NEED TO KNOW
Lucky visitors may be able to arrange tours of La Querencia, depending on how Elspeth G. Bobbs manages a recent health setback. To inquire, call Connie Helms at (505) 670-8078.
JOIN THE CLUB
GARDEN CLUBS THROUGHOUT THE STATE OFFER WORKSHOPS AND TOURS DURING THE GROWING SEASON.
THIRD MONDAY OF THE MONTH
Gardening U, Albuquerque Garden Center. Topics include orchids, roses, daylilies, and dahlias. 6:30–8:30 p.m. $5–$10 per class; 10120 Lomas Blvd. NE; (505) 296-6020; albuquerquegardencenter.org
Las Cruces Tour of Gardens. Learn some water-savvy tricks from low-desert gardeners. 9 a.m.– 4 p.m. $10; lctog.org
MAY 30–SEPTEMBER 30 Monarch: Orange Takes Flight. A special exhibit at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden (part of Santa Fe’s Summer of Color program- ming) demonstrates how to attract butterflies to your container garden. (505) 471-9103; santafebotanicalgarden.org
Corrales Garden Tour. Visit xeric gardens in the sandhills, and lush ones near the Río Grande bosque, with water-wise plantings throughout. Sponsored by Corrales MainStreet in cooperation with the Sandoval County Master Gardeners. 9 a.m–4 p.m. $10; (505) 350-3955; corrales-gardentour.com
Angel Fire Garden Club Garden Tour. See mountain gardens at their finest. While there, check out the butterfly garden at the Shuter Library. 8–11:30 a.m. $10; angelfiregardenclub.com
Taos Garden and Home Tour. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Taos Society of Artists, this year’s tour takes visitors into the homes and gardens of Taos artists. 9 a.m.–4 p.m. $20 in advance; $25 the day of the tour; gardencluboftaos.org
A dirt lane meanders near bustling Canyon Road as the Santa Fe River faintly burbles through a cottonwood cloister. Joggers and the occasional car pass a series of private walls and fences, none of them promising anything more than seclusion, until one stuccoed buttress announces LA QUERENCIA.
The Spanish word for a homeland steeped in soulfulness, this particular querencia draws a loving “aaahh” from gardeners around the state. Slip inside to find out why. A rainbow of roses—a sample of more than 100 varieties—stands sentry near the house. Their petals spill into beds stuffed with shaggy dahlias, crocuses, lilies, and irises. A massive bronze dragon rises above an underground wine cellar. A labyrinth artfully illustrates the evolution of man. Ivy crawls up the house’s walls as crab apple, cherry, peach, quince, and apricot trees offer juicy treats.
That’s just the first glimpse of this 4.3-acre paradise. Keep wandering and more will appear—a vegetable patch, tropical perennials, a miniature railroad. Amazing as all the rest of it promises to be, you first need to meet the gardener.
Elspeth G. Bobbs long ago won the love of Santa Feans for her philanthropy, intelligence, and witty take on the state of the world. Among gardeners, she inspires downright adoration, and for years nurtured it with tours to the public and, especially, schoolchildren. After a few fitful starts at coming to grips with the desert soil, this child of England learned to work it into an Eden. Since 1967, she has “dug, dug, dug” away the bindweed that once surrounded the house she shared with her late husband, artist and builder Howard Bobbs. For the seeming crazy quilt that replaced the invasive weeds, she has a simple explanation: “The English are batty about gardens.”
Now 94 years old, she grapples with a range of health issues and the ever-increasing threats of drought. Nevertheless, her English roots hold firm. “I must have roses. That’s very important.”
Were it not for a hereditary disease that robbed young Elspeth of her hearing, La Querencia might never have blossomed. When World War II broke out, she couldn’t hear the air raid warnings. With her American father and British mother, she left Devonshire for San Francisco. Although she holds an English law degree (“and thank God, never had to practice”), she found a kindred spirit in reading about Mabel Dodge Luhan, the art patroness whose Taos home had nurtured a creative foment among the likes of D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe. Around 1943, she caught her first glimpse of Santa Fe.
