Get Your Hands in the Dirt

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.45 AMThe degree to which we’re willing to care for something is based in the value we see in it. So it seems that solutions to the environmental troubles we face lie partly in reevaluating our relationship with nature. There is perhaps no better way of experiencing our place in this remarkable web of life called Earth than tending a small piece of it, in planting a garden. Get your hands in the dirt, have some successes, some failures, some surprises. Figure out what works. Experience directly what nature is up to, both that which is around us and in us.

I recently met with Bob Pennington, who with his wife Jeni owns Agua Fria Nursery in Santa Fe. “Dad and I bought it in 1975,” says Bob, a sturdy guy with a bushy beard whose work suit is a pair of denim bib overalls. “It had been a nursery of one sort or another since the mid-50s. Started out the whole barrio down there was a truck farm. They grew vegetables which supplied every grocery store in Santa Fe.” Dwindling water supplies, however, triggered a shift to growing ornamentals. Bob continues, “We had absolutely zero idea of what we were doing or we probably would have never done it.” I tell Bob I know a little about this and we share a laugh. “We learned everything by the seat of our pants and fly by night. And I think we did pretty well.” The nursery is family owned and operated. “It’s family, absolutely,” says Bob, smiling. “It’s third generation strong.”

We start talking about water and soil conservation and I quickly see that, for Bob, any one aspect of gardening is connected to every other. “Right now we are in a dry cycle and it appears that it’s been going on since some time in the late 1990s with one or two wet years in between. It may go on for a while,” says Bob, “so you learn how to do better with less water.”

He says, “In theory I suppose the most efficient way to water is the automated micro-irrigation system, but I really hate it. A drip system is Murphy’s Law to the extreme.” Bob laughs. “And it will go wrong when … your installer is on vacation. The other part is, if you’re relying on an irrigation system, you’re not out there looking at the garden as often.” The times I’ve had a garden, taking a few moments to quietly stand in it and water it has been … heavenly! “If you have to go out and physically water,” Bob continues, “you’re monitoring the plant health on a routine basis and you will see a problem before it becomes a serious issue. I really much prefer going out there with a hose and watering my garden. Now I’m looking at it on a daily basis.”

Bob easily segues into soil. “The more you improve the quality of your soil, increase the organic content, the soil itself will make better use of the water you have.” He holds out a hand and cups his palm. His face lights up. “Soil is the key … a whole secret world that most of us have no idea what’s going on. A single handful of soil can contain billions of organisms. If you stretched out all the fungi in a straight line, it’d go for miles.” Indeed, it is remarkable. Toward improving soil quality Bob says, “The smartest single way to do that is create your own compost. You’re including stuff from seaside, mountains and all over the world. If you buy a bag of compost it’s mostly going to be things like manure from one feed lot, fed from one lot of hay from one field. You don’t get anywhere near the plethora of micro-nutrients, micro-flora and fauna, that you’ll get making your own.”

The state of bees, and pollinators in general, is a topic of much concern. “Plant flowers!” says Bob. “A lot of variety, and avoid real frou-frou things where bees can’t even find the center of the flower. The honey bee is the one that gets the majority of the press. But there’s a whole other group of bees which is much more complex, which goes from sweat bees and little tiny things on one end of the line to bumble bees on the other. And we’re losing them as well, and that’s primarily loss of habitat. Most of them actually live in the ground so they have to have bare earth to nest in. So when you pave everything, or cover everything with weed barrier … Dirt! They need dirt!” Bob points out Mason bees are particularly efficient pollinators. “You can actually put up a bee house for them,” he says, “and if you build it, they will come. They need native wild flowers, and they need habitat.”

In answer to industrial agriculture’s tendency toward creating monocultures, home gardeners can play a potentially valuable role by growing heritage varieties. “Tomatoes are an area which is important, people love these things because they taste good,” says Bob. Also “land race chile, like Chimayo chile … grown for hundreds of years right up the road. You pick and choose what you want for why you want them and that’s probably more important than just growing heirlooms.” Some of the reasons for growing heirlooms can become pretty esoteric. “You go back to wild lettuce, you couldn’t eat it, it’s bitter, it’s covered with prickles,” says Bob. But he points out, “Probably the most important reason of all for growing heirlooms is you’re preserving germplasm. If you preserve the old plants [by growing them], they have traits, and it may turn out somewhere down the line the hybrid may have a disease susceptibility or a lack of a certain nutrient that existed in the old heirloom. Whether you breed that back in by using the original blood lines or however, there is a definite survival value in keeping some of these old bloodlines around. If we do away with all the heirlooms then we would probably lose the potential to do those things.”

