Resources for Gardening in New Mexico

By Marisa Thompson

I get it. Gardening in New Mexico can be frustrating, to put it mildly. Add my propensity for forgetting to water—or forgetting to turn the water off—and it’s a miracle there’s anything green in my yard at all. Like me, you’re dealing with everything from intense winds and even more intense sunshine and heat to pitifully low precipitation, late freezes, and early freezes. Luckily, there are several simple ways to overcome these issues, several of which I’ll be sharing through a series of upcoming articles in edible. For now, I will focus on an important, perhaps counter-intuitive, summer hack: supplying limited shade. 

Despite the difficulties of our summer climate, growers all over the state create high-yielding gardens and farms. From trellises covered in shade fabric to planting strategically in microclimates protected from the savage late afternoon sun, the possibilities are vast. Get creative; try planting tall veggies that can handle the heat, like okra or corn, on the west side of plants like pumpkins or leafy greens that prefer partial shade. I’m currently using a patio chair with a mesh seat to shade a newly planted rose bush that’s struggling next to a hot west-facing wall. The hope is that shade, whatever the source may be, will reduce heat, slow water loss, and even improve the efficiency of photosynthesis at the leaf level long enough for the plant to establish a healthy root system and branch out a little. While it’s not currently known exactly what percent shade is optimal for specific crops in our conditions, many seasoned growers recommend 30–50 percent.

Tomatoes we studied last year at the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, for example, yielded 37.8 pounds per plant on average! Our tomato rows stayed covered with white shade cloth (technically frost cloth) with 85 percent light transmission for the first six weeks after transplanting. And there is no need to worry about pollinators not being able to reach flowers of covered tomato, eggplant, or chile plants. These flowers are not only capable of self-pollination, but, because of the close arrangement of anthers (male organs that contain pollen) around the stigma (female flower structure that receives the pollen during pollination), most are self-pollinated even if visited by multiple pollinators. This summer, we plan to continue studying the effects of shade cloth on plant water status, photosynthetic rates, disease and insect pest prevention, and tomato yields. 

Many successful gardeners can attest to the benefits of shade, especially afternoon shade, and especially when the plants are young. When I took the NMSU Extension Master Gardener class in 2008, I remember an afternoon lecture by a local gardener, Ron Jobe, famous for his high yields of tomatoes grown under shade. On a whim one morning last spring, I called him up and spoke with him and his wife, Mary. They told me about farming two acres in Albuquerque’s South Valley. They’ve planted over eighty fruit trees and installed a wooden snow fence to shade their large vegetable garden. The snow fence, which hangs high enough to walk under it easily, was chosen because of its availability and durability. The Jobes grew just about every vegetable under the sun. Mr. Jobe said, “It’s almost necessary to provide shade in areas where it’s so hot in the summer. It’s a real challenge to keep the soil moist. Every plant needs sun, but only so much. Too much sun can burn not only the fruit but the plant itself.” 

Thick woody or fibrous mulch is another easy way to improve vegetable gardening. It improves soil moisture retention and creates moderate temperatures in the root zone. Interestingly, moisture retention can be increased year-round, but mulches affect soil temperatures differently, depending on the season. In summer, mulches help lower soil temperature by shading the soil, and in winter, they help keep root zone temperature from dropping too low at night and keep roots warm under snow cover, like an insulating blanket.

By July, many will have given up on starting a garden in fear that they’re too late. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, you might be too early. In New Mexico, fall, winter, and spring gardening can be much less stressful than summer gardening. If you have failed at growing vegetables from seed in your garden, don’t despair. In our environment, it’s tough to keep newly germinated seeds consistently moist at any time of year—especially in summer. The same tends to be true for transplants. Providing shade and adding mulch will increase your chances of success. Give it another grow. 

Local high school science teacher and ag enthusiast Raechel Roberts shared photos of the sturdy structures she created to provide her vegetables with afternoon shade. Photos by Raechel Roberts.

RESOURCES

My predecessor, Dr. Curtis Smith, hosted a popular gardening show called “Southwest Yard & Garden” that featured all kinds of local growing tips (now available in short video clips on YouTube). He once interviewed Jobe in his shaded garden and it’s well worth the watch, youtu.be/V2_9R5R03wk.  

Take the time to find out what cultivars and planting times are recommended in your area. Check out NMSU Extension Circulars 457, “Home Vegetable Gardening in New Mexico” and 457-B, “Growing Zones, Recommended Crop Varieties, and Planting and Harvesting Information for Home Vegetable Gardens in New Mexico,” available at https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h (the “h” is for horticulture).

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