The wide-open San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range on the left, on the road to Durango.

Home (Briefly)

The wide-open San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range on the left, on the road to Durango. The wide-open San Luis Valley with the Sangre de Cristo Range on the left.

I’ve been on the road teaching and speaking so much this spring that I sometimes forget what is next.

Last week’s trip was to Durango, Colorado, to give a talk and teach a workshop for the Durango Botanical Society, an all-volunteer group that not only has established a lovely garden at the Durango Public Library showcasing plants native and adapted to the Four Corners Region, the group also offers an amazing range of programs and aims to establish educational gardens throughout the area.

Going over Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains (that's an avalanche shed ahead). Going over Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains (that’s an avalanche shed ahead).

I drove to Durango Thursday morning (200 miles and four hours), did a quick interview for Inside Durango TV at the garden, spoke to a welcoming and receptive audience Thursday night, taught a “Field Notes” creative writing workshop to a smaller but no less interesting and interested group Friday morning, and then drove the 200 miles and four hours home.

Speaking about "Plant Magic," how plants are key to restoring the everyday landscapes where we live, play and work. Speaking about “Plant Magic,” how plants are key to restoring the everyday landscapes where we live, play and work.

I stayed with friends Doris and Bill (and their sweet pound-pup, Maya). They once lived nearby and joined Richard and me once a month for Buddhist/Quaker worship; in fact, they were with us when he died. Spending time with them counts as one of the unexpected blessings of my too-full travel schedule this spring.

Normally, I savor road trips for the time to watch the landscape go by, to parse the patterns that plants, animals and humans draw on the skin of the earth, and to let my thoughts run as wide as the western skies.

Historic ranch above Pagosa Springs. Not the pattern: meadows in the valley bottom on glacial soil, forest on the volcanic layers of the mountainsides. Historic ranch above Pagosa Springs. Note the pattern on the landscape: meadows in the valley bottom on glacial soil, forest on the volcanic layers of the mountainsides.

But when the road-trips come every week or nearly every week, they begin to blur. By the time I topped Poncha Pass Friday night half an hour from home, I was exhausted.

I’ve been home two days; I have two more to prepare for the next teaching trip. I’ve made the most of the time.

New plants with their nursery tags, and new plants sprouting from the native meadow seed mix. Tags identify the new plants in my front-yard habitat-restoration project.

Yesterday was my day to plant the next batch of vines, shrubs, native grasses and perennial wildflowers for my front-yard pollinator/songbird habitat restoration project. I renewed my acquaintance with the mattock while prying 39 holes in my stony soil and then carefully planted an equal number of plants. After which, I soaked my aching shoulders and back in the bathtub.

Red insulating "teepees" protect the newly planted tomatoes in my stock-tank kitchen garden. Red insulating “teepees” protect newly planted tomatoes in my stock-tank kitchen garden.

Today was take-care-of-household-chores, including mundane stuff like paying bills, plus finally planting the tomato, basil and oriental eggplant starts I’ve babied inside since March.

I cope with my crazy travel schedule by focusing on the current work trip and ignoring what comes next. But I don’t forget to revel in being home, no matter how short the stay.

Which is why when I finished the accounts, planting the kitchen garden, watering, spraying deer repellent, and a work phone call, I went out on my almost-finished front deck and just stood there enjoying the beauty of a May day: no wind, birds singing lustily, the sweet smell of chokecherry blossoms wafting through the air….

Ditch Creek, running again after two dry months. Ditch Creek, running again after two dry months.

And under the town sounds of passing cars, bikes whizzing by on the trail, a siren wailing, and dogs barking, I heard something else. And smiled: the little urban creek I have worked for the last 17 years to restore to health is chuckling again.

I am home. Alone, struggling a little to manage on my own, but grateful to be here and to hear the creek’s voice.

(Listen by clicking the “play” arrow below and I bet you’ll smile too.)

