ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A hummingbird hovers over the culinary sage, firecracker penstemon and other varieties of herbs and wildflowers at Albuquerque Academy’s Desert Oasis Teaching Gardens as garden manager Tiana Baca talks about ollas.
“Ollas are unglazed clay pots,” she says. “You fill them with water, bury them next to plants and the water seeps out to irrigate the roots.”
Perhaps the first drip irrigation system, ollas used in gardening date back thousands of years. Ollas are slacking the thirst of the wildflowers and herbs the hummingbird is admiring on this morning as well as the beets, chard, leeks and carrots in a raised bed nearby.
“I can grow anything in the Southwest if I have enough water,” says Baca. But, this being the Southwest, having enough water is the challenge.
Baca will give a presentation titled “Desert Lessons: Water Wise Growing for Home Gardeners” at 4 p.m. Sept. 1 during the New Mexico Master Gardeners 2018 Conference, Aug. 31-Sept. 2, at the Albuquerque Marriott Pyramid Hotel.
The conference, hosted by the Sandoval County Master Gardeners, will offer a wide array of seminars, classes and panel discussions featuring more than a dozen gardening innovators, including keynote speaker Jeff Goebel, an expert in consensus building and the owner of a small New Mexico farm.
Master Gardeners are gardeners who complete a class curriculum and other requirements proscribed by New Mexico State University, but the state conference is open to the public as well as to those who have achieved Master Gardener status.
Tipping to a theme in her conference presentation, Baca says, “If you think about water in the Southwest, you first have to think about soil. It doesn’t matter how much water you have if you can’t hold on to it.” She will also talk about heat-resistant plants such as amaranth, a perennial cultivated as a leaf vegetable or a pseudocereal; purple yoeme, a bean; and Hopi purple beans.
Baca’s gardening philosophy and methods are on display at Desert Oasis, an open-air classroom that teaches the principles of dryland growing, sustainable food production and traditional techniques to Academy students and the Albuquerque community. You can find out more about the garden at TheDOTgarden.org.
Desert Oasis is one of three gardens open to tour by Master Gardeners Conference participants from 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 2. The garden site spans two acres on the campus of the Northeast Heights school. One-fifth of an acre is devoted to intensive garden production.
It’s difficult to absorb all the garden has to offer during an introductory walk-by. There’s Hopi pink corn, Rio Grande blue corn, four varieties of tepary beans from the Sonoran Desert, wheat, garlic, peppers and various tomato varieties such as green zebra and Texas wild cherries.
“I love beans and grains,” Baca says. “We have blue beans and purple beans. I go through color phases. This summer it’s purple – eggplant, purple okra, purple tomatoes.”
Baca, 30, is an Albuquerque native and a Menaul High School graduate. She never imagined growing up to be a gardening professional, a seed steward and a student of native, traditional and medicinal plants of the Southwest.
As a youngster, she thought she wanted to be an Egyptologist, an epidemiologist or the owner of a used-book store. When she started undergraduate school at the University of New Mexico, she majored first in English, then in philosophy and finally in anthropology.
“Anthropology was magic,” she says. “It has all sorts of connections to what it means to be human.” And that, she thinks, led to her interest in food and how it is grown.
“Everyone relates to food, everyone eats,” she says. “And then you connect that to the reality of a desert landscape.”
She earned her bachelor of arts in anthropology, with a minor in geography, from UNM. She worked on an organic farm in California, studied permaculture design with the Permaculture Institute, was awarded a UNM foodshed graduate fellowship, got her master’s degree in geography and environmental studies from UNM and did seed school teacher training at the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance in Denver. And now.
“This is my office,” she says, sitting on a stump beneath pine trees on the Academy campus. “This is where I show up every day.” She gazes into the teaching gardens, continuing to learn just by looking.
“Sometimes, the best thing is just to watch, to sit back and wait for the space to tell you what it needs, watching the way the light falls, watching the way the water falls,” she says. “You watch to see what plants come up, what weeds come up. I don’t like goatheads, but they serve a purpose.”