Sunday, July 12, 2009

Landscaping dreams

Encircled with police-type yellow tape, my gardens right now probably look more like crime scenes. The only thing missing is the chalk outline on the ground of some unknown stiff.

Actually if you look at the gardens up close they are not that bad at all. This morning Stew and I (and Lucy and Gladys, traveling mutts extraordinare) visited the place and indeed the bones of a landscape scheme clearly are starting to emerge.

The three challenges I faced, and which no amount of reading of glossy gardening books seemed to resolve, were rocks, sheer expanse and erosion. Rocks we've talked about before; particularly in the dead of winter they give the land a lunar appearance.

Size also complicated things, sometimes making any gardening vision almost impossible at least for my untrained eye. Where do you start? It's not the 25 by 25 foot backyard we had in Chicago, but seven and a half acres, surrounded by farm fields and mountains. There aren't many trees either to help define boundaries or provide perspective. Even if we could air-drop dozens of 15-foot trees, they'd become specks against such a vast backdrop.

The final problem is erosion. It carries the water and soil toward the lower third of the property, which is almost lush green compared to the top where the house sits and where I'm trying to plant some gardens.

Out of these three problems we came up with what we think is a clever yet obvious solution--terracing. It gives us something to do with the thousands of rocks everywhere, though they seem to be procreating: For every one rock we dig up, three more appear.

I hope these semi-circle terraces of rocks also will help slow down the avalanche of water and dirt rolling down the hill. After a while the terraces may trap some soil where we could grow some wildflowers.

The terraces also created relatively confined spaces with one or two anchor shrubs or cacti which make it easier to mix and match plants, their textures, sizes etc.

We've hired two young guys, Ivan and Félix, who look sometimes to be engaged in some sort of Sisyphean labor, digging up and moving rocks, covering up the holes left behind, making piles, moving the piles, and over again. Their work and sweat are obvious but visible results often elusive.

I asked Felix, about 20 years old and who lives in a nearby rockpile of a village called Sasnovar, where I could get some organ cacti. I warned him I didn't want any "hot" cacti uprooted from someone's land. No problem. He and his tiny, hunched-over mother (grandmother?) went to work on their backyard with a machete and quickly produced 25, six-foot lengths of cacti for $10 pesos or 75 U.S. cents each.

Took the organs to the ranch where I leaned them against a wall. Actually you're supposed to lay them down until the wound dries up, about a week, when they are then ready to be planted.

Buying trees from the local nurseries is frustrating unless you find a knowledgeable and honest person in charge. A local joke is that if you go into a nursery and ask whether a particular shrub takes sun or shade, the usual answer is "¡Sí!" The person you are talking with either doesn't know the cultural requirements or they will tell you whatever you want to hear to sell you the damn thing.

Aside from the 25 organ cacti, we've bought several agaves, including some variegated beauties, plus we have planted several that we had in pots in our current house. (The sale contract stipulates the buyers get all the plants except the cacti and the succulents.) We also have three cypresses, pencil-skinny and tall, rocking merrily in the constant breeze, a níspero tree (called Japanese loquat in the U.S.) and which produces a delicious fruit I used to eat in Cuba as a child (but whose flavor I can't remember). Some ornamental grasses, pennisetum and blue fescue, plus the wild card, thousands of wild flower seeds Stew and I collected last fall and scattered about a month ago. Also three bottle-brush bushes (very common along the highway medians in San Miguel) and a pata de vaca tree (it translates as "cow's foot" though I couldn't find any English name for it). The latter has floppy leaves that indeed look like the outline of a cow's foot though they are generally folded in half.

On my shopping list is an olive tree (they seem to thrive in San Miguel's poor soil) plus some citrus and fruit trees. It gets quite cold in Rancho Santa Clara, dipping as low as 30 degrees in the winter, but the really problematic factor is the constant wind which sucks the moisture out of the soil and the leaves of plants.

Difficult as it may be the next step in my landscaping blitz is to stop. Ivan and Félix will continue gathering rocks, making terraces and planting organ cacti for a few more weeks. But until the house is much closer to finished, the grounds relatively clean--and the sightlines better defined--any more tree-planting will just have to wait.

Friday, July 10, 2009

And now, a rant

Construction seems to be going along well, so why does everything look so chaotic at our new house, and Stew and I feel ready to reach for the Prozac (or the Valium, depending on where we are at on the depression-anxiety spectrum)?

The crew just got finished tarring the roof, and the old Spanish-style shingles, piled up neatly near the house, should be installed next week. Following that--and a heavy rain to rinse off the schmutz on the roof--we should start collecting rain water in our cisterns.

