The other side of the world, part 3


More from Kruger National Park, South Africa

[Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.]

“Wouldn’t it be funny,” I mused to Eric as we went to bed on our first night at Lower Sabie rest camp, “to wake up to baboons on our porch in the morning?”

Morning came, and with it, a scurrying and thumping on our bungalow’s thatched roof. A family of baboons was making the rounds of camp, looking to thieve any food the humans hadn’t locked up. The little ones were fun to watch, kind of cute (if you can say that about a baboon) as they vaulted from roof to roof, but the mamas were don’t-mess-with-me large and decidedly unfriendly looking as they walked methodically from kitchen to kitchen. One could tell they followed this routine every morning. They successfully robbed our neighbors, who’d forgotten to secure their breakfast!

We met Jacqui and Kevin for breakfast in the main lodge, then we hit the road in search of more animals. Our plan was to cover the southeast corner of the park. We again crossed a bridge over the Sabie River.

Once again, we were fortunate to meet many animals close to the road. This is what I mean by “close to the road”:

A perfect profile.

Some animals, though, were already hiding from the midday heat. If we hadn’t looked closely, we’d have missed this lion, resting in the shade. The two hyenas were nearly invisible, even though we passed quite close to them.

We stopped to take a brief snack break at a another rest camp. This one featured glamping tents (the only kind of tent I would willingly inhabit anymore). Plus, it seemed to include a cute little antelope of unidentified species.

This tent came with a tiny something-bok.

I didn’t realize this mama elephant, who was determined to cross the road between Kevin and Jacqui’s car and ours, was hiding her baby behind her. Of course, we let her pass. When an elephant looks you in the eye, it tends to stop you in your tracks.

Waiting to cross the road with her baby hiding behind her (on the right). Who could resist that face?

That afternoon, we drove past the rock outcropping where we’d seen the lioness the day before. She was still there. Word passed from car to car that she’d taken down an impala earlier, but we didn’t see any evidence.

Hello again, your highness.

And later, there was this beast — a blue wildebeest. He looked so intimidating as he walked near my side of the car … something about those sharp horns.

Big blue looked a little crazy.

Suddenly — warthogs! They run amazingly fast, with their tails straight up in the air. Their manes look like dried grass.

A family of warthogs out for a stroll.

Because we’d decided to do a self-driving safari instead of going to one of the luxury safari lodges (where park rangers take you off-road in those big, open safari vehicles), Jacqui was concerned we wouldn’t see many animals and we’d be disappointed. As you can see, she needn’t have worried. But just in case, she’d signed us up for a couple of ranger-escorted drives. Our first was a three-hour sunset drive that evening.

As we cruised along, we saw many of the same animals that we’d been seeing during the day: elephants, zebra, giraffes. After sunset, our guide encouraged us to use the provided torches (spotlights) to look for eyeshine in the dark. Once the sun goes down it gets dark quickly.

Brief but beautiful sunset colors.

It wasn’t long before someone cried out, “Leopard!” I don’t know how they recognized the leopard in the pitch-black night, but sure enough, there she was, perched in a tree. She didn’t care for being in the spotlight, so she climbed down and lay beneath the tree, patiently waiting for the darned tourists to leave. I was unable to take an in-focus shot due to the darkness and the motion of a bus full of excited people, but Eric got some good shots.

Leopard in the spotlight.

We had been in the park for only two days and we’d already seen the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo)! Kevin admitted that he’d been coming to the Kruger for 20 years before he saw a leopard. Maybe we were enjoying beginners’ luck? More likely, the dry, early spring was working in our favor. With most of the vegetation not yet leafed out and animals forced to come to the rivers or manmade watering holes, odds were better that we’d see more wildlife. Plus, Jacqui and Kevin were so familiar with the park. They were great guides.

Colors changed constantly. The bright green in the background is sugar cane fields, outside the park.

The next morning, we left Lower Sabie rest camp to travel further north. Our destination, Satara rest camp, was 140 kilometers (85 miles) away. The Kruger has tarred (paved) roads between its camps, with a speed limit of 50 kph (30 mph), so it would take almost three hours to make the journey, and that’s without stopping for food or animals.

To tie us over until our brunch stop, Jacqui offered us some muesli rusks, which are hardened biscuits somewhat akin to biscotti, meant to be dunked in coffee.  We were instantly hooked. Eric has since made them at home.

Mmm, rusks. Our new fave. [Pinterest]

Our first stop was Nkumbe viewsite, high on a rocky hill, which afforded an outstanding view of the immense plain below. This was one of few places we were able to get out of our cars to view wildlife at a safe distance.

Game trails lead to the water hole. Elephants have first dibs.

A handful of giraffes seek precious shade.

A few kilometers farther on, we stopped at Tshokwane picnic area for a braai breakfast. Kevin expertly fried eggs and diced tomatoes (a popular South African side dish, we discovered) in a shallow braai bowl, shaped like a wok. As we ate and the braai cooled, Cape glossy starlings perched on the edge of the bowl and picked at the hot leavings. We were entertained by vervet monkeys who scampered about the picnic area, boldly attempting to rob visitors of their food. Of course, baboons were getting into places they shouldn’t have.

Starlings gathering in the trees above our picnic table.

Nothing is safe from vervet monkeys.

Back on the road, we found more lions under a tree … females napping on one side, the male trying to stay awake on the other.

Five female lions napping in the shade …

While Big Daddy pretends to be awake.

I like this shot of three graduated sizes of elephants. Eric calls them “small, medium, and jumbo.” I noticed that most of the time, the available water was very muddy. But, when it’s the only water around, you drink.

Gathering at the watering hole.

I also like this picture of a giraffe near one of the many windmills, which pump water from cisterns into watering holes. This is a male giraffe — you can tell by the darker coloring.

Tall things.

We made it to Satara rest camp in plenty of time.  Our bungalow was just a few buildings down from Jacqui and Kevin’s, and we joined them for a tasty braai dinner.

Another sunset, another day complete.


The end of another perfect day in the bush.

Next up: Part 4, where we say goodbye to the Kruger. Plus, lots of trees and birds!

Note: I’ve had some readers mention that they can’t enter comments on my site lately. Maybe it’s a WordPress glitch, but in an attempt to solve the problem, I’ve now eliminated the required name and email fields, so anyone should be able to comment … although I do appreciate knowing who you are!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

The other side of the world, part 2

Hanging with the animals in Kruger National Park — safari day 1

After staying the night at Pestana Lodge, just outside the Kruger, we entered the park the next morning at the Malelane Gate, across the Crocodile River. (Read Part 1 here.) Jacqui had made our overnight reservations for us because it was easier for her to communicate with the Kruger locally than it would have been for me on the other side of the world. We checked in and received our permit for our first two nights at Lower Sabie rest camp.

I gawked at this elephant skull while waiting in line to check in.

The Kruger is so big I can’t get the map in one photo! We stayed at Lower Sabie, Satara, and Skukuza rest camps.

The Kruger is a huge park — at 7523 square miles, it’s almost as big as Massachusetts. In our five days, we’d cover little more than the southern third. And of that, only a fraction of the available roads.

A dozen rest camps are scattered throughout the park, featuring bungalows, shops, restaurants, and gas stations. Each camp is fenced to prevent animals from intruding, and you’d better be inside the gates by closing time, or you’ll be fined.

The rules are strict, for obvious reasons: The animals are real, wild, often BIG, and not necessarily fond of humans. In fact, contact with humans is forbidden. You must stay in your car, be quiet, and give the animals the right of way. In other words, don’t be stupid.  The animals are said to be accustomed to cars, but not accustomed to seeing humans outside of their vehicles. Humans might piss them off.

