My father wasn't always a gardener. When I was little he was a scratchy face, Old Spice, and teaching me to read. But in his late thirties, he learned that avocado pits would sprout. After a few years of growing avocado plants (which, indoors in New England, just become awkward, large plants) he moved on to ficus, jade plants, and forced paperwhites, grow lights and fertilizer. Then he found the American Southwest, and he fell totally, completely in love with Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Shortly thereafter, my father left the stodgy, dark East Coast for sunny, artsy Santa Fe. Santa Fe has been the capitol of New Mexico for hundreds of years; long before New Mexico became a state in 1912. Its elevation, at over 7,000 feet above sea level, was enough to make us low-landers feel short of oxygen, gasping for air every time we visited.
My father was always cantankerous, never snuggly, but we both love the color blue (see this article), eating fresh fruit, avocados and nuts. He taught me to be stubborn, and to care about the way things look. My father has an eye for vistas, for how the view fits in with the house, for which trees are in the way of the view and which are part of the view. On the left is the long distance view from his driveway in September of 2007. Below to the right is a shorter distance view. You can see his artistic eye.
In New Mexico, he reinvented himself. This new father, who lived in Santa Fe, did new adventurous activities, like take hikes to look at petroglyphs, assemble collections of vintage fine art photography, and go rafting down the Grand Canyon. Outdoors, he grew roses and tarragon, and orchids, inside. He immersed himself in traditional Santa Fe style architecture and art. He became fond of the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, and sent me and my sister, and later, our daughters (his granddaughters), Native American, locally-made silver and turquoise jewelry for Christmas.
One year, I spent Christmas with my father in Santa Fe. He had an enormous Christmas tree, and there were farolitos (paper bags with sand and a tea candle) lined up along rooflines everywhere. We went to local festivals on Christmas Eve. It was the first Christmas I spent away from New England, and it was like being in a foreign country!
During the twenty years that my father lived in Santa Fe, he saw the worst drought in recorded history settle in and stay, around the end of the twentieth century. There were bans on personal watering and tax rebates for converting to low-flush toilets. Toward the end of his time there, he let his roses die, gave up on his tarragon plants and his other perennials. Indoors, he could water his plants with recycled shower-water or dish-washing water, called 'grey water' by some.
Outside, in the dry, dry, New Mexico sun that he loves, there wasn't much to be done for plants that weren't already xeric, or drought-tolerant. In the end, after low-flush toilets and rain barrels, no roses and no tarragon crops, he just let wildflowers grow. He felt it had to be; he was being a good citizen of his adopted home.
So, I am a little surprised when I learn that other people, members of Dave's Garden, for instance, still grow roses in New Mexico, or grow vegetables. One year, here in Massachusetts, we got as much rain in five weeks as we usually get in five months! My basement is always damp. My plants are always in danger of having their roots rot. His died of thirst. Drought is still hard for me to imagine.
In November of 2006, on his 70th birthday, my father had a near-fatal stroke, leaving much of his body paralyzed and much of his brain impaired. A loner, he can never live alone again; he requires 24 hour care. His super energy-efficient house made of Rastra with gutters prepared to catch every last drop of any rainfall is now for sale. He, with some of his favorite artwork and furniture collected over the years, has moved to an assisted living center in Massachusetts. His two sons (my brothers) also live in the area, and he has siblings and cousins up and down the East Coast.
The strangest thing to me is that this man, who was giving me instructions on how to mist his orchid from the Cardiac Care Unit of the hospital, will not take an interest in growing things. He does not want to be brought paperwhites in the winter, either already potted up, about to bloom, or with a bowl of pebbles, to arrange as he pleases. He does not want to go outside, not when it's cold, not when it's warm, not when it's beautiful and spring is bursting out in the park across the street, not when it's sunny and hot like Santa Fe. He does not want to be brought plants to grow in his window. It probably has to do with the parts of his brain affected by the stroke, but he is my father, and he taught me to be tenacious, so I will keep trying.
I wish I could ask him about tarragon, which I've tried to grow, unsuccessfully, back east. My father used to send me dried tarragon, and I'd love to grow it now myself. Apparently it's a perennial herb needing rapidly draining soil, which all the soil in Santa Fe is, and mine isn't. According to Fine Gardening's Andrew Yeoman, tarragon is particularly susceptible to root rot. That's probably what went wrong with the division I was given.
I wish I could ask him about roses, and about raspberries - he grew those too. He told me once, quite firmly, that nothing that High Country Gardens (a Santa Fe-based mail order nursery) sells would do well in my garden, and I'm finding he's not necessarily right about that. I'd love to be able to explain to him that with the right kind of soil amendments - making my soil drain quickly the way it does in the Southwest - but he wouldn't care any more. Gardening, once his hobby, is now mine, and I missed the chance to share it with him.
Picture of Native American-style earrings used with permission from turquoise-silver-jewelry . Lady Banksia rose, Calif_Sue and Fragrant Cloud rose, Colorado_Roseman, from PlantFiles, since I never saw my father's roses. All other photos are my own.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 23, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)