Monday, July 27, 2009

Santa Fe Chronicles - The Journey Home

One of my favorite ways to pass the time when flying is taking pictures of the landscape below. That's why I love Southwest Airlines; their open seating policy allows me to choose my window carefully (heaven forbid I should be stuck over a wing!) This series was taken on my journey from Albuquerque, NM to San Jose, CA. The first shot above was shortly after takeoff, as we flew over the Rio Grande.

Rio Puerco is a feeder to the Rio Grande. I have photographed it several times, always amused by its crazy twists and turns! This is only a few minutes into the flight; the terrain changes fast!

At 30 thousand feet large trees become dots. What I find fascinating about aerial photography is seeing the affects of water and humans on the natural landscape. Few of my shots are without evidence of man (like the slim road above); none are without evidence of water.

What looks like snow is probably salt, chalk or lime deposits; your guess is as good as mine!

I liked seeing these lush green belts along the arroyos; this is monsoon season in the Southwest, i.e., as wet as it's going to get! Nature puts green in the proper places; a good lesson.

Amazing colors, and again, what interesting patterns water makes as it finds its way home.

Hmm, is that a river, or a road?

After a long stretch of cloud cover (dang!) the skies opened up to this amazing view of what my family calls 'Cumulo-clumpus' clouds!

Clouds are so cool!

New terrain (we're over Arizona now, that's about all I can tell you!)

The marks of man on the natural landscape sometimes make me think of scars...

Giant Centipedes!

I thought this shot was fascinating; the juxtaposition of the cultivated squares of farmland with the natural terrain reminds me of a collage.

As the sun gets lower, things really start to get interesting. Look at the elegant runoff patterns from these buttes. This may be southern Nevada, as we crossed the Sierras into California shortly afterward.

Final approach to home; the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a dense blanket of fog over the Pacific (probably NOT a good beach day!)

All of these pictures were taken with my trusty little Olympus point-and-shoot. If you've ever taken pictures through an airplane window, you know they usually look terrible. The secret to releasing beautiful images from sepia obscurity? Simply click Adjustments/Auto-Levels in Photoshop. That one click is the ONLY edit made to each of these photos. How much of a difference does it make? Remember 'Giant Centipedes' above? Here's what it looked like before:

Pretty amazing, huh? It's like finding buried treasure. What have you got buried, hmm?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Santa Fe Chronicles - Cool Ranch

Two years ago I was asked to help create the landscape for a custom home in the high desert northwest of downtown Santa Fe. It had just been completed, and there was literally nothing around it but a dirt clearing, littered with construction debris. The native desert vegetation: juniper, pinon, seasonal wild flowers, grasses, and a smattering of cacti, lay beyond.

Our challenge was to blend this new landscape with the existing terrain, while still giving the owners a sense of enclosure and personal cultivated space. We started with a thick layer of golden brown gravel around the house. This gave immediate relief from the dirt and dust, and provided a simple and inexpensive hardscape base to develop the garden around. We never drew any plans; everything was worked out on site with waving arms and sticks in the dirt, plus visits to nurseries and rockyards and lots of emails.

On our blank gravel slate we worked out the plant and materials palette. First came a low, meandering native stone wall along the edge of the clearing, separating wild from cultivated. This is where the gravel stops and nature begins. It has been interesting to see how plants have 'hopped the wall' in both directions; natives moving in and garden varieties moving out. This blurs the edge a little, which is nice.

The front entry, above, was first to be planted; it faced west and desperately needed to be softened and cooled by a green zone. The general contractor had already installed some Aspen and New Mexican Privet saplings, so we worked around them, adding low-growing conifers like Mugo Pine and Dwarf Blue Spruce. These are much appreciated for their evergreen structure in winter. We filled in with tough, sun-loving, low-water perennials such as lavender, russian sage, lamb's ears, yarrow, hummingbird mint, thyme and goldenrod.

The rest of the space around the home took shape slowly over the next year. Paths were formed, subtle grades were captured and enhanced with more stone, and the over-flat construction grade was returned to the more undulating form of the surrounding desert with gentle berms and large boulders. These structural elements guided the placement of plants, so that the open spacing of the surrounding desert was preserved in the garden as well.

