Spring Garden Discoveries & A Brag

One of the delights of buying an older house is discovering the surprises planted by previous owners. Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth (the purple flower clusters) and columbine leaves in the photo above, in a flower border now overtaken by lawn. 

I'd guess from the yard's unkempt and overgrown character that no one has done any actual gardening, or pruning, or tending anything except the lawn in this yard for a very long time. Perhaps many decades. And even the lawn isn't in great shape. 

Which means I have the delight of coming to know what may be the original mid-century modern garden plan, much like the way I am coming to know the original mid-century modern house, also neglected for a very long time.

And just as the original details of the house charmed me when I first toured it–Who could not love the vintage kitchen in the photo above, even if it was covered with grime and bad paint?–I am finding the vintage plants appearing in the yard a delight. 

Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth and columbine in the photo at the top of the post.

Or these English irises, which have been untended for so long that their rhizomes have grown into a densely packed mound in the front yard. I spent a couple of hours yesterday cleaning up and starting to weed around them.

This fall I'll carefully dig up and divide the rhizomes, and will likely end up with enough to fill an iris bed about three times the size of this one. Which is fine with me; I'd rather have irises than boring lawn any day!

The shrub above, which I think is an old-fashioned variety of flowering quince, and has been languishing in the shade of a large and sickly honey-locust tree that my arborist removed last month. Now that the shrub is getting sun, I expect it will put on quite a flower-show next spring. 


The peony leaves sprouting from a grass-infested triangle by the driveway. I had been contemplating planting a peony bed this fall; now I will, since they're already part of the yard flora. (The red pigment coloring these baby leaves protects their delicate inner cells from both the intense high-elevation sunlight and the cold temperatures that come with spring in the Rocky Mountains, like today's four inches of snow.)

The rhubarb I discovered the other morning when I was surveying the narrow yard off the kitchen as my prospective edible garden. I had ordered rhubarb to plant with asparagus and raspberries, so I was thrilled to find one already in situ–the more the better. 

Yup. Those tiny, tightly crinkled leaves are rhubarb.

Many of these plants are what I call "heritage" garden plants, the kind carried from place to place and traded from gardener to gardener, their roots/tubers/bulbs wrapped in damp cloth to keep them alive. Many are long-lived; individual peony and rhubarb plants, for example, may thrive for a century or more.

The happy surprise of them emerging in my neglected yard is no doubt why my mom's been on my mind more than usual. Mom was my plant-love-companion and garden inspiration: she could grow anything from ornamentals to edibles, as well as wildflowers and other native plants. 

These particular plants are all old friends, familiar from the gardens Mom tended in the house where I grew up. Same with the lilacs and bush honeysuckle that dominate this yard's overgrown hedges. She would have loved the wild chokecherries threading through them too, gifts of visiting birds. 

Mom (Joan Tweit) in the middle between Dad (on the right) and Richard (Cabe) on the left, on a visit to Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. I must have done a booksigning there, because Richard is holding a box of my books. 

Finding these plants is like having Mom with me, cheering me on as I work to restore both yard and house. (Mom died in 2011, the same year as Richard; April 3rd would have been her 86th birthday.)

It feels like this place was just waiting for me to come home and adopt it. I'm so grateful I could and did. 


The brag? This week I learned that I'm a finalist for the 2017 Colorado Authors League Awards in not one, but two categories: Essay and Blog. 

It's an honor to be a finalist for these awards juried by professional writers. In my two decades of living in Colorado, I won three CAL Awards; whether or not I win this time, being a finalist is an especially sweet coda to my time in the state. 

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The Awards Banquet is May 5th, and I'll be there for one last celebration of award-worthy writing with my CAL friends and colleagues. 

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. 

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!


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.)

Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July

Small House Living: Tool Girl Redux

I live in a small house by choice. I like compact spaces and I like living simply. I also want to be comfortable, efficient with energy and materials, and happy in my space. And after living for almost 29 years with a sculptor who could and did design and build anything, I’m picky about details.

So even though my little house and its companion garage/studio were finished last year, I’m still completing a few projects. Today’s was a combination of design and whimsy.

Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July

My house faces south to harvest the sun’s heat in winter, so it’s sideways to the street with a tall blank wall on that side. Tom Pokorny, my inspired designer, specified a window in that wall. That window got nixed because of noise issues. Instead, we added a Craftsman-stye porch roof over a sandstone bench.

Only there was still too much blank wall. I decided it needed a faux window–my little joke, the window that’s not a window–and asked my glass guy, Steve Duhaime, another amazing designer, if he had any junky wood window frames lying around.

The faux window before painting. The faux window last August before painting

He did. I hauled home a shabby frame about six feet wide by three feet high, divided into three lights. I sanded it down, added brackets to reinforce joints long since warped in our dry climate, and screwed it to the wall above the bench. Then I painted it red to match the existing doors and windows.

Still, it needed something more. While I was inventing back-splashes of galvanized sheet steel for the galley kitchen in Treehouse, my studio, I realized what that something was: window boxes.

Not just any window boxes, mind you—ones that honored the industrial history of the place. I measured and thought, and then drew up plans for three simple galvanized sheet-steel window boxes.

Last September, I took the plans to Janet at Johnny Berndt & Sons, a local fabrication shop. “No rush,” I said. “Just ask Ken to make them when he has time.”

Window box interior with drain hole, and at top, the lip that they hang from on the frame. Window box interior with drain hole, and at top, the lip that they hang from.

She called last week to say they were ready. All they needed were drain holes. I drilled those this morning, and then fitted my glorious new window boxes on their faux window frame.

The window boxes, partly filled with wreath greens The window boxes, partly filled with wreath greens

It’s too early to plant, so I took apart the big wreath I had hung up for the winter holidays, and filled the boxes with its fragrant juniper and fir greenery.

I was so pleased with myself, and it was so warm in the sun against that wall that I took my lunch outside and ate on the sandstone bench under my new window boxes.

Window boxes in place and full of fragrant wreath greens Window boxes in place and full of fragrant wreath greens

I’ve thought a lot since having to learn power tools and carpentry in order to finish the big house about what it is that is so satisfying about acquiring this basic competence with building and designing. Every time I finish a project, no matter how simple, I am ridiculously pleased with myself, as if it’s a huge achievement.

The truth is, it is a huge achievement. I never so much as picked up a power tool before Richard died. He was so completely and elegantly competent at using tools, designing with wood, stone and steel, and building anything from a hand-operated crane to heft boulders to a whole house, that I never tried to learn. My efforts would have been painfully slow and clumsy by comparison.

Richard with "Matriculation," ready to load it on a trailer to install in the Steamplant Sculpture Garden Richard with “Matriculation,” a sculpture, and the hand-crane he invented and built

Nor did I grow up with that competence. My Norwegian granddad Olav, a mechanical engineer and the only one in my small family who could design and build, never considered teaching me to use his tools. And I, the good girl, never asked.

Now it’s just me, and while my efforts may be slow and clumsy, they work. That I can cut and mill lumber, work with steel, and design things like custom window boxes that actually look and function as I imagined is a huge source of pride for me. I didn’t know I could.

This “tool girl” work has expanded my sense of me, of possibilities. (Thank you, Susan Tomlinson, for the phrase and for your example!)

That sense of possibilities is what is so satisfying: there is more to me than I realized. I like knowing that.

Those window boxes and the red faux window make the wall friendly and make me smile.... Those window boxes and the red faux window make the wall a human scale and make me smile….

Living Generously: Pollinator Hotel for the “Little Guys”

One of my New Year resolutions is to “live generously.” Which to me means not just being generous with other humans, but doing my best to live in a way that is generous to “all my relations,” as my Indian friends say, the multitudes of other beings with whom we share this glorious blue planet.

My front yard prairie-in-development under new snow.... My front yard prairie-in-development under new snow….

One way to be generous is to provide welcoming habitat right around home. Hence my work to restoring the native bunchgrass prairie on the former industrial site where I live, instead of planting a lawn and rose bushes. (Lawns require too much water, chemicals, and grooming; rose bushes are simply deer candy.)

