Around ABQ: Progress

On a recent Albuquerque visit my client-turned-friend and aficionado of things-southwest, Bill Robertson, introduced me to new projects around downtown and Old Town. I didn’t design any of them!

Except through some indirect influence before relocating.

Photos are from October 30-31, 2019. Bill still has the Walt look going…

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A freeway entrance: from nothing except trash and a few wild Soaptree / Yucca elata back in the day, to a purposed, aesthetic treatment and some Blue Sotol / Dasylirion wheeleri!

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A hotel: the architecture firm I worked at 15 years ago designed everything at Hotel Chaco, architecture to interior to outdoor spaces.

The assymetry here is effective, and everything I see is native: occurring naturally within 200 miles and 1,000 feet in elevation…badda bing, badda boom!

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For the record, Populus species, even those P. deltoides ssp. wislizeni once native near / to the site, are never appropriate to most properties even in the valley, let alone the uplands compromising 90%+ of their city limits.

That’s a perception that must be buried like their water table.

That’s due to cottonwoods (and willows) with their weak wood, heavy water use, need for a vast rooting area, and uber-aggressive roots.

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Spurred on by another landscape architect in central Texas seeing my Instagram post on that space, my thought is the outer perimeter of the firepit / sitting area needs a nicely-clipped evergreen plant like dwarf yaupons or boxwoods…easily kept at about 24-30 inches in height. Part semi-circular hedge, part individuals.

That would keep it inviting and visually legible in winter and summer dormancy.

Blue Grama, even though it’s the state grass, or cottonwoods, the state fall back tree, just don’t provide that interest or heavy work.

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The interior detailing like below, is also so very inviting

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“Lloyd, you’re the best bartender from Timbuktu to Portland Maine; Portland Oregon for that matter, Lloyd.” – Jack Torrance, The Shining


A courthouse: the Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse has a renovated exterior space. Now, it’s fitting to the plateaus of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, plus a good man I once met and one my late father briefed more than once as a USAF base comptroller.

A team of Los Angeles-based and Santa Fe-based design firms were responsible.

We can see that it’s a study in diagonal lines along grade changes, with loads of Agave parryi ssp. truncata. Plus, other xeric and mesic plants were used quite effectively. Maintenance, well …..

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The above with common Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’, below as an understory of honeylocusts with a ground plane of tan gravel

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Bill for scale…

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Even some foothills-native Yucca baccata and possibly Bouteloua curtipendula

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Below the same agaves, but beautifully packed in as an understory to another common small tree in the high desert, Vitex agnus-castus

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Like powdery blue bowls or baskets, many agaves tilted at an angle

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Narrow bands of plants with the agaves: rosemary, grasses, and catmint (?)

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A group of Palmilla or Soaptree / Yucca elata with their skirts of dead leaves puddled on the gravel mulch like curtains in some homes are

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Black Dalea / Dalea frutescens finishing up its flowering early this year

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Yucca baccata, Dasylirion wheeleri, and Quercus fusiformis combine here. Though I never did notice the travertine hardscape until I walked that day.

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The irregular rows of vigorous live oaks, and clumps of sotols and Apache plumes, really set this off for winter interest; the former trees are not nearly as common as they should be in Albuquerque.

While they have other native evergreen oaks in their foothills, these Q. fusiformis evoke a similar mood. Which one notices them used well at driving speeds.

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Bill even took me to some older projects, which I never got around to visiting when I still lived there. One was in the north valley. Combined with a hearty breakfast, coffee, and the warmth of the sun, who could refuse, even on a near-record cold day?

I figured from hearing bits of the conversation, it was one of the owners herself, Penny Rembe. I was right, and down to earth and enjoyable to talk with.

A agritourism and locals magnet: Los Poblanos Ranch in Albuquerque’s North Valley really seems like a family’s own destination to be shared with others.

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Dasylirion wheeleri used yet again… I hope they are allowed to reach mature sizes which will overlap the neat edges by a couple feet.

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The ownership invites diners into the kitchen to view the menu come together, which is stunning in its own right. As was the hospitality of all working there, which wears off on the patrons – even on a busy weekday morning.

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Of course I started with a croissant; it and my meal were quite good!

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Common in Albuquerque, to a little higher in elevation and about 2,500 feet lower in the southwest, Lady Banks’ Rose / Rosa banksiae can get big as it supports itself. In an old book on southwestern landscapes I don’t have anymore, this property has more than one old plant of that rose species.

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The famous lavender field at Los Poblanos

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An effective and modern but desert-elements-durable fence

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Hopefully on an upcoming visit, I’ll visit some old projects to see how they are progressing. And see my old house’s landscape plus the nearby pirate medians. And get breakfast burritos at Golden Pride. And hike or mountain bike trail 365. And…

Of course, Walt Bill hit me up for his neighborhood’s replanting project, though I don’t remember what feedback I gave him, following one of my favorite questions when viewing an horticultural old-guard plant list, a too-cautious gov’t official request, and all that jive.

