Restoring Hope With Yard Work

When events in the larger world leave me feeling hopeless, frustrated, and angry, my antidote is to spend time outside or working on my ongoing house renovation project. It helps to do something positive and to remind myself that despite the discord and greed dominating American politics, there is still much good work happening in the world. 

Which is why I spent the weekend hauling and spreading 4.5 cubic yards of crushed gravel. The gift of gravel came courtesy of Jeff Durham, my contractor, who filled his dump trailer at the quarry, and left the trailer in my driveway late Friday afternoon. 

In case you can't envision what a cubic yard looks like, 4.5 cubic yards of crushed gravel filled the trailer in the photo above from from to back, and side to side. (I didn't think to shoot a photo until l had already hauled and spread about a third of that pyramidal pile.) 

Put another way, a cubic yard of crushed gravel weighs somewhere between 2,400 pounds (just over a ton) and almost a ton and a half. So it's no wonder that the tires of his double-axle dump trailer were riding a little low–it was laden with between 10,800 pounds (five tons) and 13,050 pounds (six and a half tons) of gravel! 

All that crushed rock was to complete a front-yard project that Jeff and I started last May when he rented a baby Bobcat (the heavy equipment, not the wildlife) so we could scrape turf from my lawn-bound front yard to create walking paths and a sitting patio. 

The baby Bobcat (aka walk-behind mini-bulldozer) after a long afternoon and evening of turf-scraping. 

After the turf-scraping, we got busy with other, more urgent renovation projects (installing a new electric service, building an en-suite bathroom in my master bedroom, re-doing the bedroom floor, blowing seventeen inches of insulation in the attic, beginning window replacement, and so on).

Which means that my dirt paths and patio stayed dirt through the summer and most of the fall. I did line them with bricks reclaimed from other projects around the house and yard. 

Last week brought a rare conjunction of good weather predicted for the weekend, dump trailer availability, and my time free of other tasks. So Jeff brought me gravel, and I spent two happy and completely exhausting days hauling and spreading it, shovel-full by shovel-full, wheelbarrow-load by wheelbarrow-load.

The first path partly graveled yesterday noon, a gorgeously sunny and warm late fall day. (Much too warm for December, in fact, but I was not complaining.)

I hauled and spread about 2/3 of the pile in the trailer yesterday. And then applied arnica ointment to my back and shoulders, and went to bed early, very pleased to finally be getting one of my long-delayed yard-renovation tasks completed. 

This morning when Jeff arrived to work on piecing the interior trim for my bank of three huge replacement windows in the living room, he was impressed at how much gravel I had moved. "Do you want me to haul some?" 

I shook my head as I shoveled gravel from the trailer to the wheelbarrow. "No thanks. Believe it or not, I enjoy this."

He shook his head with amusement and went back to work cutting trim. 

Getting to the end… 

By late this afternoon, as thick clouds rolled in and the air began to smell like snow, I had nearly emptied the trailer. Jeff hooked it to his truck, and with me guiding, backed it up and dumped the last half-cubic yard into the last area of bare dirt on the sitting patio by the front door. 

Then he headed off to work on his own living room, and I finished hauling and spreading. After which I admired the finished paths and sitting patio before stowing my wheelbarrow, scoop shovel, and rake in the garage, admiring my work once more, and then walking slowly inside to rest. 

The paths and sitting patio, graveled and ready for tonight's snowstorm. 

Outside, low clouds are scudding past, and I am sitting on the couch with my feet up in front of the fire, astonished that I moved that whole trailer-load of crushed gravel in the past two days. And in the doing, finished a front-yard project that has been nagging at me, and turned out just as well as I imagined it. 

My neighbors have already commented about how great the paths and patio look. They'll look even better next spring when the daffodils, pineleaf penstemon, blue sage, and others I've planted to replace the lawn grow and bloom. And the birds and butterflies and native bees discover them.

Thinking of that makes me smile, and restores my faith in the essential goodness of life. It only took hauling and spreading some 10,000 pounds of gravel to get there. It was well worth the aching muscles, believe me. 

Salvia pachyphylla, blue sage, a Great Basin native, and one of the plants that will brighten my front yard next year. 

Scraping Corn, Wandering Mind

Sometimes you just need time to do tasks where your mind can let go and wander. 

Shantel Durham, my house-painter, made that wise comment this afternoon when she was in the floor-to-ceiling closets in my guest bedroom, painting the dingy grey walls and shelves a clean white. 