Pollinator "hotel" or nest box. Each of those holes accommodates a different size of native bee, beneficial wasp, or other pollinator. Pollinator “hotel” or nest box. Each of those holes accommodates a different size of native bee, beneficial wasp, or other pollinator.

So when my friends Maggie and Tony Niemann gave me a handmade pollinator hotel for Christmas, I was thrilled. I’ve always wanted to try one of these artistic ways to provide nest-burrows for the little critters that pollinate my flowers, eat pest insects, and generally make my yard a healthier place.

What is a pollinator hotel? This one is a box about the size and shape of a bluebird box, but instead of a front with a hole appropriately sized for a bluebird and a cavity inside, it has no front, and the cavity is filled with tubes of various sizes, made of various different materials.

A close-up of nest tubes of different diameters in different materials: drilled into dowels and pieces of scrap wood--nothing toxic, plus naturally hollow stems of sunflowers, reeds and bamboo; and that lovely galvanized star! A close-up of nest tubes of different diameters in different materials: drilled into dowels and pieces of scrap wood–nothing toxic, plus naturally hollow stems of sunflowers, reeds and bamboo; and that lovely galvanized star!

(Since Tony and Maggie are artistic, it also has cool tin star decorations, both on the front and on the sides. And even its own tin roof up top.)

So there you have it: one way to live generously and welcome some of the littlest of our relations here on earth is to build them a hotel. This one will get hung up on the east wall of the garage, near the restored willow thicket along the creek, where it’ll get morning sun, but not hot afternoon sun. (Thanks, Maggie and Tony.)

Happy New Year to the little guys, and to us all!

Native bee collecting pollen from a blanketflower Native bee collecting pollen from a blanketflower. (By pollinating the flower, it ensures seeds that will feed the goldfinches, juncos and other seed-eating songbirds. So housing pollinators also feeds songbirds, an example of natural generosity.)

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

Plant Therapy, or Working with Wildflowers

My front and side yard "wildscapes," mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress. My front and side yard “wildscapes,” mountain prairie restoration projects-in-progress.

I exhausted myself this weekend engaging in plant therapy. That’s a good thing.

I worked on all three of my personal urban habitat restoration projects: Monarch Spur Park, the pocket park at the other end of my block; Ditch Creek; and my own yard, formerly a dump site which I am returning to high-desert prairie dotted with wildflowers and native shrubs.

Pulling tumbleweed and kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat Pulling tumbleweed and Kochia from the mountain prairie along Ditch Creek. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman, Hometown Habitat

Whenever I’m worn down emotionally or the level in my creative well ebbs, I head outside and tend my wild “gardens.” Working with plants–especially the wildflowers, grasses and shrubs native to this very place–restores my spirits and my balance.

A growing body of research confirms that simply being out-of-doors is healthy. Physical effects of what researchers call “nature exposure” include lowered blood pressure and heart rate and increased cardiovascular health, plus improved ability to heal and less pain.

Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show its crimson color. Native golden currant along Ditch Creek beginning to show crimson. Just the color makes me smile!

Time outdoors, in the more natural the setting the better, also helps increase our ability to concentrate and focus, and thus to learn. (Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that time in nature can be as therapeutic for kids with ADHD as popular behavioral medications–without the side effects.)

And as anyone who has ever gone out for a long walk and come back having solved a problem or feeling like a weight has been lifted from their soul can testify, time in nature improves our emotional and spiritual well-being.

Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York) Do those hikers look happy and mellow, or what? (Richard and me at Bandelier Nat. Monument. Photo: Sherrie York)

I’m in the midst of an intense and draining revision of my memoir, Bless the Birds. By the end of each week, I feel like the story has taken all I have, and then some.

Hence my need to get outside on the weekends and immerse myself in plant therapy. Give me a piece of ground that needs love, and a source of native plant seeds and seedlings (thanks, Ellen, for the latest batch!), and I’m good.

Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park. Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush and Showy Fleabane in Monarch Spur Park.