I mention I’ve seen a number of raised beds in town. “They are a phenomena, it’s happening. It’s going crazy!” he says. “It is a much more controlled environment and if you learn how to use it you really get dramatically increased yields. Higher yields in smaller spaces! You see restaurants in town that have huge raised beds and they’re growing their own herbs and whatnot. They’re now in like 18 schools in Santa Fe. Kids are learning where their food comes from, and what food really is.” I point out the act of going to the store and putting a tomato in a plastic bag, paying for it and going home isolates us from the whole process of how that tomato came to be. Raised beds are bringing gardening to more people and connecting them to nature. “That’s half of what it’s all about,” says Bob. He muses on this for a moment, laughs, and to send his point home, says, “I’ve heard people say, ‘Can’t Albertson’s just make more lettuce?’ Well, no, you don’t make lettuce.”

Whether we see it or not, we’re right in the thick of the natural world, a world that provides handsomely for us and is both delicate and robust. But without pollinators visiting those big beautiful squash blossoms? No squash. Soil without moisture, without compost? No soil. Plant a garden. The value of what we have going for us will become abundantly clear.

Story by Gordon Bunker


Local Nurseries

In Albuquerque:

Alameda Greenhouse, 9515 1/2 4th St. NW, 505.898.3562.  Owner and master grower Steve Skinner has been in business almost 40 years, establishing the first greenhouse in Albuquerque to grow tomatoes hydroponically.

Great Outdoors Nursery, 10408 2nd Street, NW, 505.890.5311.     A distinctive native plant nursery and botanical garden with a fine selection of plants, trees and shrubs, both xeric and adaptable.

Helen’s Native Plants, 9121 4th St. NW, 505.792.4344.   Helen’s specializes in exotic, rare plants straight from the desert, since 1980.

Jericho Nursery, 101 Alameda Blvd. NW, 505.899.7555.  “Not all of my working life … ALL of my life has been in the industry,” says Rick Hobson,

Osuna Nursery, 501 Osuna Rd. NE, 505.345.6644. Since 1980, Osuna Nursery has fostered an appreciation of nature and earth and has been dedicated to preserving and protecting the environment.

Rehm’s Nursery & Garden Center, 5801 Lomas Blvd. NE, 505.266.5978.   Rehm’s, also known as “the purple greenhouse,” has been in business 75 years.

Rio Valley Greenhouses, 2000 Harzman Rd. SW, 505.350.6414 ,  Established in 1952, Rio’s plant nursery grows all its own plants locally.


In Santa Fe:

Agua Fria Nursery, 1409 Agua Fria St., 505.983.4831,  Forty years experience. “We speak plant!”

New Earth Orchids, 6003 Jaguar Drive, 505.983.1025,  Ron and Cynthia Midgett bring perhaps the most exotic of flowers to the desert, with 40 years experience growing orchids.

Newman’s Nursery, 7501 Cerrillos Rd., 505.471.8642,  A full service nursery in Santa Fe for 36

Payne’s Nursery & Greenhouses, 715 St. Michael’s Dr., 505.988.9626 paynes.  The Payne family has been in the nursery business since 1954, with two nursery locations and a separate organic soil yard.

Plants of the Southwest, 3095 Agua Fria Rt., 505.438.8888, plantsofthesouthwest.  With over 400 varieties of seeds in stock, “it’s fun to get a wild hair and just scatter mixes at random.”

Santa Fe Tree Farm, 1749 San Ysidro Crossing, 505.984.2888,  Santa Fe Tree Farm specializes in the creation and development of sustainable landscapes, with an inventory of mature.


In Taos:
Petree’s Nursery & Greenhouses, 25 Petree Ln., 575-758.3021,  On the leading edge of the green industry in Taos, it’s been in business since Superbowl 29.

River’s Source Botanicals, (Mail only site) 730A Camino Del Medio, 575.779.1460,  Offering rare, hard to find botanical herbs, natural extracts, medicinal herb seeds and a variety of cactus cuttings since 1993.

If we inadvertently missed your favorite local nursery, please send the contact information to us and we will post it on our website.

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