Posted by: bunnyterry | June 8, 2010

Gardening in New Mexico – My Personal Landscape


Grandpa Terry on the farm with the little boys - my Uncle L.E., my Daddy and my Uncle Marvin, circa 1936

Back in the day when I was finishing my degree at UNM, trying to fit a full load of classes into my life as a single mom with a third grader and a high school junior, as well as a full-time job, I had a history teacher, Virginia Scharff, who was ruthless about assigning papers.  I recently found my syllabus for her American History class in Landscape and Community (I know, I know – the things they convince you to study) and it looks like we were assigned one paper per week.

It was nuts for me – in the midst of writing a biography for another class, and helping Zachary prepare for the SAT and carting Johanna to the North Valley to Gabby’s house and marking documents for a prison litigation case I was assisting on, I was writing papers weekly about ecological changes in the New England landscape, plotting out my own personal map, studying the history of the Santa Fe community. . .I felt like I was swimming upstream every minute of every day, flailing at the next task in front of me.  And I was also trying to keep my tomatoes from dying in my Albuquerque backyard.

Fast forward to Summer 2010, where we’re deep into gardening season in New Mexico, an arid land of less than 14 inches of rain annually, and where I sometimes water my tomatoes twice a day (107 degrees this afternoon, the Amarillo weatherman said. . .).   As I stand here with the garden hose in my hand, I’m reminded of a paper I wrote on personal landscapes for that particular history class.  The instructor’s goal throughout the class was to get us to tie our own personal histories to history in the broader sense, which, if I were teaching history today, would be my goal as well. Scharff was really good at making us see how every event in our personal past and in our collective pasts made us who we are.  And today I’m reminded of how much fun I had writing my personal landscape piece, even if I really didn’t have the time to mess with it.

My Daddy with Granny and Grandpa Terry on the farm, Porter, NM

I wrote about gardening, about how I come from a long line of farmers.  Both my grandfathers homesteaded in Quay County in the ‘teens (My grandpa Terry supposedly bought someone else’s claim for $18 and two mules), and they were dirt poor, dryland farmers who endured the dust bowl and the depression.  My Daddy and all my uncles were also dryland farmers, continuing that grand tradition of watching the clouds every morning and afternoon, rushing into the fields to plant when conditions were just right and then praying, praying, praying for rain, but not so much rain that it washed out the crops.  Our fortunes were always at the total mercy of the weather, and most years we came up short.

I wrote about how struggling to keep my tomatoes alive in my Albuquerque backyard was both a tribute to my farmer forebears, and an embarrassment of sorts.  There was never enough time to keep the weeds at bay, and a missed day of watering could mean death to my plants. 

I wrote about being a child watching my Grandpa Terry tend the tomato plants in their Tucumcari backyard, how he had so much time on his hands after moving to town from the farm in Porter, and how he never allowed a tomato to die.  Those plants were producers now!  They had no choice.  And after the tomatoes were harvested, my Granny Terry would can them and line them up like little soldiers in her dirt cellar, where they’d wait patiently until some winter Sunday dinner when they’d be brought up out of the dark into her kitchen crowded with my mom and aunts trying to get food on the table for all of us.

Grandma Ayres with 5 of her 7 daughters, AFTER she moved off the farm and stopped gardening

I wrote about my Uncle Herman, who was the supreme gardener in the San Jon community.  He planted rows and rows of blackeyed peas and green beans and squash and cucumbers and tomatoes – we all ate like kings in July and August from that bounty.  And finally, I wrote about my Grandma Ayres, who never planted another garden once she moved in the early 1960’s to Tucumcari from the farm.  She liked to say “I don’t have to plant corn. That’s what the Safeway is for.”  She had spent her entire young life bent over some vegetable plant, gathering dinner for her husband and Uncle Tom and her ten children.  She was done with that.

What I know now is that trying to coax something edible from the ground is in my blood and my bones.  It may be ultra-hip these days to have a home garden and follow the Food Rules, but my entire life I’ve been trying to coddle my tomatoes and cucumbers and squash plants all the way to harvest.

My Albuquerque tomatoes always seemed to suffer through the long hot summer.  I worried over them the same way my dad fretted over a forecast of hail and high winds.  But, regardless of my efforts, or lack thereof, by August they would take over the plot and I’d have piles of tomatoes to show for my efforts.

Now, ten years later in my Quay County backyard, with both kids away from home, I have a little more time to tend to my tomatoes. They’re beautiful, if I do say so myself.  I planted brussel sprouts for the first time in my life, and they’re growing like weeds.  And the weeds are sort of under control.  Despite the lack of rain, I’m making sure that my watermelon patch is thriving.  The corn is coming up, with an extra row against the fence for the deer to enjoy.  I think I may be on the verge of actually getting my personal landscape under control.  I kind of like to think that my Grandpa Terry and my Uncle Herman would be proud of me.

I’m pretty sure my Granny Terry, who never was one for sitting around gloating, would prefer that I put away my computer and learn to can before August. We’ll see. . .



  1. Once again you brought tears to my eyes. I just came in from my own garden. I’m always so eager to get it planted. Last year wasn’t a great garden year, grasshoppers decided they wanted it more than we did. Anyway, so far so good. Hoping for lots of fresh veggies. Thanks for the memories…

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