We were talking about how much I appreciate her work. Over the past six months, Shantel and her roller and brush have transformed the interior of my long-neglected house from a place so unappealing that my realtor and friends shook their heads when I declared I wanted to buy it, to a place that makes people smile when they walk in the front door. (The photo above is my light-filled and colorful office, which was a dingy cave before Shantel painted it, and her dad trimmed out the gaps in the walls and built the shelves.)

Shantel's a single mom raising an active and smart pre-schooler, and she's going to college–she graduated at the top of her class in the pre-nursing program at the local community college this spring, and is starting to study for her RN this week. So she's got plenty to do in her life. 

I said something about how grateful I was that she devotes her precious weekend time to painting for me, and she responded with that nugget of wisdom.

Her words reminded me of Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield's book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, about how enlightenment lies in the mundane moments of our every day lives, not just those rare "aha!" moments when we feel a spiritual kick. 

Which may be why I spent today, the day before the total eclipse of 2017, which crosses central Wyoming tomorrow mid-morning, doing ordinary things.

Ordinary things like washing my sheets, shaking out my blankets, and rotating my mattress. (And yes, those lovely green walls that make my bedroom feel like a treehouse Shantel's work.)

Eclipses are extraordinary astronomical events–seeing the stars come out in daytime as the sun is eclipsed entirely by our moon is a wondrous and truly awesome experience, in the original meaning of that word, as in "full of awe."

Many spiritual traditions regard eclipses as times of great change, opportunities to focus inward, to harness the shift in the sacred, the energy of the cosmos, the beyond-words-power that moves us in ways we often do not understand, and sometimes are not even aware of until afterwards. 

For me, a day spent tending to the mundane in a mindful way is part of preparing for a shift I feel coming in my own life. I can't see what it is yet, but I can feel it in a kind of inner awareness, a listening within that I notice especially when I am engaged in tasks that allow my mind to wander, "where it will go…" as the Beatles wrote in "Fixing a Hole." ("I'm fixing a hole/ where the rain gets in/ and stops my mind from wandering/ where it will go.")

So after I tended to my bed, I scraped ears of fresh local sweet corn I bought at the Farmer's Market on Thursday, and bagged cups of kernels to put into the freezer for this winter, when having frozen corn that tastes as sweet as summer sun will be a treat.

Ears of fresh sweet corn headed for the yellow bowl, where I will scrape the kernels off the cob.

Quart bags in the freezer, giving me that satisfying feeling of having food put by for winter. 

I pitchforked up more turf in the front yard and planted the rest of the irises that I divided last weekend from a bed of rhizomes packed so tightly that they didn't even bloom this year. My digging-up-and-separating efforts yielded enough irises to cover three times the area of the existing iris bed! 

While I had my pitchfork out, I dug up more unwanted turf in the rock-garden part of the front yard and planted blanketflower seeds from my former yard in Salida to add to the clump of blanketflower I got from friends here, which is blooming like mad right now. 

A sunflower bee on the blanketflower, happily collecting pollen (you can see the orange clumps of pollen filling the "baskets" on her hind legs). 

I used to need to think I had my life planned out. Living through Richard's brain cancer, and then my mother's death and his death in the same year cured me of that impulse to try to control anything. 

So this mellower me is listening to the inner feeling of change coming, and letting myself relax into it.

Whatever is ahead, I am grateful to be here in the house and yard I am bringing back to life with the help of Shantel, her dad Jeff, and others. I am grateful to be at home in the landscapes that hold my heart, in a community of friends who have welcomed me back warmly.

This place is my refuge, my quiet center, the sanctuary that allows me to live even in these turbulent times with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, to continue my work of restoring this glorious blue planet and celebrating its vibrant diversity of lives. 

May we all find our place of refuge and sustenance, and may we all go forth into the world with listening ears and giving hearts. It will take each of us to heal this world, working in our individual ways, bringing our unique talents, at our own pace. Thanks to you all for adding the gifts of your hands and hearts to the changes to come!

Sunrise on my running route–home

Road Report: 4,680 miles later…

I'm pretty sure that Red sighed with relief when I backed her into the garage late Thursday afternoon, home again after going 4,680 miles in the previous three weeks. (And five of those days we didn't drive anywhere. That's an average of 275 miles per driving day, which doesn't sound too bad until you add it all up!) 

The last leg of the trip, US 285 southwest from Denver to the Upper Arkansas Valley, was the slowest. It's mostly two-lane road, and the leaf-peepers were out in force because the aspen colors were at their height, as in the photo above, which I shot as we cruised (slowly) over Kenosha Pass, at nearly 10,000 feet elevation.

