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Solve the mystery of gardening in metro area by tuning into signs, experimenting a little

Janet Tani of Paradise Hills, a member of the Xeric Club of Albuquerque, says she’s learned to appreciate plants that like her sandy, alkaline soil, like the prickly pear and desert willow. “If they’re happy, I’m happy.” (Courtesy of Janet Tani)

Janet Tani of Paradise Hills, a member of the Xeric Club of Albuquerque, says she’s learned to appreciate plants that like her sandy, alkaline soil, like the prickly pear and desert willow. “If they’re happy, I’m happy.” (Courtesy of Janet Tani)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You don’t have to garden in Bernalillo County for long to realize that every gardener has a unique story to tell.

While soil and weather can change from one intersection to the next, gardeners in the East Mountains and West Mesa face even greater extremes.

With so many variables, gardeners say they often find the best advice listening to their plants.

“The soil is different in every part of Albuquerque and different within a mile or two of the city,” explains master gardener Kathy Burnett of the East Mountains.

“We’re about six weeks behind Albuquerque,” she says. “We have a shorter growing season. I don’t grow those things that require a change in the soil and intense watering. Who wants to do that? … I am trying to respect my garden. The high desert has a beauty all to itself.”

Burnett says she plants her garden in zones stretching away from her house, with the closest plants needing the most attention. She has pine, juniper and piñon along with native flowers and a raised vegetable garden bed.

An experiment

On the West Side, Mary Filosi shares advice that comes from living in Taylor Ranch for 30 years: “All gardening is experimental. You have to see what works for you. If you are quiet, you can hear what a plant is saying.”

Filosi, a member of the Xeric Gardening Club of Albuquerque, started out with compacted sandy soil and a desire for a native landscape. Early on she hired a landscape designer to create a landscape that would work with existing conditions and could be implemented over time.

A variety of columbines bloom near Dorothy Duff’s south-facing door. Duff, who coordinates the master gardeners for the state extension service, says choosing plants that flourish with available resources keeps her gardens blooming and producing, even in the shorter growing season of the East Mountains. (Courtesy of Dorothy Duff)

A variety of columbines bloom near Dorothy Duff’s south-facing door. Duff, who coordinates the master gardeners for the state extension service, says choosing plants that flourish with available resources keeps her gardens blooming and producing, even in the shorter growing season of the East Mountains. (Courtesy of Dorothy Duff)

So far, so good, she says of the thriving chamisa, Lady Banks roses, Chinese pistache, desert willows, Apache plume and cherry sage.

Gardening expert and author George Miller, president of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, says successful Southwest gardeners study their piece of land for clues.

For example, he has a healthy desert willow that grows at the side of his West Mesa house, because it catches rain runoff.

“Desert willows can do well all over town. They grow natively along arroyos, so they need an impulse of water to stimulate blooming,” Miller explains of the shapely tree that blooms in orchid and white. “They are very ornamental and can be grown as a tree or a shrub.”

Adding compost to plantings in gardens and the yard and mulching around plants, while keeping gravel to a minimum, helps keep plants healthy all over the city, he says, but especially in the sandy, windy conditions on the West Side: “It is significantly drier on the West Side than in the foothills, but we have more sunshine.”

Here are some native plants Miller recommends for desert mesas from his 2007 “Landscaping with Native Plants of the Southwest”: purple aster, chocolate flower, blackfoot daisy, Indian blanket, desert mallow, desert marigold, western evening primrose, purple verbena, desert zinnia and others.

Best practices

In the East Mountains, master gardener Dorothy Duff harvests rainwater to water her gardens: “I augment with compost. I mulch heavily. No water runs off our property. It runs into a tank or into a (garden) bed.”

She says she and her husband watch where water goes after a rainfall and redirect it with trenches and berms. “Sustainability is part of the lifestyle out here.”

She starts her vegetables early inside and usually grows tomatoes in pots, so when they become abundant in the fall, she can move them inside while it freezes outside. She says heirloom varieties of tomatoes, like Cosmonaut or red Siberian, have become her favorites because they produce with a short growing season. She also uses water walls, plastic water-filled sheets, to keep tomatoes and other vulnerable seedlings safe from frost.

“We’ve lost plants with a late frost in June,” she recalls. “We’re about a month behind Albuquerque with our growing season. It’s different here than Albuquerque, but it’s not bad. We have never had squash bugs or some of the critters people get in town.”

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