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mulch in New Mexico

 
Adam Buchler
Posts: 70
Location: New Jersey
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I have a friend in New Mexico who has been asking me about gardening(I live in NJ). She told me her parents water every single day there. So, the first thing I asked her was what do you mulch with and she said that they don't mulch at all. After yelling and screaming for a couple minutes I started giving her a list of things to mulch with....most of which she doesn't have access too in New Mexico( grass clippings, leaves, etc). So, I am wondering if anyone who has experience in such partial desert areas might give me some tips on what she can use to mulch with. I realize that cover crop is also an option but I have never used a cover crop so I don't know how thick of a mulch a simple chop and drop can provide.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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There's a zillion things to mulch with here in the desert. Possibly the easiest thing to do is call up a some local tree trimmers and ask them if they could dump a load of woodchips at their house. You can usually get these for free because they have to pay a dumping fee to landfill them. It's worth it to tell the trimmers what you want to use it for so they can make sure it has gone through a decent chipping and is not full of a bunch of large prunings.

There's also straw (not hay - hay has seeds), waste cardboard or newspapers, etc. It's usually possible to get some leaves or pine needles from neighbors. Really - if I can find stuff in Phoenix to mulch with, they should have no problem in NM. Even things like waste carpet can be used.

Cover crops can be challenging depending on weather conditions and access to water. My best cover crops in the HOT summers are black-eyed peas. In winter (our best growing season here) I don't have much room for cover crop but I do use lupine as a flower and it is a nitrogen fixer.

Let us know how it goes!

PS: as per your signature - I did consider my scrotum - but found it an exercise in futility.....
 
John Elliott
pollinator
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Wood chips is about as good a mulch as you are going to be able to find (or make).

There are a lot of places where there just isn't anything to mulch with. Like west of Albuquerque. A lot of that area is sandy desert that does form a crust that can inhibit evaporation and the desert shrubs do well with it. Some plants put down a paltry amount of mulch. Whenever creosote bush (Larrea Tridentata) drops its leaves, you get a small amount of mulch, but never more than a centimeter. But as you go from Albuquerque down to Las Cruces and over to Alamogordo you see less and less ground cover or mulch of any type until you get to White Sands, where there is no mulch for miles.

In the high plains of Eastern New Mexico, there is more vegetation and consequently more mulch. Southeastern New Mexico has large areas of Shinnery oak, which is low growing and pretty much mulches itself and everything around it.

But yes, if you are going to garden in New Mexico, you have to invest some time, effort, and equipment into making more mulch than nature provides. In the higher elevations, junipers drop a lot of branches that can be chipped up and in the lower elevations there are plenty of mesquite that you can feed into the chipper. Sometimes you get lucky and there are pines or cottonwoods in some bosque or river valley and then you have hit gold. You can cart some of that excess of mulchable biomass to the much greater expanse of areas where there isn't any.

Had I lived in New Mexico longer, I would have invested more in drip irrigation. Far better than having sprinklers and watering every day.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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John makes some great points.

Drip irrigation is the way to go for landscape plants. After years of experimentation, I found that T-tape was best for annuals like veggie beds.

You want to make sure your drip irrigation is UNDER the mulch. Otherwise, the carbonaceous mulch (woodchips, cardboard, newspaper) will wick up all the moisture and the plants below may not get the water you think they're getting.

Here's my process for using a thick carbon-material mulch in the desert:
1. Install plants.
2. Install irrigation (either drip emitters or t-tape depending on type of plant)
3. Water area thoroughly. Often, because I garden in sunken beds and infiltration basins as part of an overall water harvesting strategy, I turn on the hose and flood the area and let it sink in.
4. Load up your mulch materials into a wheelbarrow and water them down well, also. Usually my woodchip pile is in the alley. So I load up the wheelbarrow about 3/4 full then as I walk past the hose, I turn it on the chips, then I spread the chips 4-8 inches thick on top of the soil and drip system of choice.