Except the rainwater filters were not built properly, so parts of at least one them have to be redone. Bring out the hammer and chisel, and some poor guy to sit in the sun banging away at the cement for hours. Meanwhile we seem to have already bought four or six huge sacks of a special gravel--about twice as many as we'll need--to pour into the non-functioning filters.

Fuggedaboutit, there won't be any rain going into those cisterns for a few more weeks.

Instead, the water pouring off from the roofs--through the non-functioning filters--will gush into a lagoon that has developed on the back of the house in a hole that wasn't backfilled. After a big rain about a week ago, the water backed up and flooded the future storage space and mechanical room under the kitchen.

Several members of our totally unflappable construction crew--God bless their equanimity--just calmly went out there and dug a narrow ditch to help drain the water downhill. The workers shoveled, whistled and chattered happily, apparently grateful for the break from... whatever it is they were doing.

They also put all the stuff in storage up on wooden skids, about four inches off the floor, leading Stew and I to suspect that, yep, the place is probably going to flood again before this is all over.

A bright point was that our hyperkinetic dog Lucy--a Labrador-ish mix which has spent her entire two years on this earth looking for a place to swim--merrily jumped into what was left of the muddy lagoon. She had a great time.

Our high-tech septic system arrived too, looking like a tiny, flat-bottomed plastic submarine, something from a James Bond movie. If it works as advertised it should be a small ecological marvel: Using some sort of chelated copper ions (a process we still need to study) it will digest all the waste water from the house and expel it out the other end, so to speak, as clear water that can be used for irrigation. It's not called a septic tank but a "micro planta" and it promises to completely recycle all the water from the house without periodic pumping by a sewage truck.

However, we should expect to be looking at the gray submarine-like contraption lying in front of the house for quite some time. You see, work on the plumbing from the house and down the hill to wherever the micro-planta is supposed to be sited, hasn't even begun.

Though pieces of the house arrive daily, and work on the house is undeniably proceeding, certain elements of coordination, order and synchronicity seem to be lacking.

For us the gold standard for construction coordination was a young guy in Chicago who built an large addition to our house. He had the concept of just-in-time delivery down pat: A backhoe would dig a hole and ten minutes afterward a dump truck would appear to haul the dirt away. The windows would show up the day before the carpenters were done rough-framing the hole, and so on. He worked with the precision of a Swiss watch, and was so amazing we still remember his name: Steve Freund.

Ah get over it. Building a house in Mexico may take 50 percent longer than in the U.S., but that's just the way it is and, anyway, construction costs are 50 percent lower. Just a different way of building things.

Ah maybe so. I feel my tranquilizer beginning to kick in. Maybe we should stop visiting the construction for six weeks and see what happens.

But then Stew and I have an experience like we had this afternoon, when we walk around the ranch shaking our heads at the amount of destruction inflicted by the construction on the land and the vegetation.

Holes and dug-up boulders everywhere, random tire tracks as if truck drivers aimed for some out-of-the-way cactus or tree just for the hell of it--yeah, that one over there, 35 feet away, let's get that fucker!--that it's hard to imagine how the land is ever going to heal.

A blotch of dried-up cement on the ground, where the workers mix the stuff by hand, seems to expand daily, eating up plants and other living stuff along the way. Today, whirlwinds flung the trash clear out to the fence line.

After checking our new plantings for a while, we just whistled the dogs into the truck and went home. They jumped in right away, almost as if they wanted to get the hell out of there too.

Rick, of Rick and Andrea, friends and owners of a neat off-grid house on the other side of town, [] mentioned to Stew the other day the growing practice among builders of "green" houses in the U.S. of putting up a fence all around the construction site, approximately 30 feet from the foundations, in order to contain the mess and damage. Wish we'd thought of that.

Meanwhile, details, details. By August 1 we need to move, not to one, but to two places. The first destination is a rental where we'll stay until the house is finished, and where we'll store about one third of our belongings. The rest of the move will go to the garage of the new house, which is supposed to be finished and secured by then, so it can hold the rest of our stuff.

Yesterday, we bought a truckload of appliances on sale at Liverpool, a local department store. We were asked for an address for the delivery truck which is coming from Mexico City. We explained that the washer and dryer are going to the rental--which has a clear street address--and the rest to the ranch--which has no address at all.

The sales clerk told us politely that the sheet of paper I had brought, and which explained, "Keep going down the road to Jalpa and when you see a huge green house then turn left a narrow dirt road and right at the culvert until you spot the construction up ahead" is not considered a proper delivery address.

So around August 1 we need to go to City Hall to request a proper delivery address and try to intercept that Liverpool delivery guy bringing our stuff from Mexico City, to tell him about the big green house and the narrow dirt road on the way to Jalpa.