I didn't mind the slow folks, but some drivers did, and hip-hopped their way up the long lines of cars and trucks, passing in dangerous spots. I'd rather be patient and get there alive, thank you very much. Besides, it's easier to shoot good photos of the gold and orange mountainsides when you're going slower… 

I've said that windshield time is fruitful thinking time for me. So what did I learn in all those miles and hours on the road?

That I love the inland West and its rumpled, lava-covered, faulted, eroded, folded, and up-tilted landscapes; its spare and wild and wide spaces.

Split Rock Historic Site, near Jeffrey City, Wyoming

And that I love them best in autumn, when the leaves are turning brilliant colors: the scarlet fire of bigtooth maples in Utah's Wasatch Front, the quaking aspen turning whole mountainsides gold and orange, the river-side boxelders and their lemon-yellow leaves. And the shrubs: smooth currant in blaze-orange, brighter than any hunter's vest; burgundy chokecherry, Woods' rose ranging from russet to rust; crimson red-twig dogwood, and lemon dogbane. 

Scarlet groves of bigtooth maple on the mountainsides above Spanish Fork, Utah

The landscapes, the colors, the people I worked with, the time with my family; even the houndstongue and knapweed I dug out by the roots in Yellowstone on my 60th birthday reminded me of why I write, and why I work with plants. I love these landscapes, and I not only want to show others their mysteries and magic; I want to leave the places I touch in better shape than I found them. 

My work in life is to weave we humans back into the fabric of this living world in a way that we can be useful planetary citizens, that we can feel like we belong here. My work is also to restore that living fabric of nature wherever I can. I use those metaphors of fabric deliberately, because I think of this earth as a global tapestry in the sense that we're all connected, all part of a living, breathing, pulsing web, an organic network that makes this planet the luminous place it is. 

I came home to my front meadow in glorious bloom, and the flowers crowning the rabbitbrush here in the valley echoing the lush gold of the aspen blanketing the mountainsides.

Part of my front meadow–the gears are industrial relics Richard planned to use in sculptures

To tomato, cucumber and squash plants that needed harvesting and cutting back; a flood of emails and messages to respond to, and deadlines for workshops and webinars and writing. 

And to the feel of change in the air: the change that is autumn, the time we harvest summer's fruits of all sorts and prepare for the coming winter; and also the changes I sense in my life path. I can't articulate those yet, but I know they are ahead. 

This morning I woke to frost on the deck and crisp 30-degree-F air. The peaks were dusted with snow from the previous night's storm, and the aspen were brilliant against that white lace. 

I spent the first half of the day doing fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park and habitat garden I designed and helped create for the City of Salida 16 years ago, and the second half of the day working in my own yard. The time in the company of plants and people who take joy from these sun-powered beings soothed me and settled my spirit. 

I feel ready for whatever is ahead, whatever lies beyond the bend in my life-path I cannot quite see now. And I am conscious of one other gift of all of those road-miles: I am happy to be right here, right now.

Blessings to you all!

Native Plants: Essential “Terroir” of Place

Walking between my hotel and the conference center for Colorado's first annual Native Plants in Landscaping Conference yesterday morning, I crossed a large expanse of boring turfgrass lawn, an even larger parking lot, and then a smaller area of closely-mowed grass. As I traversed the mowed area, I looked and listened for signs of the shortgrass prairie that once stretched from horizon to horizon, defining the High Plains.

Over the roar of traffic from the nearby interstate, I heard a familiar flute-like whistle: a male meadowlark, tuning up for spring–a true prairie sound. I looked down at the soil underfoot and saw dots of sunshine yellow: an alyssum, a tiny prairie mustard in bloom already. 

I set down my briefcase and book bag and bent close to admire these first prairie flowers. The plant's small leaves sparkled in the sunlight, thanks to their water-saving and insulating cover of star-shaped hairs. The miniature flower stalks barely rose two inches above the sun-warmed soil, each miniature four-petaled blossom blooming brightly before spring has even come, bright yellow to signal their presence to pollinators. My mother would have called them "belly-flowers," dwarf wildflowers best admired from a prone position. Like alpine plants, these prairie natives hug the soil both for warmth in the harsh climate of the open plains and for protection against the constant wind. 

I thought of those tiny wild alyssums as I gave my keynote talk, persisting even as the prairie around them is scraped away by development after development, proclaiming that whatever we do with the landscape, it is still prairie and will always be. 

Their tenacity and fidelity to place illustrate for me why native plants matter to we humans. As I said in my talk,

I've come to think of plants as the living vocabulary of landscapes, the language that lends colors, shapes, and structures which define and give character to whole regions, the way words shape, color, and construct our language. Plants are the pioneers in constructing and also reviving the language of nature in any place. 