I wish I could say that I was very scientific about plant selection, since this was my first project in Santa Fe, but I'll confess right here that I based my first round choices on what was available in good quality and quantity at Lowe's in June. I figured these were good backbone plants, and I was right. Having a wonderful resource like High Country Gardens nearby was such a delightful bonus; most of the remaining plants were hand-picked from their nursery, including some choice perennials and conifers.

This picture shows how the low walls were used to define the main living space, and also how some of the high-visibility areas outside the walls (in this case next to the motorcourt) were further detailed with stone and gravel to set off accent plants.

Another detail area; you can see how different colors of gravel were used to enhance plantings and define the space. The flat stone band also serves another purpose, as a 'super highway' for the owner's Corgi, whose feet get a little sore from chasing local critters on the gravel!

Perennials rule the show in this garden from May to October. These are some of the outstanding performers from the original plant palette. Above, a pale Achillea (yarrow) combined with Perovskia (russian sage) and dwarf English lavender looks great all season

Lavender also combines well with another New Mexico favorite, Agastache (hummingbird mint). I believe this variety is called
'Desert Sunrise.'

Did I mention that Buddleias do really well in New Mexico? These are a dwarf variety that make a colorful and fragrant hedge along this pathway. (Yes, honoring alternate spelling today!)

This simple stone patio, interplanted with creeping thyme, is one of my favorite details. I'd like to stress at this point that my contribution to this project was overall concept, plant/materials palette, ongoing advice and occasional great ideas. It was the creativity and ingenuity of the owners and their skilled craftsmen that created charming details such as these.

One thing I will take a lot of credit for, however, is the labyrinth. The goal for my second working visit was to figure out what to do with a large, open space outside of the master bedroom, which was also the main area viewed from the roof deck. Flying into Albuquerque I realized it would be a perfect spot for a labyrinth. We made a pilgrimage out to the one I had seen years earlier at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu (where Georgia O'Keefe lived, now a retreat center) and it was agreed that this was the best idea ever.

We quickly decided on the size, pattern and materials of the labyrinth, and were fortunate to discover a great resource for pre-printed labyrinth designs, The Labyrinth Company. The pattern is printed on weed cloth (you can see edges of it in the construction photo above) which made it infinitely easier to build. We chose the construction materials from a local rock yard: square flat cobbles paired on end for the 'lines' and a finer pea gravel for the walking paths. (See first picture for a closer view)

This is how the labyrinth looks today. The area around it was beautifully shaped into a natural plateau, and two large benches from Santa Fe Stone make this a popular gathering place. There's a nice page about the labyrinth on the Cool Ranch website describing what it means and how it is used.

Another construction shot, late fall 2007. This also gives you a better idea of how the rest of the landscape looked (please note supervising Corgi).

The same view today. A storm started rolling in as I was taking these pictures, (flower pics taken in full sun just moments before!) One of the things I love about New Mexico is the changing weather and the incredible skies; they are an important part of this garden as well.

Thunder in the distance, rain approaching. I like how the once-modest planting of Agastache has gotten a little out of hand this year (where's the center stone?) It will be gone soon enough. Winter in Santa Fe is long; this year they had snow as late as June.

Oh, and did I mention we included hidden rope lighting in the labyrinth? I'd love to see what this looks like from a satellite! The different kinds of structure we created for this garden, like the sculptural shapes of the gnarled pinon and juniper in the surrounding desert, give it form and grace in winter as well.

Thank you for joining me on what may have been my farewell visit to Cool Ranch; it is now on the market and may soon be sold. If you know of anyone who would love to live in this magical place, please pass this along!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Santa Fe Chronicles - Canyon Road

On the east side of Santa Fe you'll find Canyon Road, a narrow, winding lane that is home to some of the finest art galleries and restaurants in town. Many of the buildings were once private residences, and the lovely gardens that grace the street make this a must-see for art lovers and gardeners alike. Indeed, as you can see in the photo above, the art and the gardens play quite well together!

Canyon Road is an eclectic mix, to be sure. Here a folk art gallery makes a bright splash. I was particularly impressed with the lavish fall of Polygonum on the wall; commonly called Silver Lace Vine, it is an incredibly vigorous thug in California, and for that reason I never plant it. But I appreciate it here, and Santa Fe's long, cold winters keep it (somewhat) in check!

Santa Fe is high desert (elevation 6500') and has a fairly short growing season. June is peak time for spring wildflowers, July brings the spectacular summer perennials, and by September it feels like fall. Here pink phlox, orange daylilies and white Shasta daisies mingle beautifully with the soft foliage of annual cosmos in a large cottage garden-style bed; the colorful gallery sign is a work of art in itself!

