anti-climactic centerpiece.

I mean, it’s fine? Not what I’d call a showstopper.

And of course, it’s an agent of pain and suffering.

That’s where the real drama begins. Remember how I was pregnant and barfing at the start of all this? Well, it paid off and I got an awesome kid out of it (or out of me, to be precise). I had a kid who loved a flamingo, and the flamingo loved to fly.

Meet Mango, as in fla-mango, which is a concept you could probably package and sell to moms at Target somehow. (We got the name because “flamingo” is quite a mouthful for a toddler. It took me way too long to understand as my frustrated child told me for the umpteenth time that she didn’t want to go shopping for fruit).

Kiddo loves Mango and falls asleep with her at night. I love sleep and easy bedtimes, so you can see how both of us developed bone-deep emotional attachments to the stuffed animal. One fresh, spring morning, Kiddo and her big sister were in the front yard gleefully throwing Mango into the air so she could “fly” when the poor bird crash-landed on the prickly pear.

Imagine it in slow motion: screams, anguish, barefoot kids run full-speed at a cactus, a mother bellows and throws her body between her babies and their flamingo.

I plucked up Mango and held her high above my kids’ reach, unmoved by their demands.

“Yes, yes, Mango will be okay! Let’s go watch TV!”

Reader, Mango was not okay.

The problem wasn’t the inch-long spines, the ones that are sometimes barbed for maximum distress when you pull them out. The cactus is hoping you’ll be tricked and avoid the giant thorns in favor of the apparently smooth and welcoming spaces between them.

You’ll get something so much worse.

The true cactus villains are the itty-bitty glochids, so short and fine that you can only see them when you hold them up to the light at exactly the right angle. It’s not an enemy you can confront and conquer. I’ve had a few run-ins with them, and it took days for me to get the little jerks out of my hand.

No matter how carefully I washed, plucked, tweezed and stripped poor Mango, my child would end up with a face full of unfindable plant-knives the moment she got her hands on her beloved bird. We were going to have unlimited screen time until I ordered a new Mango online.

Frantically searching the internet…do you know how many different flamingos in tutus there are? SO MANY! It’s an entire genre of toys and decor: pink flamingos in pink tutus. How did this happen? I guess it’s not as bad as stuffed “animal” poop emojis, but it still makes me wonder about the future of the human race. Yes, I’m a hypocrite.

Mango in her natural habitat, expertly camouflaged for a pastel pink world.

About 4 search engine result pages deep, I almost despaired (Help me, Norma Jean!). Then one more click, and I found and bought Mango II, thankful not to end up in a bidding war with another desperate parent where I’d be forced to re-evaluate my fundamental values and beliefs as my finger hovers over the $100 “buy” button for a freaking toy flamingo.

I glared at the prickly pear through the window. It was gonna be history. Done. Flora non grata.

Perhaps it was unfair to project all my mama-bear fury onto this plant, which was only defending itself, after all. But there are so many things I’m powerless to protect my daughters from, and this was a threat I could utterly eradicate with nothing but a shovel and my rage.

It took a few days to dig a decent trench around the cactus and I was nearly ready to go for the taproot in one final, brutal blow, when…it bloomed.

The short, ugly, Mango-murdering cactus produced the most delicate and vibrant flowers I’ve ever seen.

The bees went nuts for them, my daughters oohed and aahed, and my my husband smugly noted that for all my labors, he’d planted the most spectacular thing in our garden. The blossoms were other-worldly in their splendor, like something from a magical, elven forest in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Kiddo clutched (the new) Mango close and looked up at me, “Mama, I think we should keep the prickly pear.”

So the cactus remains. That one week of dazzling brilliance atones for the other 51 weeks of ominous dullness and the tragic demise of Mango. I’m ordering an extra flamingo just in case.

Unrelated nonsense

I am an amazing mom, Part I

I heard a few little dings on my phone this morning, alerting me to new messages from my daughters’ preschool.

I ignored them. I was focused, writing a blog post to save the world. It wasn’t the time for cute pictures, and fall preschool registration could wait until later.

When I finally glanced at my phone, I answered the most recent preschool message because it was short, indicating the bare-bones of essential information and none of this Earth Day chitchat.

I was kinda proud for answering the peanut butter question so quickly. #SuperMom #ItsSunbutter #LeanIn

Back to writing!

Then I got a text from my husband:

Look, my kid hates shoes. The moment I’ve buckled her into the carseat and closed the door, she’s already removed all footwear and chucked it into the back row of the minivan. It’s a pain to scavenge for shoes while keeping two small children from escaping to run wild (and barefoot) through the parking lot. Somehow the socks and shoes end up in four completely different places that are all hard to reach, and one of them generally lands in something disgusting, like a discarded applesauce pouch. I suppose the bright side is that I get a little cleaning done.

On days when I’m running late (so, always), I skip this annoying little routine and put shoes in a bag along with her lunch.