Pay attention!

Jacqui had sent us a Kruger Park Map, which was full of information about the animals we hoped to see. We referred to it constantly as we traveled through the park.

These map books were available in all park shops. Ours proved an invaluable asset.

Okay, enough background — you want to see animals, right? So did we. It seemed we no sooner cleared the entry gate than we had to stop to allow a herd of elephants to cross the road directly in front of us!

One of the first elephants we saw up close. She was huge. Photo taken through our windshield.

I had to ask Eric whether we also saw giraffes and zebras (in SA, that’s ZEB-ra, not ZEE-bra) nearby, or had my brain tricked me into thinking we saw them all at once? He assured me I remembered it correctly. Need less to say, we were awed and thrilled. Little did we know that we’d see so many elephants, giraffes, and zebras that we’d quit taking photos of them after a few days.

A South African giraffe, one of four giraffe species, and the only one that lives in the Kruger. This species has speckled lower legs; the others don’t.

Look a little closer and you can see the scars on this giraffe’s neck. Life in the bush is not easy. Thorn bushes are everywhere. Most of the animals we saw had scars, whether from thorns or fighting. The giraffes also had black bumps that looked like they could be ticks on their bellies and under their legs.

Giraffes are fairly social and often hang out in groups. They mate at any time of year, and the males are continually cruising for receptive females. Sometimes we saw small groups, but most often we saw pairs.

Her skin tells a painful story.

The zebras were so lovely and peaceful. This is a Burchell’s zebra, which has pale taupe shadow stripes between the black stripes on the rump.

Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique.

What a sweet zebra family!

We drove on, following Kevin and Jacqui’s car. Occasionally, an arm would stick out of their window, pointing at something for our benefit. It took Eric and me a few days to learn where to look and what to look for to spot animals. We did get better at it. When we first entered the park, everything looked to be the same shades of yellow ochre or dull green. I loved the landscape.

That’s Jacqui and Kevin up ahead.

There’s an elephant retreating between the two trees in the middle of the photo.

Take this kudu, for instance: See how his spiral horns mimic the tree branches, and how the stripes on his sides blend into the grasses? Of course, he’s easy to spot when he’s nibbling on a tree right next to the road.

Those fabulous horns look like the tree branches.

The Kruger is home to several species of antelope in addition to the kudu. We saw:

Speaking of right next to the road … our eyes practically popped out of our heads when we came upon this rhino snoozing under a tree, just feet from our car! This beast was at least as big as the VW Beetle that I used to drive! Notice the horizontal scratches on his hide.

A napping rhino, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. We sure hoped so, anyway.

This elephant stared at us is if she were deciding whether to make a move. She didn’t seem upset, but I had the distinct feeling that we were in her space. She slowly flapped her ears in the heat … and we slowly rolled away. An unforgettable encounter.

Staring contest …. she won.

That afternoon, with the temperature over 100° F, we came across an enormous herd of Cape buffalo cooling off in the river. I mean, there were hundreds of them.

Just a few of the buffalo that were taking a water break.

They all  part their hair down the middle.

Just past the buffalo we noticed a traffic jam of cars. What could it be? We jockeyed for position and finally saw her — a beautiful lioness lying in the shade of a red rock outcropping. Simply awesome.

This lady was the highlight of our first day in the Kruger.

And that was just day one of our self-guided safari! Incredibly, in our first day in the park, we’d bagged four of the Big 5 (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard). We were over the moon!

We pulled into Lower Sabie rest camp and moved into our little thatched-roof bungalow. The accommodations were basic, but we had AC, comfy beds, and indoor plumbing, so we did fine. The kitchen facilities are outside on the porch to keep food smells (and roving critters) out of the rooms.

Our bungalow at Lower Sabie rest camp.

Our bungalow was at the edge of the camp, overlooking the Sabie River. As the sun went down, I noticed a couple of elephants playing in the water …

Taking a sunset dip.

Well, maybe they weren’t just “playing” …

This guy thinks he’s getting lucky.

But, she said “No.”  “Aw, c’mon!” he said, and kept advancing.


He had only one thing on his mind.

“No means NO, you jerk!” She turned tail and disappeared up the hill, leaving her date thrashing at tree branches in frustration.

Kevin and Jacqui had packed a car-load of food and libations for our safari trip. Kevin cooked a delicious braai supper (a braai is what we’d call a barbeque), and we fell into bed wondering what day two would bring.

NEXT: More from our safari!

Eric is writing his own reflections on our trip on his blog, PhotoGraphic Thoughts. Check it out for another perspective.

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The other side of the world, part 1

How far can blogging take you? If you’re lucky, to the other side of the world, which is where it took Eric and me this October.

But first … where have I been?

In a word: Retired! Doing whatevertheheck I want! Apparently, that hasn’t included writing blog posts. I realize my last post was over a year ago. You know, it’s curious … several bloggers that I’ve followed for as long as I’ve been writing mine (2012) also evaporated into the blog ether. A few have resurfaced lately, which I’m delighted to see. I hope to remain one of them. Thank you for stopping by!

Now, back to my story. Several years ago I began following a fascinating blog, Africadayz, written by a woman named Jacqui in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jacqui’s a wonderful storyteller, and I found her insights on post-apartheid South African life to be fascinating. I also follow her blog, Home-in-the-Making, which chronicles her story of building a new home. I was sure Jacqui was someone I’d enjoy knowing. We began exchanging emails and became Facebook friends.

A few years ago, my friend, Cathy (Cathy’s Adventures)  was passing through Johannesburg, and I offered to link her up with Jacqui. I was so tickled to do this, but at the same time, I was envious … Cathy had met Jacqui, but would I ever get the chance? So, Cathy, Eric, and I began cooking up a plan to take a South African vacation. Unfortunately, late in the game, Cathy was unable to go, so Eric and I set out on our own.

I’d never traveled so far before: If you stick a pin through the Earth, the antipode of Seattle is somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. The nearest large land mass is South Africa. And I’d never taken such a long vacation — over three weeks — impossible when I was working, and hard to justify because of our pets. Shout out to our dedicated and kind friends, Art and Maari, who cat-sat our colony!

The antipode of Seattle is in the Indian Ocean.

We splurged on business-class tickets because we just couldn’t conceive of sitting with our legs wrapped around our necks for 24 hours of flight time. Even though we had lie-flat pods, free booze, and gourmet meals, the other side of the world is a LONG ways away. We endured a nine-hour layover in Dubai, during which I discovered my iPad had gone missing, which spoiled any chance of relaxation. Plus, I ate something bad. So had a few other folks, which made the final leg of the journey to Johannesburg uncomfortable. TMI?

As we staggered out of customs and baggage claim at O R Tambo International in Joburg, there was Jacqui, just as promised, and our adventure began in earnest. Eric wrangled our rental car at the Hertz counter (not as smooth a transaction as we’re used to), and climbed into the right-hand driver’s seat of our Opel SUV. Jacqui bravely rode shotgun and navigated while Eric faced his first attempt at driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I sat in the back seat, trying not to flinch out loud. I’d “driven” the route a couple of times on Google Street View, so the whole trip to Jacqui’s house looked oddly familiar, as if I’d dreamed it. Freeways are pretty much the same everywhere … you see the backs of car dealerships, box stores, and housing developments, and all the traffic seems to going in your direction.

Other than driving on the left side of the road, the freeways looked pretty typical. [Photo: Google Maps]

Getting close to Jacqui’s house. Aren’t these trees great? It was spring and they hadn’t leafed out yet. [Photo: Google Maps]

Jacqui and Kevin were such gracious hosts. Eric and I will be forever grateful for their generosity and hospitality. We were given a lovely upstairs bedroom with a view of the park. It was obvious why they named their house “Treetops.”

