The High Desert climate presents both benefits and challenges to gardeners.
The high desert zone is characterized by low humidity, infrequent rainfall, plentiful sunshine, alkaline soil, drying winds, wide temperature swings and unpredictable freeze dates.
On the plus side: certain troublesome types of insects, mildews, soil microorganisms, and plant diseases are not as common in the high desert. On the challenging side: soils often need amendments, and tend to dry out quickly.
With some basic concepts in mind, the high desert garden can be lush and productive, even year-round.
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.
Soil amendments to retain moisture. New Mexican soils range from sand/gravel to clay; both types of soil are poor at holding water. Mixing in manure, compost, or perlite/vermiculite will greatly improve moisture retention.
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.
Amend! Most New Mexican soils are poor in humus, the organic materials that carry nutrients, hold moisture, and host soil microorganisms. The two basic types of New Mexican soil -- sand/gravel and clay -- both benefit greatly from the addition of soil amendments. In fact, it can safely be said that it is almost impossible to add too much humus to our soils! The best amendment remains compost (see the Composting Subject Guide), but there are a wide range of soil amendments available to the gardener. Some amendments, like vermiculite and perlite, are specifically used to help keep moisture in the soil.
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 high desert plants 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". Using adapted varieties can mean the difference between success and failure in the high desert garden.
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.
These organizations are lending valuable assistance to the Seed Library program:
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)
An institution fostering environmental awareness, education, and stewardship, the Albuquerque City BioPark includes the Zoo, Aquarium, and Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden demonstrates regional and climatic variability, and illustrates the conditions of our high desert climate zone.
Since 1976, Plants of the Southwest has offered native and adaptive plants to the home gardener and landscape professionals. With nursery locations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and a growing operation in Galisteo, POTS strives to provide climate-appropriate vegetation and foster an ongoing process of interconnected plantings and water conservation.
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.