I am glad I waited to take the Master Gardener course until I arrived in New Mexico five years ago. Had I trained back in Pennsylvania a lot of that knowledge would not be relevant to my current situation. It’s always funny to me when people move to the Southwest from East of the Mississippi and go for the familiar Japanese maples, dogwoods, azaleas, and blueberry bushes that the nurseries are peddling, not to mention the Kentucky bluegrass sod. The fact is our soils are vastly different from the soils back East. Those acid and moisture loving plants struggle in our dry, limey, alkaline soils. Here in New Mexico, our soils tend to have very low organic matter (usually around 1%), limited moisture, and an alkaline pH of 8 or higher. All of these factors impact the carbon cycle and nutrient uptake, which are critical to a productive growing system.
The soil example above perfectly illustrates the importance of place when planning a garden or a farm. However, attention to your sense of place pertains not only to soil, but also climate, materials, water, plants and culture. For example, the New Mexico sunshine is so intense that even sun loving plants like the tomato appreciate – and rely on – partial shade, which we provide for our plants on the farm. Here are just a few strategies to help you obey your sense of place:
- Pay attention to your growing zone, daylight hours and frost dates to better understand the length of your growing season. The strength of your light will increase until the summer solstice and then begin to decrease until the first day of winter. Find out the latitude for your area and use this handy Daylight Explorer to know your light patters throughout the season. Contact your county Cooperative Extension office for your growing zone and first and last frost dates.
- Conduct a soil test. A soil test is one of the best things you can do to practice sustainable growing. A good soil testing lab will give you valuable knowledge of your soil’s primary and secondary nutrient content, pH level, salinity, and percentage of organic matter – all the critical components that influence soil health. A good soil test may be available for as low as $25 through your state’s Cooperative Extension. If not, check neighboring states or any number of private labs. I have used Colorado State University’s soil testing lab.
- Look for plant species and varieties that are adapted to your local climate. Here in New Mexico, we have desert conditions, so drought tolerant plants are essential, as well as plants that are tolerant of higher pH levels. I have also been able to find lists of vegetable varieties that do particularly well in our areas. These are varieties that have been grown extensively and successfully by others in our state. Your state’s land grant university will likely have free research based publications available online that focus on your local region, like this example of shade trees that do well in New Mexico.
- Use materials that are abundance in your area. For example, fall leaves are a fantastic source of organic matter and nutrients that can be saved, shredded, composted and applied to your soil. In my area I have a lot of ponderosa pines and their fallen needles make an excellent mulch. If you have a lush green lawn that you mow periodically, use the grass clippings as organic mulch. Spread them thinly at first so they dry out some; then you can layer them over time to make an excellent soil cover that helps regulate soil temperature, retain moisture and add organic matter. If you need stone for landscaping, it is cheaper if it is sourced locally and it will also add to the authenticity of your landscape.
If you obey your sense of place, taking advantage of what nature serves up, you will work less, save money, and you will be more sustainable.