There are two bits of exciting news this week: we found that our rock garden isn’t a complete failure, and we started construction of a hoop house!
When we dug up parts of the lawn for our vegetable garden about two and a half years ago, you could see the four rock piles on satellite imagery (just below the rectangular beds, from Google Maps).
After using some of the rocks for the floor of an outdoor shower, to level off the road edge by the mailbox, as steps down from the driveway to the “lower garden,” and other projects, there were still lots of rocks left. We decided to spread them out and fill in the spaces with dirt and sand, and then sprinkle in some seeds we collected from open sandy habitats. Crickets quickly moved in and made homes in the miniature caves. This spring, we neglected the rock garden and it became covered with cinquefoil, horseweed, and milkweed.
On Tuesday when I was weeding the cucumbers just on the other side of the fence from the rock garden, I discovered a funny-looking plant, something I was pretty sure was a sandplain specialist. Sure enough, Charley identified it as orange-grass St. John’s-wort, or Hypericum gentianoides, a plant of rocky ridges and grasslands, especially disturbed habitats like the sand pit created by four-wheelers where we’d collected the seeds. The plant has tiny (practically nonexistent) upright leaves, small yellow flowers, and orange-red fruits.
When Charley came out to see the St. John’s-wort, he looked over the fence at the rock garden and spotted what I had somehow missed—blooming bluecurls! Forked bluecurls, or Trichostema dichotomum, is appropriately named, as it is blueish-purple with two long curved (curled) stamens that would clearly get pollen all over the back of a bee. Like the St.John’s-wort, this is a grassland plant that readily colonizes disturbed places. I had never seen the flowers before, but the dried stems and seedpods were charming when we collected them last fall. Each plant is about one foot tall with dozens of flowers that open each morning and wilt by mid-afternoon.
I decided to pull out the cinquefoil and horseweed to see if any of the other rock/ sand specialists had sprouted. I got about 3/4 done when a couple of irritated paper wasps came over to let me know that I was disturbing their nest. I left. Lucky for me, we’ve had a few skunks hanging around. We’ve seen them in the driveway at night, and gotten a few photos on the wildlife camera. Skunks really like munching grubs, and don’t seem to mind a few stings if that’s what it takes. Two days after I abandoned the weeding project, a skunk (I presume) had pulled a few rocks out of the way and ripped the nest out, devouring the grubs, and digging out some of the dirt. There are still a few unhappy adults around, but now that the nest is gone, I can probably get on with weeding without getting stung.
There is purple-stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum) growing out of the pavers in our patio under the deck. It started blooming this week. That makes aster #3, after the white wood aster and calico aster.
In our woods blooming plants include: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens), meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata), jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), willow-herb (Epilobium), and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Our cultivated pink turtlehead just started blooming by the driveway, too. Additionally, in the powerline cut behind our woods, we found blooming joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), gerardia (Agalinis), rattlesnake root (Prenanthes trifoliata), and flat-topped aster (Doellingeria umbellata).
Fritillary on Joe pye weed
I find it fascinating to watch bumble bees collecting pollen from the turtlehead. They pry open the lips of the flower, squeeze inside, back out after about 5 seconds of buzzing, and briefly attend to collecting the pollen from their furry parts and transferring it into the pollen baskets on their hind legs before heading to the next one.
We’re pretty much eating the same things as last week. This is the time when the garden swamps us with its abundance. There are so many tomatoes! I picked 32 pounds on Friday and made 12 pints of tomato sauce, and that’s in addition to dehydrating all the ripe cherry tomatoes on Tuesday (now they fit into a one quart bag).
And now, the hoop house! My parents are visiting from Ohio. My dad is a remodeling contractor and someone who doesn’t relax much. My mom is an avid gardener and food preservationist. They recently built a hoop house using hog panels (4′ by 16′ stiff welded wire fence), and had such a great time eating salad all winter that I wanted one too… So before they came, I measured my space and gathered up materials. Because of the way it is constructed, with the 16′ hog panels creating the arc, it can only be about 7-8 feet wide if you want to be able to stand up inside. We decided to use 6 panels for a 25 foot length. I also bought six long 2 x 8s for the box at the bottom, some 5/4 decking material to build the ends, and some hardware. I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of the little-Honda-Civic-that-could hauling everything from the lumberyard, because it was impressive! This is a great experimental greenhouse, because the materials cost just $426, and two of us built the entire frame in less than 6 hours yesterday. Today we built and hung the doors and put plastic on the two ends. Tomorrow we’ll “skin” the main part.
The hoop house is currently oriented with the long sides oriented east-west, mostly because our corn patch is in the way of where we wanted to put it, oriented with a long side facing south… BUT, according to the New Mexico Extension website: “For maximum passive warming in the winter months, consider orienting your hoop house so the long side runs east/west.” Okay, done! I think leaving it where it is sounds much better.