Buying Garden Plants: Big-box Store Vs Local

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the Plant Select recommended and new introductions for 2015. Plant Select, up in Denver, evaluates how well these plants perform at high altitude and with less water, and also whether the plants are native to North America. And they encourage gardeners to support local nurseries. I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s take a look at the reasons why it’s often best to buy plants from local nurseries, along with reasons why it’s sometimes better to purchase at the Big Box store.

First, supporting your local nursery is the same as supporting your local grocery store, electrician or restaurant. It’s neighborly and the right thing to do, especially if you also own a local business. The major reason for gardeners to buy locally is to ensure they find native plant selections for their area. I can’t tell you how many times I have wandered into a chain store’s nursery area and shaken my head in wonder. It’s obvious that the store’s buyers know little about New Mexico, or perhaps lumped the state together as one zone, or maybe with Phoenix. That’s crazy! Some plants wouldn’t make it here, or might work as an annual, and others use too much water.

When buying from local shops run by people who live in your community and who usually are quite knowledgeable, you may have less selection, but what you lack in quantity, you gain in quality. I’m not necessarily saying the plants are always better quality – we’ll get to that. But the plant selection likely is confined to native plants for your area, or at least to plants most likely to succeed in local gardens.

 

Native nursery in Tucson, Ariz.
Shopping at a local native nursery in Tucson, Ariz.

So, when do you buy local and when do you buy from big chains? It’s a matter of personal choice, and every town is different. So this is based purely on my opinion and experiences: If I want a lot of annual flowers to fill a large bed or several containers, I might be more likely to buy those from a chain. I don’t need the quality of a longstanding perennial, and I want some variety. Chances are most annuals can make it through the season. I save money that way.

For a solid perennial, especially in a unique situation and one I’ve never grown before, I would head to the local nursery for advice and a quality selection. Chances are I will find staff with good knowledge of my zone and climate and how to care for the plant. I’ll pay more, but that’s OK if it’s a good quality plant, especially because I’m also getting the right, native plant and some free advice thrown in.

Some local nurseries grow their own stock. That also can be good, if they know what they’re doing and care for their plants well. But if you have a few bad experiences with a nursery’s plants and are paying higher prices, try another local garden source or seek advice from local Master Gardeners and extension offices and find your plants elsewhere, maybe in a nearby larger town, but still from an independent nursery. You can’t beat word-of-mouth recommendations when it comes to nurseries. They all look awesome as you drive up!

Plant Select 2015 Plants for High-Altitude Gardens

I’ve written before about how the harsh environment of the high desert and foothills of the Rocky Mountains affects plants. But I’ve got good news! The brilliant folks at Plant Select,have announced their new plants and recommendations for 2015. Plant Select is a nonprofit source of plant selections that thrive in the High Plains and Intermountain regions and in a range of conditions, including low water. I’ve summarized a few of my favorites:

Coral baby penstemon (Penstemon x “Coral baby”). This is a new plant with upright spikes of coral-pink flowers that bloom from May through July in Zones 5 – 8. It takes moderate to dry water conditions once established and prefers sandy, well-drained soil. I love to see hummingbirds on penstenoms. Plant Select says Coral baby also attracts bees and butterflies. The plant was selected by breeder Kelly Grummons of Denver, who specializes in xeric plants.

 

Coral baby penstemon, a new introduction from Plant Select for 2015.
Plant Select’s 2015 Coral baby penstemon for Zones 5 to 8. Image courtesy of Pat Hayward, Plant Select.

WINDWALKER royal red salvia (Salvia darcyi x S. microphylla). I like that this hummingbird attracter is deer resistant. Plant Select says that it produces blood-red blooms from June through October in Zones 5 to 9. Cutting the salvia back in early summer can reduce its height (which can reach up to 58 inches). WINDWALKER salvia likes full sun and is moderate to xeric in water needs. It’s also from Kelly Grummons of Denver.

Plant Select's new WINDWALKER Royal red salvia is a moderate to xeric beauty.
Plant Select’s WINDWALKER Royal red salvia, a new plant for 2015 that produces blood-red blooms all summer.

WINDWALKER big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii “P002S” grass. This new introduction from Plant Select for 2015. Bluestem grass is one of the most beautiful ornamental grasses, and grasses can make a great statement in a xeric landscape. I especially love them near walkways or up against rocks. The powdery blue foliage on the WINDWALKER big bluestem can grow up to 6 feet tall in Zones 5 to 8. We left our bluestem through fall and enjoyed the dried foliage in the winter wind, then cut it back to the ground in early spring. It grew back, but was not as hardy the next year. This variety was selected by Sunscapes Nursery, and should reward with purple plumes in fall. It should get by with moderate water or dry conditions.