Native plants provide the core of that language. Their gifts include aesthetics (their beauty through the seasons), biology (they are durable and adapted to the conditions of their specific places), health (both in terms of ecoystem health and the very real benefits we humans derive from time spent in nature), and what I would call "terroir" or dialect. 

I am borrowing the word "terroir" from the French word used to denote specific wine regions and meaning roughly "the flavor of the land." It's a word now applied to local food as well to denote the unique taste that comes from soil, sun, climate, and the whole community of nature characteristic of particular places or regions. It seems to me that native plants speak the terroir of their specific landscapes and regions. Think of the towering redwood trees of the fog-draped Pacific Coast for instance, or the raised-arm saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert in the southern Southwest and Northern Mexico. Those plants clearly evoke the spirit and particulars of their places. 

A saguaro cactus, its silhouette unmistakable at sunset, in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. 

I believe that making space for native plants in our yards, parks, and nearby landscapes is essential for human survival, not just for the beauty and aesthetic benefits, nor even for native plants' powerful ability to reweave the fabric of healthy nature and healthy communities.

It is that connection to terroir that touches me most deeply. The cell-deep recognition within each of us of these rooted beings as the vocabularly of place, the very ‘flavor’ of soil, environment and landscape, and the connection they give us to the earth right where we live. 

As I said at the end of my talk,

If plants are the living vocabulary of landscapes, those lives that restore the structure and function of healthy nature, native plants are the vernacular, the dialect, the terroir of individual places. In our gardens and landscaping, these “local” voices not only heal and transform, they reconnect humanity—breath, cell, and soul—to this singular, living planet. They bring us home.

As I walked back to my hotel, across the mowed expanse of not-yet-subdued prairie, I stopped again to admire the tiny alyssums, dots of sunshine hugging the sun-warmed earth. And thanked them for connecting me to prairie and meadowlark, sun and sky, to the wild world that sustains our lives on this astonishingly green planet. 

Planting Seeds

Like gardeners everywhere, in late winter seed catalogs flood into my virtual and real mailboxes, and I begin dreaming of spring, moist soil, and planting.

Until a few years ago, that was a major endeavor, since I maintained a raised-bed edible garden that was ridiculously large for the two people who were its primary consumers (friends and family benefited from my largese), along with borders of herbs, ornamentals, and native species for pollinator and songbird habitat. Plus half a block of perennial mountain prairie and a block of creek frontage. 

After the involuntary downsizing of my life when my love, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer, I downsized my house and garden as well, to suit my unasked-for solo life. Now, my edible plants and herbs, plus some pollinator plants, occupy varying-sized containers on my front deck (out of the reach of the neighborhood deer herd). Which means that starting seeds in late winter for my summer garden isn’t quite the huge operation it used to be. 

Part of my front-deck container garden, including tomato plants in the round stock-tank under the green umbrella. 

And that’s a good thing, because this year, I somehow let February go by without starting my tomato, basil, and annual container flowers. I just clean forgot about starting seeds, perhaps because I was away teaching my Write & Retreat workshop in southern New Mexico. 

So today, when my belated order of seeds arrived in the mail from Renee’s Garden, I headed out to the garage to unearth a seed-starting flat, and my special organic seedling potting soil. I found the flat, mended the cracked corners of its tray with duct tape so they wouldn’t leak, and then went to look for the seedling soil mix. No dice. I had forgotten to order it, too. 

Bags of organic potting-soil components, plus a mixing bucket.

Okay, on to Plan B. Under the potting bench in my little workshop, I found some organic potting soil of a fine texture suitable for seedlings, and some sieved organic compost. So I just mixed some of the latter into some of the former in a galvanized bucket, and called it good. (I’ll let you know how well it works!)

Seed-starting tray with pots full of homemade organic soil mix

I filled each of the 40 pots in the seedling tray to the brim, and carried the tray and the electric heat-mat that goes under it to hasten germination and encourage strong root growth, into the house and placed the mat with tray on top on the shelf in front of my south-facing living-room windows, my winter “greenhouse” space.  

I lifted the seedling pots up and watered the wicking mat in the tray, and then began to plant my tomato, basil, and annual flower seeds.

One row of Renee’s ‘Inca Jewels’, a Roma-type tomato bred especially for containers and small spaces, two seeds to a pot for a potential of ten plants. (I need just one plant of each tomato variety, but I like to share my favorite home-grown plants since these varieties are rarely available commercially.) One row of ‘Heirloom Stupice,’ another variety especially suited to container gardening, with wonderfully rich-flavored fruits. And one row of ‘Pandorino,’ an Italian grape-sized tomato for fresh eating.