Our peaceful park view.

We were happy to meet their spaniel, Daisy, and three Norwegian forest cats, Mischka, Monty, and Izzy. Pet availability is important when you’re far away from home. I’m sorry, Daisy, I didn’t get a pic of you!

Security-wise, everyday life in Johannesburg is different than what we’re accustomed to in the States. To be sure, many Americans live in gated communities, or we may have a fenced yard with an electronic gate. (In our case, our bungalow is in town, on a corner, and unprotected.) We Americans don’t usually live behind tall walls topped with electrified razor wire …  unless we’re celebrities or politicians. But this level of security is par for the course in South Africa, as in other countries where the difference between the “haves” and the “have nots” is great. It was not a surprise to me, as I’d read about it on Jacqui’s blog, as well as seen it in photos. However, seeing it in person, the necessity of protecting oneself and one’s property was a bit of a shock. The leafy suburb that we’d call home for two nights was light years away from the tin and paper shacks in the townships we passed on the highway, where the have-nots live.

This new-construction house is already surrounded by a tall wall topped with electrified wire. [Photo: Google Maps]

Our first day was spent recovering from jetlag, but on day 2 we drove into town to a place I’d noticed on Jacqui’s Facebook page. Victoria Yards is a century-old industrial complex of low brick buildings and metal-framed windows. It’s been reborn as an artists’ community, with galleries and studios for painters, glassblowers, sculptors, and potters, with edible gardens providing green space. I love adaptive reuse, and I LOVED Victoria Yards. What fun it would be to have a studio in such a place!

Next, Jacqui took us to one of her favorite shops, Art Africa, which sells African folk art. Such a feast for the eyes! I wanted to buy the whole store! We had to limit ourselves to a few easily packable goodies such a flat woven baskets and beaded necklaces. Beading is a popular craft in South Africa. We saw some gorgeous beaded items, and came home with several.

Jacqui makes a purchase at Art Africa.

That night, Jacqui and Kevin hosted a dinner party to introduce us to some of their close friends. We had so much fun talking to everyone. I wonder what they thought of us, with our slangy American speech? Did I take any photos? Nope. In fact, I failed to take photos of human beings this entire trip, unless they wound up in a photo by accident. Guess I had African flora, fauna, and scenery on my mind. I must make a better effort in the future!

The next morning we piled into our cars and hit the road to Kruger National Park, nearly  six hours away. Our destination was just outside the park, in a town called Malelane.  The trip itself was an education. Along the route, we passed enormous coal mines and coal-fired generating plants. Coal trucks dominated the highway. South Africa is both a major producer and consumer of coal. This was a difficult scene to witness.

Coal pollution was evident.

Yet, most of the trip was beautiful. We didn’t realize that Johannesburg is higher than Denver, at 5,750 ft. Nearing the Kruger, we dropped a down a very long hill into the Lowveld (veld is grassland or prairie), at 1153 ft.

Our stop for the night was Pestana Lodge, where we relaxed with drinks and a sunset dinner on their large deck overlooking the Crocodile River. What a view! We were so excited to see African animals right in front of us at the river! Water buck, hippos, impala, egrets, fish eagles, and more. “Welcome to Africa,” I thought. It was hard to believe we were really there.

From the deck we had a view of the bridge and the entry into Kruger National Park. Those little antelope are impala.

A hippo grazes at sunset.

Hippos are more often seen in the water. They make an awesome bellowing sound.

A troupe of vervet monkeys scampers by our bungalow.

Next up, Part 2 — Our five incredible days in Kruger National Park.

A week in the desert, part 3c: Tucson Botanical Garden … and more!

With our desert botanical appetite whetted, Eric and I raced to our next destination: Tucson Botanical Garden. (Actually, we spent a little time with the friends we came to visit first.) TBG isn’t as large as Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden, and far smaller than Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Tucson Botanical Garden began as Rutger and Bernice Porter’s family home (built in the 1920s) and their business, Desert Gardens Nursery. When Rutger Porter died in 1964, Bernice donated the property to the City of Tucson, but she continued to live in the house. Bernice passed away in 1983, and the city deeded the property to Tucson Botanical Garden.

Tucson Botanical Garden map.

Tucson Botanical Garden

This brilliantly back-lit cactus greeted us as we entered the garden. Pity that I didn’t record the name, but it reminded me of my mom’s old crown of thorns … on steroids. It’s not from around here … maybe Madagascar?

Bright green cactus in a pot at Tucson Botanical Gardens.

It’s glowing!

I noticed these women just leaving after a plein air painting session. Perhaps if I lived in Tucson, I’d join them.

Plein air painters leane Tucson Botanic Garden..

Plein air painters scatter.

I noticed large trees that I would not have expected in a desert garden. This was April, and they were just beginning to leaf out.

A large deciduous tree in Tucson Botanical Garden.

A large deciduous tree shades a patio near the Porter house.

A crape myrtle in Tucson Botanical Garden.

A crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia)? In Arizona? These trees have a tropical origin.

The Porters’ original house is now used as an admin and gallery space for the TBG. I circled the building, surprised at the undesert-like leafiness of the plantings.

Porter house at Tucson Botanical Garden.

A patio tucked into a corner.

Porter house at Tucson Botanical Garden.

The back door and sunny garden with roses.

Wall with colorful ceramic appliques at Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Colorful botanical appliques decorate a wall bordering the parking lot.

Shutters made of sticks on Porter house at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Look at these shutters made out of sticks!

Front door at Porter house, Tucson Botanical Garden.

The front door with its shady patio. Straw yellow stucco with sage green trim and surprisingly bright red downspouts.

The shocking periwinkle blue of the adjacent herb garden pergola was the perfect color to make the plants stand out. What a striking color scheme for the desert!

Blue herb garden pergola at Tucson Botanica Garden.

Even on a hot day, these blues look cool.

We walked on through a series of themed desert gardens. The day was hot, in the upper 90s, and shade was hard to come by.

Trail at Tucson Botanical Garden.

The trail winds through the cacti and succulent garden.

piaranthus geminatus Asclepiadaceae at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Funny little Piaranthus geminatus Asclepiadaceae from South Africa. Piaranthus produce beautiful, fleshy star-shaped flowers.

Pink-blooming cactus at Tucson Botanical Garden.

I don’t know what these are, but their little pink blooms are so cute.

Crassula at Tucson Botanical Garden.

A crassula lit by the sun.

Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), at Tucson Botanical Garden

It’s a shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), of course.

Another small house … on the map it’s labeled Friends House. Something about this door and the rustic landscape drew me in. More red and green accenting on an adobe house. Colors that I wouldn’t otherwise put together seem to work here.

Friends House at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Friends House.

On the other side of Friends House, we found yet another structure … this one larger and definitely open. We ate a delicious and memorable lunch at Café Botanica. I highly recommend it for their fresh and local cuisine.

Botanica Cafe at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Looking into Café Botanica. We ate on the patio.

Botanica Cafe at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Market umbrellas usually mean food is near. I was famished.

Cacti in sun at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Outside the restaurant, these cacti glowed in the late afternoon sun.

After a late lunch, our tour was nearly over. We ended it in the Plants of the Tohono O’odom Native American garden.

A fence made from ocotillo branches at Tucson Botanical Garden.

A fence made from ocotillo branches! Handy stuff.

Yellow flowering shrub in Arizona.

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata chaparralis), or greasewood, is common in the desert Southwest.

Metal sculpture gate at Tucson Botanical Garden.