Sand cherry, our earliest-blooming native shrub, along the creek that borders my formerly industrial lot.

Speaking for the Plants

Sand cherry, our earliest-blooming native shrub, along the creek that borders my formerly industrial lot. Sand cherry, our earliest-blooming native shrub, along the creek that borders my formerly industrial lot.

I usually post on this blog on Sunday evenings, between the weekend and the work week. My weekends aren’t exactly restful—I’m either on the road teaching workshops or at home tending to house-finishing and landscape restoration. Still, switching gears between weekend work and week-day work offers space to reflect.

Reflection is the point of this blog. In particular, reflection on life, both “life” as in this existence, and “life” as in the glorious range of living beings with whom we share this planet.

My well-used mattock, prying out a small but quite resistant cobble to level a bed for a flagstone. My well-used mattock, prying out a small but quite resistant rock to level a bed for a flagstone.

I had planned to write about the latter, specifically about the pollinator garden and rock garden I’m planting in my formerly bare front yard. Only I was a little too enthusiastic about that planting on Saturday, especially the mattock work. I laid a flagstone path and planted 49 shrubs, native grasses, and perennial wildflowers, in the process grubbing up enough rocks to get a good start on the rock “pavement” in one garden.

My mattox and spade relaxing after planting 33 perennials in a pollinator garden. My mattock and spade relaxing after planting 33 perennials in a pollinator garden.

Sunday I recovered enough to remember a deadline I had forgotten. I spent my shifting-gears space writing about deer and drought for a national blog-zine I contribute to, instead of writing for this blog.

No problem, I thought, I’ll write a blog post Monday evening. Only that afternoon I remembered I was registered for a Creative Mondays evening class, part of a series the City of Salida offers for our Creative District.

Is this sounding like procrastination? Could be.

Regardless, I went for a run after work and then headed to the workshop, “Creative Hustle,” taught by Susan Lander, a consultant to non-profits, and McCarson Jones, a photographer. I’m not sure what I was expecting.

What I found was a new understanding of what compels me to do this odd combination of work: writing and urban habitat restoration.

Restored mountain prairie "unlawn" on a former industrial property. Restored mountain prairie “unlawn” on a former industrial property.

It’s pretty simple: I love this numinous blue planet and all the lives on it, especially the plants, the rooted beings which sustain us all. I believe we can each make a difference, and that love is the life-saving gift our species brings to the community of this earth. My way of expressing that love is through writing and through teaching others how to restore our patch of earth and our relationship with it right at home where we live, work and play.

That realization reminded me of an interview I did years ago with Billy Frank, Jr., leader of the Nisqually Tribe in Washington State. Speaking about his work as an activist for Indian fishing rights, as well as the rights of the salmon they fish for, the salmon whose health reflects the health of the land and waters, he said,

I speak for the salmon–he is out there, swimming around; he cannot come in here and speak to you about these things. So he sent me here to speak to you. I speak for the salmon. And people listen.

(Billy Frank, Jr., died yesterday, May 5th, 2014, in Nisqually, Washington. He was 83.)

Ditch Creek, vibrant and sparkling after a decade of restoration work. Ditch Creek, vibrant and sparkling after a decade of restoration work.

Who do I speak for? Our home: Earth and all its lives, especially our often-overlooked plant neighbors, especially the native species, whose relationships with pollinators and songbirds can heal. We are all in this together, all dependent on the web of living beings—from microbes to humans and whales—with whom we share this Earth.

Many voices, many stories to tell. And each of them part of the fabric that sustains our lives too.

Golden currant (Ribes auereum), a native shrub that blooms early, produces berries birds love, and turns orange to crimson and fall.

Easter/Earth Day Dirt Work

Golden currant (Ribes auereum), a native shrub that blooms early, produces berries birds love, and turns orange to crimson and fall. Golden currant (Ribes aureum), an early blooming native shrub that produces berries birds love, and turns orange to crimson in fall.