Windwalker big bluestem from Plant Select, a new grass for 2015 that's perfect for a xeric garden.
Plant Select’s new introduction WINDWALKER big bluestem grass is a perfect choice for a breezy xeric garden. Image courtesy of Scott Skogerboe and Plant Select.

Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia). This is one of several recommended plants from Plant Select for 2015. Because it’s native, it should adapt to high desert climates and water conditions. These grow wild at our place and when we head out to mow down weeds, we try to mow around them. They grow about 2 feet tall and are filled with yellow daisy blooms in late summer that attract pollinators. In the garden, plant them in part shade to full sun in Zones 5 through 10.

Engelmann's daisy, a native wildflower of the Southern Great Plains, is among the 2015  Plant Select recommendations. Image courtesy of Pat Hayward and Plant Select.
Engelmann’s daisy, one of Plant Select’s recommended plants for 2015 because of its adaptability to all sorts of conditions.

Visit Plant Select to learn more about their selection process and 2015 recommendations. I’ll probably include a few more in future posts. And if you live in the high desert or intermountain West, ask your local nursery if they stock any of the Plant Select recommendations.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Weed or Wildflower, Part 2

Nearly a year ago (in May 2014), I wrote a post about the fine line between weeds and wildflowers. The gist of the rant was that our rock garden and entire property was being invaded by a lovely flower called yellow alyssum (Alyssum alyssoides). It’s a little earlier in the spring, and even yellower!

First, the good. If you love early, yellow blooms, this is a pretty little flower. It looks pretty up against a rock or under a red rose, perhaps. Notice I said “it,” as in a single plant. More on that in the ugly portion…

yellow-alyssum
Yellow alyssum sprouting from rocks in a New Mexico rock garden.

Now for the bad: This little spreader has cropped up throughout the garden, and we’ve pulled up a few, though I surrendered long before my husband. He has much more patience, though he hasn’t yet tackled the entire garden. Because he wouldn’t get halfway before he had to start again.

alyssum-prickly-pear
Yellow alyssum growing between pads of prickly pear cactus.

If I had any doubt last year about alyssum’s classification as a weed, at least in this setting, I have no doubt now. And that’s the ugly part. Despite our best (nontoxic, of course) efforts to control this little bloomer, it has taken over every nearly every surface and begun spreading to neighbors’ lawns as well. I have no idea how it started; it came with the house!

alyssum weed
Yellow alyssum as invasive weed in southeastern New Mexico.

Having called it ugly, I have to admit the lawn is really pretty when the sun hits it just right early and late in the day. And we are doing our part ecologically, because the bees swarm all over it when the sun shines. The dogs and deer must tread carefully.

alyssum and deer NM landscape
OK, I admit that the alyssum looks pretty here from a distance. But play “Where’s the Alyssum?” and you’ll spot it everywhere. And what exactly are those deer running from?

As for last year’s fear about the alyssum choking out summer grass, we still had a green lawn come summer. We don’t know if the flowers delayed the grass coming in, but I have a feeling they did. And I am frightened to think what will happen as it takes over, reseeds and multiplies. Meanwhile, I need to research medicinal properties of alyssum flowers or something. Maybe I could make some money?

UPDATE April 6, 2015: A few days after posting this, we headed east to visit relatives, through Roswell and almost to the Texas border. Guess what we saw growing in the worst possible conditions along roadways nearly the entire trip? You guessed it! And it was in my in-laws’ lawn and their neighbors’ yards too. My mother-in-law said she has seen it for years and knew it as a prairie wildflower. I give up and accept this invasive plant as a prairie wildflower … for now.

Water-Wise Gardening Tips

It’s dry out there. We had pretty good moisture over the winter months, but the early spring has been unseasonably warm (OK!) and dry. We’ve come to expect that in New Mexico, and a few days ago, I wrote about the wildfire danger. Today, let’s review a few tips for water-wise spring landscaping that help homeowners here and just about anywhere in the country where drought can be an issue.