Why do I do this?
--Living in the arid SW - things dry out quickly. Giving the plants a good watering in the soil prior to putting the mulch on top makes sure there's moisture to hold in.
--Wetting down the mulch when putting it down helps stop the initial wicking effect that carbon mulch has on soils - where it will actually pull moisture out of the soil until it has what it needs. Putting a dry carbon mulch on dry desert soils can actually exacerbate drying out of the soil initially and plants might look wilty.
--having the irrigation between the soil and the mulch (not on top of the mulch) guarantees that much of your water will go down into the soil instead of being dispersed into the woodchips as it would be if the irrigation was on the top. The key interaction for soil making is that area where the woodchips meet the soil in that moistened area. The woodchips will decay through the interaction at that location. The top of the woodchips will become dry and silvery, but underneath, they will create those wonderful fungal nets that are so beneficial. A little good compost sprinkled on the soil before adding the carbon mulch will help speed things along.

Be aware that FRESH woodchip piles will start growing fungal nets right away. However, if you let the pile sit for even a little while and don't keep it wet, these will start to die off. When you dig into the pile, a grey "smoke" plumes up from the pile (dead fungal bodies? spores??) Anyway, MANY people I know are respiratorily sensitive to this so please wear dust masks and wash the clothes you wore to not spread this around.
 
John Elliott
pollinator
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Jennifer makes a good point.

You don't want to dig into a pile of mulch and get a snoot full of Aspergillus spores. See EPA risk assessment here.

Fortunately, this is easy to take care of with a garden hose, and if you soak down your pile of mulchings good, there's much less opportunity for the spores to get airborne.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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John - thanks for that information - it's appreciated.
 
Mary Saunders
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There are some great segments in gaia's garden about gardening in New Mexico, how to build soil with mulch, and great before/after pictures. One is in Los Alamos, even. It graced the front of the first edition. Greening the Desert is geoff lawton's mega viralized before/after around the Dead Sea in Jordan. Mulch really works. There are some good sepp holzer videos on this as well.
 
Victor Skaggs
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I just left NM due to drought... was in the SW corner, N of Deming. Asequia dry, wells too low, "langosta" bugs from desert sucking juice out of plants...

However, I found mulch of 2 types there... cottonwood, and pine! In pine forests it collects in hollows.

I developed the habit of getting mulch from the forest in CA where I used, depending on location, redwood, incense cedar or other conifer mulches.
 
Jess DeMoss
Posts: 17
Location: Silver City, NM ~6500'
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Victor,

I'm in Silver City, NM which sounds pretty darn close to where you just moved from! I'd like to talk to you about the drought if'n you don't mind...

Mulch...
I've mostly used straw, wood that I rake up from around the chopping block, and a composted wood mulch that is available from a local non-profit that thins the forest for fire suppression and then sells many many by products from those thining projects...
 
Victor Skaggs
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Drought. 2011-12 summers the annuals---vegies and herbs---mostly didn't do well. Certain types did, but mostly no. On the whole they were getting less water, but still even when watered there were the very small langostas from the desert sucking the juice out of them.

I come from graduate education in agrarian development, successful organic operations in 3 states, study of traditional/indigenous systems as well as modern. However, in NM my ongoing education involved connecting agriculturally mostly with a Mexican farmer who was one of the few left of the local farming culture which once was widespread in Luna-Grant-Hidalgo Cos. He still knew all the old pre-industrial techniques, which in that culture trace back to mimbreño, Mexican and Spanish agriculture. But the water wasn't there. He showed me all the signs. How long it took the well to refill. How deep the water was in the well, and in a well close to the river. How early the asequias and river went dry. How much snow was higher up to the north. How the animals were behaving. And against historical patterns, which he remembered and had the stories of ancestors, which suggest that the drought is not going to end soon. He told me, "Victor, don't plan to wait for rain in order to get a crop, you'll be waiting for at least a few years."

