Gardening with Félix and Mother Nature

It’s a ritual among gardeners, really more like a booby trap of frustration, to amble around the yard long before the planting season arrives and fantasize about exotic combinations of flowers and plants swaying in the breeze, such visions reinforced by the arrival of seed catalogs in January and February, and glossy gardening books that descend from our shelves for an annual cameo. One can imagine too the aromas of lavenders, sages and santolinas even though they are barely emerging from their winter torpor, let alone blooming.

Reason and past experience try to dampen such reveries, but to no avail.

No, you can’t grow such plants in your area, a voice barks in the back of my head. It’s too cold; too hot; too dry; the soil too lousy. And don’t forget those small but ravenous nasties—mice, birds, rabbits, and particularly the motley battalions of insects, whose names I’ll never remember in English much less Spanish, ready to assault any and all plants, preferably those I value most.

Most crucially, you need to wait a month, maybe two, after the initial springtime planting urges stir in your gut. In gardening, as in most endeavors, impatience is not your friend. I don’t know how many times our gardener Félix has told me that, but I pay no attention because I’m college-educated and obviously much smarter than he is.

This year we had additional problems. We had a few mild overnight freezes serious enough to burn several cacti right down to the nub and in a few cases knock them dead.

Is there hope for our Euphorbia lactea?

We planted a Euphorbia lactea, a gaunt, candelabra-like fellow about a one and a half meters high, also called the ghost cactus because it’s all white. We paid good money for it, about fifty dollars, and placed him in a prominent place befitting what I thought would become a “specimen plant,” a conversation piece.

After the first freeze though, its branches rapidly turned brown. We rushed to cover it with sheets and plastic bags to protect it from the wind and overnight cold snaps, but by then all its branches had begun to die down, ultimately leaving a bare, frightened stalk.

There’s hope yet. The remaining trunk, about two inches wide, is still green and solid, two good signs according to Félix, though it’ll be months before new growth emerges. I hope he’s right.

I’d thought cacti could withstand just about anything I said to Félix. I’d seen pictures of their relatives standing stoically in the snow and searing heat of deserts in Arizona and New Mexico.

But apparently some succulents don’t like the cold. Félix smiled, shook his head at my epiphany, and pointed toward a nearby patch of Tequila agaves most of their leaves brown and limp. Some might recover, he said, and for the rest, it’s adiós.

Then came couple of wispy snowfalls and a far more serious hailstorm that shredded and perforated the bright new foliage of trees and knocked the blossoms off one peach tree. A big alder by the terrace looked like it’d been caught in the middle of a gun battle.

Unable to connect the dots, I ran to the plant store with a sample tree branch to ask what sort of biblical plague had come down on our yard. When we showed up with a bottle of ant killer, Félix smiled and shook his head again: It was just the result of the hailstorm.

There were also fierce afternoon winds, kicking up rivers of dust. One storm shook the five slender cypresses in the the front yard in every direction as if they were doing some sort of spastic rhumba. Félix dutifully tied the young trees to the wall.

My annual seeding offensive got off to a very bumpy start too. We ordered about a hundred dollars worth of seeds from two vendors in the U.S., brought down here under some subterfuge because Mexico doesn’t allow plants or seeds to come into the country.

The new class of seedlings, waiting for action. 

I did some research and settled on several varieties of tomatoes and vegetables but, of more interest to me, I also ordered several flower seeds I thought should grow here but had never found at the local nurseries. Nothing exotic: Russian Sage, Achillea, Bee Balm, Kniphofia, Gomphrena and others that were supposed to relish dry, sunny climates.

I installed fluorescent lights with a timer on a shelf in the garage, just as we used to have in Chicago, and waited. And waited. Félix was mystified.

Most of the seeds failed to germinate. Too cold in the garage? Wrong planting medium (an equal mix of vermiculite, compost and black dirt)? Too much water? Too little? The few that came up we put outside in a greenhouse-like contraption consisting of PVC hoops and translucent plastic sheeting.

Then one afternoon a merciless wind blew off the plastic cover and that night we had a combination freezing temperatures and hail that pretty much wiped out the entire colony of pre-pubescent plantlets.

But gardening, goddamn it, is not for quitters, I exhorted Félix, and so we started a new batch of seedlings and things are looking up, sort of.

We should have five varieties of tomatoes, plus plenty of leaf vegetables. We coaxed our first batch of spinach out of the ground this year. Asparagus stalks are coming up, not a bumper crop but enough to make a couple of omelets, and we have two batches of garlic and one of shallots.

As for flowers to fill our beds, we’ve been visiting local nurseries whose absurdly low prices, compared to the U.S., partly make up for the lack of variety.

Back from the dead. 

And despite the uncooperative spring, everything seems to be waking up in the yard on its own, even some prickly pear cacti—a species with smooth rather than thorny paddles—that Félix had found by the side of the road. The mother plant had been literally run over but, undaunted, Félix planted the gnarled, battered remnants. I rolled my eyes.

Two weeks ago he brought me over to proudly show me scores of little green paddles popping up on the old tattered plant—proof, according to Félix, that one should think twice, thrice or four times before discarding any plants. In fact he has saved countless truenos (Japanese privets) and pepper trees, or pirules, that now thrive in various corners of the yard.

I stammered that yeah, but, on the other hand, so what?, you can’t save everything Félix, you need to think about this or that.

Then I shut up: I realized that when it comes to plants, there’s no point in arguing with Mother Nature or Félix, no matter what my books say or what I think I know.


5 thoughts on “Gardening with Félix and Mother Nature

  1. I still have the dozen or so packets of seeds I brought down over a year ago now sitting on my desk — doing nothing more than gathering dust. The advent of Barco has put paid to most of my gardening plans this year. I will just let the seeds sleep for now.


  2. How about this? Since the powers that be frown on the importation of seeds, the monotonous offering of your nursery might be helped if you gave your illicit seeds to them to propagate, with the right to receive a percentage of the resulting plants.


  3. My bourganvilla, which this time last year was lush with blooms is just now, this week beginning to be covered with blooms. Same with the china berry tree which has the loveliest smelling blooms, reminiscent of lilacs! We HAVE had one hell of a spring. It's amazing that anything is still alive. I have so much fern and stuff. I'm going to throw some of it away unless you have a place for it. It always comes back but usually doesn't even freeze back! I gave up on seeds about 14 years ago. Why it doesn't work down here I have no idea, but too expensive for the return on investment. Come over some day and we'll walk through and you are welcome to things that I have too much of…..


  4. I have brought in seeds usually bought in the US or in Europe for twenty years now and never had a problem with customs. Even when they checked my luggage after the ' red light ' and asking specific questions about the seeds.Once I had about 30 packages and no problems. I also receive seeds regularly by mail.


  5. The seeds are good for several more months, but I think you need to get them in the ground, no? BTW how did your dog get the name Barco. If you explained it in your blog, I must have missed it…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s