This stunning gate marked the end of our tour.

I had an epiphany at Tucson Botanical Garden when I came upon a sign that read, in part: “Does this garden seem lush and cool? The Historical Gardens show a gardening style that was popular in Tucson from the 1880s through the 1940s. The landscape choices of those days aimed for a green retreat from the desert and helped keep homes cooler in the decades before air conditioning.”

Informational sign describing historical garden style at Tucson Botanical Garden.

Does this garden seem lush and cool?

Aha! Suddenly it all made sense—my natural attraction to old houses, coupled with my desire (if I lived in Tucson), to push the botanical boundaries by growing an oasis around my house. Something like this, maybe:

Landscaped yard in Phoenix, AZ

This is the kind of landscaping I’d try to achieve in Arizona. More modern, but lush. [photo: Moon Valley Nursery]

And of course, the house would have to be an oldie. Something that Georgia O’Keeffe might like.

After we left the garden, we drove downtown on Broadway. Suddenly we were passing a treasure trove of Tucson’s vintage homes—the kind that get my DIY juices flowing. My head was on a swivel! Granted, at this time of our lives, the last thing Eric and I need is another century-old fixer-upper, but I still enjoy imagining what I’d do with these oft-forgotten little gems.

In the Rincon Heights neighborhood just south of the University of Arizona, we found plenty of these charming southwest bungalows. It’s a very modest neighborhood, and I don’t know how safe it is, but if people restore these homes, the neighborhood will improve. I saw some evidence that this is happening.

Here’s a slide show of a baker’s dozen houses that I love, captured from Google Maps. (Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable pointing a camera at people’s homes.) Notice the interesting ziggurat shapes of their buttress walls, and the repetition of arches. Many have beautiful (and apparently original) red tile roofs and metal-framed windows.

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Whew … these houses need us. But so does our own house here in the Northwest.

I’ll leave you with a sampling of photos from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Then, we’ll head back to the Northwest. See you next time, Arizona!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

A week in the desert, part 3b: Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Happy autumn, everyone! What a summer we’ve had. A couple of hurricanes tried to drown Hawaii (I sheepishly admit, when I first heard about Hurricane Lane, I thought they were talking about something akin to Tornado Alley). The west coast burned while Wisconsin flooded. Florida’s waters turned toxic. Hurricane Florence slammed the Carolinas. Whew. Let’s rewind, shall we, to a gentler season—last April, when Eric and I spent a week in Arizona. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve had such an abrupt switch of seasons that I’m glad to think about sun again.

After a few days in Phoenix, Eric and I set off for our ultimate destination of Tucson. Still excited about what we’d just seen at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, we couldn’t resist a quick stop at Bryce Thompson Arboretum State Park, near Superior, AZ (“the largest and oldest botanical garden in Arizona”). Quick only because we’d arrived an hour before closing time, and we didn’t have time to explore the entire trail system, which is extensive.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum trail map

Boyce Thompson Arboretum trail map. We hiked from the parking lot to the lake and back, along the purple trail.

You might be thinking, “You’ve already seen every single plant the desert has to offer. Why go to yet another botanical garden?” True, each garden features many of the same plants, but each garden is different in scope, design, terrain, and just the feel of the place. Boyce Thompson was a very different experience than the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. For one thing, we were nearly the only people there so late in the afternoon, which was wonderful.

Got your sunscreen on? Walk this way …

At 323 acres, Boyce Thompson Arboretum was large enough to make me feel like we were actually setting out into the open desert. While these plant vignettes were certainly deliberately planted, they looked so natural, it was easy to think they just “happened” that way.

Agaves and golden barrel cactus at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Agaves and golden barrel cactus.

Cactus in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Unsure what these are; possibly a thicket of young senita (Pachycereus schottii).

We passed the Smith Building (1925), constructed of native rhyolite, mined just across the highway. Originally the visitors center, it’s now the interpretive center. Attached greenhouses hold collections of succulents from around the world. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open late in the day.

Smith Building, 1925. The original visitors center at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Smith Building, 1925. The original visitors center.

Occasional ramadas such as this one provide shade for hikers.

Rustic ramada at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Ramada on a hill. Yucca rostrata on the left, agaves and barrel cactus in foreground.

View of cliff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Saguaro cacti frame a classic view of the West.

View of cliffs at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Pipelines deliver water from Queen Creek and a cistern high above.

We walked the trail to Ayer Lake, which stores water from Queen Creek.

Ayers Lake at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Ayer Lake.

Cute little lizards ran all over. This one looks like an Elegant Earless Lizard.

Brown lizard in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Cute little guy (or gal?).

Loved this sign for “Boojum Cove.” And sure enough, boojum trees appeared!

Rusty metal sign, "Boojum Cove," Boyce Thompson Arboreum.

Welcome to Boojum Cove!

Boojum tress in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

You can’t beat a boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris) for weirdness.

Beautiful blue agaves … probably a variant of A. americana.

Barren tree trunk and striped agaves in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Horizontally striped Agave americana.

Tree cholla cactus in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

The prominent tubercles tell me this is a tree cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata).

Cactus in Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Wouldn’t want to meet this guy in a dark alley.

A little bunny let us get right up next to her to take photos.

Rabbit in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Little cutie!

We came upon a grove (not sure that cacti come in groves, but …) of golden barrel cactus. I would have loved to grab one of those pups to take home, but TSA would not appreciate finding it in my suitcase. Golden barrels are endangered in the wild, but later I found one of my very own at Lowe’s (go figure).

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), also known as Mother-in-law’s cushion. That’s so mean!

Agave pelona in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Isn’t this Agave pelona a beauty?


Dead saguaro trunk in Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Nothing lives forever, including this saguaro. It’s a beautiful piece of sculpture, though.

We returned to the parking lot where they were having a plant sale. Why, oh why didn’t I buy some of these Astrophytum myriostigma? Only $5.00!

Astrophylum succulent for sale at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Astrophylum succulent.

Look how cool they are!

Collection of astrophytum succulents.

Assorted astrophytum. [Photo: Shutterstock.]

Guess what–I’m still not done with the Arizona desert! I have one more post in this series, in which I come to a realization about desert gardening and residential design. I hope you don’t have to wait for it as long as you did for this one. The days are getting cooler and shorter, so I’m spending more time indoors … which may help my blog production. And of course, I have more stories about our recent house projects, so stick around!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

The greenhouse is back in business!

Our little greenhouse is a last-century addition. It was built in the late 1990s when my ex-husband got hold of a bunch of 1940s-era fir casement windows that a friend was surplussing. He set about building a greenhouse, appending it to the rear of the Model-T-sized garage. It’s about 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Some 20 years later, the greenhouse was needing serious TLC.

Dilapidated small wooden grrenhouse.

Here’s how the greenhouse looked a year ago, just before our new back fence was installed.

But wait! I had this post half-written when I collected some photos from Eric. He supplied me with several from 2008, and reminded me that he did the first major rebuild back then! My spotty memory skipped right past that era. He claims that he should have taken the whole thing down then and rebuilt it from scratch. If you ask me, he nearly did.

Let’s go back to 2008 … We had not yet created our Japanese garden, and a little lean-to (built to cover a golf cart) was still attached to the garage. Our veggie garden had yet to be conceived. And we had a LOT more grass. At that point, Eric removed the fiberglass wiggleboard roofing, the rotten roof framing, the windows, and the south wall framing. Only the east and west walls still exist in this photo. (The north wall is the garage itself.)

2008. Ah, memories …

The dismanteld greenhouse in 2008.

2008: The greenhouse seems to be a magnet for junk we don’t know what to do with … including the kitchen sink (far right under the gray planter)!