Yesterday, working with a small but enthusiastic crew on fall clean-up in Monarch Spur Park, I was thrilled to yank out a patch of tumbleweed and discover the first Indian Paintbrush to seed itself into the park, once the junky vacant lot and now a demonstration garden for restoring pollinator and songbird habitat, and saving water.

(Thanks to Bev, Billy, Bonnie and Louise for the help weeding, digging and separating plants, and trimming the big cottonwood tree.)

Walking home along Ditch Creek and picking up trash along the way, I smiled as I heard the distinctive “Zee-zee-zee” calls of a flock of Cedar Waxwings gorging on chokecherries in a small tree that Richard and I planted 17 years ago as a tiny sapling. That chokecherry is now about ten feet tall and loaded with fruit, hence the waxwings feeding.

The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left. The chokecherry showing its burgundy fall leaves on the top left.

Today I worked in my own yard. I planted some native perennials I bought on sale at a local nursery (planting in my “soil” is good physical exercise, involving wielding a mattock to hack out the rocks) and pulled weeds from my fledgling mountain prairie.

As I worked, I noticed wildflowers I hadn’t realized were still blooming and heard hummingbirds chatter as they sipped flower-nectar to fuel up for their long flight south.

Desert Four O'clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the "hellstrip" between the sidewalk and street. Desert Four O’clock (Mirabilis multiflora) blooming in the “hellstrip” between the sidewalk and street.

Neighbors stopped to chat and admire the yard. A flock of Canada Geese flew overhead in a ragged V, honking back and forth.

By the time I finished, and cleaned up my tools and me, I was worn out. But I was smiling. Restoring my patch of earth restores me too.

Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie. Showy Goldeneye (Viguiera multiflora) blooming in my front yard prairie.

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat."

Hometown Habitat

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat." Calliope hummingbird perched in my own “hometown habitat.”

I spent the weekend working with Catherine Zimmerman and Rick Patterson, the visionary filmmakers behind the Hometown Habitat film project.

Hometown Habitat aims to tell the story of people all around the country who are using native plants to reweave the community of nature, healing the places where we live, work, and play by restoring habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators and songbirds, those little guys who run the world, to paraphrase EO Wilson.

Why care about native plants and landscaping?

Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn't a native plant, but the others are). Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn’t a native plant, but the others are).

Because as Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home points out, native plants are the ones that sustain native insects (monarch butterflies, for instance, have vanished from huge swaths of the Midwest because industrial agriculture has eliminated their food source, native milkweeds).

Without native insects, we will have many fewer pollinators and drastically fewer songbirds, since songbirds need insects to feed their young. Fewer pollinators means less food for us to eat; fewer songbirds means a true silent spring, no morning chorus of birdsong at all.

A world without birdsong and butterflies is not a world I want to pass on.

The mission of the Habitat Hero project. The mission of the Habitat Hero project.

Restoring habitat at home is also the message of Be A Habitat Hero, the project I’ve been working with. So last week, the Hometown Habitat crew drove to Colorado to film Habitat Hero gardens and their passionate gardeners along the Front Range from Fort Collins to the Pueblo area, and even to Salida.

Me in my film studio living room. Me on film in my living room. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

Hence my weekend in film, which included having my living room turned into a studio complete with lights and cables snaking every which where to connect with the camera and sound equipment. (I was so mesmerized by the hour-long setup process that I didn’t even think to take a picture.)

The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek. The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek.

Yesterday morning, Catherine and Rick followed me along “my” block of Salida’s Ditch Creek while I spent a sweaty hour yanking out invasive weeds and talking about the native plants Richard and I nurtured along the creek, plants that have restored a vibrant natural community in the midst of busy streets and asphalt parking lots.

In the afternoon, they set up at Salida High School to film the Wildscape workshop I taught, co-sponsored by GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association and the Habitat Hero project. Catherine and Rick even followed us back to the creek for the field trip.

I felt like a film star when it was all over, assuming film stars end their days hot, sweaty and exhausted, with no voice left!

Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

I don’t expect a big part in the final film: I know that to find the story, you shoot hours of film from which you extract maybe two minutes. I am simply honored to participate in an inspiring chronicle of a grassroots native plant movement (pun intended) that is contributing to the beauty and health of our landscapes, urban and wild, and to our own wellness.

