Spinach Unleashed

It can be difficult to anticipate future needs when growing vegetables for CSA box customers. Cultivated varieties of vegetables are bred to bear early, but even so, time creeps on inexorably and the garden crew at Echoing Hope Ranch is often faced with this situation: we should have planted more of this or that two weeks ago. This is our first year of intense production, though, and we’re learning!

About three weeks ago I was in the ranch truck on a mission to Bisbee to buy something we needed, I don’t remember just what.

It occurred to me that we were out of spinach seed, and spinach had been doing well in the greenhouses. I knew what spinach varieties were available at the Ace hardware store, but I wanted something different. On a whim I stopped at a Dollar General store to see if they even carried garden seeds. I bought a packet of some giant Italian variety of spinach for a buck and change. Well, that Italian spinach variety just went nuts in the greenhouse, producing succulent and fleshy leaves approaching a foot in length.

A week from now, with hot weather approaching, these burgeoning plants will begin to bolt, so CSA customers are getting large bundles of spinach this week. Certain chicken and goat friends of mine will get the remainder!

Spinach Bed A Week Ago

Spinach Bed A Week Ago

Spinach Bed Yesterday

Spinach Bed Yesterday

Larry

Rows In Collision

Years ago when I was a novice gardener I would carefully lay out planting rows with a tape-measure, stakes, and strings. I was likely influenced by OCD-ish book and magazine garden writers.

These days I mark out the four corners of a vegetable planting and just eyeball the rows, my rationale being that these rows will only be there for a few months, and I really don’t mind a bit of asymmetry in a garden. I just want to get the seeds in the ground quickly so they can go about their business!

About ten days ago I planted a patch of cowpeas at Echoing Hope Ranch. A few days later I expanded the patch, doubling its size. I had left a couple of stakes on the ground indicating where I had left off, but one of those stakes might have been kicked by someone. Who knows?

The result was a very peculiar sight which almost induces vertigo, like one of H.P. Lovecraft’s descriptions of the architecture of the alien Old Ones. Here’s what it looked like this morning:

Skewed Cowpea Rows

Skewed Cowpea Rows

The rows will eventually fill in and this misalignment won’t be visible. Right now it’s an amusing sight for the whole garden crew!

Larry

Reina de la Noche in Cochise County

The landscape here in Southeast Arizona can appear a bit bleak late in the winter. As spring approached I naturally was eager to see which plants would green up first. There had been some nice rains during the winter which boded well for our local plant populations.

One fine morning towards the end of March I was just a hundred feet or so from our cabin examining a newly leafed out shrub growing in a clump of mesquite. I later found out from a friend that it was a Four-winged Saltbush. I noticed an oddly-colored vertical shoot back in the shadows of the clump; it was about an inch in diameter, prominently ribbed with short spines along the ribs, and dully colored a sort of purplish green-brown. Some sort of cactus, perhaps?

I walked back to the cabin and described the plant to Bev. I was reaching for a little illustrated guidebook to Arizona cacti, but Bev was quicker and got to the book before I did. She riffled through the book and before long exclaimed “Looks like it might be a Night-blooming Cereus cactus!”

I must say that I was a bit annoyed with her, as after all I was the one who had found the plant! A transitory feeling…

That day both Bev and I made forays out into the desert scrub looking for other examples of the species. Each of us found a couple. They aren’t easy to see, as from a distance greater than three feet they look just like a dead mesquite branch.

In early April I began to see signs of new growth on the half-dozen or so Peniocereus greggii plants we had located.

A note on the various names of the species: the Latin binomial botanical name is Peniocereus greggii and one of the English common names is Night-blooming Cereus. As is often the case, the Spanish name has more poetry than the English or Latin names: La Reina de la Noche, or Queen of the Night.

Here’s a shot of some new growth; whether a shoot or a flower bud it was hard to determine:

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After a week or so the shoots had elongated:

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Towards the middle of April the flower-buds could be distinguished from the vegetative shoots:

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At that time I was guessing that the first blooms would open sometime in May.

On the 27th of April I was scouting around for one of these cacti which I remembered finding a month or so previously. I found it and was pleased to see some buds on the plant beginning to burst, the first one in the area to my knowledge. This may have been because the scrubby mesquites which had sheltered and shaded the plant in its youth had mostly died, doubtless victims of the multi-year drought in the area. The cactus was getting more sun and this caused the blooming time to be in advance of the nearby sheltered specimens, I surmised. A shot of this cactus:

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Over the next couple of days the first two flowers opened up, releasing a heavy spicy-floral odor:

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This shot was taken at dusk, just after sunset:

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And here’s how it looked as the sun peeked over the Swisshelm Mountains the next morning:

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Several books I had consulted made the claim that in a given locality all of the Night-blooming Cereus cacti would bloom on the same night. I think this is one of erroneous statements which are copied from one book to another. At least in this locality it seems that the blossoms will open over a period of two weeks or so.