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My question: is this meant to be permanent or temporary until the elms die? Many always think they can have it both ways. No. Baby steps = baby results.


I’m just grateful my influence was a large but intangible part of my earnings all these years. Even if someone else would have come along and done that, eventually, as I see others starting to do. Finally.

And finally, I’ll start some smaller posts, after this long one.

A New DIY Adobe Landscape

The third home in several years for Bill is his historic, 1926 adobe, by late Ohio architect Anna Gotshall, as part of her development in an old apple orchard near downtown Albuquerque.

The other houses are also adobe construction. Let’s look at what we did, me as the design consultant!


Enroute, I braved a bitter north wind to capture an amazing vista of fall color. The distant Rio Grande bosque is in a golden line, central NM near Socorro:

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An hour later, I made it!

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Plenty of gold in the grasses’ seed heads, plus Forestiera neomexicana / Desert Olive.

It’s been almost 2 years after my consultation and sketches over wine and cheeses / bread. Guess what I caught seeing my images back home? The passive water harvesting basin in front is missing and a few nursery overrides happened…oh well.

Also missed was the very fertile soil on Bill’s property. No mining plants into the ground like much of the region’s uplands, or saying “all beach, no ocean.”

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The goal was naturalistic – eclectic. Durable and xeric are always givens with me, and have been since 1995, a main reason I started my design practice, so I don’t mention that except as a “by the way”.


In the back garden areas, more features were employed or added to existing features such as the L-shaped pergola. Bill is repainting the various wood trim and sections, and the colors look great to relate the new and the existing.

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I helped him place certain items like tables at visual focal points, which also facilitates circulation in his tight spaces. And Bill makes the best use of what’s existing and can be lived with, as opposed to changing everything.

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Per my sketch, he had hog panel fencing / trellis and a steel mesh gate fabricated and welded. This is much more durable for a desert dweller than the usual wood. And though Crossvine / Bignonia capreolata is not a brute like default vines wisteria or lady banks rose, there’s strength here.

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The usual plant friends are here. Nolina greenei / Beargrass and Opuntia ellisiana / Spineless Prickly Pear are in containers…

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Above, he’s not into the ornamental grass choice in the containers behind the last Nolina, far left. Nor am I, at least there – it’s too loose and airy for a space that needs more definition and evergreen structure.

My sketch noted something tight and evergreen but potted, such as Rhaphiolepis or Buxus. His friend at the nursery cautioned against that, but I think Bill is willing to try it.

Also, Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ / Dwarf Yaupon Holly would work well there. Shirley in the Alamo City suggests Ilex vomitoria ‘Micron’ / Micron Holly, which could also work…if Bill’s town’s nurseries allow it to be sold without approval from their wannabe Coloradoan plant gatekeepers offer it.


The unusual are also in his new landscape. Bill finds so many unusual plants, then grows them. Most of the time it works out, too, which is how I learn.

For instance, Stachys coccinea / Texas Betony, in the fertile soil and with drip irrigation, is taking over one small area. One. Plant. Several. Feet.

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The Texas Betony so far is out-competing the Teucrium chamaedrys / Trailing Germander, which reinforces the bed’s semicircle with tight evergreen foliage.


More Cistus spp. / Rockrose and Mescal Agave / Agave neomexicana 

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This Crossvine decided to flower for me one last time before a deep freeze that night. Next spring, it will get a special trip just to see it covering the foliage and trellis in blooms. It isn’t that common there.

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At a recent stop in Tucson, he couldn’t resist Salvia brandegeei / Santa Rosa Island Sage from offshore in southern California.

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So far, it’s fine through only last winter. Many are surprised at the plants that grow well in USDA zone 7 in the southwest, including from coastal Mediterranean climates, thanks to intense sunshine during the winter months, if winter irrigation is provided.

Nice foliage that smells divinely fresh and minty.

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I think Bill is deciding where to paint the fence or not.  Under the vigorous Vauquelinia californica / Arizona Rosewood, which becomes a dwarf tree in ABQ, he’s thinning out the rampant Mirabilis multiflora / Desert Four O’Clock and adding a 2 or 3 Yucca pallida / Pale Leaf Yucca, to create a leafy groundcover.

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But soon it grew darker, and after eating tapas and talking about his neighbors’ plans to renovate the planting in their neighborhood medians, it was time for bed.

Comfy and warm for the night!

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The next morning, refreshed from his casita’s bed and duvet, it was time to get a better look at the front landscape with a more favorable sun angle for photos.

More Forestiera neomexicana and Buxus microphylla var. japonica ‘Winter Gem’  were added, to compliment the same that were existing. Several Nolina greenei were added for evergreen spikes, to contrast the shrubby forms.

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Competition from the old Siberian Elm was too much for the Mirabilis there, so those were removed. I actually like the cleaner look.