For the new south wall, Eric created a knee wall of concrete block (which serves as one wall of our raised veggie plot), rebuilt the window wall framing, and reinstalled the windows. He also installed new rafters and new fiberglass roofing. And that was how the greenhouse survived for the next 10 years.

Fast forward to 2017 …

Greenhouse made of salvaged wood windows

Summer of 2017: Siding has been removed. Here you can see the concrete block foundation.

Eric started the 2017 renovation by installing a new, mo-bettah roof and new siding. We looked at UV-resistant polycarbonate panels at the Home Show and Garden Show (the kind greenhouse kits are made of) and knew that was the way to go. Eric ripped off the sun-brittled fiberglass wiggle-board roof (again), replaced the rafters (again), and installed half-inch twin-wall 8 mm polycarb panels. Already the greenhouse looked more substantial, and it was so much warmer. We successfully over-wintered all of our succulents and a friend’s young fig tree.

Man installs polycarbonate roofing on small greenhouse.

September, 2017: Eric installs the polycarb roofing. New siding is temporarily tacked onto the south side.

Small wooden greenhouse.

After the new roof was installed. Siding has been removed for painting.

Polycarbonate greenhouse roof panels.

Lots more light … and UV resistant!

This spring, while I was busy relandscaping half of the backyard, Eric continued on the greenhouse. The vintage window frames originally had been varnished, but never painted. By now, the varnish was long gone and the window glazing was dried up and falling out. Eric reglazed the windows, replaced all the window framing (again!), installed trim, and painted the whole thing to match the house. What an improvement!

Small greenhouse with casement windows.

The casement windows are painted to match the house. (That’s our weather station on the pole.)

That left the west side—the end with the door—or in this case, a frame where a door should go. For the life of this greenhouse, a succession of roll-up bamboo blinds have served as the door. They blew around in storms, their ropes hopelessly tangled, and eventually, each blind rotted in the soggy Northwest winters. Unfortunately, the door frame wasn’t quite tall enough to accept a standard door. It’s never simple, is it?

Small wooden greenhouse

West wall before rebuild.

Small wooden greenhouse.

West wall with windows removed. The greenhouse is still full of junk.

Small wooden greenhouse.

It doesn’t look any better in a closeup.

Rotted wood window frame.

Just a little rotten.

As you can see, Eric had his hands full removing the rotten wood and reframing the walls. One of the old window panes broke, so instead of glass, he replaced the lower two windows with spare polycarbonate material. I like the look.

Polycarbonate panels as window in a greenhouse.

I would have liked polycarb in all the side windows, but we didn’t have enough.

Gargoyle decoration.

Our gargoyle guards the door. He (she?) needs a name.

Small wood greenhouse with casement windows.

Almost finished!

The door opening, which was just a couple of inches too short to accept a standard storm door, could not be raised. So, Eric cleverly built out the frame and installed the door against the exterior wall instead of inside the door opening. Hey, this is just a greenhouse … what code?

This should really be Eric’s blog, huh?

Door framed on the outside of an outbuilding.

An easy fix–apply the door to the outside of the building!

Only when the exterior was done did we tackled the mess within. I was always frustrated by the collection of odds and ends that somehow migrated into this small space. I literally could not step more than three feet inside the door, and even that was challenging. Too bad if I wanted something in the back (besides, I didn’t really know what was in the back). And the tangle of garden tools? Impossible! ARRGGHH!!!

We pulled the entire mess out onto the lawn and sorted it: dump, garage, or greenhouse. For once, only select gardening-related objects were allowed to be stored in the greenhouse.

Gardening equipment strewn on the grass.

Everybody out!

We had fun putting things back in an organized fashion. First, we hung an additional tool rack on the back wall, which I can walk straight up to now! Eric cleared weeds from the Saltillo tile floor. (The tiles are a bit broken, but still suffice and look cool.)

Garden tools hanging on a rack.

A place for everything …

Finally, Eric built a step in the gravel in front of the door, and paved the area with flagstones. Sweet! That green table inside? It was in the basement when I bought the house. It’s the base of a Hoosier-type kitchen cabinet. In rough shape, but perfect for a greenhouse.

Small wooden greenhouse with black storm door.

Complete with human door and cat door.

However … it’s been a very hot and dry summer here in the Northwest. Endless sunny days really up the temperature in the greenhouse, and I couldn’t last in there for very long under the direct sun. So, I bought some canvas and made a couple of grommeted shades, which we hung from hooks. Frank Lloyd Wright taught us that trick. The shades don’t lower the temperature much, but standing in shade is preferable to standing in sun. We’ll remove them in the winter, of course.

Thermometer showing over 95 degrees Farenheit.

Temp creeping toward 100.


Canvas shades cover greenhouse roof.

Under the big top.

I added some solar-powered landscape lights to the window shelf. They make a nice glow in the evening.

I love puttering in my greenhouse now. I’m out there every day, sometimes just to enjoy looking at tools that I can actually reach!

That’s a wrap on another project!

Small greenhouse with lights at dusk.

The greenhouse at dusk.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

A week in the desert, part 3a: Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix

We visited three botanical gardens in Arizona … too much for one post, so I’ll break it up into quicker reads. Grab a cuppa joe and settle in … because this will be a spiny post, heavy on prickly photos and short on words. Lots of eye candy for fans of desert flora!

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix

One of our must-see destinations was the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, a 140-acre site with five distinctive loop trails. We had time for only three, which means we must return. (We’d return, regardless.) I’ll name the plants that I know, but I don’t know them all. Here we go!

I fell in love with this place even before we got to the admissions booth. On the way in:

Chihuly sculptures at Desert Botanical Garden.

Yucca rostrata, nature and Chihuly’s versions.


Hedgehog cactus with pink blooms and Agave paryii

Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus) with pink blooms, and Agave parryi


Blooming Cercidium floridum (blue palo verde), the Arizona state tree

Blooming blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), the Arizona state tree. I like how the colors are echoed in the potted agaves.

As we walked inside, we were surprised by this enormous lavender head, the first of several large, colorful ceramic sculptures by Jun Kaneko that were displayed throughout the garden. Featured art installations change several times a year.

Large ceramic lavender head by Jun Kaneko.

Untitled head by Jun Kaneko.

 Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa rita)

Probably my favorite desert plant, Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa rita), because — purple and green!

Squirrel among opuntia rufida

See the squirrel among the blind prickly pear (Opuntia rufida)? There are many varieties of opuntia.

Wildflowers at Desert Botanical Garden.

We walked the Wildflower Loop first. More Jun Kaneko heads in the background. They made great landmarks.

Butterfly on a yellow blanket flower.

The butterfly pavilion was a special treat. Photographing flitting butterflies is difficult!

Yellow fruit of the fishhook barrel cactus

Fruit of the fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) look like little pineapples.

Brilliant orange claret cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) blooms.

Brilliant orange claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) blooms. I don’t know what the yellow flower is.

 Santa rita prickly pear with pink bloom.

Another Santa Rita prickly pear. I love cactus flowers.

We continued on the Desert Discovery Loop. We were reminded that all cactus are succulents (they store water in their leaves), but not all succulents are cactus! Only cactus have spines that grow from areoles, whereas succulents may have spines, but they do not grow from areoles. Got that? Take a look at some of these examples.

There are many varieties of agave, which are succulents with spines, but no areoles.

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A young cardon (Pachcereus pringlei).

This young cardon (Pachcereus pringlei) is a cactus, with spines and buds growing from areoles.

boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

A boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris) — yes, they DO exist! It’s not a cactus.