  • Set out your rainwater harvesting system. If you live in a climate zone that’s warm enough to leave rain barrels out all winter or have underground cisterns, your system has been efficiently gathering water all winter. In other climates, rain barrels can freeze in winter. Ours are on the south side of the house and should be past danger of long and hard freeze. Now, all we need is rain.
rain barrel in New Mexico
A simple rain harvesting system that came as a kit. All we had to do was shorten our downspout.
  • Update your irrigation system to a low-volume method. The most practical and water-efficient way to hydrate ornamentals is with drip irrigation. When you use spray heads, water evaporates into the air. It also hits leaves and nearby plants. The spray can cause leaf disease in some plants, plus it’s more efficient to soak roots deeply than to water the entire plant.
  • As you plan your irrigation, or check out your current system this spring, make sure to adjust the water amount for the plants or areas where you have bubblers. For example, succulents and many xeric plants need no water at all once established, unless you’re in an extreme drought. You can cap those bubblers off. Too much water can actually harm some xeric plants. Use drips at the base of low- and medium-water flowers and groundcovers. Increase the flow rate for larger shrubs and trees, and add a few extra emitters around trees, especially while they’re becoming established. Remember that tree roots grow out, just like the canopy.
drip system for xeric gardening
A drip system irrigates rosemary, yucca and other plants in this xeric garden.
  • Water in the morning to get your plants through the heat of the day, and when less evaporation occurs.
  • Use raised beds. Raised beds and containers concentrate water, so if you want a few herbs or vegetables or some medium- to high-water ornamentals, confine them to an area that takes a little more water than the others. If you place the raised bed near your drip system, you can add it to the mix and adjust the flow on your emitter if necessary. Just remember, some containers, such as clay pots, dry out more quickly, even though they use less water each time. It’s like having a smaller tank on a fuel-efficient car. It’s not necessarily using more gas, just needing more frequent refilling.
  • When adding plants to your garden, build a small well around them to hold water. This helps the plant soak up the irrigation and keeps water from running down and off the plant, wasting your precious resource.
well at base of tree
This well helps hold water until this small tree is established, especially since it’s on a slope.
  • Use mulch when possible to help retain water and keep roots cool during the heat of the summer.

Finally, automatic irrigation is most efficient, and the consistent, timed watering is best for plants and lawns. But override it whenever you can after a good rain. I used to bemoan the waste when my neighbor’s sprinklers would come on as scheduled while their lawn already glistened with rainwater.

deer in xeric garden
Most of the plants in our xeric rock garden receive no irrigation, just supplemental watering to establish new plants or an occasional drink during drought.

Southwest Wildfire Awareness Week

Yesterday began Southwest Wildfire Awareness Week, which runs through April 4. According to New Mexico Fire Information, this year’s theme is “Where We Live, How We Live, Living with Wildfire.” Since it’s always dry here and Smokey Bear was born nearby (in the Capitan Mountains), I feel I should help spread the word about preventing wildfires.

Little Bear wildfire burn scar near Ruidoso, NM
Little Bear Fire burn scar outside Ruidoso, N.M., about one month following fire (July 2012). The fire burned 242 homes.

First, there are plenty of smart ways to prevent fires in the wilderness, and most require little more than common sense:

  • Foremost, follow posted fire restrictions, and use your head. Today, the wind is gusting to 45 mph and the humidity is 2 percent. That’s right – TWO percent. I wouldn’t have a campfire in the nearby forest or burn my trash. It also means putting out all fires, matches and embers with plenty of water, and having a shovel and dirt handy.
  • Around the house, use of string trimmers to cut tall grass can prevent fires from sparks and removing rocks before mowing tall, dry grass helps prevent sparks caused by metal blades hitting the rocks. Chainsaws and dragging items such as tow chains from cars can also start wildfires. Living in a rural area, I’ve seen devastating wildfires started by cigarettes thrown out of windows and cars pulled off the side of the road when their engines broke down or caught fire.
  • If you live in an area prone to fire, defend your home before a wildfire starts. Your local Forest Service office or wildfire prevention organization can provide information on landscaping strategies. A few include pruning trees so that lower branches are no less than six feet from the ground, spacing conifers 30 feet between crowns, and removing dead vegetation that is within at least 10 feet of your house.
  • Clean debris such as fall leaves and pine needles from your garden and from decks, gutters and patio areas.
  • Avoid stacking (or move) firewood within about 30 feet of your home. Keep your lawn mowed, and your ornamental bushes and plants cleaned up, trimmed and healthy. If they take too much water, consider switching to xeriscaping.

