By Abby Boling and Jeff Radford
Surprises may not be what you’d expect from a docile, greyish plant, even one that tends to wander. But then, maybe you don’t know much about succulents. A fictional variety featured in the 1960 move Little Shop of Horrors was a blood-thirsty cross of the lowly carnivorous butterwort plant. The varieties that soon will emerge from Bonnie and Al Putzig’s subterranean Corrales greenhouse are more tame, yet amazing nonetheless.
As might be expected in a hot, arid environment, many landscapes in Corrales incorporate cactus, a succulent, while fewer specialize in nurturing agaves, echeveria, sedums and other fleshy plants. The succulent many Corrales gardeners probably are most familiar with is aloe vera.
At their home in the lower sandhills, the Putzigs have more than 50 kinds of in patios and medium sunny outdoor spots. “They’re just different; they’re not like your typical geraniums or your typical cactus. People have never seen them before.” Among her favorites are euphorbia, climb chile, and mangave macho mocha. “which, when it blooms, is so incredible.” And, pointing to an aeonium, “These are amazing. They have big rosettes on them and yellow flowers. This one looks like a helicopter.”
Another, the paddle plant, also known as desert cabbage and red pancake, is among the most dramatic of succulents. “It spikes later in the summer, into the fall, and has these beautiful orange-red hues on it,” even though earlier in the growing season it is a pale beige. Her sedums also turn a handsome red-orange in the fall if they gets sun.
Until recently, since the succulents needed shelter from the winter cold, spaces were found for them indoors as chilly weather set in. “The house was like a forest,” Bonnie Putzig explained. “And then at Christmas, we had a Christmas tree in here as well! My husband eventually got tired of all that, and that’s when we came up with the idea of a greenhouse.”
Al Putzig researched what could be built in the yard to keep the succulents alive and warm through the winter. They chose a walipini, a design of Bolivian origin which lets the sun’s rays in even though mostly buried in earth. “Walipini” is an Aymara word meaning “a place of warmth.” They built one in 2018 which now houses dozens of plants including lemon and lime trees and geraniums sporting bright red blossoms. As the seasons pass, they’re still learning how to use and maintain it.
The walipini is designed to prevent the temperature inside from dipping below 40 degrees. As a safeguard, a thermostat turns on a space heater until such time that a solar heating apparatus is installed. “The space heater is more than sufficient so far. “The plants are really happy in there,” she added. “But by the end of the winter when they’ve been in there about six months, they’re ready to get out and into the sun.
“Over the last couple of winters, I’ve lost a couple, but now I know which ones to watch. It’s all experiment. It’s all learning. I try to adapt as I learn more. Every year, I learn more about what works and what doesn’t. And I get more confident in trying different arrangements and different pots.
“What I’m getting into now is arrangements of different varieties in pots. I’m doing that now for fundraisers. I had two arrangements at a fundraiser, and I didn’t know what price to put on them. But I put $50 on them, and they went in a heartbeat.” They moved to Corrales 13 years ago from the Nob Hill area where they were for the prior 20 years. They decided to buy a home here after driving out one fall to show visiting relatives the Wagners’ Farm store.
After moving to the Albuquerque area from Vancouver, Canada, they had to adjust to aridity and other harsh conditions. “There you don’t even have to think about watering. You just put a plant in, and it grows. But here, you’re watering daily in the summer with 100 degrees. It’s labor-intensive gardening. And here, you’re having to deal with a lot of bugs and pests we never had in the Northwest.
“And then, living out here in Corrales, there are rodents. You’ve got squirrels and rabbits. From experience, she now avoids vegetable gardens here, except for pots outside her kitchen window that grow kale and chard each spring. “There are different colors of kale and chard, so it’s colorful. And that works. But then the heat comes. In the beginning of May, they’re done. So I put herbs in as replacements.”
When they acquired the property in 2007, much of it was in sagebrush and four-wing saltbush. But growing succulents is very much a specialty unless you’re content with the common, usually volunteer cacti. Other than with cacti, the learning curve can be steep —and expensive. “Succulents are very touchy about sun,” she warned, and over-watering can kill them.