Oddly enough, in my daily rambles through the washes and gravelly flats around here I’ve never encountered this species of cactus outside of a radius of 1/4 mile from our cabin. Perhaps they grow in local clusters or communities and we just happened to have bought a piece of land within one of these communities!

Larry

Dog Paradise

This morning I was up early, as usual. I have a new resident in my apartment, a local musician who had been all but homeless before I offered him a spare bedroom, and this time it was with the full consent of my landlady! I’ve been helping this guy get his financial situation in order, but the effort has been draining. I needed to get away from Bisbee for a while — much as I like this canyon town, sometimes things get weird and complicated, leading me to think my life is some sort of Truman Show soap opera.

I’ve been needing to see how the rough lane back to our cabin has fared after the recent torrential monsoon rains. My new dog Dingo (formerly Lydia) has never been back to the valley after her forced exile to Bisbee, the result of an unfortunate poultry-killing incident. So the dog and I headed out of town in my truck, bound for the Sulphur Springs Valley.

The lane back to the cabin was in remarkably good shape. The rains had actually made the road better, filling in persistent holes and in general evening it out. I parked by the cabin and marveled at how green the landscape was, very unlike the nuclear test zone appearance it had early in the summer. The dog leaped out of the truck and if she could talk, she might well have said “Larry, I don’t think we’re in Bisbee anymore!”

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Dogs and desert washes are a natural match. Dingo raced up and down the intricate mazy networks of washes, surely smelling many exotic odors.

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I walked down a few washes myself, looking for what plants might have been enjoying the copious rains. Here’s a succulent plant which I haven’t identified. This plant forms ephemeral low-lying mats of purple-green vining stalks with tiny reddish flowers:

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Later I came to the conclusion that the fleshy-leaved plant was Portulaca umbraticola, or Wingpod Purslane, a native relative of the common European garden weed.

Plants which grow in the washes shed their seeds into the sand and gravel. The next big rain, which might be during next year’s monsoon season, will transport the seeds to new downstream sites.

The Devil’s Claw plants look like miniature trees, with fat trunks resembling those of the Baobab trees of the African continent. The fat green pods are fully developed now. When they dry out during the next inevitable dry spell the pods will split and assume their devilish seed-dispersal form, hooking on to any passer-by clad in either clothing or fur.

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The area in which our lot is located was once laid out in a grid of four-acre lots. The boundaries are still visible in satellite photos. The lots were marketed in nationally-distributed magazines like Organic Gardening and Mother Earth news back in the sixties and seventies. “Retire in the sun! Inexpensive lots for your dream retirement cabin!” The lots were cheap and people all over the country bought them, only to find that no utilities were available. Many reverted back to the county due to unpaid back taxes.

Times have changed, solar electricity is cheaper than it’s ever been, and more people like Bev and myself are willing to put up with some minor inconveniences in order to avoid crowded cheek-by-jowl communities. The developer way back when even made a cursory effort to put culverts in the washes. These culverts are still around, but they were much too small to serve their intended purpose. Monsoon floods plugged them with sand and silt and occasionally groups of them can be found:

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I can just imagine the expression of the hopeful developer who paid to have these culverts trenched in — once he had seen their fate! Dreams fading to ashes…

Larry

High Water Abounding

I guess I forgot to post this! A selection of photos taken on a walk around Bisbee before the recent rains!

A diaphanous Coprinus cluster, well-hydrated:

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Perhaps a species of Lepiota growing from decaying cottonwood roots, near a three-foot-wide stump:

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Notice how this cluster of mushrooms has engulfed an Ailanthus leaf, which nevertheless continues its photosynthesis:

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Drainage canal shots:

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A mysterious door on Mayer Avenue gushes forth water:

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Three shots of Brewery Gulch, still taped off but after six dump-truck loads of gravel and debris had been hauled away:

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Larry

Pipeline Morning Glory

Yesterday there was a unique convocation of plant geeks at that little un-named city park at the corner of Rt. 92 and Schoolhouse Terrace Road, in between Old Bisbee and San José.

Cado Daily organized the gathering; she’s my friend and musical cohort, and incidentally a State Extension Agent for this county.

It was a slow-moving flock of plant-lovers which wandered up the path, with people grouping and re-grouping and with a lot of photography happening. I simply love that little park; I’ve been there at least ten times this year. There’s always something new to be seen, such varied plants growing from between shingles of decaying limestone, and there always seems to be at least one Curve-billed Thrasher piping up with its interrogatory call: “Peet, peet?”