Two rows of Renee’s ‘Italian Cameo’ basil, a large-leafed variety also good in containers and which makes delicious pesto. (There is no such thing as too much basil in my world!)

And three rows of flowers: Purity cosmos (a white cosmos for butterflies), Cabaret zinnias (for summer bouquets), and heritage yellow four-o-clocks that have flourished around the Victorian-era houses in my neighborhood since our town was platted on a wind-swept mountain-prairie bench along the Arkansas River in 1879. 

Seedling pots filled, watered, and labeled…

I watered the pots from above, soaking the potting soil thoroughly. And then I labeled each row so I’d remember what the sprouts are.

If all goes well, in a little over a week, the first sprouts will begin to emerge. As spring snows soak the ground outside, a feathery forest of seedlings will grow on my living-room shelf, reaching for sun, spring, and planting time.


Next weekend, I may not be able to blog as I’ll be away giving a keynote speech at Colorado’s first-ever Native Plants in Landscaping conference. My task is to so inspire the conference attendees that the message about why natives matter ripples outward like a swelling tide. 

Why bring native plants home to where we live, work, and play? Here’s the final slide of my presentation to give you an idea:



Weather and Wildflowers

California is withering in a historic drought, parts of the southern Plains are experiencing catastrophic flooding, and here in southern Colorado, we’re unusually soggy from four weeks of successive snow and rain storms.

The peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range tonight, looking more like March than late May….

It’s been so relentlessly wet that we’e received what would normally be half a year of precipitation just in May. The little creek that runs past my house rose two-and-a-half feet one night last week; its voice changing from a chuckle to a thrashing roar.

Here in the normally relentlessly sunny and dry high desert, we always long for moisture. But too much at once is at least as nerve-wracking and damaging as too little, as those flooded out of their homes in Oklahoma and Texas can attest.

Today, spring returned. The sun stayed out for hours instead of minutes, the temperature rose from 34 degrees at dawn to 65 in the late afternoon, and the air felt promising instead of raw and damp. The peaks emerged from the clouds, soft white with new snow.

So after I spent much of the afternoon hauling sodden trash and debris-dams out of the creek and pulling more cheatgrass and other invasive weeds from its banks, I treated myself to a walk around my yard to see the wildflowers springing up in the native mountain prairie I’m restoring on my formerly industrial site. Join me for a look!

The street-side prairie is a sea of bobbing Lewis flax flowers (Linum lewisii). Their sky-blue blossoms only open for one day, and close as soon as the day heats up—heat has not a problem here lately.

At the base of the boulders that hold the bike/wheelchair path that cuts across the slope above that prairie, a very happy blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) sprouts flower heads just about ready to burst into bloom.

In the rock garden, the Uintah penstemon (Penstemon uintahensis), is only about five inches tall, but this alpine native makes up for its diminutive size by producing an abundance of flowers in eye-popping shade of blue-violet. The little plants bloomed right through our last two snowstorms.

On the creek bank on the south side of the house, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) sprouts have pushed their fleshy stems and leaves up through the soil, with tight-fisted buds at the top of each stalk.

Atop that bank, an evening primrose (I think a whitestem, but I’m not entirely sure) opens flowers each evening, scenting the air with a faint trace of lemon-flower sweetness to entice evening-flying sphinx moths as pollinators. (I hope the moths survived the storms.)

The wildflower I’m most excited about isn’t even in bloom yet. All that’s visible now is a scattering of tiny reddish plants, most no taller than two or three inches, in the patch of prairie on the north side of the house. When I saw them, I grinned and did a little tap dance right there–carefully avoiding smashing any plants….

These are whole leaf Indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), one of the most difficult to grow—and spectacular—of our native wildflowers. The seeds only sprout where their roots can find one of their partners, either blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), the characteristic bunch grass of our mountain prairies, or one of the species of native sagebrush (the genus Artemisia).

When Indian paintbrush appear, their presence says the natural community is restoring itself, beginning the process of returning the soil and the land to health. In the midst of so much bad news—destructive drought and flooding, oil spills, shootings, wars, earthquakes—here are tiny signs of hope.

Spring and Change

Spring is springing in my garden thanks to the huge dose of moisture from that pre-Earth Day snow, and there’s change ahead for me as well.

Uintah penstemon blooming today in my rock garden. Uinta penstemon blooming today in my rock garden, offering its nectar and pollen to native bees.

What’s up?

First, if all goes well, this will be the last post you’ll read on my current website. A new website–which will include all the blog posts currently on this one–will go live sometime in the next week or so (same URL, just a new platform).