Which brings me back to the why we should care question. As I was writing this post, I thought about Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of a young Black man who was just beginning to find his way in life.

In view of Michael Brown’s death and our collective responsibility to all young Black men and in fact to young ones everywhere, why care about native plants and nature?

Because the health of our environment is inseparable from our individual and collective health–physical, mental and spiritual. Because to create a just and generous society takes each of us working in our own way.

Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek. Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek.

My way is to heal nature in my own neighborhood, with the aim that its beauty and wellness will ripple outward to make this whole world a nurturing and welcoming place. For all.

The first wave of rain goes by....

Thunderstorms and Hummingbird Habitat

The first wave of rain goes by.... The first wave of rain goes by….

At about five-thirty this evening, a thunderstorm “walked” slowly down the valley on “legs of lightning,” as the Navajo say. Jagged flashes struck the hills above town. Thunder boomed.

The rain started hard and went gentle for a while. The wind spun around from northwest to southwest, the rain began to pound down again.

It's pouring now, and the wind is gusting hard. It’s pouring now, and the wind is gusting hard.

By the time the storm finally walked itself down the canyon about 50 minutes later accompanied by thunder’s tympani, the air temperature had plummeted from 80 degrees F to 52 degrees.

The spash zone and dry streambed, wet but not flooding. The spash zone and dry streambed, wet but not flooding.

The gutters dripped, my dry stream bed carried the water safely down the slope without eroding gullies just the way it was supposed to, and nothing seemed to have suffered from the gusts and pounding rain.

Except the hummingbirds. They were so desperate to tank up on the high-calorie food they need to survive the cold and wet that they began competing for the hummingbird feeder before the rain even stopped.

The air-space around the feeder vibrated with zooming bodies, accompanied by a cacophony of trilling and chattering as hummers jockeyed for the nectar.

hummingbird habitat One wet and fluffed up little hummer, a female Broad-tail I think from the buffy flanks, feeding from the Agastache (the variety is ‘Acapulco Sunset’).

As I watched the aerial dogfights and chases, I noticed two hummingbirds quietly hovering near the pollinator container garden—two large pots planted with nectar-bearing flowers—at the entrance to the deck, just steps from the feeder.

While a gorgeous cinnamon male Rufous Hummingbird and a brilliant emerald green male Broad-tailed Hummingbird (they of the trilling wings) battled it out over the feeder, these two hummers silently worked their way from flower to flower of the Agastache in the container garden, sucking nectar.

Calliope hummingbird, hummingbird habitat This is much easier than hovering….

After the larger of the two zoomed away, the smaller one quit hovering and simply perched on the wire grid railing right next to the spikes of Agastache flowers, sticking his or her short, slender beak right into the nearest flower to sip nectar.

For the next ten minutes the little one fed while perched, checking out each flower within reach, while about five male hummingbirds competed for the feeder, sometimes zipping within a foot of her or his perch.

hummingbird habitat Watching the dogfights….

The little one watched them, and moved from perch to perch around the flower spikes, but didn’t leave its easy nectar source—ideal hummingbird habitat.

The bird’s throat had the very light striping typical of young born that summer. Its diminutive size, short bill, squared-off tail and behavior—perching while feeding—is a clue to the species as well.

hummingbird habitat If I can just get my tongue in far enough….

I’m pretty sure it was Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest of the four hummingbird species that pass through the south-central Rockies in summer. Calliopes stretch just three-and-a-quarter inches long, weigh a single ounce, and fly all the way to Central Mexico for the winter!

I’ve watched adult male Calliopes with their distinctive striped red gorget perch right next to a flower to feed instead of hovering. I’ve never seen any of the bigger hummer species behave that way.

The little Calliope reminded me of why I plant a variety of nectar-bearing plants that attract hummingbirds: when there’s a crowd, not everyone can compete for the feeder.

Calliope hummingbird habitat Ah…. Just the energy I needed!

She or he also reminded me of how little it takes to provide hummingbird habitat: one single Agastache plant in a pot on the deck gave the little one plenty of nectar. I’m glad the flowers were there to help this little one survive the storm.