Happy Easter& Earth Day! I celebrated with dirt work. Specifically, making progress on transforming the once junky industrial parcel that is my new yard into a wildscape, habitat for pollinators and songbirds, as well as a beautiful and nurturing place for people.

It’s early yet to do much planting—our last average frost date is Mother’s Day—but the native sand cherry and golden currant that Richard and I planted along the creek are in bloom, much to the delight of early flying butterflies and bees.

Sand cherry flowers abuzz with native bees and one early-flying painted lady butterfly. Sand cherry flowers abuzz with bees and one painted lady butterfly.

Their flowers let me know it’s time to plant other native shrubs in the yard, along with the dwarf conifers I’m using as the backbone of a small rock garden. (Lauren Springer Ogden‘s photos of the dwarf conifers in her rock garden in the  Wildscape 101 workshops we presented together this spring inspired me.)

Picea pungens 'Mesa Verde' in front and 'Procumbens', the bluer one, in back, with a Physocarpus 'Summer Wine' not leafed out on the left. (Physocarpus is a native shrub with flower clusters like spirea, crinkly leaves and lovely peeling bark for winter interest. Picea pungens ‘Mesa Verde’ in front and ‘procumbens’, the bluer one, in back, with a Physocarpus ‘Summer Wine,’ a spirea-like native shrub, not leafed out on the left.

I started with the dwarf conifers, since they required the biggest holes and thus, the most effort. (I didn’t shoot any photos when I was digging with my heavy mattock and grubbing out those rocks around the plants. I was too busy sweating.)

Teucrinum, a succulent, astragalus and other rock garden plants wait their turn to be planted. Teucrinum, Astragalus and other rock garden plants wait their turn to be planted.

In another few weeks, I’ll fill in around the dwarf conifers with the creeping Teucrinum and other rock garden plants I bought at Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery in Pueblo. They’re currently basking on the plant shelf in the workshop off my garage.

Once I had the dwarf conifers and Physocarpus (ninebark) in the ground, I planted the other shrubs I have on hand: three shrubby cinquefoils and a currant a friend dug up and potted for me last fall (thanks, Ellen!), plus a big sagebrush I got at Bradys West where I bought the dwarf spruces and the Physocarpus.

Big sagebrush, the fragrance of home for me, newly planted in my side yard meadow-to-be. Big sagebrush, the fragrance of home for me, newly planted in my side yard meadow-to-be.

After digging eight holes (two of them large enough to plant trees—those dwarf spruces may be short, but their root balls are big!), I decided to take it a bit easier for the rest of the weekend.

The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM. The 20th annual Border Book Festival opens next week in Las Cruces, NM.

Wednesday, I head south to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the Border Book Festival, which novelist and playwright Denise Chávez and I started an astonishing twenty years ago.

I am not looking forward to the drive, although I am looking forward to seeing La Denise and other friends from our years in Las Cruces.

I dislocated my collarbone last year doing the finish work on Terraphilia, my old house. Thanks to weeks of physical therapy, it’s finally healed well enough that I can wield a mattock without pain, but I cannot drive without pain. I have to stop every hour or so and do my PT exercises, and I can’t go far in a day. It’s going to be a slow trip.

Scarlet Bugler, my favorite native red penstemon--a hummingbird magnet. Scarlet Bugler, a native red penstemon and hummingbird magnet

When I get home from Las Cruces, I will rest and write. Come the next weekend, I’ll head back into the yard for more dirt work, restoring life and the hope that springs from its blooming, singing, pulsing energy to this once-abused piece of earth. To me, that’s the spirit of Easter and Earth Day.

The High Plains west of Pueblo with Pikes Peak under storm clouds in the background (that's true shortgrass prairie, buffalograss with a cholla "overstory").