“You can’t be very aggressive with water, because in their natural habitat, they get little moisture. And they don’t need much moisture to start with. In their natural habitat, it’s cooler in winter, whereas here it’s colder. I’ve just learned not to be worried about water. I water them maybe every week and a half in winter. In summer I water a little very day, but not a soaking.”
As a planting medium, she uses regular planting soil with a little home-produced compost added. “I never replace an entire pot of its soil. I just amend what’s there. I put in fresh soil, some compost, and maybe a handful of manure. In winter, she does “armchair gardening,” thinking about what needs to be done, consulting books to discover plants with desirable colors. After a career as a hospital operating room nurse, she is now retired. She also studied landscape design while earning a bachelor’s degree in art. “All the classes I took were in the architecture department. If I had gone on for a master’s it would have been to learn more about healing gardens, which is what I do here.”
In her career as a nurse, she came to understand the value of such features in a health care setting. In hospitals, space and resources are assigned to facilities such as operating rooms and clinics but not spaces planted for therapeutic purposes. Kaseman Hospital has a small area, “and it’s really nice, but in the summer, it’s hot because it’s surrounded by four walls. In any other season except summer, it’s a really nice spot. “But in general, there has not been a lot of money or research that has gone into healing gardens,” she admitted. “Hospitals tend to spend money where money can be made, and you can’t make it with a landscape.”
But the research that does exist suggests that “if you are a patient in a room recovering from surgery or something else, and your room has a window that faces just a concrete wall, that doesn’t help you recover. But if you have trees and greenery, perhaps with birds to look at, it makes a world of difference in your recovery. Research has shown that, but there’s not a lot of information about it out there.” But progress is coming, she added. “Some hospitals are integrating healing landscapes, especially for cancer patients.” She referred to California landscape designer Topher Delaney, a breast cancer survivor whose projects have gained attention.
Over the years, Bonnie Putzig has gained a reputation as a plant doctor. In her back yard, she created a succulent nursing station where she tries to resolve sickly plants’ issues. “It’s for plants that I might be trying to start, or ones that are not doing well. Or somebody contacts me to say ‘I can’t take care of that plant. It’s failing, or I can’t get it to grow. Can you take it?’
“I say, ‘Sure,” and I’ll take it home and nurse it back to health and give it to somebody. One of them was a jade plant —big— and I put it outside in the shade and eventually brought it into the house. Four or five months later it was healthy as can be. I hated to give it away, but I didn’t need another one.” At her outdoor plant nursing station, she needs a good pair of gloves, appropriate shears, old scissors and fertilizers. (“Miracle Grow is a good stand-by) especially cactus juice, a liquid containing calcium and other nutrients formulated for cacti and other succulents. When attempting to re-pot a large, extra-spiney succulent she recommends thick gloves. It’s a task best undertaken with another person helping.
Usually, before she retired, she took her salvaged plants to work and gave them to co-workers. Now she has more difficulty adopting out recovered plants. “This year, I found two or three people to give plants away to. I give away a good amount… otherwise there wouldn’t been room in the greenhouse.
“Sometimes I feel like a hoarder. I just love these plants, and I like experimenting with them.” The main experiment is optimizing use of the walipini. Before that was built, she brought them inside for the winter, including to the garage that has a skylight. “But sometimes half of them would die after I had spent good money on them, so it was getting to be a big waste.”
Generally, her husband leaves the gardening, working the earth, to her. “He was a researcher on neurology at the University of New Mexico, she explained. “The last thing he was going to do was get his fingers dirty,” she said chuckling. But he did put his talents as an engineer and problem-solver to use in creating the walipini. While the roof of the structure is translucent, the walls are concrete block with reinforcement to keep the weight of overlying earth from collapsing them. Each course of the blocks sits on a grid-like sheet extending out into the berm to stabilize the wall. A plastic pin through the grid into the concrete block holds it all together.