There are plenty more strategies to use, and this guide from Firewise.org has some great ideas for landscaping and construction. Firewise also maintains a list of native plants by state that are less prone to fire or wiser in dry landscapes.

White Fire burn scar near Ruidoso, NM
Four years ago this week, the White Fire burned more than 10,000 acres and five homes around Ruidoso Downs. Here’s the burn scar from our window, along the upper left.

It’s tough to thin trees for many homeowners, especially those who own mountain homes in the cool pines to get away from hotter climates, or people who have chosen to retire near national parks and forests. But we can’t control lightning strikes and wind from Mother Nature, or negligent behavior of others.

New Mexico Recipe: Easy Red Chile

Red chile can make just about anything better. And one of my favorite quick lunches is a fried egg with red chile and melted cheese with a side of lettuce. So simple, but so New Mexican. My red chile recipe also is simple and vegetarian. Depending on where you live, the hardest part might be finding the dried chile pods. But check out the Resources page for more information.

dried-red-chile-pods
Dried red chile pods. I love the deep red color.

I use mild red chile mostly because I am a wimp. But to me, there is just as much flavor in a mild chile as in a hot one. It’s a matter of choice, as is the choice to use spices such as oregano in the recipe. I just want chile flavor. First, rinse your red chile pods and twist off the stem. As you pull it out, you can also run your fingers around inside to loosen seeds. The more you can rinse out, the less you’ll have to deal with later. Place the chiles in water and boil – I use about eight or nine pods per batch.

boiling-red-chile-pods
Red chile pods in boiling water. Be ready for your throat to tickle as the capsaicin fills the air!

Once they have boiled for a few minutes, take them off the heat. The time isn’t critical. Some people don’t even bother with the boiling step, but it makes me feel better from a food safety aspect and softens the dried chiles a bit for blending. Don’t drain the water off; simply carry the pot over to your blender (I start right away, but do this step once you’re comfortable working with the heated water and peppers). Remove the chile peppers with a spoon or scoop and place in the blender, along with a heaping teaspoon or so of fresh minced garlic.

making-red-chile
I place the hot red chiles right in the blender with a spoon of minced garlic and start adding water.

Add a few scoops of the retained boiled water to the blender and blend on a high speed. Stop and check the consistency. It’s personal preference, but I like my chile thick enough to rest on food and spread slightly, if that helps you picture the texture. Adding water slowly keeps you from making it look and run like tomato soup! Continue to add a little water at a time and blend until husks and seeds are liquefied as much as possible and consistency is rich. Next, pour out remaining water from the pot and pour blended chile into the pot. Cook on low to medium heat, reducing heat to simmer once it begins to boil (which is quickly and at a low temperature), usually for about five minutes. Let cool slightly.

red-chile-sauce-in-pot
I love the color of red chile sauce. Simmer it for a few minutes on the stove.

If you don’t want any bits of seed or pulp in your chile, you can run it through a fine strainer before or after cooking the batch. I have done this and it results in a smoother chile, but you lose quite a bit in volume. Pour the chile in a little at a time, and work it through with a spoon. Refrigerate your chile or use it soon after cooking. One batch should make about enough to freeze in an ice cube tray overnight. Usually, I let the tray sit just for a few minutes to soften slightly (not enough to thaw) and pop the cubes out of the tray, placing them in a gallon freezer bag. I thaw single or multiple cubes as needed in the microwave (covering the bowl with wax paper or a paper towel) or throw them right into the crock pot for some recipes.

freezing-red-chile
Cooked red chile poured into an ice cube tray, ready to freeze into individual portions.
frozen red chile sauce
The cubes are just the right size for a small helping and they thaw easily in the microwave or crock pot.

Be sure to wash your hands frequently while handling red chile, and still be careful rubbing your eyes. Word to the wise: If you find your chile too hot, avoid downing a glass of water with the meal. I won’t go all scientific on the properties of capsaicin, but you can fact-check me online or just do your own test if you’re adventurous. One reason you usually get a yummy flour tortilla or sopaipilla on the side is that bread (and milk) help ease the burn. Fats and oils mix best with capsaicin. That’s too bad, really. But I fry my eggs in olive oil, so there’s that…  

Easy New Mexico Red Chile

  • Servings: about 8
  • Time: 10 to 15 mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Grow New Mexico chile in your garden this year, or at least buy dried pods and make red chile sauce!
Delicious New Mexico red chile sauce.

