Dances with Hummingbirds
Joan Day-Martin is New Mexico's only hummingbird bander.

The Fire This Time
A journal from the edge of the Bear and Martinez fires.

Drunks' Night Out
A night at a sobriety checkpoint.

Strings Attached
Meet five area luthiers—professional makers of stringed instruments.

Healthy Horizons
Mysterious Horizons Farms specializes in growing healthy.

Day Spahhhh
Local oases offer lush ways to retreat and rejuvenate.

Just in Case
Grant County's first Community Emergency Response Team.

A Blessed Sort of Work
Gardening with principles—four area examples.

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A Blessed Sort of Work

Four area gardeners and their creations exemplify
gardening with principles.

By Vivian Savitt


"It's not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work."

—Countess von Arnim, gardener, 1898


There are gardeners and there are gardeners.

This article is about the latter group—all women, by happenstance—whose gardens foremostly reflect their principles, as well as passions, creativity and quirks. So many of us recognize a female complicity with nature, anyway.

The gardeners profiled here have a need for tranquility even though they live in small towns. All consider their gardens works in progress, and further admit to an inability to stop gardening even when they try. Experience a gardener's garden and you may also glimpse her soul, spirit and consciousness.


A High Calling

The Mitchell Garden, Pleasanton

I am sitting in a wicker chair sipping iced tea with jewelry artist Lori Mitchell. A pond dappled with shade and foliage commands our immediate view, as does the crown of a church steeple, reincarnated here as a folly. Behind us to one side among a green haze of vinery, climbing roses and hollyhocks stands Lori's studio. An acequia, edged with water hemlock, the highly toxic Cicuta maculata (a dead ringer for its benign cousin Queen Anne's lace), flows tranquilly behind the house. A jubilee of singing birds fills the air. The scene is halcyon, pastoral—the atmosphere Bloomsbury. It wouldn't be suprising if Virginia Woolf popped over from Hogarth House.

The lizard's wall at the Belt garden. Many of the holes are filled with bottle glass.
(Photo by Vivian Savitt)

"Nothing was here 13 years ago except parched, cracked, barren earth," Lori says, "not even a tree—so I just planted and planted."

That was the situation when she and her husband, Louie Re, purchased their three-quarter-acre parcel bordered by an acequia in Pleasanton, just south of Glenwood. They spent their first three years living in a trailer. Lori tells how Louie stuck three cottonwood branches in the ground in hopes that they would root. Today the trees are a formidable height, and Lori admits to having "planted out the view" of the Mogollons in an effort to create shade and privacy.

"None of my previous gardens were my own," says the tanned and petite West Texas native, who says she considers California's Big Sur country a "spiritual home."

Her plants "come from everywhere," Lori says. The lotus in the pond are from an Albuquerque nursery, the gooseberry bush was a bird's gift, herbalist Monica Rude provided the clary sage, and the identity of the calla lilies was unknown until they sprouted—"the consensus among me and my friends was that they were Jerusalem artichokes, so we ate some."

Lori, who shows her artwork at Blue Dome Gallery in Silver City, abandoned pottery for jewelry after taking a course at Monterey Peninsula Junior College. She approaches gardening like her process of creating art: "There is no real plan. Everything is spontaneous, intuitive and visual."

But she is adamant about the importance of mulch. "I'm not a big turn-the-soil person," she says. In this regard she was influenced by the early organic gardener Ruth Stout, a mulch fanatic. Lori's recipe requires layering cardboard, four inches of horse manure and four inches of straw on top of that. "You water it all down. The cardboard is a weed barrier and can also help you outline the shape of your beds. The worms just love it."

Lori describes her garden as "always raggedy around the edges. Nothing is close to done and it continues to evolve."

"The task," she continues, "is way too big." She mentions the messy, hard work of a recent pond cleaning. Before creating a tree canopy, she worried about her fish receiving too much sun too soon after they had overwintered. To solve the problem, she planted cattails, peacock feather and duckweed as light filters.

One fish in particular, a koi she named "Silver City," was considered a true pet. "It had big blue eyes, long whiskers and a beautiful silver color—it was a koi out of a fairy tale."

There were periods of wistfulness over the years as she eventually lost both her mother and best friend to cancer.

"I kept being dragged away from home to care for them. I had never realized before what a gift I had made for myself in creating the garden. It is a sanctuary and restores me. Now I am super conscious about it and acknowledge that creating a sanctuary is a high calling."


Wildlife Enclave

The Belt Garden, Silver City

Katy Belt is a field biologist and habitat restorer who has worked in the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, California and the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Over a six-year period in her Boston Hill garden, Katy has utilized existing and created habitat to attract local and migratory wildlife, including all the pollinators—lizards, bees, wasps, butterflies and birds. Gambel's quail, roadrunners, green-tailed towhees and Bewick's wrens are among the resident and frequent bird species who use the garden; a black-headed grosbeak nests there. Mammals, including gray fox and skunks, also appear regularly on the double lot.

Katy's effort has involved two major strategies: using specific plant species to attract wildlife, and creating a garden wall that serves as a special space for lizards while simultaneously providing privacy and a meditative atmosphere around her home.

Describing herself as "more of a plant collector than gardener," Katy nonetheless used existing plant species to create the garden, including Chinese elms ("a few are appreciated"), pyracantha, Italian cypress, pinon, juniper and a small orchard of mature fruit trees that she rehabilitated through pruning and irrigation.

A pickax and Epsom salt helped soften the extremely rocky ground. Katy explains that the consequence of that task meant losing the horny toads to "rockier ground further down the street."

Fish emulsion and a mulch that she makes herself to resemble natural woodland are added to the soil. A drip irrigation system, kitchen gray water and a catchment system rigged up by her partner, Brian Lesage, help quench thirsty soil.