I talked at length with an employee of the City Of Bisbee, a man who loves the park and wants to make it more accessible without affecting its ecological integrity. He pointed out to me and some others a rare species of morning glory clambering up a yucca.

This man explained to me that the park had originally been a right-of-way for a natural gas pipeline, which is still buried there, and that the gas company had donated the property to the city ten years ago.

The meeting took place in the afternoon, so the morning glory’s blooms were faded. This morning, after a quick jaunt up a canyon up on Juniper Flats, I walked down the path at the little park again and found the Canyon Morning Glories (Ipomoea barbatisepala) in splendid full bloom. I was impressed.

Two blossoms with yucca background and support:

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The peculiarly lobed leaves:

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Pretty cool, eh? Just wait until you see my photos from Juniper Flats!

Larry

Goin’ Up Turkey Creek To Have A Little Fun

The other day my friend Maggie and I were talking about a video someone had posted on Facebook. The clip showed rushing waters cascading down the rocky bed of Turkey Creek, which drains into the Sulphur Springs Valley from the lofty heights of the Chiricuahua Mountains.

Maggie said “Man, we should go up there before the monsoon rains have drained away! Finner would just love it!” Finner is Maggie’s five-year-old son; she’s a single mom.

Well, I knew that I would just love it too, but the Chiricuahuas are over an hour’s drive away, and such an excursion would cost money, mainly for gas for my truck. But then I’d been wanting to get over there all summer. Those mountain canyons harbor ecosystems quite different from those in the the desert canyons around Bisbee and the lowland Chihuahuan desert scrub habitats with which I am most familiar. It would be cooler in the higher altitudes, and there are Ponderosa Pine and Arizona Cypress groves.

What tipped the balance for me was when Maggie offered to pay part of the gasoline expenses. She also owed me a restaurant meal.

We planned to leave Bisbee at 8:30 Friday morning. I showed up at Maggie’s place a bit early, as it was a sunny morning and I was anxious to get started. Finner was already up and running, but Maggie was still sleeping. I ate some raisin bran with Finner and we went outside, where Finner showed me some gymnastic maneuvers involving a stair railing.

It had been a while since I had driven up into the northern reaches of the Sulphur Springs Valley. We passed many irrigated fields, some circular, and some sort of forage sorghum seemed popular — probably grown for silage. We turned east on another blacktop, and as we neared the foothills of the Chiricuahua Mountains the road turned to dirt. Turkey Creek Road!

We drove to the very end of the road, which has a turnaround loop. Along the way we noticed several small campgrounds and picnic areas along the rocky creek. We drove back, parked, and started walking up the creek. Finner ranged on ahead and before long he was wet all over. Each reach of the creek revealed yet another waterfall with scoured-out pools at the base. We caught up with Finner and due to the noise of the waterfalls and riffles he didn’t know we were watching. A charming sight; Finner was absorbed in play and talked softly to himself.

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The water wasn’t running torrentially, but it made its way downstream briskly.

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A peculiar vegetative mound caught my attention. It was growing from a recently flooded gravel bar, and it looked like some sort of fractal-network dome of lacy leaves.

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The leaves were curiously forked, and close up had an intriguing interlocking pattern:

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A bit later Maggie exclaimed “Look, there’s one with a flower stalk!” The flowers stemming from the low dome of leaves were in white clusters:

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I have not been able to identify this plant yet. Farther upstream clumps of a very ornamental grass began to appear. The oat-like dangling floral structures shimmered and danced in the slightest breeze:

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A waterfall formed by a fallen pine trunk holding back the flow. I’ve seen similar impromptu waterfalls on Nova Scotia streams:

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A species of Columbine with large yellow flowers was hard to resist! Note the insect damage on the petals:

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We came to a large boulder washed by pure water. Maggie said “Finner — get up on that rock so I can take your picture!” He clambered up onto the rock, Maggie shot some photos, and I said “Maggie, why don’t you get up there too, and I’ll take a couple of pix.”

“Oh, no, Larry…”

“Go ahead! It’ll just take a minute!”

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This orange flower looked like an explosion in space, like when an alien spacecraft is hit with a particle beam:

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Sometime Finner would sit on the rocks for a while, seemingly in a contemplative mood. Rather unusual for a five-year-old!

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Finner found a charming little frog and began to carry it with him. He would repeatedly lose the creature and recapture it.

“Mom, can I take this frog home?”

“No, Finner, I think he’d be happier here than at our house.”

Climbing up the rocks, frog in hand:

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I said “Finner, come over here and let me photograph that frog!” He held the frog out and I managed to get only one well-focused shot:

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After another hour of waterfalls and cool new plants, Finner was starting to get tired and a bit fussy. He was doing great for a little guy! He began to rub one of his eyes. “Mom, my eye hurts!”

Maggie squatted down and examined his eye. “I don’t see anything in it!”