The project has been months in the making, and wouldn’t have taken nearly as long if I had kept up. My friends who make up the programming/design/editing team have done their part, but I’ve lagged at writing new content, partly because I was on the road a lot in March and April, partly because of the infection in tooth #23, which has really zapped my energy.

The new home screen--I accidentally snapped the screen shot as the slide show was changing images.... A peek at the new site–I accidentally snapped the screen shot as the slide show was changing images….

The other big project absorbing my time now that I’ve wrapped up a season of successful habitat-gardening talks is what writer/editor/fiber expert Deb Robson calls a “French polish” of Bless the Birds. Here’s how Deb describes it (through finishing wood):

You rub the surface with 0000 steel wool and then brush off the tiny bits of wood, shellac, and steel and then coat with another dilute layer of shellac: repeat until the wood gleams gently as if lit from within.

It’s a great metaphor for the kind of fine work I hope to accomplish with this pass through my memoir.

I really thought I was done after the last major revision. Only in the weeks since I emailed the manuscript to my agent (who in one of those twists of a complex universe, never received the email), I’ve had snatches of memories float into my consciousness, small details of the sort that speak to the life Richard and I lived and the people we were. Evocative details, necessary, I think, to the success of the whole story.

Like this passage from Richard’s first-ever night in the hospital, long before we knew the bird hallucinations presaged a brain tumor that would eventually kill him:

I remember vividly that first night in the hospital when the cheerful aide delivered a dinner tray filled with food I couldn’t imagine Richard ever choosing: chicken-fried chicken buried under gravy, mashed instant potatoes and anemic canned peas; a plastic container of waxy fruit cocktail floating in sugar syrup, and another container of chocolate pudding whose ingredients, I would have bet anything, contained no actual nutritional value at all.

“I could go to the deli over on Colorado Avenue,” I said, “and bring you a real dinner.”

Richard thought for a moment. “No. I’m going to submit wholeheartedly to the treatment my doctors recommend, and that includes eating hospital meals.” He poked the slice of squishy white bread sealed in plastic next to the plate and added, “Except perhaps the bread.”

I’m five chapters in (out of 34) and feeling good about the work.

Then there’s tooth #23, lower jaw, front. It’s abscessed and can’t be fixed by a root canal. Choice number two is orthodontia and some kind of cap. Last week I drove to Colorado Springs to talk to the orthodontist; next comes another consult with my dentist to determine the final plan. The cost and time commitment are both staggering. But it’s got to be taken care of.

And it’s spring: I’ve a new website sprouting, I’m working on Bless the Birds, and my restored mountain grassland yard is beginning to bloom.

As are the annuals I just planted for pollinators in the galvanized steel window boxes I designed for the faux window that decorates the street-side wall of my house.

Real windowboxes with real flowers on my faux window... Real windowboxes with real flowers on my faux window…

It’s spring, when as ee cummings wrote, “the world is puddle-wonderful”–or here in the puddle-deficient high-desert, the air is at least intermittantly showery and smells delicious, full of life waking up.

It’s hard to be gloomy in this season of possibilities!


Earth Day: Snow

Last Thursday morning, I woke before dawn to the orange glow of light I associate with snowflakes diffusing the street lamp glare. When I opened the blind, I saw sticky wet flakes piling up.

Snow falling before dawn on Thursday. My view before dawn on Thursday.

I was thrilled. During March and early April, normally one of our wettest times of the year, we received zero, zip, nada precipitation and the weather was unusually warm and dry. Spring was looking brown.

Of course, it would snow after I had planted my tomato seedlings outside. I reminded myself that they were protected by water-filled tomato tepees, which function something like mini-greenhouses. Good thing I had thrown a layer of insulating row-cover fabric over the tepees the night before.

Daylight and more snow.... Daylight and more snow….

As the snow continued to fall, I reassured myself the tomato plants would be just fine. When it finally stopped snowing at mid-morning and the sun came out, I peeked and, sure enough, each plant was unharmed.

The snow melted that afternoon, and the creek rose and chuckled. I checked the official precipitation total: 0.6 inches, about a third of what we needed to bring us up to normal.

That evening, clouds rolled in and more feathery flakes began to fall. Great, I thought, more moisture. (I covered the tomato tepees again.)

View down the front steps as feathery clumps of flakes begin to fall Thursday evening. Flakes begin to fall on Thursday evening.

I woke Friday morning at five o’clock to the “pow!” of an electrical transformer exploding somewhere nearby. I got up sleepily and checked the clock in the kitchen–the power was still on, so I went back to bed.

The next transformer blew at twenty to six, and when I pulled up the blind and looked outside, it was snowing hard and downtown was dark–no street lamp glow.