It’s also time for a quick geography lesson, and those won’t stop until people better get New Mexico and the desert southwest region.

Starting with the weather that last morning:

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Exaggerating one place much cooler and the other much warmer isn’t going to help one make good plant selection.

Like the one how ABQ is more like Santa Fe or even Denver (#SRSLY) than it is like Las Cruces. As well as the accompaniment to that, how LC is more like lower elevation, Sonoran Desert in Tucson or Phoenix (#JAJA) than ABQ, a mere 3 hours and 1000 feet in elevation up the same valley.

That day and for a day either side of that in Phoenix, you ask? 20 degrees warmer than Las Cruces; Albuquerque stayed within a few degrees of Las Cruces.

Those morning lows are during a near-record cold period following an unusually early arctic cold front, where the effects modified first in ABQ. In fall or spring, Las Cruces is usually about 5F warmer than ABQ, based on 120 years of statistics.

Statistics aren’t deceiving; perceptions are.


Musical accompaniments: Santana “Oye Como Va”, The Rolling Stones “Just My Imagination” cover, Bad Company “Gone Gone Gone”, Gina Chavez “Todo Cambia”, Aymee Nuviola “Chan Chan”, and Ley Line “Oxum”.

Eclectic, like my last month has been.

On the Cactus Trail

While the Perseid meteor shower was a bust, I’ve seen it a few times before and from darker locations. And the pre-dawn weather was refreshingly cool at that wide spot in the road shoulder, at 2,500 foot elevation outside Carefree.


A lone Carnegia gigantea might be the quintessential cactus.


That stop was followed by a walk around nearby El Pedregal*, the once-busy shopping and activity hub adjacent to the Boulders Resort.

*the stony place, for the area’s huge granite boulders 

The Sonoran sun cast it’s first glow into the cool, still air.



Some maintenance and upkeep is evident; bold colors in the southwestern sun fade without help.


Some maintenance is lacking with most tenant businesses gone, like my once-favorite out-of-the-way cafe. I read that special events are held here, so maybe that triggers partial upkeep?


Meanwhile, the Phoenix dactylifera all had too many fronds removed. Oddly some date clusters were left, which will litter and stain the paving.


Some of the palm fronds should have been retained, for a more full and lush appearance, plus shading the crowns where tender new growth originates and maximizing photosynthesis to grow stronger roots.

I know – “pruning, blah blah blah, Dave.”

But it’s truth. My hope is that even a few property owners seeing this learn and help raise the bar on horticulture, to help maintain their investments.

See also:


Of course I didn’t liberate any of the dead agaves’ bulbils. I did wonder where cameras are placed to watch every move on their property.


There was interesting hardscape work, including blending canterra stone bands with simple, economical colored concrete.


The control joint pattern provides a lesson for your next design, in how concrete tends to crack when the joints depart too far from 90 degree angles. And that’s in a dry and near-freeze-free location; it gets worse when moisture with freezing are common.


This area held up well, though. The concrete and stone surfaces only need some cleaning.



Perforations here often have colorful paint, to add visual interest and set apart from a real danger: beige stucco overload!


The weathered wood latillas on the ramada entry to a possible tenant store is in contrast to the blue paint used in that garden wall’s perforations. Both are complimentary, as is the rustic metal brace connecting the viga to a post.


There’s no end to the visuals; it’s native Parkinsonia florida and near-native Dasylirion wheeleri, accenting even a bridge with perforations.


The skies might have a say in the desert’s elegance.


African sculpture blends in nicely with the desert context. 



Was it still a failed trip only leaving me a mostly-abandoned shopping center, without a cafe to enjoy coffee and croissant, and without enough sleep?

Of course not – it was just another stop on the Cactus Trail!


That vintage short film came on TCM after watching a movie, though I couldn’t find it online to watch again. Not on IMDb, the film’s narrator even noted some cholla cacti and (I think) hedgehog cacti. In his 1940’s era voice, of course.

The film’s promotional tone welcomed soon-to-arrive, post WWII visitor, who would probably stay in the latest motor courts or fine hotels. Those would have air conditioning to make travel or even living along the Cactus Trail more possible.

Yet, we know the Cactus Trail is longer than Riverside to Phoenix.

There are side trails to points south, even north and west but ending in summer-dry places where most cacti were planted. That, as the main trail extends its way up, down, and around the greater southwest, then into the Big Bend and deep into the epicenter of cacti, Mexico.

This particular section of the Cactus Trail didn’t even exist when that short film was made, so there’s also the time factor.


Though, I’m sure the grandparents of this Opuntia engelmannii and other plants were here then, as stars of the old westerns rode by, camera crews in place.


O. engelmannii is an icon in Arizona’s and New Mexico’s milder winter locales, where it thrives especially in foothill locations and among granite boulders!


See – we can each add our own drives and detours to make the Cactus Trail more complete and more our own.