Maggie glanced at me, and in an undertone said “Larry, do you think this frog has venom?”

“Naw, I really doubt it! He’s just tired out.”

A few minutes later Finner said “Mom, I think it’s the frog venom which is hurting my eye! It’s getting worse!”

He had overheard Maggie’s comment to me! We tried to allay his fears, and after a while we were back in the truck. Finner’s pain seemed to have subsided.

The long needles of an Apache Pine silhouetted against the sky:

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Earlier in the day, as we drove up Turkey Creek Road, a female wild turkey had crossed the road in front of the truck. Finner was excited to see it. As we drove back down the road on our way back to the highway, Finner said to himself:

“We went to Turkey Creek, and we saw a turkey!”

To a five-year-old many aspects of the world just don’t make sense, but here was a clear logical connection for the boy. That’s why they named it Turkey Creek!

Driving back down through the valley we were surrounded by splendid skyscapes as the sun began to set. I should have shot some photos, but we were hungry and tired. Quite a pleasant adventure, all in all!

Larry

Gingerette

Last night I was over in the San Pedro River Valley playing music at John and Marcia’s place. After a very nice meal featuring home-grown tomatoes and turkey burgers I was in the kitchen putting a plate in the sink. On a central island counter I noticed a ginger root with an interesting green excrescence protruding from its side. Looking closer it seemed to be a conical bud, something I’d never seen on a ginger root before. I beckoned Marcia over and pointed to the root.

“Marcia, could I cut this this shoot or bud from your ginger root and take it home with me?”

“Sure, Larry! Are you wanting to root it?”

“Yeah, I’ll suspend it in water somehow.”

I found a knife and severed the shoot, leaving a small chunk of root to help nurture the hopeful little creature. Marcia gave me a sandwich bag to take the shoot home in.

I forgot all about the ginger piece until this morning. I found a small ceramic pot, cut a piece from a chopstick, and attached the root to it with a twist-tie. Here’s the ginger shoot on my windowsill, illuminated by a stray sun-ray shafting through the leaves of a tree:

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Not a practical project, I admit, but I’m pleased to act as parent to this little plant!

Larry

A Grass Story With An Odor

A couple of years ago I spent the summer in Bisbee house-sitting for some friends. The house was at one end of High Road, a street suspended on a ledge halfway up the northern slope of Tombstone canyon. There are two ways to get to High Road from Bisbee’s main drag, Tombstone Canyon Road. To drive up to High Road, you have to make a sharp turn on Clausen and simultaneously ascend a steep slope. The other way is for hardy pedestrians; a steep series of seventy or so steps will take you up to and right on past the house I was staying in.

At the bottom of those steps lived a couple with young children. The wife could often be noticed tending to her various garden plots along the steps, and I frequently encountered her in my peregrinations. One day she was down at the bottom of the steps and and after I had descended the steps we fell into conversation about plants, gardening, and such.

The woman drew my attention to some clumps of fuzzy-topped grass growing between the sidewalk and the street. She said:

“Larry, pick some of the tops from that grass there, crush them, and tell me what they smell like, okay?”

Far be it from me to resist such a request! I picked some of the seedheads, smelled them, and said:

“Damn! It smells just like blueberries!”

“Yeah, they do, don’t they? When I first moved to Bisbee fifteen years ago a friend told me about this grass.”

“What kind of grass is it?”

“I really don’t know, but it grows all over town!”

I tried to do a Google search, using such terms as “grass that smells like blueberries”, but my results were clogged with people’s remarks about varieties of marijuana which smell like blueberries. Evidently quite a few varieties of pot smell like that!

This summer I asked Cado Daily, a Cochise County extension agent (and one of my friends and musical cohorts) what she thought that grass might be. She said:

“Oh, I know that grass! it’s one of the beard-grasses, a species of Andropogon!”

“Thanks, Cado!”

That was just the lead I needed. After some better-directed Google searches I found that the grass has been removed from the old Andropogon genus and placed in a new one. The grass is native and it’s common all over the Southwest, all the way from Texas to California. One common name for it is “Cane Beargrass”, and the grass currently rejoices in the Latin cognomen Bothriochloa barbinodis. Nowhere did I find a mention of the grass’s blueberry odor.

Some people I’ve talked with in Bisbee claim that the grass really smells more like Blueberry Pop-Tarts than real blueberries. I think that is a distinction without a difference, as Blueberry Pop-Tarts do have some real blueberries in their gummy filling. Processed foods are most often made with small Low-bush Blueberries harvested in the Northeast US and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

This morning I went out in the courtyard and photographed a Cane Beargrass seedhead I had picked the other day out in the valley.

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It’s always a pleasure to learn something new about the native plants which share this region with us!

Larry