Octopus cactus (Stenocereus alamocensis)

Octopus cactus (Stenocereus alamocensis)

Black spined prickly pear (Opuntia macrocentra)

Black spined prickly pear (Opuntia macrocentra), definitely a cactus! Ouch!

Saguaro metal sculpturemade of wrenches.

A saguaro, but not a cactus–because it’s a sculpture made out of wrenches. Unfortunately, I didn’t record the artist’s name.

We detoured into the shorter Center for Desert Living Loop to visit the herb garden. There, I found the beautiful Archer House, built in 1952 and named for Lou Ella Archer, a founding member. I cupped my hands around my face and peered into the windows, trying to look past my reflection. I was shocked to find a face peering back at me–a man working at his desk!

Archer House at Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix

Archer House, 1952. Love the color — maybe because it’s the same color as our house!

Pergola detail of Archer House, Phoenix

Interesting octopus hanging planters.

Woman at Archer House, Phoenix, AZ

A tourist studies the Archer House.


Agave potatorum and rosemary

This might be Agave potatorum, contrasting beautifully with rosemary.

We came upon a grove of giant cardón (Pachycereus pringlei), the largest columnar cactus in the Sonoran Desert—far larger than saguaro. Some of these rose over 60 feet in the air. We could tell they were very old.

Cardon cactus.

Magnificent cardons grow up to 60 feet.

Man and woman peek from behind a colorful Jun Kaneko sculpture.

Past the cardons was another Jun Kaneko sculpture.

Just ahead was another adobe-style building—Webster Auditorium, originally built in 1939 as the garden’s administration building, and named for founder Gertrude Divine Webster.

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Our time was running out, so we completed the Desert Discovery Loop and returned to the Admissions and gift shop courtyard … but not before passing a few more beautiful specimens.

Yucca rostrata

Yucca rostrata … looks very Dale Chihuly.

Ceramic head by Jun Kaneko surrounded by golden barrel cactus.

I like how this head’s colors complement the landscape, and the stripes echo the ribs of the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii).

silver torches (Cleistocactus strausii) with red blooms

Look at these silver torches (Cleistocactus strausii) with their topknots and red schnozzes! Such personality!

Blooming claret cups (Echinocereus triglochidiatus)

A gorgeous group of blooming claret cups (Echinocereus triglochidiatus).

Old man of the Andes (Oreocereus celsianus)

Old man of the Andes (Oreocereus celsianus)

Desert rose (Adenium).

I want a desert rose (Adenium).

I’ll leave you with this one, who took out all his false teeth for this photo. I’m unsure what species it is, but it’s Something cristata, or crested. I didn’t know at the time what a comparative rarity this condition is. It’s caused by a cellular mutation, usually due to injury or disease, that makes the cells multiply in a linear fashion. I’m going to look for cristata succulents in nurseries now. I gotta have one!

A columnar crested cactus.

An unidentified columnar crested cactus.

In part 3b, we’ll head east a few miles to tour the Boyce Thompson Arboretum before we finally get to Tucson. Stay cool!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


Lucy and Ethel have some work done

I met identical twins Lucy and Ethel last summer at my neighbor’s yard sale. We hit it off immediately and they came to live with us that very afternoon. After spending the winter holed up in the garage, the ladies shyly emerged and have sat for some weeks now in the shade of the Chinese windmill palm. You see, Lucy and Ethel don’t feel quite up to going out in public. Being of a certain age, they want to have a little work done first.

red chairs, vintage metal chairs

Lucy and Ethel in their shabby dresses.

Normally, I would assure them that the patina of their years is a beautiful thing, and advise them to wear it with pride … but in this case, I find myself agreeing that improvement is warranted, and even necessary. There’s just too much weather damage and discoloration. Too many years without sunscreen, and I want them to be around for a long time.

rusty metal chair seat

The ravages of time …

Lucy (or is it Ethel?) even has a couple of crude tattoos: “Jean” and “Jim.” Jean was my mom’s name, and it doesn’t belong scrawled across the poor chair’s face. Can you make them out?

names carved in chair, Jean and Tom

Jean and Jim

At some point, the girls tried a cheap cosmetic solution of bright red paint. Whoever applied it did a lousy job, and their makeup smeared and ran. If this isn’t proof that a bad makeup job can age you, I don’t know what is.

red spray paint, vintage garden chair

A careless paint job.

My plan is to give Lucy and Ethel a place of honor on the new side porch, so it’s time to take action. Their previous owner (who moved away) gave me a business card of a friend who does walnut blasting … which of course I’ve mislaid. But having their paint professionally removed wouldn’t be very DIY, would it? Why not go the more difficult, messy, and time-consuming route of grinding it off myself?  After all, I have nothing better to do.

red metal garden chairs

Don’t worry, girls … I have a plan.

The thing is—and I haven’t shared this with L&E—I have no experience refinishing metal, and I don’t really know where to start. It seems reasonable to grind the paint off with a wire brush, so at Lowe’s we bought a wire complexion brush for my friends. Looks mean, doesn’t it?

drill with wire brush


I don’t think I need to take them completely down to bare metal, but I do need to smooth them out before giving them a fresh coat of glossy Rustoleum. That’s the plan.

Hold still, Ethel (or are you Lucy ?) … this will sting a little. After a good ten minutes of exfoliating on her arm, this was the result.

vintage metal garden chair, paint removal


It’s down to bare metal, all right. The paint did come off with some pressure, but the drill was unwieldy and Ethel danced around in pain the whole time. I can’t see how I could keep this up long enough to get all the paint off both chairs, including their backsides and underarms. Maybe it was the 90-degree heat on the back deck that made me feel like quitting.

Maybe a chemical peel would work better? (Please don’t call it paint stripper.)


That’s right, I wrote that post three years ago, almost to the day! Someone must have leaked the paint stripper idea to Lucy and Ethel, because they beat feet back into the garage, not to be seen for three years. It seemed obvious that the sand blasting or walnut blasting idea just wasn’t going to happen, so I scaled back my expectations and decided that elbow grease, sandpaper, and spray paint would be better than nothing. L&E agreed, as they weren’t getting any younger. I wanted the pair to be front and center for a party we were about to host.

Some WD40 helped loosen bolts that probably hadn’t budged for decades, and soon the ladies lay in pieces. I figured I’d use my Mouse sander on most of the flatter areas (although nothing on these gals is truly flat) but I also bought a shaped foam hand sander to get into smaller areas. Turned out, I didn’t use the Mouse at all because the hand sander did the trick.

Black and whhite cat looks at sanding block.

“Is that a cat toy?”

Sanding created lots of red paint dust. I was glad it didn’t blow around, because I detest wearing a dust mask (bad, I know).

Metal chair seat covered in red sanding dust.

Tomato-red paint and rust dust.

After sanding each piece, I wiped it down with a damp cloth, let it dry, and carried it to my paint booth (a plastic tarp on the grass, with concrete blocks to lift the pieces off the surface). Every single time I set pieces on the blocks to be painted, the breeze came up. Every. Single. Time. I sprayed anyway. Spraying is not the most economical way to apply paint.

The arm and leg tubes are Krylon Fusion Gloss White, and the armrests, seats, and backs are Krylon Fusion Gloss Red Pepper.

Metal chair part after red spray painting.

Paint booth — a tarp on the grass.

Each piece required at least three coats. After painting, I’d wait about 30 minutes, then spray another coat. According to the instructions on the can, you can recoat up to one hour later, but after that you have to wait for 48 hours, otherwise the coat won’t adhere or can develop orange peel. Lucy and Ethel couldn’t risk that.