 

Ingredients: 8-9 dried red chile pods a few quarts of water 1 heaping tsp. of minced garlic Rinse chiles, removing stem and as many seeds as possible. Place chiles and a few quarts of water in a saucepan and boil for about five minutes. Remove from heat, retaining chiles and water. Place cooked chiles in a blender, along with garlic and up to 1/2 cup of water from pot. Blend until mixed well. Check consistency. Continue to add water from the pot in small amounts until blended well and desired consistency. Discard remaining boiled water and return pureed chile to pot. Cook on low to medium heat about five minutes. Serve immediately or cool slightly for straining of pulp, refrigerating or freezing.

How To Read Plant Label Codes for Watering Needs

Plant tags, labels and catalogs are much more attractive if they use icons instead of text instructions. Much like infographics, it’s a newer direction in communication. I see the good side of it, especially for people who have low literacy or shop with small children and don’t have time to turn the tag around for more information. I could say the drawback is that the more we put in symbols, the less we need writers, but that’s not a rant for this blog post.

As far as I know, water symbols are not standardized. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected. I think a standard nomenclature and symbol system for plant watering would be a great service to gardeners.

plant-catalogs-labels
Catalogs, seed packets and plant labels use a variety of methods to give us clues about a plant’s water needs.

Most water requirements are represented by a water droplet symbol that’s empty, partially filled or completely filled. My summary of similar legends, like the one used by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Authority, provides the following clues to irrigation:

Empty drop: A plant that requires only rainwater or no supplemental watering once established. So be sure to give a new or transplanted tree or bush extra water until it appears healthy. This can be up to a year for trees and some bushes. After that, there’s no need to irrigate the low-water plant at all. Half-filled drop: This is a medium-water plant. It will always need some supplemental water, depending on what Mother Nature delivers. Most medium-water plants need supplemental water once or twice a month during the hottest days of summer.

seed-packet-water-drop
This seed packet shows the moderate water needs of a sunflower.

Full drop: I am not familiar with these plants. Seriously, they usually aren’t going to make it in places that deliver little rainfall, and if they do, it’s not water-wise gardening. But they often can survive in the right climates and conditions, maybe in a welled spot or container, or where there’s run-off from a streambed. Of course, if you live in a tropical area, that’s just not fair. There are additional variations on these labels, like partially filled drops. I’ve also seen use of watering pails as symbols. Most add text alongside the icons, but if in doubt, ask for help from the nursery staff or a local master gardener.

portulaca-bloom
And because I have to include a pretty flower picture, here’s a portulaca bloom. I love these low-water heat lovers.

No matter what the label shows, circumstances can affect water needs, so don’t take your water icon at face value! Aside from plant establishment, wind and unexpected heat waves can dry plants out. Summer monsoons can nearly drown our drought-resistant plants! And welling and mulching around plants helps them retain water, maybe helping you push a half-filled drop to a quarter-filled one…

Growing Short-Season Vegetables

I want a greenhouse. But want and have are too far apart right now. And the beginning and end of our growing season are too close together. Like many gardeners, we want to produce as many edibles as we can during our growing season. And like many rural residents, we crave affordable, fresh produce.

We’re better off than some; our last freeze occurs in early to mid-May, and our first freeze in early to mid-October. But we all know how those predictions go. With cool, high-desert evenings, the ground has to warm up enough to germinate seeds. Add high winds and low humidity, and it’s pretty much trial and error from one year to the next!

Here are a few tips for growing vegetables and other edibles in short seasons from our attempts and courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Extension services:

