Spring has come early to New Mexico this year. We’re been breaking records for high temperatures. That’s been so nice and has really improved my mood. I’ll even consider it lucky, since we have lots to accomplish before summer.
Of course, our average last frost is around May 10, and April 15 in Albuquerque. So I fear all of the pretty flowers on the fruit trees will freeze at the worst possible time. Or that my impatience with cleaning up and lightly pruning xeric perennials will backfire. I choose to remain optimistic.
Enjoy these green (and a few other colors) early spring finds. Just click on any thumbnail to start the slide show.
Yesterday, I joined two friends on a perfect trip to the nearby Hondo Iris Farm, on Hwy 70 about 20 miles east of Ruidoso. Each year, it’s such a joy to see the irises in full bloom around Mother’s Day and to wish that I could purchase nearly every color and type of iris I see.
But I considered as we walked around yesterday that the Hondo Iris Farm is more than a striking display of irises. It’s a local botanical garden, shop, nursery and perfect place for a picnic! My friends brought delicious food and we ate on a lower picnic table closer to the valley. A group of ladies gathered for their own spring picnic at a table right next to the rows of iris.
The Hondo Valley runs along the Hondo River (Rio Hondo), which begins where the Rio Ruidoso and Rio Bonito rivers merge. The Rio Hondo runs nearly 80 miles, where it feeds the Pecos River just outside Roswell. The valley is bordered by mountains and has witnessed the history of Native Americans, homesteaders, Billy the Kid and lawmen, and was once a rich farming area with large apple orchards.
Here’s this year’s pictorial tribute to the Hondo Iris Farm. The farm charges no admission. If you can’t come in person, check out their online catalog. And check out more photos from the farm on my Photos page.
I don’t mind feeding birds and deer in the winter when they really need our grass, flower seeds and insects! But once we plant herbs and vegetables, it’s time for the critters to move on, or at least be selective.
Getting wildlife to move on is not so easy. If only we could post “Keep Off the Grass” or “Do Not Touch Our Tomatoes” signs. Instead, we have to deter them as best we can. Here is more info about our latest attempts, and an update on our repurposed post fence.
Our vegetable garden/microfarm needs protection from hooved, underground and above-ground munchers. Here, that means deer, elk, gophers, skunks, squirrels and cottontail rabbits. It takes some work to fence out all of the pests and wildlife, but we’ve been pretty successful. My opinion is that wildlife should be able to roam freely on our place and it is up to me as the farmer/gardener to either protect plants or install plants that they don’t eat. Gophers are exceptions. They are not wildlife to me, but destructive underground rodents. If we don’t use control and deterrents, we will not have a lawn or any living plant left.
Here Are Five Ways to Keep Critters Off Your Food
1. First, we surrounded our entire vegetable garden area with cattle fencing. We only went to six feet in height, but if we ever make the space larger, we realize we might have to go higher. We’ve had no attempts so far by deer (or elk) to jump the fence, although I’m sure they can. I don’t really believe in products that use sounds or scents, although I am open to ideas supported by evidence!
2. Before we could put up the new high fence to discourage deer and elk, we had to protect roots underground. I don’t know how those little rodents dig through our soil and rock so easily, because it was not fun. We used grub hoes and a digging bar to create a trench at least 20 inches deep. We placed metal lath into the trench, and carefully overlapped each piece to leave no holes for gophers. Believe me, they will find the holes.
We also bent about three inches of the lath 90 degrees all the way along the bottom. This should help prevent going just under the metal and back up, but it remains to be seen. Along one fence, we used metal roofing material, which costs more but is solid. This was mostly to keep gophers out, but also to shore up sawdust, sand and fresh manure from our neighbor’s horse pen just next to our garden. Horse manure is a great fertilizer, but only after several months of composting. I don’t want it near our vegetables!
3. We left several inches of lath above the ground as an extra barrier. It’s possible a bunny, or especially a squirrel, could get through the holes in the cattle fence, or that a gopher would venture above ground to get around the lath. We placed the cattle fencing against the lath.
4.Raised beds can provide another layer of protection. We added three new horse troughs to our garden this year, and plan to add more troughs or raised beds next year. They’re extra protection from gophers in particular, help warm soil for our short season, grow fewer weeds, and help save my old back. See how we prepped our first carrot trough here. Containers can work, as can placing metal screen or lath at the bottom or the bed.
Row covers discourage insects and little critters. I’m pretty convinced that birds gather some of our garden seeds and we definitely have evidence of snail, grasshopper and other insect damage to seedlings each year. So I’ll use hoops, rocks, buckets, PVC, whatever I can find to secure row covers around seedlings, even those that already have their double fencing layer of protection.