I hope this Calliope survives migration and returns next summer to perch on my deck railing and drink from the flowers I plant for just this reason in the big blue-glazed pot on my front deck.

hummingbird habitat, container pollilnator garden My pollinator container garden earlier this summer–just three pots on a deck provide useful habitat.

A rainbow stretches over Salida and the Arkansas Hills at sunset after a late-summer shower.

Dirtwork: Dry Stream Engineering

A rainbow stretches over Salida and the Arkansas Hills at sunset after a late-summer shower. A rainbow stretches over Salida and the Arkansas Hills at sunset after a late-summer shower.

Here in the high-desert country of the Southern Rockies, we’ve gone from drought to deluge. Since July 10th, we’ve received 3.5 inches of rain, more than a third of or “normal” annual total, and more than we got the entire first six months of the year (2.65 inches).

Which is why I’m back to dirtwork, modifying my usually dry stream drainage to handle torrential runoff from my two small roofs so it doesn’t wash out my sloping lot and pour sediment into Ditch Creek.

Backing carefully.... Backing carefully….

And why on Thursday morning, a big blue dump truck backed down my drive to deliver three tons of mostly granite river rock, navigating carefully around Ruby’s Cottonwood, the tree Richard and I planted as a sapling 16 years ago in memory of his great-aunt Ruby. I figured three tons would last me a while.

Dumping.... Dumping…. (That’s my shadow on the lower right, shooting the photo from the Treehouse deck.)

It might have. Only I got sucked in.

At about four o’clock Thursday afternoon after I finished my day’s target of memoir-revision, I went outside to admire the pile, and said to myself, “I’ll just lay a few rocks.”

Two tons of rain-washed river rock. The remaining two tons of rain-washed river rock after Thursday’s storm.

Uh huh.

By six-thirty, when the rumbling thunder and spatters of rain drove me indoors, the pile was reduced by a third. I had moved and placed a literal ton of rock. (Did I mention that I love the puzzle of piecing river rock into a “pavement” on the ground?)

My neck and shoulders could feel that ton. But I was glad I had almost finished the first part of the splash zone in the narrow yard behind Treehouse, my garage-studio, because in a few minutes those splashing drops turned into a torrential storm that dropped half-an-inch of rain in just 15 minutes.

A torrent of rain gushing from the roof of the grocery store across the creek during the downpour. A torrent of rain gushing from the roof of the grocery store across the creek.

That may not sound like much rain, but when it comes down that fast, it doesn’t sink in unless there’s something to slow it down, like that river-rock pavement.

(Treehouse’s shed roof lacks gutters: I don’t want to concentrate the runoff from the 380-square-foot roof in one spot on my narrow, sloping lot. It’s better to disperse the runoff over a larger area; doing that successfully requires a little stream engineering—and a lot of rock.)

Cobbles "pave" the splash zone under the second-story roof of Treehouse. Cobbles “pave” the splash zone under the second-story roof of Treehouse, part of the dry stream  system.

Today I dug out the lower retention basin on my dry stream drainage, and moved and laid almost another ton of rock. Next weekend, I’ll work my way “downstream” on the drainage, using cobbles to line the stream bed and stabilize the banks.

Richard chisels the excess from a one-ton granite boulder. Richard chisels the excess from a one-ton granite boulder.

While soaking my sore muscles in the bath, I thought about Richard and how we shared a love of rocks, especially the hard, heavy kind like granite and related crystalline rocks.

Another thing we shared that I hadn’t realized before starting on my stream engineering project is a love of design and engineering. Only while he loved to invent tools and machines and things, I do my engineering with plants and dirt and water and rocks.

Looking out of the living room window at the native dryland meadow and dry stream drainage between Treehouse and Creek House. The native dryland meadow and dry stream drainage between Treehouse and Creek House.

Working with the drainage from my landscape indulges that inner fluvial engineer in a very satisfying way.

After today’s hot and sweaty but very satisfying session, I know that three tons of river rock wasn’t enough. I should have gotten two more….