The actual painting was so much fun—watching the faded, beat-up chairs come to life with color and shine. Except when the skies began spitting. Oh, NOOOOOO!! I tried to sand out the fisheyes, but I was only moderately successful.

 Fisheyes develop in wet paint.

Wet paint + raindrops = fisheyes.

This seat was the worst of the pieces.

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Assembly day! We attached L&E’s bodices to their skirts with new stainless steel bolts (a gift from Eric). Their bolts will never rust again. We slipped their white arms into the red sleeves, then bolted their arms and legs into their bodies.

Red metal vintage garden chair being assembled.

Body ready to attach to arms.

Man tightens bolt on red metal garden chair.

Eric tightens the new bolts.

And there they were, resplendent! Don’t their petal-topped outfits remind you of 1950s kitchen aprons?

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Lucy and Ethel hopped right into position on the deck, ready to party. I’m so proud of them! They’re not perfect, but I assured them that if you were born in the 1950s, no one expects you to be perfect 65 years later.

As I went back in the house, I heard Lucy giggling—something about all the backsides they were about to meet. Or maybe it was Ethel.

Epilogue … and almost tragedy.

After Eric and I put the chairs together, he suggested adding a clear coat to protect the finish, which hadn’t crossed my mind. I was glad we didn’t have to take the girls apart again. I simply sprayed them intact, using Krylon Crystal Clear Gloss.

But wait—WTF?—the gloss coat didn’t appear glossy, especially on the seat and back. In fact, it dried decidedly UNglossy and changed the texture of the metal from fairly smooth to sandpapery! I have no idea why the gloss coat reacted adversely with the red paint. You’d think paints of the same brand would be compatible. I wonder if the can was spraying propellant instead of paint? Has anyone else had this experience?

I was so mad that I didn’t even think about taking photos. I slipped some white garbage bags over the chair arms to protect them, then recoated the seats and backs with gloss red. It helped a lot, but I don’t think the seats are quite as glossy and smooth as they were before the clear coat. But, disaster averted—whew!

Lucy and Ethel exude confidence now and look amazingly bright and cheery on the deck. They’re my new favorite garden accessories!

Two red metal garden chairs from the 1950s.

Lucy and Ethel are ready to party!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

Backyard makeover, part 3

We’ve had plenty of time to sew up our backyard makeover, and indeed, it is almost a wrap. Eric and I have been working diligently on this project since we returned from our Arizona vacation in mid-April. The final touches may well be in place by the time I finish writing this post (because it takes me forever to crank out a blog post).

For weeks, our backyard looked like a plant sale at a construction site.

Plants on a patio table and construction items in background.

This view made me feel a little overwhelmed, but we’ve worked our way through all of it.

These two hombres supervise. Chex looks tough, doesn’t he?

I busted my hump creating the rain garden, but I got to know my chiropractor better. The garden is dug, rocked, planted, mulched, decorated, and lit. Duke has dug it up at least five times, despite our (obviously too-wimpy) protective wire fencing. I have uttered many four-letter words as I replanted the poor, abused plants. Gotta admire Duke’s determination, though.

I especially enjoy the new view from our bedroom window. So do the cats … one is often on the windowsill.

Silhouette of cat on windowsill.

Ginger keeps an eye on our progress from the bedroom.

Here are some in-progress photos.

River rock being installed in a landscaping dry creekbed.

During construction: Laying out the bigger rocks. I sort of bowled them into place to achieve a random scatter.

River rock installed in landscape dry creekbed.

Large and smaller river rock is in.

Dry creekbed garden

From another angle.

We use the narrow, fenced side yard (through the gate in the photos above) to store large items like aluminum ladders and wheelbarrows … but how to get there across that creekbed? Eric built a beautiful, gently arched Japanese-style bridge that will make it easy—and safe—to haul awkward items and wheelbarrow loads across the creek. The area under the gate’s swing is paved with flagstones.

A gently arched bridge spans a dry creek bed.

A gently arched bridge spans the dry creek bed.

Most things in the woodland garden in the back corner of the yard are thriving, although Diggety Duke had his way with a few unfortunate plants there, as well. The sword ferns are going bonkers. Eric and I picked out the gorgeous lantern in the corner for our ninth anniversary present.

Ferns, birch tree and Japanese lantern in corner of backyard.

The back corner is ferny.

While I rocked and planted (and replanted), Eric was busy doing his own heavy work. He restacked the veggie garden wall and filled the garden with new soil. (We’d used some of the old soil to build up the woodland garden after the fence was built.) Veggies are sprouting! We’re growing radishes, onions, garlic, carrots, spinach, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. (Does anyone else call them “rootabeggers” from childhood?) In the containers are bush beans and peas, Swiss chard, sweet peppers, and pickling cukes. On our deck are cherry tomatoes, Interlaaken grapes, a fig tree with 16 little figgies, and a lovely lemon tree (with teeny-weeny fruit!).

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I’ll leave details about the greenhouse refurbishment for a future post. You’re gonna love it! (I do!)

Over on the deck, I couldn’t resist buying this set of lime-green chairs to compliment agave Maria in her red pot. I resurrected a Midcentury hairpin table base out of the garage and painted it and a new table top to complete the set. I like the bright colors.

Green webbing deck chairs with red pot.

Green chairs and red pot.

Green webbing deck chairs with rec and green small table.

…and the table. (Color is washed out in this shot. The chairs match the table rim.)

Tuxedo cat curled up in a pot.

My favorite potted plant.

Just inside the gate to the alley, Eric wrestled with 60-lb concrete turf blocks to create a secure parking spot for a car or our utility trailer, should we want to get them off the street. Once the grass grows in, these pavers will be less visible. (See how nice the window wall of the greenhouse looks?)

Turf blocks being laid in backyard.

A heavy job.

He also relaid and raised the brick apron leading from the alley under the gate, and created flat areas for our garbage, recycling, and yard waste receptacles.

Brick pavers under a fence gate.

Eric lessened the slope of the brick apron from the alley into our yard.

Alley with fence and garbage receptacles.

On the alley side, it’s all business.

In total, we’ve moved over 5000 pounds of soil, rock, mulch, and pavers—most of it multiple times. We are tired. But we are happy.

To finish off our design, we installed some landscape lighting. Small solar lights shine down from the tops of the fence posts, and solar lanterns punctuate the garden. I added a few spotlights to highlight trees, and Eric installed a solar light in the tall lantern. It’s a little fairyland at night!

The murky nighttime photos are from my phone, but you get the idea …

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We’re pleased with the results of all our work, but as any gardener knows, the work is never done.

I’ll close with a couple of Eric’s shots.

Rain garden with hostas and Japanese maple.

The view from the bridge.

Two blue glass fishing floats among hostas in a rain garden.

Blue glass Japanese fishing floats in our rain garden.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


A week in the desert, part 2: Cosanti

More from our April trip to Arizona …

After our visit to Taliesin West, Eric and I headed to the Paradise Valley area of Scottsdale. I was excited to show Eric a place that had enchanted me years earlier. Cosanti, an Arizona Historic Site, is the home and studio of architect Paolo Soleri (1919 – 2013), who was once a student at Taliesin West. Soleri is best known for his experimental urban laboratory, Arcosanti, 60 miles north of Phoenix.

Cosanti logo inlaid in sidewalk.

The Cosanti logo inlaid in the sidewalk. Can you make it out? [photo:]

Soleri coined the name Cosanti from two Italian words: cosa and anti, meaning “before things” or “against things,” depending on which source you consult.

Soleri and his wife, Colly, bought five acres in Paradise Valley in in the 1950s, long before suburbia hemmed them in. The property is now surround by fashionable homes. In 1970, Soleri began building Arcosanti as a prototype self-sustaining city with a densely settled, small footprint. Artisans at both Cosanti and Arcosanti produce and sell bronze and ceramic wind bells of Soleri’s design to fund their existence.