A blanket of snow so clumpy it shoveled up in slabs like wet cement. A blanket of snow so clumpy it shoveled up in slabs like wet cement.

I pulled on a jacket on over my night-tee and tights, added a cap and mittens,  grabbed the snow shovel from the front door and shoveled a path across the front deck and down the front steps so I could shake the heavy, wet accumulation off my crabapple saplings, which were bent entirely double, their canopies on the ground.

I was afraid the trunks had snapped, but when I released the upper branches from the weight of the snow the trees slowly straightened up. By quarter past six, I had shoveled my front sidewalk and my neighbor’s too, and my back was feeling the effort. I went inside to write and then do yoga, carefully stretching my back.

At seven-thirty, it was still snowing, so I donned layers again and went back out to shovel another six wet inches that had accumulated atop the eight or so inches from earlier.

A pause in the snowfall.... A pause in the snowfall….

I heard tree branches break nearby, cracking like rifle shots. Plows groaned, moving the heavy accumulation. The power came on downtown, went out again, and flickered back on again. The snow kept falling.

I was relieved when the snow finally quit a few hours later. (My back was relieved too.) I measured the accumulation: 20 inches, for a total of 26 inches including Thursday morning’s snow.

Sunshine, sloppy snow, and soon, birds perched on every clear spot, even the streets. Sunshine, sloppy snow, and soon, birds perched on every clear spot, even the streets.

By the time the sun returned to melt the wet blanket Friday afternoon, birds were perched on my front walk, on the streets, in every clear spot. Cerulean blue mountain bluebirds, robins, juncos, and horned larks with their patterned faces–all exhausted by the storm and in search of dry spots to rest. If the snow hadn’t stopped when it did, I wonder how many of them would have survived.

Our total precipitation from 48 hours of spring storm? One-point-six inches of water, almost a quarter of what we receive in an average year. I guess that storm was our early Earth Day present.

And my tomatoes? They survived just fine.

A stupice heirloom tomato plant, cozy inside it's wall-o-water "greenhouse." (Thanks, Renee's Seeds!) A Stupice tomato plant, cozy inside its water-insulated tepee. (Thanks, Renee’s Garden, for the hardy and delicious varieties!)

Earthwork: Habitat Gardening at Home and Away

It’s spring, and I’ve been on the road giving talks and workshops about gardening as a way to restore the earth and our connection to this glorious blue planet.

Spreading phlox, not native, but an excellent food source for early-flying pollinators, blooming in my rock garden. Spreading phlox, not native, but an excellent food source for early-flying pollinators, blooming in my rock garden.

Last week’s talk was in Fort Collins, Colorado, with passionate plantswoman and naturalistic garden designer Lauren Springer Ogden. We spoke to an audience of over 200 people as part of a City of Fort Collins Utilities series, me on designing for habitat and a healthy home landscape, and Lauren on her favorite plants for pollinators and wildlife.

It was the third talk I’ve given this spring on restoration gardening, and each time, the crowd has been larger than I expected and eager for knowledge about how to garden in ways that can heal this battered earth, and restore our relationship with nature.

I think we hunger for reconnection, for something positive we can do that gives back to the planet that gives us so much–air, water, food, the basic materials of our lives, plus beauty, awe and wonder. Habitat gardening is one powerful way to give back, providing homes and food for the “little guys” who help preserve healthy ecosystems–pollinators and songbirds–and also providing us with the delight of seeing those lives on a daily basis.

Sphinx moth, a key summer pollinator here and a fascinating diurnal insect, aiming for a Rocky Mountain penstemon for a meal of nectar, its hollow straw of a tongue already hanging out and ready. One of those “little guys”: a white-lined sphinx moth aiming for a Rocky Mountain penstemon, its hollow straw of a tongue ready to sip nectar!

Which is why I spend the time and energy to travel and teach, even when I’d rather stay home and work on my own landscape.

I made it home Thursday evening, and then spent Friday getting started on the next presentation–my keynote at the Chaffee County Home & Garden Show next Saturday. This weekend I finally had time for my own earth work, nurturing my reclaimed former industrial yard and the adjacent block of urban creek.

Ditch Creek this afternoon, flowing just enough to murmur--and to revive the mayfly larvae. Ditch Creek this afternoon, flowing just enough to revive the mayfly larvae.

Which, by the way, is running again. I hear its murmuring voice from my front deck, a lovely sound after four weeks of unusually hot and dry weather.

Yesterday I wore myself out laying the first part of my future outdoor dining patio in a flat spot on the slope between my two buildings where the two-story garage/studio casts shade on spring and summer evenings.