Spring Signs

The High Plains west of Pueblo with Pikes Peak under storm clouds in the background (that's true shortgrass prairie, buffalograss with a cholla "overstory"). The High Plains west of Pueblo with Pikes Peak under storm clouds in the background (that’s true shortgrass prairie, buffalograss with a sparse cholla “overstory”).

I drove home last night into a howling winter wind, tacking upwind over the edge of the high plains from Pueblo, and then winding into the wind through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, “swimming” upstream through the waves of air to my home valley.

I had spent the day at the Western Landscape Symposium, absorbing talks on all things gardening in our beautiful but challenging high-desert/plains steppe region.

Panayoti Kelaidis, Curator of Plants for the Denver Botanic Gardens and one of our region’s “plant gods,” opened the symposium with a look at the diverse forms and environments we in southern Colorado have to draw on, and stressed the importance of evoking nature and wildness as inspiration.

That's Gluttonous in the photo, a newly emerged eastern Black Swallowtail who starred in an essay I wrote for Thoreau's Legacy, an anthology responding to global warming. That’s Gluttonous, an eastern Black Swallowtail, who grew up in my former kitchen garden.

Which was a wonderful segue to my talk (thanks, Panayoti!), Learning Community in the Garden, on the ways plants experience the world and the relationships they form with microbes in the soil, pollinators and grazers around them, and how gardeners can build on that web plants weave to grow and design beautiful and restorative landscapes.

Inspiration and lessons from my own formerly blighted industrial property. Inspiration and lessons from my own place.

I mentioned the Habitat Hero project and our vision of growing a network of habitat to sustain songbirds and pollinators in yards, gardens, parks and working lands throughout the Rocky Mountain region and beyond.

The audience was enthusiastic and full of questions. People stopped me afterwards to say how inspired they were. Sweet!

I also got to hang out with two of the region’s stellar native plant growers, Bill Adams of Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery, and Jeff Otterberg of Wild Things.

A tour of Jeff’s greenhouses had me itching to take plants home—those rows of tiny penstemons, desert four o’clocks, desert zinnia, and other wildflowers, and the round and spiny cacti of all sorts were all tempting. I was so busy ogling his 30,000 baby plants, I forgot to shoot any photos.

Van Clothier, New Mexico’s guru of stream restoration and water harvesting, showed great photos of projects to restore natural wetlands and capture storm water runoff, solving erosion and sedimentation issues while recharging groundwater. (The slide show on his site is worth a look.)

We also heard from garden photographer and journalist Charles Mann, fruit tree and shrub propagator Scott Skogerboe of Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery, and edibles enthusiast and horticultural entomologist Carol O’Meara.

Heading up the canyon in the wind last night.... Heading up the canyon in the wind last night….

After the symposium, I left Pueblo eager for spring, despite the weather.

Which is why I spent time today searching for spring signs in my bare, brown and wind-blasted landscape. The gusts that scoured the remaining snow from my side yard also scoured away the protective mulch, and I’m afraid, the native grass and wildflower seeds I spread last fall.

Wildflower seedlings! Wildflower seedlings!

In the courtyard on the west side of the house though, the mulch is still intact. I poked under the tangle, and was thrilled to see tiny wildflower cotyledons poking up. I can’t identify them yet, but I know they’re not tumbleweed or kochia, the invasive annual weeds that colonized the site before.

Flower buds--a bit frost-nipped--on the Indian plum Flower buds–a bit frost-nipped–on the Indian plum

Along the creek (dry right now due to our late-winter drought), buds are swelling on the skunkbrush sumac (Rhus trilobata) and Indian plum (Prunus americana).

The reddish pigment on these new golden currant (Ribes aureum) leaves probably protects them from UV damage. The reddish pigment on these new golden currant leaves probably protects them from UV damage.

And the golden currant (Ribes aureum) is putting out tiny reddish leaves.

Those signs of spring are heartening, reminding me that the plants that have known this landscape for millennia are tough and resilient. Their buds and tiny leaves lift my spirits, a sign that life thrives through hard times as well as good ones.