Just over an adobe wall was this elegant sculpture garden; the refined plant palette of native juniper and pine, purple Smoke Bush and variegated Miscanthus around a pocket lawn makes a cool refuge on hot days. The pink splash of hardy geranium is a perfect accent.

On the other side of the perennial bed pictured earlier you'll find this rustic bench and trough planter; a perfect spot for us flower-loving lowlanders to catch our breath!

What an inspired choice to plant in front of this gallery; I wonder which came first, the clematis or the sign color?

No report on Santa Fe gardens would be complete without Hollyhocks and Sunflowers! I'm so envious; the leaves on my hollyhocks always look rather leperous by the time they bloom! They must appreciate the low humidity here. The little volunteer sunflower growing in the gravel strip is just the kind of touch I like.

I have confessed to not caring much for daylilies, but this simple bed might have converted me...

I love the way this whimsical wall encorporates the remains of a previous resident, although can't help but wonder if the wall was the reason for the tree's demise? Lovely lavender Perovskia (Russian Sage) is a lot tougher than it looks; it blooms all season with minimal care.

Now THIS is the way Campsis radicans (deciduous trumpet vine) should look! I love the way it flows around the weeping blue Atlas cedar. In the foreground is a lush stand of Caryopteris and the tall silver Artemisia native to these parts.

Santa Fe has the BEST Buddlejas; full, lush and fragrant. This enormous Swallowtail butterfly was kind enough to drop in and enhance my photograph. All of these shots were taken on the same day, in one half-hour stroll.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Santa Fe Chronicles - Prelude

Going to Santa Fe soon. I am so ready. My sister lives there;
this will be our second long visit this year. Nice.

Monsoon has started. I've been guaranteed
several spectacular thunderstorms.

I'm going just before tourist season peaks, and will be
experiencing yet another aspect of Santa Fe life.

Time slows in New Mexico, in a good way. There's room
between things; cars on the road, houses on the land.

photo by Lisa Livengood Taft

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cats In The Garden

My friend and colleague Julie Orr came to visit last week, to interview my obliging cats for her terrific blog on petscaping. Haku the extrovert was happy to demonstrate one of his favorite garden pastimes for her, rolling in the crushed-rock path (he now wants an agent!) This got me thinking about how much I love watching my cats in the garden, and how many of my design choices were made with their habits and enjoyment in mind.
Not to be outdone, Haku's sister Zen has her own favorite 'cat wallow' under the Red Umbrella (where she is always assured of an appreciative audience). Such places are just one feature of a cat- friendly garden. Others are quite simply 'things to lounge on' and 'things to lounge under'
This picture was taken several years ago, in my last garden, which was created using many large granite boulders from the Sierras, a specialty of the landscape architect we hired. They made an ordinary flat landscape a much more interesting place to look at, and, evidently, to hunt in (their sights were set on a fat squirrel in the birch tree, who was never in the slightest danger.)
The boulders were ideal for hiding behind, or lounging and looking handsome upon: cool in the summer, warm and dry in the winter.
Shy Zen has always been good at tucking herself picturesquely into the garden, preferring to observe her domain from the safety of a leafy bower. Evergreen shrubs, trimmed up and well mulched, are natural shelters year-round.
My favorite plants to use in a cat-friendly garden, however, are grasses and sedges. These tough plants are beautiful and resilient. Many, like this Carex divulsa (Berkeley Sedge) are nearly evergreen in California, only needing a good winter trim to prepare them for a burst of new growth in spring.
In my last garden I had several large clumps of this obliging sedge in front of my office window. The cats seemed to like that area better than any other. They would hide under the arching leaves, lounge atop them, even use them for wrestling practice.
Plants that take this kind of abuse with no ill affect are a wonderful foundation for a cat-friendly landscape. More than once I have encountered a pair of big green eyes observing me from under one of them as I work in the garden. Here Zen takes refuge beneath the glossy orange/green blades of Carex testacea.
And the only thing better than one kitty in the sedge is two kitties in the sedge. If I were a cat, this is where I would be on a warm summer's day.

A garden that everyone in the family can enjoy without worry and concern is a treasure, and to see my happy critters so at home in the landscape we share makes me happy too.