I had already spent time loosening the construction-compacted ground with a mattock, hauling out rocks and sifting the gravel-sized fragments from the sand, and leveling the area. My friends Tony and Maggie had helped me carry and roughly set the first flagstone.

The dining patio in progress, about a third completed.... The dining patio in progress, about a third completed….

As I worked yesterday, I heard Richard’s voice in my mind. He taught me how to design and build a flagstone patio; a project that was his final sculpture, his last chance to get his hands on the rocks he so loved.

Today I was too sore to pick up either mattock or flagstone, so I planted the heirloom tomato seedlings I grew indoors (thanks to Renee’s Seeds), nestling them carefully in the soil of the big stock tank on my side deck. I’m sure it’s a bit of a shock to be outside in the bright sun and moving air after a comfy childhood indoors, but they’ll adapt, and their walls-o-water will keep them cozy as they do.

Each red "teepee" insulates a different kind of heirloom tomato plant. Each red “teepee” insulates a different kind of heirloom tomato plant.

I also spent time hand-watering my rock garden to compensate for the spring snows that didn’t come, and admiring the spots of color from the spreading phlox, species tulips, daffodils, and native golden-smoke, all of which little sweat bees and other native pollinators are eagerly attending to.


I purely love this life, drought or no, and I am honored to be part of the movement to restore nature in our yards and gardens. It’s a powerful way for us to express our gratitude to this amazing planet–our nurturing orb and the only home our species has ever known.

Tiny species tulips attract tiny native bees to the rock garden. Tiny species tulips attract tiny native bees to the rock garden.

Gardening (and living) As If We Belong

For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida. Mt. Ouray, white with fresh snow and almost 14,000 feet elevation, rising in the distance beyond Salida.

As the weather turns from winter storms to balmy days and frosty nights, I’ve been thinking about spring and the habitat-gardening workshops I’ll be teaching in a few weeks.

Teaching is a great opportunity to stop to reflect about why I’m passionate about my subject. Not just about plants, which I love with an absorption and sense of kinship I don’t always have for my own species, or about the communities our green and rooted kin weave across the surface of this extraordinary living earth. I also think seriously about why I engage in the sometimes-misunderstood, physically hard, and often-lengthy work of restoring nature in urban places.

The answer is always the same. Because I love the work. Because nothing else is as satisfying as seeing the meanders and the baby trout return to a formerly channelized urban creek, or scarlet indian paintbrush freckling a lively native mountain grassland seeded where before was a sterile turfgrass lawn, or the monarchs flutter in to a patch of newly established native milkweed, or the kids standing in awe, mouths open, as the first hummingbird they have ever seen hovers to drink nectar from the wildflower patch planted next to their city edible garden….

Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along "my" block of urban creek. Adult monarch drinking nectar from a native common milkweed along “my” block of urban creek.

Because nature restored is a glorious, confounding, exuberant community of interrelated lives who together express the unique story of each place. Because watching life weave a healthy existence is a source of continuing inspiration, education and flat-out wonder.

Because this earth is my home. Because, while my people may have arrived on this continent a mere century or two ago, I belong here in this high-desert valley in the shadow of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

I eat food my hands have grown in this gritty soil; its minerals structure my cells. Airborne molecules of the volatile organic compounds our native big sagebrush wafts onto the air bubble through my blood with each breath I inhale; the sight of aspen clones painting whole mountainsides in brilliant gold and the resonant calls sandhill cranes winging high overhead infuse my soul.

L'il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee's Garden Seeds!) L’il Bites tomato cotyledons sprouting on my living room windowsill for the summer garden. (Thank you, Renee’s Garden Seeds!)

Because, as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes, I work at living here as if our children’s future mattered–the harvester ant children, the infant whitestem evening primrose, the young greenback cutthroat trout and larval mayflies, the monarch caterpillars, the baby sagebrush, the downy sandhill cranes all gangly legs and beaks, and the children of my human community.

I garden to restore habitat and healthy nature because all our children matter, because they are all part of our future.

Because it is my way of taking care of this land. I teach habitat gardening and restoration of nature to others because our lives, material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual do depend on it.

Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house. Dryland native meadow yard Richard and I restored at my old house.

And because I want others to feel the joy and awe, and the deep sense of satisfaction and belonging that I do when I see the earth restored. Because it is an antidote for the paralysis and despair that come when we’re faced with seemingly overwhelming environmental problems. Because my hope for and faith in the future rests on all of us on this glorious, animate blue planet, the only home our species has ever known.

Because when we garden as if we and the generations to come belong, we live as if we do, too. And we all benefit.

(Revised version of a piece first published in Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, a national blog-zine I contribute a column to each month.)