  • Make sure your garden is prepped and ready for planting as soon as it’s warm enough to do so. I wrote about spring preparation a few weeks ago.
  • Choose the best spot for your garden or raised bed based on microclimates, such as along a south-facing wall to maximize heat, or where you have a natural wind break in your yard.
  • Speaking of raised beds – they warm more quickly than the ground soil. They also can drain better, but may dry faster. So consider all of these factors when selecting plants for raised beds and containers.
grape-tomato-in-pot
This yellow grape tomato grew in a container against a south wall on our patio last year. They were delicious!
  • Start your seeds early enough to have nice, sturdy transplants ready. Naturally, that only works for those edibles that transplant well, such as tomatoes. If they become too big for the starter pot, transplant the entire block into a larger pot of sterile potting mix until ready to go in the ground. And be sure to harden them off for a few weeks before planting.
  • Cool-season vegetables are easier to sow in colder climates. Examples are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots and several greens. I’ve already planted spinach, arugula and several loose-leaf lettuces in containers and in our garden.
  • Warm-season crops might need a boost, and they surely need a good start. Make sure to plant beans, melons, tomatoes, squash and cucumber after the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Covering them with a light, white landscape cloth can help protect them from cool night temperature and gives seedlings a fighting chance against flying and hopping insects.
  • Choose early bloomers. Some varieties mature earlier or have a shorter time to harvest. Tim really wants honeydew, which should be sowed directly in the ground after the 50-degree soil mark. We found a hybrid that says it can be harvested in 70 days, so we’re going to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’re only out the cost of a seed packet, the time and most importantly, the water. Look for terms such as “cold climates,” “short season,” “early to mature” or “northern gardens.”
short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety, a must for gardeners in cooler climates. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)
  • Help your plants stay warm (or shaded) with an appropriate cover. Aside from row covers, you can use tires or hot caps to protect and warm young plants. Our neighbor is in the stucco business, and he has given us dozens of five-gallon buckets. My husband cuts out the bottom and they work great at protecting young plants from sun and wind.
protect-vegetable-seedlings
Recycled buckets from our neighbor protected young seedlings in last year’s garden.
  • Of course, here in the dry Southwest, we create troughs or wells for nearly every crop to ensure consistent, deep watering and good growth.

Finally, it’s great to get advice from local “experts.” Most are just trying to be helpful. But don’t let lore and legend trump your can-do attitude and willingness to try these tips and your own brilliant ideas!

New Mexico Chile

If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum). You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper.

Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially to make delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!

red chile ristras
New Mexico red chile, strung in decorative ristras. Image from the National Park Service.

According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?

If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.

green chile from community garden
Green chile harvested from neighborhood community garden, along with other great vegetables.

Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fills with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up. I’ll post some of my favorite recipes in the next few months.

If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Here’s a list of companies that support the NM Chile Association.

Passive Solar in the Spring: I’ll Follow the Sun

Why use fossil fuels to heat your home if you can design it to take advantage of the fact that 75 to 80 percent of New Mexico days are sunny? We were fortunate enough to buy a passive solar home two years ago. It was professionally designed for the former owners, who told us they almost never used their furnace. Two wood-burning stoves do the trick on chilly evenings and the sun takes care of the rest. The owners warned us, however, that April would be the coolest month in the house, and September the hottest. And they were right.

passive solar NM home
Passive solar home in winter. See how many windows face south to soak up sun on a clear day?

Here’s why: A passive solar home has plenty of windows facing directly south. The windows collect warmth from the winter sun, which is lower than in the summer. With good thermal mass in the form of floor tile, bricks, concrete and other materials, the heat gets stored and then releases in the evening to help keep the house warm as temperatures drop. Other design factors, such as having few north-facing windows, keep cold air out and warm air in, as do tight seals and good insulation. Landscaping also helps; planting little but deciduous trees near the home’s foundation allows winter sun through, but provides summer shade.

 

trombe wall storing solar energy
A trombe wall soaks up and stores the heat from south-facing windows. Note how much more heat can enter when the sun is low. This illustration is from the U.S. Department of Energy.

We’ve got several trombe walls made of adobe bricks and tile floors in every room but the master bedroom. I can vouch for how well the system works; I had to open windows a few times in January on sunny, warmer days.

 

trombe wall in New Mexico home
This trombe wall warms a hallway and living area. The tiles and adobe bricks store heat efficiently.

But about March to April, the sun starts shifting its path in the sky and even though the days get longer, less sun comes in our windows. If it’s also partly cloudy or cool, the house warms up less than it does in December and January. That means we’re having fires on many spring evenings to take the chill off.

In summer, we open upper, clerestory windows as soon as the air outside cools off to circulate cool air throughout the house. Then we have to shut out the hot air come morning. We might also draw a few shades, especially on the east and west side of the house. Come September, the sun starts dipping in the sky and through our windows, warming up the house when temps outside can still be high.

Throughout the year, we’ve learned to work with the home’s design and the sun to make the most of how smart the house is at using natural energy so that we save on fuel, and especially fuel costs. In fact, I have nothing but an energy-efficient wall heater and a trombe wall in my office. I use a small space heater on cold winter mornings as needed. If it gets too warm in here, I can work outside under the shade of the apricot tree!

 

passive solar home in December
December sun striking opposite wall.

If you’re considering building a new home or a remodel, I strongly recommend passive solar as a way to warm and brighten your home and to save on annual energy costs. Learn more here.