“It was love at first sight,” says Bobbs. “It was small and had a very European feel to it. You could smell piñon smoke, and we had more water in the river then.”
She found work at a property abstract company and, at the end of the war, found love with Howard. Together, they pioneered their way onto Canyon Road, he with a studio and gallery, she with a bookshop that eventually specialized in antiquarian delights. Next door stood Claude’s Bar, then a bohemian hot spot and magnet to curious tourists.
“We watched the Texans drive up in their Lincolns and Cadillacs and hoped they would visit us,” Elspeth says. “But they came for the bar. I never set foot in it.”
But she did get chummy with the raffish artists who hung out there, later giving them fictional personas in her 2011 murder mystery Done from Life. Drawing on actual events of the 1950s and the area’s attractions, it settled comfortably into what Elspeth considers “chick lit.”
“Not a bestseller, of course, but there is a small demand locally,” she says.
The couple tried a series of houses, but Elspeth continually despaired at the slow progress of her spade in caliche soil. For a while, they lived in Carmel, California, while their three daughters went to school. As soon as they could, Elspeth and Howard headed back, querencia calling.
“Carmel was a very good place for an artist, but my heart was here,” she says. “I so badly wanted to come back.”
When they found their dream property, the house was more ramshackle than homey. Lady Bird Johnson’s brother, Tony Taylor, had once owned it and a nearby business, the Old Mexico Shop. The next-door neighbor’s house had yet to be reborn as the popular Compound Restaurant. The Bobbses found portions of an old orchard, along with a corral and a run-down shed for an enterprise that had offered burro rides to local kids. As Howard got to work fixing the house, Elspeth tackled the yard. She quickly discovered that herbs were the only plant the soil didn’t immediately reject. She joined one of the five thriving garden clubs then in existence.
“When I started off, it was higgledy-piggledy,” she says. Elspeth and Howard reused old penitentiary tile to outline beds. They added lawns and a classic parterre with symmetrical planting areas. The first bed of roses wilted and then died. She fell so hard for the plants pictured in catalogs that her garden-club buddies called her “Gullible Elspeth.” The upside of failure? “I learned a lot,” she says.
She remapped the garden, moving the rose bed to a sunnier spot, bought every reference book she could, and entered the flower shows.
“I only ever got the horticultural awards,” she says. “My flower arrangements were disgraceful. But I enjoyed it all. It was a fun time.”
Throughout, she fought the battle of the bindweed. Long ago, she embraced organic techniques and rejected pesticides. “So I spent hours digging it up. By constant additions of organic matter to the soil and perpetual vigilance, I think I have the bindweed sulking, if not conquered.”
She had help from a series of strong-shoulder types. Over the years, that evolved into a team of assistants, some of whom live in casitas Howard built on the property. One of Elspeth’s daughters lives there, too, completing a comforting web of safety and sociability that enables the matriarch to remain close to her treasured roots.
One of the assistants, Connie Helms, helps around the house and in the yard and counts herself grateful for all Elspeth taught her about gardening. “You were always smart about developing your soil,” she says, in the slow and exaggerated manner that helps Elspeth lip-read and, through a cochlear implant, partially hear conversations. The two recount the various types of manure they added to that soil. Chicken. Horse. “Llama was a disaster,” Elspeth says. “Dried out hard as a rock.”
Connie recalls the bat guano from Carlsbad Caverns. “That was awesome,” she says.
Elspeth chuckles and, recognizing the inability of most gardeners to obtain bat guano from Carlsbad Caverns, recommends fertilizing with kelp and mulching with pine needles. “In the winter, each rose gets coned with pine needles, which are slightly acidic, and that helps.”
“Our soil is very good now,” Connie says. “One of the things master gardeners always note when they come here is that you’re gardening over time in one place. That’s an incredible opportunity to witness not only the personal vision but to study it over time.”