And brings with it beauty and joy—ours if we take the time to look.

From my Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide Remembering why we garden….

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

Habitat Hero Road-Trip

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow. Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

In the past four days, I’ve logged 900 road-miles (about half driving myself, half carpooling) in conditions including high wind and blowing snow, drizzle, pouring rain, wet snow so heavy it impaired visibility, and balmy springlike temperatures.

That’s spring–or almost spring–in the Rockies.

March snow makes for interesting driving.... March snow makes for interesting driving….

This particular road-trip took me to Casper, Wyoming, an 8.5 hour drive each way for me, and a 4-plus-hour drive for my traveling companions, renowned plantswoman and garden author Lauren Springer Ogden and passionate wildscaper Connie Holsinger, whose Terra Foundation funds the Be a Habitat Hero project.

At Habitat Hero, we say we’re a small staff with a big dream: restoring a network of habitat in yards and neighborhoods throughout the Rocky Mountain region to sustain songbirds and pollinators.

Our mission this trip: teach a two-hour Wildscape 101 workshop to an audience brought together by the Natrona County Office of the University of Wyoming Extension, and Audubon Rockies.

Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper

The workshop attracted some 85 attendees, including a whole class of trainees for the Master Gardener program. The group was attentive and interested, had great questions, and lined up to buy books and chat afterwards.

We shared lunch with Natrona County Extension Horticulturist (and Habitat Hero Awardee) Donna Cuin and the Master Gardener trainees before hitting the long road home.

And was it a long road–both ways. I had imagined a two-day trip: Leave Salida on Friday morning, drive 3.5 hours to Connie’s house east of Boulder and ride with Connie to pick up Lauren in Fort Collins. From there, the three of us would carpool north to Casper. We’d teach the workshop Saturday morning and then do the drive in reverse, with me arriving home that night.

Only my solo leg of the drive goes over three mountain passes, all higher than 10,000 feet elevation, and across the windswept expanses of South Park. On Wednesday night, the Weather Service predicted high winds and blizzard conditions for South Park on Friday.

Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park. Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park.

So I left Thursday afternoon, figuring I’d reach Denver ahead of the storm. I didn’t quite make it across South Park before the wind and snow, but I did make it to Denver that night.

Friday morning dawned drizzly, turned to showers and then to heavy, wet snow. When Connie and I reached Fort Collins, we switched to Lauren’s 4-wd Honda.

On the long drive north through eastern Wyoming’s wide-open shortgrass prairie and breaks with their fringes of juniper and ponderosa forest, the snow gradually lessened and the temperature rose (go figure!). By the time we reached Casper Friday evening, the clouds were receding.

Saturday dawned sunny and calm. When we left the Natrona County Fairgrounds that afternoon, it felt like spring–in Wyoming (the snow was melting into puddles).

Crocus blooming in Lauren's south-facing succulent and cactus garden Crocus blooming in Lauren’s south-facing succulent and cactus garden.

By the time we reached Fort Collins and Lauren’s house late in the afternoon, it was so balmy that she gave us a quick tour of her gardens.

My plan to head on home that night lasted until I checked the road report: high wind and blowing snow in South Park. It would be dark by the time I got to that stretch or road. Not good.

South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow. South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow.

So I stayed the night. By the time I topped Kenosha Pass and dropped into South Park this morning, the wind had quit and the sun had mostly dried the pavement. A foot of new snow blanketed the high country; my car thermometer read 8 degrees F.

At home though (3,000 feet elevation lower), it was 55 degrees and sunny. After I unpacked the car, I put in a few hours on own habitat restoration project: spreading more wildflower and native grass seed in my dirt yard, newly watered by yesterday’s wet snow.

Roadbase yard between the house and the studio/garage. Dirt yard between the house and the studio/garage.

