Gardens of Chihuahua Hill
Touring places where the plots thicken.
Occasionally I drive through Silver City's Chihuahua Hill in hopes of discovering a surprising garden with hints of barrio whimsy. I am seeking mementos of the south side of San Antonio, Texas, circa 1967. At that time, accompanied by my friend Augustin, we sought out gardens with outrageous configurations of colorful plantings embellished with religious, folkloric and ragtag objects. These landscapes were tucked away and required an explorer's persistence to locate, but when discovered revealed a pinãta of visual treats.
A festive mural marks the facade of the Southworth garden.
(All photos by Vivian Savitt)
Back then, I did not consider the "functionality" of barrio gardens.
By virtue of their setting in poorer sections of town where living is a hard scramble, the vegetation served their residents with food, cooking herbs and medicine. Plots featured easy-to-grow plants that took care of themselves, including staples like squash, garlic (ajo), epazote (the bean seasoning and flatulence preventative), yerba buena and yerba mansa for traditional, medicinal teas.
Assortments of objects were used as plant holders and decoration. Whether the residents used chipped ceramic pots or mangled metal containers, the items blended into funky, eye-pleasing chaos. To me, any of them would trump the charmless, mock-ceramic items that stock the shelves at big-box stores today.
The patio, a utilitarian and shady place, was the entertainment and family gathering area where even roosters and hens would socialize.
So last month when I drove to Chihuahua Hill for probably the hundred and somethingth time, it was to uncover a semblance of that garden type.
Arborist and vegetable gardener Cheyenne Thomas is dwarfed by an Agave americana on Chihuahua Hill.
I began in the area closer to downtown where gardening activity is burgeoning. Robert Southworth's house with its small, verdant side garden and dazzling muraled facade is a hub for both plant talk and catching-up on neighborhood haps. The mural — depicting both a talavera pottery pattern and a cerveza label at its side — is reminiscent of barrio street art.
Southworth is a retired mechanical engineer from Texas. A soft-spoken, decorous septuagenarian, he spent two weeks living at the Palace Hotel before committing to a Silver City move 12 years ago.
Southworth's tenant, Cheyenne Thomas, is an arborist from Austin, who maintains several vegetable gardens on the Hill and has planted orchards in other parts of Silver City. His name comes up often when neighbors show off pass-along plantings such as stands of goji berries.
Besides distributing heaps of this berry used in traditional Chinese medicine, Thomas added 20 pear grafts onto Southworth's quince tree (pear and quince are both in the pome fruit family).
Thomas observes that gardeners in the neighborhood tend to be either recluses or quite congenial. Either way, he finds the area "a good one to live in because it's quiet, diverse and contains small, functional gardens."
Indeed, the quiet seems enhanced by the distinctive domes of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church and the peaked silhouette of La Capilla — regardless of one's spiritual inclinations.
A case in point is Jane Papin's garden, which reflects both her dietary interests and need for a calm realm. Papin looks like a healthy specimen with excellent posture — perhaps the result of her equestrian past growing up in North Carolina and Florida.
Jane Papin’s restful and prolific garden.
"My father was a horseman, and I spent lots of time outdoors riding on the beach," she says.
Papin continues, "I was always interested in eating wild plants and drawn to Peterson's Field Guide to Medicinal Plants." Later, during a visit to Silver City, she "leafed through the telephone book and found two custom-blend herb shops, plus the Food Coop — cinching my settling here."
Today almost everything she adds to a blended breakfast drink is grown in her small garden, including dandelion greens, lemon balm, goji berries and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Papin adds "stevia as a sweetener, plus ginger, lemon, chia seeds and a slice of seasonal fruit."
Signs of planting activity and some decorative flourishes in Azima Forest’s late-spring landscape.
Wearing rubber gloves, she gathers the nettle leaves for stews and soups to impart "an earthy flavor" and also dries them in the shed for tea. "Nettles are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet — full of minerals and protein."
The potted nettle plants look robust, and her other plantings surrounding the deck show Papin's flair for design. Situated near one of the garden's water features is a collection of animal horns and arcane objects — adding some mystery to the tranquil landscape.
Papin's practice of transcendental meditation (TM) requires a quiet haven. "My mother once remarked how I had gone from being a bitchy daughter to a very sweet one because of TM. Now she's 91 years old and also practices meditation."
Objects reflecting a spiritual bent and lifelong interest in Sufism appear farther up Chihuahua Hill in Azima Forest's garden.
Forest recognizes the spiritual importance of La Capilla to most of the Hill's residents and adapts her own celebrations to its locale. "A mixed group of us drum up there on solstices," she says, tousling her healthy head of gray hair.
After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley, Forest worked as a computer programmer at Lockheed. After holding that job in the late 1960s — plus having children and getting a divorce — Forest spent four years in India in the 1990s. She has also practiced dream and Reiki healing work. It was Silver City's Sufi community and finding the hillside home that lured her here.
Her often windy corner is a challenge, but Forest cultivates a full array of edibles. Companion planting is in evidence — marigold and rue nestle near a fig tree, dill and chive surround a grafted apple tree, and false indigo safeguards both the cherry and pear trees.
For local planting knowledge, Forest relies on HiDog (High Desert Organic Gardeners) and especially appreciates the group's seed exchange.
Up to now, Forest has used Arizona rosewood and New Mexican olive trees as a wind barrier. With a US Forest Service permit now in-hand, however, she will soon install a coyote fence from culled Ponderosa pine. After the fence is up, there will be a private area for her medicine wheel — a stone circle with blue grama grass growing in its quadrants.
Silver City's mojo also captivated Mary Dearhamer and Chris Aquino during a stay at the Palace Hotel, despite frequent commotion from the Buffalo Bar. Previous residents of Fort Collins, Colo., the couple "fell in love with the old houses and buildings, plus the friendliness of the people."
Flanked by red hot poker plants, the saguaro fountain is the centerpiece of the Dearhamer-Aquino garden, and the birds seem to agree.
These days, Aquino is managing Moses Clark's campaign for County Commissioner, District One, while Dearhamer creates a garden sanctum for pollinators. Birds seem magnetically attracted to the tall, trickling Saguaro fountain — "a gift from my kids," Dearhamer says.
Her diverse plantings range from a bed of opulently sized hostas, to the drought-tolerant and bee-attracting lavender and red hot poker (Kniphofia) plants.
Now seven years old, the garden is fortuitously sited — abutting the older Allen-Apple property, where Cheyenne Thomas tends the backyard replete with majestic apricot trees, roving passion-flower vines and bountiful vegetable beds. In turn, the Allen-Apple property sits adjacent to the Godfreys' plot, one of Chihuahua Hill's most visible, early gardens.
Dearhamer hopes that more gardens will soon dot the Hill's terrain. Walking through the neighborhood, she reports a proliferation of container plantings and "a readiness of residents — both renters and homeowners — to ask for gardening advice."
Perhaps these novices will soon aspire to grow food and nurture their spiritual and artistic tendencies on Chihuahua Hill. Perhaps... there is a whiff of prophecy in the air.
Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.