The Southwest in general is often characterized by low humidity, infrequent rainfall, plentiful sunshine, alkaline soil, drying winds, wide temperature swings and unpredictable freeze dates. But here in Albuquerque variety seems to be the spice of our weather's life. During a good summer monsoon season, high humidity, high temperatures and scalding sun can be a challenge to a home gardener. Winters can also be unpredictable, with some years bringing mild weather and other years bringing snow and ice and nights dropping into single digits. Spring winds have been increasing in strength over the years and can now often damage unstaked or taller, vulnerable plants. Furthermore, Albuquerque is located in a rift valley, where an elevation change of more than a thousand feet takes place between the Rio Grande river bosque area and the foothills of the Sandia mountains. Soils can range from sand to clay to decomposed granite and caliche, and often needs to be amended before gardening can begin. Finding plants that can survive and thrive amidst all of these varying factors (and more) is a continuing exploration for all Albuquerque area gardeners.
Water is a precious resource in the high desert zone. There are several ways a high desert gardener can reduce water use, and conserve the water that has been applied.
Scheduling. Watering during the late-afternoon windy period will see a startling amount of the water lost to evaporation. During hot periods water early in the morning, or early in the evening (or even at night) after the winds have dropped.
Water close to the ground rather than sprinkle. Overhead sprinkling, while covering a large area of the garden at once, often results in loss to evaporation. Too, where plants are planted close together, some of the water may remain on the leaves and not actually reach the ground. Use soaker hoses and drip irrigation if possible to help direct water only to where it's needed.
Mulch! Mulches protect the soil from both sun and wind, greatly improving moisture retention and reducing loss. Even a simple mulch may reduce water loss by two-thirds -- not only a more efficient use of water, but also a significant reduction in the gardener's water bill. See the Mulching Subject Guide.
Soil amendments. Composting Subject GuideThere are seven official Master Gardener gardening zones in the Albuquerque area, not to mention the microclimates to be found in your own yard. Mixing in compost and other soil amendments specific to your yard or growing area will greatly improve moisture retention.
Drainage. Some gardeners face the caliche layer -- a mineralized zone formed where groundwater bringing up solutes from below meets rainwater percolating down from above. Caliche is a natural form of concrete that can be completely impermeable to water, a layer that stops plant roots and prevents natural drainage. Where caliche is encountered you must either use only shallow-rooted plants, dig/chop through the caliche, or consider a different area for your garden.
Another factor of drainage is concentrating water near plants -- where common practice in wetter climates is to plant on hilled-up earth to drain rainfall away, many plants in the Albuquerque area might do better in depressions where the water is kept around their roots.
Use region-appropriate seeds & plants. Many varieties of popular plants are adapted to high desert conditions -- such plants are often labeled as "drought tolerant" or "low water use".
Location. Even a small garden often has microclimates, areas with different conditions that affect plant growth. Things that affect microclimates are the amount of direct or reflected sunlight, windbreaks (or lack thereof), and "altitude" (lower areas or pockets collect cooler air).
An area closer to your home also naturally tends to get more attention, and plants nearer your water supply tend to get watered first.
Containers. Planting in pots, raised beds, or other containers can make it easier to control soil conditions, concentrating amendments and water. Smaller containers can also be moved into different microclimates, or even brought inside.
Companion planting. Some plants do not share soil well, while others help one another thrive. This effect may be due to something as complex as the chemistry of root exudates, or as simple as a taller plant shading a delicate plant from hot afternoon sunlight.
Spacing. The spacing of plantings can also be an important factor. A square bed of beets, spaced so that their leaves almost touch when mature, will shadow the soil beneath in a way that does not occur in a straight row, keeping the soil cool and conserving moisture. Similarly, alternating rows of taller and shorter plants may be beneficial if the shorter plants (such as lettuce) prefer cool conditions, or detrimental if the taller plants intercept too much sunlight.
The Extension Service, operated out of the land-grant New Mexico State University, provides the people of New Mexico with practical, research-based knowledge and programs to improve their quality of life. Included in these programs are support for agriculture of every scale.
Through the Master Gardener and Master Composter programs, gardening columns, and a wide variety of publications, the Extension Service works to share valuable information to support farmers and gardeners in water-efficient, region-appropriate plant culture.
Master Gardener Consultations are available at the following library branches from approximately May through August. Please call each branch for specific times and dates.
Cherry Hills (857-8321)
Erna Ferguson (888-8100)
Juan Tabo (291-6260)
Lomas Tramway (291-6295)
Rudolfo Anaya/North Valley (897-8823)
South Valley (877-5170)
Here are a few guides to help you with your high desert gardening:
Many civic organizations around the country are developing seed libraries to support heirloom varieties and a renewable source of region-appropriate open-pollinated seed stock. There are now hundreds of seed libraries across the nation and worldwide. Here are some local seed libraries you may also want to visit.