"The really hard work is done now," says Katy, who acknowledges that she thought about the garden wall "longer than it was reasonable."

The charming and unusual wall began from pre-existing cinder block located near the street edge. It now features bottle-plugged holes in brown, green and clear hues. This device allows light into the interior garden and also provides a highly artistic hardscape element. Katy collected the bottles and used colored mortar instead of stucco to cover the cinder-block surface. Paper, including the empty mortar bags, served as fill, along with broken pieces of the old cinder block. Cavities in the wall accommodate the lizards with hiding places.

The garden acts as inspiration for the couple's other interests, too. They are cofounders of the Equanimity Development Institute (EDI), a meditation program. Also an artist, Katy makes small bronze sculptures, including wildlife pieces, and is currently showing new acrylics on canvas at Leyba & Ingalls ARTS in Silver City. Finally, as "cottage industrialists," Brian makes and sells soap and Katy makes salt scrubs with their garden-grown lavender.


Using What You Have

The Smidt Garden, Silver City

An article in New Mexico Magazine describing Silver City as a place with "four gentle seasons" helped lure Polly Smidt and her husband, Ray, here in 1993 from Redding, Calif. "That sound so nice," sighs Polly, a septuagenarian gardener.

Ray wanted an adobe house; the one they bought in the historic district retains a 100-year-old-portion that originally housed a blacksmith. More than one Realtor has remarked that her bold cactus plantings nestled against pale pink adobe walls have "great curb appeal."

"The prickly pears, yucca and trees were here," comments Polly. "Also the violets and hollyhocks that I love grew inside the courtyard. We inherited the lilacs, mock orange, mahonia, butterfly bush and roses."

The mother of eight children from her first marriage, grandmother to 19 and great-grandmother to 12, Polly radiates energy. Up by 6 a.m., she manages "an hour or two of gardening" before leaving for work at the Silver City Museum gift shop

Having grown up on a farm in western New York, Polly upholds the ethos of never wasting anything. Once a yard contractor tried to convince her that a huge, dramatic planting of opuntia was doomed by fungus and needed to be removed. Not wanting to believe him nor lose the glorious plant, she showed one of its pads to an agricultural extension agent. Fortunately, the plant was fine, suffering only from frost damage.

Leaning toward organic gardening, she doesn't like to use pesticide. If the sun is shining, white vinegar serves as an effective weed killer. After a good rain she goes on "snail patrol"—drowning the dreaded gastropods in a bucket of salt water. Her herb garden bed contains railroad ties from one of the old local mines. A woman who crafted walking sticks for the museum shop recycled Polly's yucca stems for material.

Early on, Polly's major source for cacti was "the deJunco people right before they started their tile business" (Syzygy Tile Works). Later she frequented cactus nurseries in Truth or Consequences and Deming.

As Polly stands in the courtyard of her desert garden, she relates charming anecdotes about plants and garden objects. A tall wooden figure of Don Quixote and a spry metal ostrich serve as garden art. Purchased in Palomas, Mexico, both look as at home behind adobe walls as Polly herself.

"I love the relaxed feel of my garden and never wanted perfection," she says.


Memories and Remembrance

Menczer Garden, Glenwood

The highlight of Beth Menczer's two-and-a-half-acre spread in Glenwood is actually Beth herself, as she seems so thoroughly entwined with every feature of the two-and-a-half-year-old garden. Beth has been a Glenwood resident for 24 years. Her latest effort is memorable for its vistas and unusual features found at every turn on this former truck farm facing Nabors Mountain.

Small but strong, Beth does almost all the gardening and some of the stonework herself. For 13 year she was an endurance rider—a vet-controlled sport with international rules and regulations, including activities that require you to jog beside your horse—and remains fit for her task at hand.

"I don't know the names of most of my plants," Beth says. Her favorites, though, include her 60 rose bushes (20 were originally there) that are irrigated by an above-ground cistern.

Family, friends and pets have all made significant contributions to her delightful space, and "people in the community trade out plants quite often." Beth explains how the lawn is kept mowed by her four horses, who enjoy "rubbing against the forsythia and occasionally squashing a flower, but I just fluff it up again." When the horses are finished, a white "string fence" keeps them from breaching an off-limits space.

She contends that her hosta beds are also conscientiously maintained by her scratching chickens, who "eat grubs, snails and roly-polys." Baxter the dog buries bones throughout the property and consequently helps aerate the soil.

When asked specifically how Tuki, her African gray parrot, supports the garden, Beth smiles and replies, "Tuki keeps the gardener herself joyful."

As for human contributors, there's a labyrinth designed by Cordelia Rose, who lives and labyrinths on nearby Whitewater Mesa. Beth helped her collect the stones for the double-spiral form. Her late father's mobiles, which resemble Alexander Calder's, lend interest to several spots. A vessel by noted Silver City artist Harry Benjamin, an old friend, sits enchantingly by the pond. There are other objects used as pond art from Beth's Tibetan trip with her mother and aunt, including a carving of the white Tara, a female Buddha. All lend both peace and Eastern mystery.

Her sense of peace and mystery finds its way into her art via "cremains," pieces made with human ash mixed with clay. They are illustrated on her Web site (beth.menczer.com) and in a forthcoming Penguin book—a catalog for morticians titled Exit Strategy: Thinking Outside the Box by Michelle Cromer.

Beth's other art is shown at the Elemental Arts gallery in Silver City.


Silver City author Vivian Savitt has written for publications including The Walking Magazine and Texas Monthly, and worked as a researcher for the CBS News TV program "60 Minutes." She has visited most of the world's great gardens in the US and Europe.

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