Late November Report from La Posada’s Organic Gardens
Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone and the winter solstice lies just ahead, it may seem as if La Posada’s gardens are done for the year. Well, the weather isgetting colder, and we have experienced several freezes so far. Many plants are now dormant or are in the process of becoming dormant. However, we have not yet experienced a really “hard” freeze (below fifteen degrees), and, believe or not, some cold-hardy plants are still growing slowly or even flowering!—in late November here in USDA Zone 6.
To experience the rich, deep colors of Autumn, along with the miracle of green plants still growing (however slowly) as winter approaches, one needs to take a brief walking tour of the Potager Garden and the nearby Sunken Garden on a mild, sunny, windless afternoon—preferably about 2:00 p.m. Begin by walking back outside through the hotel’s north entrance. Once outside, you will be strolling on the sandstone walkway that curves gently through the Entry Garden. In the narrow garden beds on your left and right, you can see the blue flowers of catmint. We have found that catmint is incredibly heat and cold hardy. Even with mineral rich, salty groundwater and extremely lean, well-drained soils, catmint will just keep on flowering, through the entire growing season and beyond. We admire its ability to thrive in the Colorado Plateau’s extreme conditions. The slightly warmer Autumn nights provided by the hardscape surrounding it and the thermal mass of the hotel itself have (so far) allowed catmint’s flowers to survive the cold.
Having admired the catmint, now take a left through the wrought iron gate into the Rose Garden. Stay straight on the brick pathway and it will take you through the open east-facing turquoise doorway, into the wonders of the protected Sunken Garden. As you move through the Rose Garden into the adjoining Sunken Garden, the deep, rich colors of Autumn surround you. Look to your right, and you will see clusters of dark red rose hips on the tall, sprawling wild rose bushes. Now that they have been frozen a few times, these abundant rose hips are approaching the peak of perfection. Their smooth red skins are now slightly wrinkled and puckered; now is the time to harvest a few cups and to make a delicious rose hip jelly, high in Vitamin C.
The red rose hips are particularly beautiful in Autumn, especially when the leaves have dropped from the bushes, but the yellow leaves of nearby cottonwood trees and quince trees are still lingering. Reds and yellows are the defining colors of the season, of course. Although they rested and did not produce any fruit this year, the elder quince trees on your left seem especially beautiful this year. Their leaves are turning a dark brown yellow color, and we will add some of them to our compost piles once they fall to the ground, leaving the rest as a thick mulch for the trees’ roots.
Having walked through the open door, now you are in the Sunken Garden. The design of this relatively warm, protected garden has ancient roots in the walled “oasis” gardens of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Spain, via the influence of the Moors. Surely architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter studied these oasis gardens while she was designing the gardens at La Posada, including the remarkable Sunken Garden. This garden is remarkable because the plants love it so much. The historic core of the hotel’s west wing (especially the second floor) and the cinderblock court on the south protect the garden from the Painted Desert’s often strong, dessicating southwest winds. The high walls and hardscape allow this garden to stay relatively warm and moist. These are excellent conditions for plants, especially in the middle desert. In a sense, the Sunken Garden is the heart of La Posada; it is a large outdoor room that weaves together the gardens and the hotel’s many distinct indoor rooms. Thus you will find rosemary bushes still blooming with purplish-blue flowers in the raised beds on the west edge of the Sunken Garden. Rosemary seems to prefer cool temperatures for flowering. If the day is mild, you might see a few honeybees gathering nectar and pollen from these flowers. They are lovers of plants in the mint family like rosemary and lavender.
If you are feeling a bit chilly, take a short walk around the Sunken Garden, and then take a seat for a few brief minutes on the large sandstone slab under the honeysuckle arbor on the garden’s north side. Even in the coldest months of the year, the low angle of the winter sunshine can warm your bones in this special place: La Posada’s warmest outdoor microclimate. We always know that winter is on its way out when the first tiny green leaves appear on the honeysuckle vines above your head, usually in early February. They are followed by the sweet fragrance of yellow and white honeysuckle flowers, whose nectaries always make the honeybees wild with desire.
Having enjoyed the pleasures of the Sunken Garden, now it is time to walk back through the Rose Garden to the Entry Garden’s sandstone slab walkway. Go through the wrought iron gate again and then through another nearby wrought iron gate into the Potager Garden. The beautiful gate into “the Potager” is in the shape of a corn plant. It signifies the fact that this garden is an ornamental, edible kitchen garden. Like the Sunken Garden, the design of the Potager also has roots in antiquity–in the monastery gardens of medieval Europe. This garden is only two years old, so we are still in the process of building rich, living soils in its eight different growing beds.
Take a close look at the different growing beds. Here is where you can find green plants that are still growing slowly, despite the cold. In one of the four large outer beds, we are growing four kinds of onions. In another large bed we are growing four kinds of gourmet garlic. The green tops of the plants are already visible. The garlic should be ready to harvest in June of next year; Chef John Sharpe will be using these delicious bulbs in the incredible dishes that he and his staff create for our dining pleasure in the world-renowned Turquoise Room. In the Potager Garden, we are weaving together La Posada, the hotel’s gardens, and the Turquoise Room. The result is called “terroir”: the taste of place.
There are other edibles and non-edibles growing in the Potager as winter approaches. You will find small yellow chard plants growing in the large bed that also holds the onions. If they survive the winter (and they should), the yellow chard plants will begin growing more rapidly by mid-January, when the days are long enough at this latitude (35 degrees north) to stimulate plant growth. In one of the smaller interior beds, you will find a few straight lines of a dark red, burgundy lettuce and “Bull’s Blood” beets. These were planted in late October and early November. Along with the chard, these edible, cold-hardy greens should become dishes in the Turquoise Room as winter turns into springtime.
The non-edibles growing in the Potager Garden are called “cover crops,” or “green manure.” Like the edible greens, they are extremely cold hardy, meaning that the seeds can germinate in cool or even cold soils (down to about 50 degrees!) and that the plants can survive ambient temperatures down to at least ten degrees, possibly even lower. Even if the tops get frozen, the roots may survive, allowing the plants to begin growing again in late winter. Cover crops like these (hairy vetch, fenugreek, etc.) are turned back into the soil they are growing in, usually in late springtime, just after they begin flowering. The flowers are beneficial to pollinators like honeybees and butterflies, and the plant parts return and add rich organic matter (biomass) to the soil.
A core philosophy and practice of organic gardening is this: if you take something from the Earth, then you must give something back. This giving back or “returning the gift” is a natural law; it is human knowledge and wisdom that is expressed in indigenous creation stories like the Cherokee story of Selu (4M), or grandmother maize. Corn, amaranth, and other edible, ornamental plants were growing in the Potager last growing season. These plants created a rich, abundant, edible beauty, but they had to use up important soil nutrients to do so. Now we are giving back to the soil with compost and cover crops, to nurture the cycle and to keep the circle revolving. Taking care of the soil is a fundamental practice of sustainability. Cultures that abuse the soil are unsustainable.
Well, we hope that you have enjoyed your brief tour of the Entry Garden, Rose Garden, Sunken Garden, and Potager Garden. You have seen that even as winter approaches, the gardens are still a living, breathing presence, even as everything slows down and begins resting, in preparation for another growing season in 2012. Please come again in other seasons. Mid to late May is my own favorite season in places like the Rose Garden, when the first flush of new roses begins. Like the hotel, the gardens are always changing. In expressing these changes they are part of what indigenous theologian Vine Deloria, Jr., referred to as a “continuing life,” a sacred life.