Having observed what goes on agriculturally in that part of NM I am sad to report that despite much talk about sustainability and food and such, little contact was ever made by the immigrants with the extant Mexican farmers, and I know of various ecological measures regularly enacted by those farmers which had an impact on the entire area which are now ignored, while the few remaining indigenous-Mexican farmers, who are of significant age, lament the passing of everything. My research was cultural, anthropological, as well as agricultural, and was of that culture, and informed by it, and while many of the immigrants in that region don't grasp this or don't want to hear it, but virtually nothing was done during the pqst 40 years to develop the Mexican community in any way, the farming and economic activity was never a concern of the immigrants, and a great divide persists, not based as before on the racism of the gringos, but now instead on the perceived irrelevance, corruption and silliness of the immigrants.

Me and my friend who'd farmed there for 40 years as an adult and grown up on his parents' farm, we did what we could to maintain orchard trees and to be constantly trying to establish more, but despite our efforts nearly all the new plantings died and we steadily lost older trees to the drought. When there was water in the asequia/wells/river, we soaked the trees for days, but when it went dry there wasn't a drop we could give them and when it rained, it was so little half of it had evaporated in half an hour.

My friend told me of old juniper stumps atop some of the mesas on the edge of the flat desert land, many feet across. Now that land is desert. Where are the junipers now? How far up must you go now to encounter junipers near that size? And those stumps are 500 years old. So... this drought is a heightened drying episode in a long-term trend which also is toward drying. The desert is creeping northward, up Hwy 180, up and through Silver City, etc.
 
Jess DeMoss
Posts: 17
Location: Silver City, NM ~6500'
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That's a very interesting take on the whole thing.
What are these "langostas" that you are talking about? Do you know of them by another name by chance?

I agree that 2011 and 2012 summers were quite dry. Have you been in the area this year? We had a VERY wet summer...so many varieties of grasses came up with just as many varieties of "weeds". So far, this winter seems to be going pretty well also. I do know of many wells drying up in the area but I feel that is all the more reason to work on water harvesting methods, spreading the word and showing the results to folks that are skeptical. Do you feel that these things naturally flow in rhythms...dry/"normal"/wet?

various ecological measures regularly enacted by those farmers which had an impact on the entire area which are now ignored

Could you give some examples of these?
 
Victor Skaggs
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Ok, one example... I'll have more time later to talk to you more about this stuff, got to get going in 30 minutes, but here's an interesting case of this: the farmers in the Mimbres would all go into the river bed and clear the dead trees, mostly cottonwoods, which would be there after a wet season. They would adjust banks or any blockages, make sure water would get to the asequias, cut up the trees and place the wood where it would hold banks, and so on. This prevented the river from finding new paths underground, which would decrease the flow downstream. I asked, do the hippies in the Valley ever do this? Have they ever talked to any of you about managing the river? No. Instead, there's the govt always threatening to turn the River into a designated wild area which would interfere with the few farmers left, but presumably allow tourists to kayak in it.

Going back to the mimbreños, they practiced water catchment, which you mentioned. In many places this is not possible because it would involve using the surrounding hills which are part of a cattle ranch or other private property. The mimbreños didn't have that problem...

Another one I can elaborate on later is the management of asequia ditches to maximize the growth of medicinal herbs in them, many naturalized (of Euro origin), so that there was a unique asequia ecosystem going on but which was destroyed as the ditches were scraped by tractors, burned, poisoned with pesticides, etc.

One of the old farmers I knew, who unfortunately died in 2012 while I was there, knew more about herbal medicine probably than anyone in that region. His grandfather had been indigenous in the mountains of northern Mexico. He had written down shelves full of notebooks explaining every plant in that region, plus in the desert to the south. Him also I asked, have any of these hippies ever talked to you about this, do they know you know these things. Oh they know, he said, the ones at Hot Springs Ranch commune know about me, but they don't care. He said I was the only non-Mexican person who'd ever wanted to know about it.

