High Desert Gardening
By Sharon Moe Furl
Having just moved to New Mexico for the purpose of a
sunny inexpensive retirement, I started to plan the garden. After all, my
husband and I had had a vegetable garden for the past forty years from
Vermont to Texas, and I didn’t intend to retire from gardening.
We had chosen a house in central New Mexico in the
high desert with a 40-foot-square backyard and approximately four-foot-high
walls, all suitable for a vegetable garden. However, the ground was
literally wall-to-wall decorative pebbles. I saw no sign of life at that
moment, but being a persistent gardener, I saw a challenge I had not yet
First, I needed to place the vegetable garden in the
best location. Having morning sun and afternoon shade would solve the
problem of the intense New Mexico sun. Facing east against the stucco back
wall of the house would provide good morning sun and then, by early
afternoon, the necessary shade. Fortunately, along this wall was a water
faucet, the life blood of a garden in the high desert. The other necessity
was for the garden to be enclosed so that animals could not graze. I soon
found out there was plenty of life in the form of desert rabbits. The house
had black iron fencing on both sides meeting the exterior walls with a gate,
so some two-foot-high chicken mesh attached to the iron fencing panel worked
Now came the removal of the pebbles in the 14-foot
square chosen for the garden. Simply raking cleared the majority, but some
hand work was required with the protection of gloves and knee pads. The
soil/sand was still not visible because black landscape fabric lay under the
pebbles to prevent any form of life from emerging. The fabric was then
pulled up, cut away, and disposed of.
Finally, there was the soil: part clay, part sand.
Our realtor had told us, “Anything can grow in it as
long as you give it water.”
Having grown up on the fertile soil of a Wisconsin
dairy farm, I was skeptical so went to buy compost. We moved to New Mexico
in April so had no compost of our own during our first summer. The compost
pile was one of our first additions to the backyard. During the winter
months, we dug vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, and crushed egg shells
directly into the soil and watered them down, for only the very top soil
ever froze. As I turned over the soil in the spring, I could see some lovely
black compost interspersed with the clay and sand.
Just as precious as composted soil is in New Mexico,
so is water. Attending local farmers markets, we soon learned ways to
conserve water. Upon good advice, we installed an above-ground drip
irrigation system and immediately saw an improvement in plant growth. The
irrigation tubing runs directly down the garden rows, so no water is wasted
between the rows. It works perfectly to run it at a very slow drip on a
timer for one to two hours in the morning depending on whether or not it is
monsoon season. In central New Mexico, rainfall in July through September
averages one to two inches each month because it is monsoon season. However,
the rainfall is usually not dependable, so it works best to manually turn
off the irrigation only after an adequate amount of rain has fallen.
We also recycle our sink water from both the kitchen
and the bathroom plus any water used to boil pasta or potatoes, etc. Our
one-story house with kitchen and bathroom being close to the back patio door
makes it convenient to use pails to transport this water to clay pots and
shrubs in areas of the backyard not located in the vegetable garden proper.
Next came choosing the right seeds and plants that
were appropriate to the area. Whenever Native American heritage seeds were
available, they were my first choice. Amaranth with its tiny pink and white
flowers that grew almost shoulder high and Hopi Pink beans for drying were
all new to me and highly successful. I also ordered seeds that were
advertised as drought-tolerant and sun-loving from seed catalogs. I planted
taller sun-loving vegetable plants near shorter cool-weather plants to make
use of the natural shade.
Flower seeds that I have successfully grown with only
a small amount of water include cosmos, sunflowers, and Mexican Zinnias. Hen
and Chicks grow almost with no water when established in a sandy corner of
the yard. All were started indoors on a sunny windowsill in March.
All types of tomatoes have grown very well with the
seedlings planted directly in the soil. Once, I even had an indeterminate
paste tomato plant that just grew up in the onions apparently compliments of
the birds, for I never planted that kind of tomato.
In order to bring more life to the backyard, I went
to a nearby Native American pueblo and purchased a few local shrubs that
have grown well without much water once they were established. I discovered
from the Santa Fe farmer’s market that herbs grow well in this area, so I
bought a spearmint plant and started cilantro, chives, and garlic chives
from seed. Having brought Egyptian onions from our previous garden, I
planted them immediately upon our arrival before even completely cleaning
the garden area. They are very happy even with pebbles still part of their
soil and they supply us with fresh onions all winter.
I also put a bird feeder in our backyard and have
been able to attract little redheaded finches. To make the bird feeding more
natural and welcoming to all birds, I was able to grow an assortment of
Native American sunflowers in a circle around the base of the feeder.
Outside the back patio door, I always keep a clay pot
of wheat grass for our pet cats. The seed germinates well if soaked in water
overnight. That is the only form of grass located in our yard. I feel that
New Mexican water is too precious to use on a vegetation that provides no
food value and no flowers but uses a great deal of water to maintain.
To welcome us to the high desert, a couple of prickly
pear plants soon sprouted right out of the pebbles in the backyard. We now
have a group of six plants but do pull out others that appear in the yard.
It takes patience to watch their slow growth, but I can imagine the syrup or
jelly I will eventually be able to make from the fruit of this cactus.
Our garden has provided us with a long summer season
of fresh vegetables and also herbs, if dried or frozen, for the whole year.
The high desert looks entirely different on each side of the walled yard. On
the outside is sand and sagebrush and an arroyo, and on the inside is an
oasis of vegetable and flowering plants that are growing with a small amount
of water and much devotion.
Sharon Moe Furl received her Bachelor’s
degree in Wisconsin and a Master’s degree in Texas. She has taught Writing
in community colleges in Illinois and Texas for over 15 years. In addition
to freelance writing for magazines, she has been a freelance newspaper
writer in Colorado. She now lives in New Mexico with her husband and three
cats, and her 40th garden.