High-desert Gardening: Harsh and Heavenly

There is desert – arid, warm, often windy, and maybe sandy. And then there is high desert, which is arid, warm during the day (in summer, anyway), often windy, and very cool at night. We sit on the border of high desert and intermountain. Because we’re a small community off the radar, I doubt there are accurate records of our true temperatures and rain averages; we have our own backyard weather station to track temperature and wind speed because none of the models really match what goes on here!

When I tell people back East that I live in New Mexico, they may make a few assumptions. I speak to mostly bright people who know that New Mexico is indeed one of these United States. But occasionally, I get an “international” reaction, especially when making online purchases; see my Fun Stuff page for more on that. Most automatically assume that I’m enduring 100-plus temperatures most of the year. And having grown up in Phoenix, I get what they mean. If I were in the low desert of much of central and southern Arizona or New Mexico, it would be plenty hot.

Generally, high desert is defined as any area that’s above about 3,500 feet in altitude and has fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year. But to grow any decent crop, you need 20 inches of precipitation. Much of New Mexico falls into the high desert category, as do many areas of the Southwest and West. Being at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, we get a little more rainfall (purportedly closer to 21 inches annually) thanks to summer monsoons. But our nights are considerably cooler than Sunset’s definition of high desert. We easily dip close to 10 degrees a few times in the winter, and it snows here.

 

new mexico snow

February snow that capped out at 10 inches in a few days (at least on our picnic table).

So if you are a plant in the high desert/intermountain west of the United States, you have to be one tough customer. In winter, temperatures can easily range more than 40 degrees in a day, and we often have a few weeks of warm spells, much to the chagrin of local ski areas. Depending on the timing of these warm spells, fruit trees and perennials can bud out early, and then get zapped by frost. The sun shines most of the year, but when you combine it with our winds, plants that lack moisture in the soil dry more quickly. Oh, and did I mention the low rainfall?

Places like Santa Fe (at 6,995 feet elevation), and many portions of Colorado at 7,000-plus in altitude can average close to 10 to 14 inches of rain a year. Leadville is considered “America’s highest city” at 10,161 feet, and only receives 15.6 inches of rain annually.

 

northern New Mexico landscape

Country road near Mora, New Mexico, which is northeast of Santa Fe. It was pretty, but dry, in early fall a few years back.

If you want to garden in the high desert, it takes plenty of xeriscaping strategies (the term was coined in Denver!). Top on the list is use of native plants, purchased from your local nursery or a company that specializes in high-desert plants. If the plant is native to your area, it’s already toughed it out. Why bring in a new guy? Microclimates can help you try to force a zone up or down, and water conservation and water reclamation can help you grab as much natural rainfall as you can get to make it through the dry spells. Mostly, you need patience. If Mother Nature throws a hard frost at you after May 15, just shake your head and hope you have better luck next year.

 

purple penstemon

One of many types and colors of penstemon native to New Mexico.

Check out my Resources page for more information, including a link to a favorite catalog source.

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