Stepping out of the car in an unassuming gravel parking lot, we walked under lacy olive trees to the entrance of the Cosanti compound. Suddenly, it’s as if we were on another planet or on a sci-fi stage set. The setting is a feast for the eyes, and a lot to take in.

Entry to gallery at Cosanti.

You’ve never seen anyplace like this! [photo: TripAdvisor]

As at Taliesin West, concrete is the construction material of choice (cheap!), but the effect is entirely different. Soleri experimented with using concrete to construct apses—quarter spheres—most decorated with strange and fanciful designs. The apses are positioned to take advantage of sun in the cooler winters, and shade in the blazing summers. Some of the structures are partly underground for additional insulation. These shelters are made by heaping up a big mound of earth, then pouring concrete into frames laid on top. When the concrete cures, dig out the earth, and you have an apse.

Admission is free, but we chose to pay for a guided tour that had just started.

Just ahead, down an allee overhung with olive trees and sculptures, was an apse filled with our tour group and bronze wind bells. I wished for a breeze, but the hot air was still. I wished I could have all the bells.

Concrete apse at Cosanti

Entrance to a strange land.

We entered the apse. I didn’t know where to look: up at the decorated ceiling or at the forest of wind bells that surrounded us. It felt like a small cathedral … a little weird, a little awe-inspiring, and entirely engrossing.

A bronze wind bell sculpture hangs from a ceiling at Cosanti.

A large bronze pendant dominates the ceiling.

Bronze wind bells at Cosanti.

Wind bells hang from the ceiling like flowering vines.

Bronze wind bells at Cosanti.

A door to more.

White and tabby cat at Cosanti.

The only cat I saw on our entire trip.

Tour guide under apse at Cosanti.

Our tour guide explains it all.

Larry, our tour guide, had worked at Cosanti for 20 years, so he had worked with Soleri directly. He explained Cosanti’s history and architecture, and Soleri’s vision for the wind bells.  Larry referred to himself as an artisan: a person who creates art using someone else’s design.

We moved to the next apse, this one full of ceramic wind bells. And a gorgeous red roof. This was the bell assembly area.

A red stained glass roof and pink bougainvillea under an apse at Cosanti

Red roof and pink bougainvillea.

Red stained glass roof in an apse at Cosanti.

Roof detail.

A chain of wind catchers hangs from the ceiling.

A chain of wind catchers.

Larry led us on to another large apse—the bronze foundry, which would have been off-limits to us had we not been on the tour. The apse looks like it’s made from wood because wood was used to create the form for the concrete. Just as at Taliesin West, white canvas panels provide protection from the sun and a pleasant, even light.

Bronze artisans set up for a pour at Cosanti.

Artisans set up sand bell molds for a pour.

Molds are made from a special sand that can withstand high temperatures without melting. The sand is surrounded by a thick metal jacket for stabilization. There’s a funnel-shaped hole at the top of each mold into which the bronze is poured.

The day was sweltering hot, but the men who poured the molten bronze had to wear heavy buckskin coats, chaps, gauntlet gloves, and face shields for safety. They deftly moved the crucible of 2200°F, glowing yellow bronze from mold to mold, pouring smoothly. I could tell they’d done this many times.

Two men dressed in protective leather pour molten bronze into molds.

Moving the crucible of molten bronze from mold to mold. Sand molds without metal jackets are on the right.

Watching the men pour the silky looking liquid bronze was fascinating in a scary sort of way.

Molten bronze pours from a crucible.


Within minutes, the new bells’ temperature had fallen to a mere 1000°F, and they could be removed from the molds without damage. Wearing heavy gloves, Larry whacked the sand from the casting, revealing a luminous golden bell. When the sand fell from the middle of the bell, it rang in a clear tone. (The sand is swept up and reused.)

The bells are beautiful when they emerge from the mold, but they darken to a gray color as they age. Soleri preferred to use an acid bath to add a verdigris color. Because the color varies, no two bells are the same.

A newly cast bronze wind bell looks gold.

Newly cast wind bell.

Two bronze bells at Cosanti

A newly cast bell (left) and a finished one after an acid bath.

It was beastly hot in the foundry apse, as you can imagine. I backed out under the olive trees, hoping for a breath of air. Behind us hung a large bronze sculpture belonging to the Goldwater family, returned for restoration. You can see its natural gray color … and an iconic Cosanti window behind it.

People stand in the shade of the foundry apse at Cosanti.

Our tour group bakes in the foundry apse.

A large bell assemblage awaits restoration at Cosanti.

A large bell assemblage awaits restoration.

I was a little relieved when we left the superheated foundry apse and ventured further into the compound. We walked through a tunnel whose small entrance and large exit whooshed the cooling air through … a Wright trick. Ahh …

Concrete structures at Cosanti.

A dinosaur’s ribcage? Soleri’s office is behind the portholes at right.

On the other side of the tunnel was an apse where ceramic bells are fired. Behind that was a curious half-underground building that served as living quarters for the apprentices onsite. See those steps that go down into the pit? They’re simply timbers that stick out of the wall. I took a break sitting on the hefty timber railing of the bridge.

Dormitory building with sunken center space at Cosanti.

Dormitory with a rustic Asian vibe. [photo: Tomiaki Tomura]

We exited the earth house through the door at the top of those timber stairs. In front of us loomed the enormous concrete roof over the swimming pool. This mammoth slab is supported on 12 utility poles. Like everything else at Cosanti, it’s been there since the late 1960s. This stuff holds up.

Thick concrete slab forms the roof over the swimming pool at Cosanti.

Wonder how much it weighs.

The wall of a small apse near the pool featured this poem.

A poem is inscribed on the apse wall at Cosanti.

A poem on the apse wall.

We had reached the end of the developed property, and the tour was over. Thanks, Larry! We returned to the gallery, where we’d started.

Siadewalk between concrete structures at Cosanti.

The sidewalk near the foundry apse.

Gallery and gift shop at Cosanti.

“Exit through the gift shop,” we always joke.

Inside the gallery and gift shop at Cosanti.

Inside the gallery and gift shop. [photo: TripAdvisor]

Bronze bell assemly at Cosanti.

A display at the gallery.

We knew we wouldn’t escape without choosing something special to bring home. Because I had been to Cosanti and Arcosanti before, I already had some goodies, so I wanted Eric to pick this one. He chose one of Cosanti’s Cause Bells, which donates part of its cost to a cause of our choosing (ours benefitted the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden). This bell has a varicolored polished finish, a little different than the acid-washed bells. It’ll look good in the modern house we’ll have some day.

A polished bronxe Cause Bell from Cosanti.

A polished bronze Cause Bell.

I’ve had my two Soleri bells, both from Arcosanti, for years. They’ve accumulated more patina as they’ve aged. These bells are LOUD. I used to have them hanging on the front porch until a summer storm blew through. The next morning there was a note from the city police that they caused a disturbance, and I had to take them down. They’ve been in a box for years, but I’m going to put them back up in my backyard garden … without the wind-catchers.

These ceramic tiles are from my first visit to Cosanti.

Blue and green coaster-sized ceramic tiles from Cosanti.

Coaster-sized tiles.

Something about this desert place, with its mysterious symbology and dusty, sunbaked concrete structures from the 60s speaks to the hippie artist in me, and it feels like home. (I was never a true hippie, and can’t really call myself an artist, but I hope to become one when I grow up.) I hope you enjoyed the tour and get to explore Cosanti (and Arcosanti) for yourself someday!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it