If you put buckets around vegetables, be sure to remove them as soon as the weather warms and the plant seems sturdy, especially if the bucket seems to be restricting stem growth at all. Remove row covers as soon as plants flower so the good guys can do their job pollinating. When putting up deer fencing, be sure to think about how high they can reach from their hind legs and how high off the ground to start your fence. We have had several fawns get into our ranch post fence this winter, but it seems to have kept out adult deer.
It’s Earth Day 2016! It’s hard to believe this movement started in 1970. Earth Day says “let’s get big stuff done for the planet.” I love that idea! But it’s also overwhelming. I mean, I have enough trouble taking care of myself while juggling work, family, and getting anything done to care for our four acres. But the only way to take big steps for the planet is if everyone takes a few small steps. Here are five tips for greener gardening today and all year long.
Have an empty spot to fill? Use what you have.
Sometimes a plant dies even with our best efforts, leaving an empty spot. Or maybe you’ve been studying an area of your yard all winter knowing it just needs something. Instead of buying a new plant, divide or move an existing one. Plenty of plants that spread divide and transplant easily. For example, Russian sage sends up runners that you can sometimes transplant. Our purple salvia created about five offshoots over winter, one below the garden in the grass. Tim dug up several and potted them; we even gave one to a friend. We also moved several plants. This is a great money saver (and sometimes plant saver) when areas of the garden become overgrown or one plant no longer gets the sun it should. We moved one of the three Apache plumes in our xeric garden to an area that helps screen off a little bit of our vegetable garden. Close enough to attract bees.
Help beneficial insects.
Our lawn and garden attracts bees from late winter until the insects cluster tucked away in winter. The garden also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Moving the Apache plume, along with an offshoot yarrow and two divisions from our blue mist spirea, we just added a new hangout, inviting them to gather closer to our tomatoes and cucumbers! We’ll add milkweed this year for the monarchs, and I can’t wait to see how that goes. We’re growing ladybugs, unintentionally. And I’m counting on them to keep aphids off the milkweed.
Avoid chemicals whenever possible.
Speaking of ladybugs and bees: insecticides kill these helpful insects along with the bad. There also is no need for chemical-laden herbicides in most cases. And I’m saying that knowing full well that half of our orchard is almost entirely covered by horehound. This member of the mint family does best in drought. I know that because if we try to hoe it up, we usually hit rock. I can’t win against a plant that grows from rocks and prefers dry conditions, especially around here. My Earth Day gift: Anyone who wants to make candy or cough syrup can come here and harvest all the horehound they want! As for care of vegetables and other plants you actually want in your landscape, paying attention to their sun exposure and watering needs helps prevent future problems. Enriching soil with compost is a slow, natural way to add nutrients. Compost tea is a gentle fertilizer.
Grow food for your family or wildlife.
Growing food in the garden saves water. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. I can control (within the limits of nature and horehound) the health of my edibles. And keeping them healthy can save water. Sure, they are not native to our area and require more water in the heat of summer than we could ever responsibly pour to an ornamental plant. But every tomato in the grocery store was watered, probably a with a lot more than I use. Even though water availability is regional, it also can vary. And it’s a shared, finite resource. A shrub with berries feeds birds. Fruit trees are a great example of planting a tree for shade or spring blooms with the added benefit of food. Those who don’t like the mess can choose dwarf fruit trees appropriate for their area. And no matter what anyone says, I think green bean, melon and cucumber plants are as pretty as most flowers!
Water responsibly, no matter where you live.
Back to water, because that is always a concern on our place and in most of the Southwest. As I said, it’s a shared and finite resource. If I use too much from our well (or from city supply), I affect the water table, the saturated, upper part of groundwater where rain has soaked through soil. Groundwater provides nearly 40 percent of water for cities and counties, and drinking water for most rural people. It’s everybody’s job to do their part in the home and garden, no matter where they live. Use of drip irrigation, watching and caring for plants sustainably, watering early in the day and using automatic timers to control sprinklers or smartphone timers to remember to turn off the hose are small but important steps every gardener can take.
When you shop for your lawn and garden, all nursery plants should have tags that include information about sun and water needs, and about the plant’s hardiness zone. The official zones for the United States are the USDA Plant Hardiness zones. Canada uses the Agriculture Canada Plant Hardiness Zones Map.