I’m eager to return this last piece of the abandoned industrial property Richard and I bought almost 17 years ago to health. It’s a symbol of my life in a way. The process takes time, patience and faith, but eventually, we’ll both bloom again.

Creek House from the south (the side facing the creek) in the evening sun.

Planting Seeds

Creek House from the south (the side facing the creek) in the evening sun. Creek House from the south (the side facing the creek) in the evening sun. (The street is to the right.)

Creek House, my new place, faces south to take advantage of the winter sun for heat. That puts it sideways to the street, a fact that challenged my designer, Tom Pokorny, and me in making the street-side “friendly” to passers-by.

Physical constraints of the lot, especially the location of the city sewer line, added considerably to that challenge.

Instead of being under the street on the downhill side of the lot, the closest sewer line is in the alley at the opposite end, 120 feet from the house–and uphill. Which meant the floor of the house (it’s slab on grade construction) had to be raised more than five feet above the lowest edge of the lot.

The street side of Creek House--definitely not pretty. Yet. The street side of Creek House–definitely not pretty. Yet.

That makes for steep street-side bank, and a tall, if small house.

Tom contributed details like windows and a small porch roof to break up what would otherwise have been blank walls.

Designing the landscaping is my area. I’ve had a couple of months to think about how to create an inviting, sustainable and useful street frontage.

My plan involves boulders (on the lower left in the photo are glacially rounded local boulders left from Richard’s overflow rockyard), terracing, paths, a small sitting area under the overhanging porch roof, and plants that will provide color in all seasons and habitat for songbirds and pollinators (without requiring much water or being attractive to Salida’s over-large population of mule deer).

The side yard from the back door stoop. The side yard from the back door stoop.

Before I can start on those plans, the front and side deck has to go in, and before that can happen, Treehouse, the garage with second-floor studio, has to be finished. While I wait (patiently, of course), I decided to get started on healing another part of my all-roadbase, all-disturbed-by-construction yard.

Just out my back door (which is currently my front door since I have no front entry deck, not that I’m impatient…) is a wedge-shaped piece of side yard with the widest end toward the street .

It slopes gently toward the street-side bank and is sheltered by the long north wall of the house. Unlike the creek side of the house, it has the potential to be relatively private. I envision a swath of dryland native meadow where I can sit among grasses and wildflowers to think and dream. As evinced by the photo above, it’s not that now.

The real Roadbase seed mix. Roadbase seed mix

On Saturday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours raking the roadbase to remove the larger rock fragments. (Roadbase is crushed native rock with some soil particles, and essentially no organic matter. Its name reflects what it’s used for, a stable base for roads and house foundations. It’s a good thing our native grassland plants are used to rooting in rocky, well-drained, nutrient poor soil.)

Then I scattered the seed mix I bought from my friends Alex and Suzanne of Western Native Seed, and hauled mulch from the pile on the street-side slope to cover the seeds. The mix is a custom blend of native bunchgrasses, wildflowers and a few shrubs that Alex developed for the original meadow restoration at Terraphilia, where the yard had been covered with four inches of roadbase and then compacted. At the time, none of us were sure native plants would grow there at all–hence the half-joking name of the seed mix–but I was determined.

Spreading mulch over the seeds. (The large windows are my office.) Spreading mulch over the seeds. (The large windows are my office.)

So were the wildflowers and grasses, apparently, because that meadow restoration project succeeded far beyond even my dreams.

That’s my hope for the side yard here at Creek House. I can imagine stepping out the back door and sitting amidst my wildflowers and native grasses with their hovering and fluttering pollinators. Just the thought makes me smile.

It feels good to get started on my new yard, the last piece of this formerly unloved industrial property to be restored. As I broadcast seed on Saturday, covered it with mulch, and then gave all those embryonic lives a good soaking drink, it occurred to me that I was seeding my new life too.

Roadbase Mix meadow at Terraphilia in summer Roadbase Mix meadow at Terraphilia in summer