The entrance to the earth-clad greenhouse is at the bottom of a long ramp. Just before the step up into the greenhouse is a large grate over a cistern that collects rainwater. “Once water in the cistern reaches a certain level, a pump starts to prevent water from backing up into the greenhouse. Remaining to be resolved is how to prevent the surrounding berm from eroding due to heavy rain. She said they will soon hire a consultant for the best solution, although nature is beginning to provide an answer. “ There are some plants coming up already, like some sage.
“Through the years, I’ve learned more and more about the light they need. Some are very prone to sunburn; succulents are very touchy about the sun. They can have early morning sun or late afternoon sun, but all day, direct sun in July, a lot of them just can’t take that.
“When I get a new plant, or one that someone has given me, I have to figure out how much sun it can survive. Watering can be tricky, too. Succulents’ water requirements can vary significantly. She lost one of three expensive plants due to over-watering.”Last year one of them lost all of its leaves. I shouldn’t have even watered it, but one day I touched the base of it and it was spongy. It had too much water. The others could probably have survived out in the greenhouse, but I brought three of them into our vanity because I don’t want to lose one again.”
Inside, she waters them just once a month. When she’s stymied by what to do for a particular type of succulent, she calls an expert at the Thomas Boyce Arboretum near Superior, Arizona. “It’s a huge outdoor arboretum with acres of land provided by a philanthropy. I’ve bought some plants there and my son has given me others. “One that he gave me from there is just like a pencil in the winter. After the leaves fall of, it’s just a pencil sticking out of the soil. So I called the arboretum to ask what I should do. They told me it was just the plant’s dormant stage.
“Sure enough, after the winter it started to grow leaves again.” The arboretum is a popular tourist and recreational site that offers a wide variety of displays including Argentine and Australian Outback gardens. She had begun orientation to serve as a volunteer at the Albuquerque Bio Park when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so that was put on hold. She had intended to work in the cactus garden there. “In the meantime, I’ve got lots to do here.”
Their grounds do not include a significant vegetable garden although they do grow flowers and tend a small orchard of fruit trees; peach, pear, apricot, apple and cherry. Also growing in a pot on a porch is a pomegranate. The Putzigs are experimenting with training the trees to grow out, rather than up, to make fruit easier to harvest. They use espalier trellises to which branches are secured, making them grow along a two-dimensional plane.
“The tree is trained to grow flat on a trellis so that the yield can be more easily reached,” she explained. To complement the fruit trees, they have bee hives. “I’ve always wanted to keep bees, and when I retired, I figured that’s what I would do. My brother-in-law in Roswell is a beekeeper, so he has been an inspiration for me to finally get going. He has been a real mentor for me.”
She has two hives, and one has been active since April 2020. Bees for the second are on order to arrive this coming April. She understands that bees will gather nectar from a radius of up to two miles. In addition to fruit tree blossoms, she offers rosemary and abundant flowers through the spring and summer, as well as Russian sage. “They just love Russian sage,” she assured. “And I have a lot of that. I have a very healthy hive. There’s plenty for them in the immediate environment.” Elsewhere on the property are two sections of hay bale walls that have held up well over more than 20 years.
Her horticultural efforts have largely avoided outbreaks of plant diseases. But “mealybugs,” a common scourge among succulents, have been a vexation without remedy so far. The infestations, she said, “have a white, cottony cover” that gradually eats away at the plant under attack. Nothing she has tried has been successful. Now she’s hoping Bonide Systemic Granules will work.
The lemon and lime trees in the greenhouse developed scale last year. “Every time I went down to the greenhouse, I would remove it with my hand. I’m not going to spray unless I really have to. Who knows where it comes from, but the scale is not a bad problem. In April, when I start bringing things out, it disappears.” Tending to plants provides plenty of reward, just in seeing them respond to care. But she finds another that every gardener can surely appreciate.
Years ago when she lived in the Nob Hill area, she was out digging in the soil along her driveway when a neighbor passing by asked, ‘Bonnie, what do you get out of working in the dirt?’ “There are a lot of answers to that, but a big one is that it’s therapeutic,” allowing her to focus on what’s right in front of her rather than “any nonsense that’s going on on the periphery. I’m not thinking about every other thing that I have to do.”