Improvements in Hardiness Zones
For the most part, the USDA system is based on the lowest average winter temperature. A few years ago, the USDA updated its zone map because of warming temperatures. The former map relied on data through 1986, and this one is more current. The USDA web site also has added an interactive map for users. You can enter your ZIP code and get the zone instead of guessing whether your town is light yellow or nearly light yellow on the map. So it’s now GIS-based and pretty precise; the USDA map ranges from zones 1 through 13, with 13 as the warmest zone.
Canada’s map is based on climate data and information about plants in the area. The formula to determine zones include mean frost period length, snow depth, high temperatures and wind data, among other information. The zones range from 0 to 9, with zone 0 as the coldest. Canada’s site also features a terrific search that gives zone-specific information for plants.
Sunset Zones a Bonus for Western States
It’s important to know whether a tree, shrub or other perennial will survive your zone’s winter before you plan or purchase; the USDA map helps with gardeners’ decisions. Sunset (Sunset Western Garden Guides) takes the information a few steps further – by telling gardeners about a plant’s chances all year long. For example, we’re in USDA zone 6B, but so are parts of Virginia and other Atlantic areas, as well as parts of Washington and Oregon. Although El Nino has disrupted normal patters, it’s safe to say that plants get lots more rain in Washington and Virginia.
Sunset looks at distance from the equator to help calculate length and severity of winters. The zone map also separates areas with similar temperature ranges according to coastal location or elevation. At more than a mile high, the elevation matters. Our days might warm as much as a comparable location at 2,000 feet altitude, but our nights cool considerably more. Most of all, Sunset knows the western part of the country. Sunset has 24 zones for the American West, divided by geography and climate. Our small town isn’t notated on the map, so it’s a little tough to determine our exact zone. But Sunset places us in the high desert/intermountain region, and the information still is helpful.
Interestingly, Sunset also provides zone information for the rest of the country. It would be well worth it for gardeners east of the Rocky Mountains to review the Sunset zones for information such as wind and climate extremes.
Gardeners can avoid confusion about zones in plant purchasing and care information by knowing both USDA and Sunset numbers for their locale. Typically, all plants except Sunset’s own will use the USDA zone on the tag.
Use Zone Data with Microclimates
If you’re still uncertain about zone, you can check with local Master Gardeners. Another reason to ask a seasoned gardener about climate and zone is microclimates. In many Western states, zone varies within a metropolitan area. Think of the areas above and below southern California’s thermal belts. The ocean has little to do with the climate in those distinct areas. In Albuquerque, temperature and wind can vary markedly from the foothills of the Sandia Mountains to the valley floors.
Knowing particulars for your area of a town or region helps, but you can take it a step further if you want to push the edges of a plant’s hardiness zone or care needs. If you’re half a zone colder than the plant’s care information recommends, plant it against a south-facing wall. Plants that need protection from heat can go on the northeast side of your home, where the house shades them on blazing afternoons.
And since we’re all about the water out here, microclimates help with water use as well. For example, I might be able to place a shrub that needs a little more water at the bottom of a hill, welling on the downside to catch some of the rainwater.
So remember to pay attention to zone, sun and water needs when buying plants, especially in chain stores, which might stock plants too far out of your zone to keep alive all year. Your plants will be healthier and you’ll save money and time.
As I long for spring to return so we can get back to our gardens, I begin to fantasize about living in Maui or Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace warmer. But today, I’m reflecting on the beautiful state in which we live. And I thought it was time to dispel a few myths about New Mexico, especially for people who live far from the state and have not (yet) visited.
First of all, New Mexico Is a State!
Nearly everyone in our state who travels, stays active in social media or makes online purchases has encountered the phenomenon. I’ve had questions about shipments being international, and New Mexico Magazine runs a terrific column featuring some of the stories from N.M. residents about this confusion.
I know we don’t have a large population, but it hurts to see a map with Arizona and Texas labeled and the empty space between (or the AZ label on our bootheel-shaped state). New Mexico became a state in January 1912. We were the 47th state to join the Union. According to the N.M. Genealogical Society, achieving statehood took some time “in part, by a general ignorance about the territory and suspicions toward its people.”
Some things haven’t changed, I guess. It is true that our state was once part of the Mexican Republic, but that only lasted about 25 years during the 1800s. Our state boasts more than “cowboys and Indians” for our history. Ancient history includes Folsom Man, Clovis Man and the Anasazi.
It Snows in New Mexico
Maybe because of our close proximity to warm and sunny Mexico and the low deserts of Arizona, the perception of New Mexico as a hot, dry desert prevails. It’s partially correct – our climate is extremely dry, and it gets hot in many areas of the state in summer. Climate and gardening zone are affected by more than latitude. New Mexico is on the U.S. southern border, but the Rocky Mountains run through our state, as does the Continental Divide.
