Saturday, January 17, 2015

High – And Dry Too!

Mars and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico for the Christmas holiday.  Our daughter-in-law and son live there.  She is the daughter of a Master Gardener and an avid, very good plants-woman in her own right.  Our son learned from me and therefore provides muscle when and where he is directed.

There was however nothing horticultural going on while we were there – except what transpires secretly under the earths’ surface during its supposedly dormant season.  Despite its tropical sounding name, northern New Mexico (even with its more southerly latitude) is just about as plant-friendly during the winter months as southern New England.

The reason?  Particularly out west, altitude equals latitude.

A good “rule of thumb” for elevation’s effect on climate (even on the east coast) is 1,000 feet of altitude = 300 miles of latitude = 4 degrees F in temperature.  Here is a “small math” example. Santa Fe is forty miles north of Albuquerque and 2,000 feet higher.  So it is usually about 8.5 degrees cooler.   Wethersfield, CT has an altitude of forty-five feet above sea level.  Santa Fe is about 7,000 feet at its lowest – more than enough to eliminate any temperate effects of Northern New Mexico's more southern latitude.

As a result the Santa Fe area has between 150 to 180 frost-free days with the last frost occurring usually between April 20 and May 10.  By comparison CT has around 210 days with a slightly earlier end to the freezing season.  To make matters worse, Santa Fe’s annual rainfall is a measly14.21 inches.  (New Mexico does have some similarities to the country from which it borrowed its name.) CT averages over four times that amount.

The story of New Mexico is in large part the story of water – who owns it, who needs it, and how to distribute it.  In rural areas this was accomplished by “acequias” community-operated watercourses with engineered canals that carry snow runoff or river water to distant fields. Each acequia was managed by its own “Mayordomo” and commission.  Most of the “engineering” was done by trial and error, experience, oral tradition, and more or less continuous manual labor with shovels and rakes.  One result of this system is that the older properties in the Santa Fe area are laid out long and narrow with access to the waters of the Santa Fe River at one end, and housing at the other.  Inconsequential today when the river is more of an occasional trickle than a rapidly flowing source of sustenance.
(This is the Santa Fe River - not an acequia.)
Our D-I-L and son live about one quarter mile from the SF River, but not on one of the funky old-time tracts.  (Their area was in fact a Japanese internment during WWII, but that’s a different history lesson.) She uses soaker hoses and generates a very productive harvest that last year included kale, sungold tomatoes, arugula, dill, hollyhocks and buffalo grass.

They sent, and we received and sowed a package of NM their hollyhock seeds this past autumn.  There is hope that these biennials will flourish in our plant-loving CT environment.  We have tried this before.  Some succeeded.   Others literally drowned in the overabundance of water – or succumbed to the dreaded Hollyhock “rust”.  This crop is intended to take over the space that was formerly allocated to our miniscule vegetable garden of six tomato plants.

But it’s only January – way too early to even think about gardening back here in “The Land of Steady Habits”.  Still, like gardeners in more fertile areas, our D-I-L is eagerly poring over her newly ordered seed catalogs out in the cold, arid “Land of Enchantment” – one of them from Baker Seed, owners of our own home town Comstock Ferre.

In his book “A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm”, author and farmer Stanley Crawford writes “To dream a garden and then to plant it is an act of independence and even defiance to the greater world.”

Overdramatic hyperbole to us sea level, drought-free, Northeastern plantsmen.  But spot on accurate for our high desert dwelling family and friends – and their predecessors.

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