It’s a reasonable solution so long as you PUT THE SHOES IN THE RIGHT BAG!

Here ya go! Enjoy the full context of my sunbutter supermom moment:

Do you also detect hint of panic in this message? “She’s out of clothes and doesn’t have any shoes…”

And my response to the whole desperate situation is just: Sunbuyter

Even if there is a perfectly good explanation (AND THERE IS!), there’s no coming back from dropping your kid off at preschool without shoes and clothes (or extra clothes, anyways, I demand some credit for not dropping her off naked, which is also harder than it sounds).

Back to my husband’s text messages:

It’s sweet, really. I bring my two-year old to preschool with no clothes or shoes, and my husband gallantly shifts the blame onto the toddler. The barefoot toddler. Who is “figuring out life in the wild.”

That’s love.

Unrelated nonsense

How I Made My Kid Cry Over Broccoli–In a Good Way!

I knew that any kid of mine would be sort of weird…but this wasn’t what I expected. I’m cutting up broccoli for dinner, step away for a minute, and next thing you know my kid has taken a bite out of EVERY little piece.

Did I shrug and just toss them back in the bowl? You bet, I did! Would I do that if I had guests coming for dinner? Nope, absolutely not, no way, of course not!

Last week my husband saw a few stray pieces of broccoli on the kitchen counter and popped them in his mouth to tidy up. 

Little J’s eyes glistened.  “Dada.  That was my broccoli!”

Calamity.  She ran to her room, weeping like an old-school Disney princess.

Somehow I’ve gotten my daughter to love vegetables.  Really love them.  And I didn’t have to grow my own freaking garden.  Just a little benign manipulation and imaginary play–and, BOOM!  I’ve got the weird kid who cries over broccoli.  It could be a fluke, because I have utterly failed to achieve this level of veggie-love with my one-year old…but who knows?

Maybe it will work for you, too.

  1. Don’t pressure your child.  The surest way to build resistance is by initiating a power struggle, and that can damage your child’s relationship with food in the long-term.  Say, “It’s okay!  You don’t have to try it–only if you want to!”  And you have to mean it.  Your kid will sense if you’re internally begging them to eat that green bean, and your anxiety will transfer to them.  So relax and trust that your kid will try a new vegetable with time.
  1. “Play bunnies” or “ horses” or “mice” or whatever veggie-eating animal grabs your kid’s interest.  Read some library books, and pretend you’re little bunnies digging a burrow and hopping through a meadow.  Then pull out the spinach and carrots and munch like a rabbit.  Let your kid arrange the leaves for you and carry a bowl into your “burrow,” where you can munch them appreciatively.

This may take a while.  I played like this every once in a while for two or three months with no obvious results.  Then one day at dinner, J asked me for a “baby spinach leaf” so she could be a bunny.  Little Bunny J proceeded to eat an entire family-sized salad in one sitting.  

  1. Read books with vegetable protagonists Veggie Tales might work, but I’ve had more success with books about vegetables simply being vegetables.  And sometimes it’s okay to just get through lunch and tackle eternal mysteries later.  

Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal is a favorite in our household, and we make our peas act out the adventures of Mama Pea, Papa Pea, and Little Pea.  Goodnight, Veggies and Baby Food will also recast vegetables as familiar and engaging friends.  Friends you eat.

Avoid books about children who hate vegetables. Even if the protagonist learns to like brussels sprouts by the end of the story, guess which parts of the book your kid will quote and mimic?  I tried not to normalize or even introduce the narrative that kids dislike vegetables, and treat it as an obvious and universal fact that vegetables are great.

  1. Have your kid “help” prepare dinner.  I cut up vegetables and have my kids put them in the bowl.  Sometimes J wants to cut the potatoes, too, and achieves marginal success with a butterknife or these fancy, kid-safe knives.  If I’m not in a hurry, I let J play with the vegetables (arrange them in shapes, separate big and small pieces, etc.).  My theory is that whatever she plays with eventually ends up in her mouth.
  1. Don’t ask–just put veggies in front of them.  My two-year old loves to say no.  So I shouldn’t be surprised by the inevitable response to, “Do you want some beans?”  I’ve learned to never, ever ask.  Instead I put a plate in front of her and say, “Here are some beans!”  I respect her refusals, but at least I’ve gotten them on the table.  Physical proximity to salad is a start, right?

Whether she says “yes” or “no,” I happily munch a plate of vegetables in front of her.  Some parents try to generate interest by pretending they don’t want to share.  Either way, your kid will want to be like you!  No pressure.

  1. Find the “baby broccoli, the mama broccoli, the grandma broccoli,” etc.  

Relationships are (hopefully) the biggest force in kids’ lives, so they look for these patterns in the world around them.  Before you take a bite, identify your piece as a “little girl sweet potato” or “the daddy sweet potato.”

Parenting is hard.  Good luck out there, and I hope this helps!