Albuquerque, our largest city, is at the same altitude as Denver. Our place, which I consider as intermountain or high desert, stands at 6,300 feet in altitude, and we’re surrounded by Lincoln National Forest. The Sacramento range is just southwest of us. Sierra Blanca, the peak that hosts Ruidoso’s Apache Ski Area is at just over 12,000 feet high.
This year, we got 18 inches of snow just from Winter Storm Goliath, and areas of the state measured their snow in feet. In northern New Mexico, the average annual snowfall has averaged more than 150 inches in Red River. Even Albuquerque receives 9 to 10 inches of snow a year. Having said that, some southern areas of the state easily average more than 100 degrees in summer and have palm trees lining many streets.
Gardeners Grow More than Cacti
The desert assumption includes our native and garden plants. A major purpose of this blog is to show gardeners in Southwestern and Western states that native and xeric gardens can be gorgeous and save water, and that gardeners can grow other than succulents.
I’m not saying that N.M. gardeners avoid cacti and succulents when choosing plants for their garden or home, but so much more grows here. Depending on the region, gardeners hybrid and native roses, aspen trees, herbs and plenty of flowering perennial bushes and annual flowers. No area of our state escapes drought regularly and our average annual precipitation is lower than much of the country. So we just have to garden selectively and responsibly. Many species claimed as invasive in other areas don’t spread so rampantly here, and vice versa.
I’ve grown so accustomed to xeric and rock gardens that I’m a little turned off by lush, formal looks. Xeric gardening is most effective and pleasing when gardeners work with the natural terrain and climate. Use of native plants, rocks and succulents can combine for a perfect palette.
Southwest Gardening Can Be Challenging
Our gardens and natural areas look amazing throughout the year, but gardeners who transplant from warmer, and especially wetter, climates find themselves going through an adjustment period. It’s more likely many of our native and xeric plants will die from too much water than not enough. Once gardeners learn how to ensure the soil is prepped and that they water a little extra only until a plant gets established, they’re likely to have more success than failure in the garden.
One of the reasons it’s particularly difficult to garden in parts of New Mexico is the weather extremes. In the high desert, days can become warm, and the sun intense. But at night, the desert cools considerably. Daily temperature extremes of 40-plus degrees from dawn to evening are not uncommon here. Add gusty dry winds to the mix and any plant but a native to the area might struggle a little. The state’s geographic diversity also means that conditions vary considerably around the state. USDA zones range from 4 to 8 around the state. Colorado’s zones are cooler than ours, and Arizona and West Texas are warmer on average.
New Mexico Is Enchanting
New Mexico’s state nickname is “Land of Enchantment” and it fits the bill. With mountains and plains, we have gorgeous views in most of the state. Sandia Crest in Albuquerque is so named because of the beautiful watermelon color the mountains take on at sunset. We have forests and rivers, along with dry river beds. It can green up here in summer, but if you’re used to all-green landscapes, you’ll either be disappointed or truly amazed.
Diversity of people and wildlife also make New Mexico an enchanting state. Every quadrant of the state has Native American reservations and history. More than 2 million residents were counted in the 2014 census, and nearly half are Hispanic or Latino.
Our mountains are home to black bears, deer and elk. And our plains are home to antelope and roadrunners. We’ve got ranches, oil fields and farms. Nut production is high here for some varieties. Dormant volcanoes, lava flows and white sands dot the landscape.
New Mexico is far from perfect socioeconomically, but well worth the visit. You’re sure to be enchanted. See more about New Mexico on my Fun Stuff page, including a link to our Pinterest account, which includes boards about New Mexico and Ruidoso. And learn more about gardening here by searching posts or checking out the Resources page.
I’ve been working long hours this week wrapping up a project that’s due soon (cause writers gotta’ eat too). So I haven’t been able to research gardening topics for the blog. I’ve also had some trouble keeping my attention focused on my work task, mostly because birds and deer have been busy stocking up on food and it’s so fun to watch.
Last week, I wrote about nurturing wildlife instead of flowers this time of year. And I have say it has paid off. Some of the grazing is natural. Deer and wild turkeys naturally roam here in winter, but I’ve never had so much fun with winter birds. We’ve got huge flocks that normally fly by now landing in trees and I have to stay really disciplined to keep from pulling out a book or bringing up my Cornell Merlin Bird ID app to identify them.