From the little sunroom Howard built onto the house, Elspeth and Connie can burrow into books, occasionally poking up their heads—“like meerkats,” Connie says—to check on the yard. A few steps from the door stands a waist-high plot for cherry tomatoes and herbs that Elspeth can easily tend. The backyard opens into a whirl of specialty gardens that Elspeth jokingly terms “funky shui.”
There’s a medieval garden, and the remnants of a movie-prop mummy brought home intact by Howard and knocked asunder by a squirrel-chasing dog. A grotto shelters a Santa Fe Opera prop of Mary and a baby that Elspeth dubbed “Elvis Jesus” for its macho-man torso. Espaliered apple trees stretch their limbs near King Arthur’s sword in a stone, and roses named for Elspeth’s favorite A.E. Housman poems.
Along the back wall, a train set weaves through a miniature garden with a mural that depicts the transcontinental railroad’s route across the nation’s landscape. A crab apple tree with branches trained to grow down becomes an umbrella. Crawl inside and you’ll spy fairy figurines amid the greenery. On a covered patio, pots hold tropical plants that winter in a greenhouse, including an enormous night-blooming cereus.
You won’t find cactus, which Elspeth has long despised, nor one particular color. “I don’t like prickles and I don’t like pink,” she says. “We have salmon, mauve, coral. No pink.”
The property’s southern edge holds a sculpture garden adjacent to the Zaplin-Lampert Gallery, which Howard also built. From a base of grass, the yard climbs up layers of expertly laid rocks softened by nasturtiums and Heavenly Blue morning glories—one of Elspeth’s favorite flowers. Accented by artwork, it rarely fails to astonish walkers on Canyon Road, who often pause to gaze down. Given its otherworldly grandeur, Elspeth cheekily christened it “Machu Picchu del Norte.”
During a drought in 2001, Elspeth tore up a large part of the front yard and, with the help of artist Hillary Riggs, developed both a labyrinth and a fractal spiral with a poetry wall. Besides adding brilliant colors that never need watering, the installations provide lessons in math, evolution, and literature.
The garden shows other steps toward drought-hardy xeriscaping and away from what Elspeth freely admits is her “perfectly ridiculous” display of English-garden battiness. Her on-site well, rain barrels, and a cistern free her from city watering restrictions, but she takes seriously the fragile fate of the desert. Recent bone-dry years claimed a cherished cottonwood. To spare more of the natives, she’s removed plants that demand too much water. When she combs through horticulture catalogs, she focuses only on plants that can get by on drips.
Still, a quarter-acre vegetable garden takes shape each summer, fed by compost from La Querencia’s residents. They can’t possibly consume all the tomatoes, chard, artichokes, and carrots. Years ago, Elspeth sold the excess at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. These days, it goes straight to Kitchen Angels to feed Santa Fe’s homebound residents.
A frequent donor to various causes, she gives, she says, out of “guilt at being better off than other people.” She usually wears a selection of pins bearing various slogans. One of her favorites, Wag More, Bark Less, was given to her by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders when he visited La Querencia.
In 1984, the Santa Fe Living Treasures organization added Elspeth to its honored collection of artists, authors, architects, physicians, and other notable contributors to community life. Astute drivers around town will spot the occasional I’m a Friend of Mrs. Bobbs bumper sticker.
All that love, sadly, can’t spare anyone from the vagaries of age. This last winter visited a variety of cruelties upon Elspeth, including a series of small strokes that increased the amount of help she needs. While she recovers, public tours are on hold.
Elspeth’s days of digging up bindweed may be behind her, but she still has her books, her friends, and, when sleep eludes her, the Housman poems she recites from memory. On the dining room wall, a portrait that Howard painted shows her as the English rose she once was—a standout beauty, serious, intelligent, and confident, without a hint of a prickly cactus or a dreadful pink.
“I am lucky,” she says, looking ahead to the summer. “There’s a little bit of space beyond the fractal wall. I want to do one more project. And I really must finish my memoirs.”
Frequent contributor Kate Nelson, who’s been trained as a master gardener, battles broom snakeweed around her Placitas home.