Well, I grow herbs (obviously I farm, which is why I'm on this forum now), I'm no herbalist, I just grow and sell them, but I also as I said am an anthropologist so I was interested from the point of view of local sustainable economy as well as ethnobotany. So this particular herbal fellow liked to come by and talk to me, then my farming friend down the road came and told me one day that he'd died. I found his granddaughter and tried to get access to his notebooks, but apparently some winos had gone into his house and taken or destroyed everything after he died... what a loss!!! I feel very bad about that... I mean I tried but I should have gotten into those notebooks before he died. A treasury of knowledge was lost when he departed...

I'll tell you what I'm being told... don't be fooled by that heavy rain. There is still insufficient snow in the mountains; this drought is not over. That's what the old-timers say. People who sold cattle are now talking about buying cattle again because of that rain, but I'm being told, they're crazy, they'll be selling them again by late summer.

Now you may be in a location where you can compensate using the means you mentioned. If so, well, GREAT!, of course... and good luck.
 
Ardilla Esch
Posts: 202
Location: Northern New Mexico, Zone 5b
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I am in Northern NM and here are the mulches I use:
1. Wood chips from nearby cities (mostly siberian elm, cottonwood, piñon pine, etc.)
2. Piñon pine, juniper branches - cleared dead wood, trimmings etc.
3. Living mulches - trimmed foliage of vigorous volunteer plants (trimmed frequently, usually before going to seed) Horehound, prairie verbena, sweet clover, little leaf sumac, fern bush, willow, etc.
 
Brett Andrzejewski
gardener
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Location: Buffalo, NY
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I'm in central NM (Albuquerque). Mulch and shade are key to growing in this climate. I used 8 inches of straw mulch on top of cardboard on top of the soil for the backyard. I used chicken wire and scrap wood to hold it in place until it locked together. The high winds in the spring here in Albuquerque will blow away small lightweight mulch. Woodchips and bark should be the big fat stuff or it will blow away.

My friend tried to grow corn, the same seeds and variety without using mulch. He had a drip irrigation system going 3 days a week and none of his corn lived. I had my 8 inch sheet mulch watered only when the mulch layer at the bottom looked dry (1 gallon per plant about once a week from harvested rainwater). My corn, that survived the late season freeze, grew to 5 feet tall.

In the front yard I am using river rock mulch, 6 inch diameter average size. During the summer monsoons the smaller river rock, lava rock, and decorative rock all washes away if there is any slope to the land.

This year I am using plant material from last years pioneer plants/weeds (mostly wild amaranth, neighbors leaves) on the non-sheet mulched/non-rock mulched areas.

You can have your friend contact me or tell them to watch my videos. Learn from my mistakes and successes:

Greening the New Mexican Desert
 
kevin batselier
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Just a thought (hav some experience with bad soil+tonnes of wind+drought from my work)
why don't you use pebbles or small stones as mulch and use woodchips in the soil to make it a bit hugelisch in combination with compost, IF you can get it. Also shade and wind cover is gone be huge. my personal experience watering trees is that does in the shade and with some wind cover grow beter and need less water. trees that stand in the wind and full sun are a nightmare to get going to the point they no longer need assistence.
As for irrigation: I am not against drip irrigation but since NM is almost dead dessert i imagine it's needed long term. drainage tubes can be used as well. Dig them in about 30-40cm (doesn't have to be exact) loop them round and conect them with a T joint. this way the water get's in the rooting zone of your crop where the plant's need it the most. the stones don't absorb the water as fast or as much as the woodchips but still protect your soil from the sun and wind and they arn't as easily washed away or blown away.

In any case just my 2cents...
 
Shaz Jameson
pollinator
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Location: Hilversum, Netherlands, urban, zone 7
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Old post but worth a shot -- Victor, has your research been published or shared online anywhere?
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