Finding Inspiration in New Mexico's Sustainable Landscapes
New Mexico has been calling my name for years, and this past fall it was singing louder than usual. As the years go by my passion for sustainable gardening and California native plants grows stronger. I’m more interested in the best practices for organic gardening than ever before. So naturally I have wanted to see what I can learn from a state that has many of the same challenges as California when it comes to water and land use. It seemed serendipitous that I was serving as President of the Greater LA district of APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers) the same year that the APLD International Conference was being held in Santa Fe. It was a case of manifest destiny. I booked my hotel immediately, and began to research plant nerd activities.
My traveling style, especially when sustainable landscapes are of interest, is to fit as much as I humanly can into each day. Armed with many suggestions from friends, I opted to fly into Albuquerque so that I could see the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden on my first day, then take a train into Santa Fe. I highly recommend this, not only because the Botanic Garden is full of surprises and gorgeous plant material, but the train ride itself is breathtaking. My eyes were out the window the entire time. New Mexico was blessed with quite a lot of summer rains, which combined with the cooling fall weather made for some spectacular blooms and photo opts. The skies there are so different from what I’m used to in So Cal --- big, blue and filled with thunder clouds.
There are many similarities between the climate of southern California and NM, but there are two key differences that make the plant palette there quite different from a southern California garden plant palette. They have very hot dry weather much as we do, but their winter low temps are much colder than ours, so they have to choose plants that can withstand frost. Another difference is the way they receive rain. While both California and New Mexico have similar annual rainfall, we get most of our rain in the winter while NM receives the majority of their precipitation in the summer. And when NM does get rain it comes in large thunderstorms that cause flooding, that when unchecked can cause flooding and erosion. This makes a huge difference in the way plants are adapted for survival. This is why it is important to plant native plants in your garden. Native plants are best adapted to dealing with the local climate patterns.
Sorry for the long side bar in a climatology lesson, back to the story of my trip.
After spending a nice long time nerding out on plants at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, I discovered they had a butterfly pavilion. In my dreams I would have a garden full of as many butterflies they had in this magical enclosure! I had a bit of an ethical struggle with the fact that they were importing chrysalises from who knows where, and that the butterflies were “caged” so to speak, but overall, the sheer joy of walking through clouds of butterflies won my heart over. The plants inside the conservatory were quite mature and loaded with nectar rich flowers, so the butterflies seemed very happy. The experience of being so up close and personal with the winged creatures has inspired me to want to plant even more milkweed for butterflies in every garden I can in 2017. Just reflecting on the time inside the butterfly pavilion makes me happy and that is the feeling I want to create for everyone in their own gardens. Eventually, and with a little sadness I had to leave the Bio Park and head to Santa Fe.
In my mind Santa Fe was a mythical place where artists, desert rats and hippies soaked in the hot springs together. It turned out to be more sophisticated, spiritual, relaxing and inspiring than I imagined. While I made sure to leave the conference long enough to visit the Georgia O’Keefe museum, most of my time was spent on a whirlwind sustainable garden tour that was part of the Art of Adaptive Design theme of the week. All told I think I saw 20 gardens in the span of a few days.
I knew that a week with Landscape designers from all over the country was going to be an overload for the senses, so I planned ahead to take one day for myself to explore the area before the most dense part of the conference. I also joined another designer from California for a rejuvenating yoga class with Sara Easterson-Bond at Yoga Source. Definitely worth a visit if you are in town.
The next morning we rented a car and drove to the sacred Ojo Caliente hot springs. Each pool filled with water of different concentrations of minerals, my favorite was the Iron Pool, it’s Iron rich waters were more buoyant than some of the others, and the natural rock formations were stunning. I didn’t take my camera into the springs, however I did photograph the gardens that wrap around the property, which really capture the spirit of the New Mexico landscape for me. A combination native trees, shrubs and wildflowers sprinkled over the locally sourced rocks and boulders. After a very relaxing time spent at Ojo Caliente, it was time to get back to the conference.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was being in such close proximity to The Railyard. A once a neglected rail yard was transformed into an artfully designed landscape that is a beautiful place for walking, playing and meeting with friends. I stayed in a hotel on one end of the park, so each time I walked to the conference hotel I got to wander through the many different areas of the Railyard. I feel that I became friends with the park in a way.
The most intense part of the conference was two back to back days of garden tours. It would take hours for me to explain each garden to you, so you will just have to enjoy the photos and try to imagine what it would feel like to spend time in them. I came away from the experience with some key take aways I want to share with you:
Water is life; gardens should be built to embrace water as a precious resource
Use locally sourced materials to create a strong connection with place
Native plants thrive and look beautiful in many styles of gardens
Shade from trees is central to a relaxing outdoor living space
Using rocks in the landscape adds character and texture
Wild flowers seeded throughout the garden help fill in younger gardens
I hope my story speaks to you and inspires you to travel to a new place this year, but also to create a retreat in your own backyard. There is nothing better than escaping the daily grind, than walking out your own back door into a paradise all your own. No planes, trains or automobiles, just a few steps to your favorite seat under the shade of bird filled trees.
In my upcoming posts I will report on my trip to Arizona, so stay tuned!