When I need to get up and stretch, I peek through the windows at the activity, watching the birds and deer and trying to get photos without disturbing them. I thought I’d share a few this week, then try to get my head back on gardening — and the holidays, of course — next week. I’ll also keep my eye out to get a photo of the latest spotting. I believe it’s a sharp-shinned hawk, who’s attracted not so much to our feeder, but to the small birds around it.
It’s hard to imagine that an ornamental with such a strong, tall stalk and such large, gorgeous and multicolored blooms could be a low- to medium-water plant. But once established, the iris can get by and bloom with little care and water.
When we visited Portland several years ago, we stopped by a magnificent iris farm and I couldn’t stop taking photos or making a wish list of colors and cultivars. But I couldn’t have known then that I would soon live about 15 to 20 minutes from a pretty magnificent iris garden, even though I’d be in the drier, cooler climate of southeastern New Mexico.
I visited the Hondo Iris Farm for the second time last week, this time with friends from Ruidoso. The flowers were in full bloom, and it was a beautiful spring day. The farm is stocked with impressive rows of more than 400 iris varieties. I found myself once again snapping photo after photo and wishing I had more space and water for flowers in my yard!
What also impressed me about this visit was the fact that the Hondo Iris Farm grows plenty of low-water plants native to the Hondo Valley and nearby Ruidoso. I spotted several trees and ornamentals familiar to me, along with displays of several succulents. The farm sells several plants from a small greenhouse on the property that will thrive locally.
If it’s iris you’re after, you can place your order from a catalog in the farm’s gift shop or by viewing it online. You might not be able to buy the very iris you drool after on your visit; they limit their catalog to about 50 or 60 cultivars each year. Still, it’s a great selection and price. I ordered a few for July delivery. Later this summer, I’ll divide my iris to move some to the back yard and make room for my new bulbs!
The Hondo Iris Farm is on Hwy 70 in southeastern New Mexico at mile marker 284. It’s just west of the small town of Hondo and the intersection of highways 70 and 380, about 20 minutes from Ruidoso and less than 40 minutes from Roswell. Admission is free to the garden, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 am to 5 pm.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
There is desert – arid, warm, often windy, and maybe sandy. And then there is high desert, which is arid, warm during the day (in summer, anyway), often windy, and very cool at night. We sit on the border of high desert and intermountain. Because we’re a small community off the radar, I doubt there are accurate records of our true temperatures and rain averages; we have our own backyard weather station to track temperature and wind speed because none of the models really match what goes on here!
When I tell people back East that I live in New Mexico, they may make a few assumptions. I speak to mostly bright people who know that New Mexico is indeed one of these United States. But occasionally, I get an “international” reaction, especially when making online purchases; see my Fun Stuff page for more on that. Most automatically assume that I’m enduring 100-plus temperatures most of the year. And having grown up in Phoenix, I get what they mean. If I were in the low desert of much of central and southern Arizona or New Mexico, it would be plenty hot.
Generally, high desert is defined as any area that’s above about 3,500 feet in altitude and has fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year. But to grow any decent crop, you need 20 inches of precipitation. Much of New Mexico falls into the high desert category, as do many areas of the Southwest and West. Being at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, we get a little more rainfall (purportedly closer to 21 inches annually) thanks to summer monsoons. But our nights are considerably cooler than Sunset’s definition of high desert. We easily dip close to 10 degrees a few times in the winter, and it snows here.
So if you are a plant in the high desert/intermountain west of the United States, you have to be one tough customer. In winter, temperatures can easily range more than 40 degrees in a day, and we often have a few weeks of warm spells, much to the chagrin of local ski areas. Depending on the timing of these warm spells, fruit trees and perennials can bud out early, and then get zapped by frost. The sun shines most of the year, but when you combine it with our winds, plants that lack moisture in the soil dry more quickly. Oh, and did I mention the low rainfall?
Places like Santa Fe (at 6,995 feet elevation), and many portions of Colorado at 7,000-plus in altitude can average close to 10 to 14 inches of rain a year. Leadville is considered “America’s highest city” at 10,161 feet, and only receives 15.6 inches of rain annually.
If you want to garden in the high desert, it takes plenty of xeriscaping strategies (the term was coined in Denver!). Top on the list is use of native plants, purchased from your local nursery or a company that specializes in high-desert plants. If the plant is native to your area, it’s already toughed it out. Why bring in a new guy? Microclimates can help you try to force a zone up or down, and water conservation and water reclamation can help you grab as much natural rainfall as you can get to make it through the dry spells. Mostly, you need patience. If Mother Nature throws a hard frost at you after May 15, just shake your head and hope you have better luck next year.
Check out my Resources page for more information, including a link to a favorite catalog source.