Santa Fe County, New Mexico is known for low rainfall and sparse vegetation.
I made a point to get 5 acres that have an obviously wetter microclimate because even an extra inch or two per year can mean survival of many species during drought years. It also means I can keep some marginal species that will grow and replenish my living seed bank. These plants have seeds in the soil that only sprout and bloom during wetter years.
My wildflower garden around my house is mostly untended. I built gravel pathways edged with stones from my property and curved them around my pinyon and juniper trees. These are my basic structure along with my back patio that has a view up the mountain and front deck that overlooks the valley and the mountains on the other side.
The land immediately surrounding my trailerstead was covered with a mixture of tumbleweeds, stickers, and wildflowers about six inches to 24 inches tall. That was the Year of Tumbleweed.
Plowing damages the soil biota that supports plants and my steep slopes, marginal soil, high altitude, and low rainfall terrain does not need further damage. I need every root system I have just to hold my thin soil layer in place. My soil has little humus and few plants to use for composting… even for a small bed.
For this circular economy and Food Forest I decided to indirectly address the tumbleweed-sticker issue instead of trying a wholesale removal (hard work not free to me) that would leave my soil bare and subject to our harsh climate.
During the past three years I collected tens of thousands of wildflower seeds from all around (fun for me), targeting plants with beautiful flowers and dispersing them in areas where I thought they would do well and where I also thought they would look good. Rule: never collect more than 10 percent of seed from any area. I never collect more than 1 percent even in those ditches near my house that are bulldozed regularly.
I included edibles like wild parsley with its pretty yellow blooms, wild lettuce to mix in, wild amaranth for salads and winter sprouts, and perennial sunflowers for edible tubers.
I added medicinals like hore hound with its pretty pale gray green mound of crinkly leaves; Scarlet Globemallow for big orange flowers and hair rinse; and Louisiana Sage with its white stems and for deodorant.
As seeds sprouted and made small plants, I carefully hand pulled some of the sticker plants around my favorites, giving them a bit less competition and keeping the soil covered. Each sticker pulled is one less to produce seeds for next year.
My second year it rained more and I had a glorious flush of about 3000 cow pen daisies. I loved driving up to that! They shaded out a lot of tumbleweeds and stickers but I pulled a few too. That was the Year of Cow Pen Daisies.
Underneath were more wildflowers, including basal rosettes of beautiful perennials that would not bloom for a year or more.
I got new plants from my living seed bank that didn’t have to be collected from the outside, including a rare native coral bells. This is another reason to overseed rather than plow, you have access to the wonders.
Another benefit of that flush of three foot daisies was my first batch of homegrown compost/mulch. After they bloomed, released seed, and started dying back, I used their bodies to mulch around fruit trees and asparagus. Waiting until they start dying back means picking them up just before they fall over (no work to me) and dropping them neatly where I want them.
We did not have a juniper berry crop last year and it is the mother of all wildlife crops in this area. The first winter I watched birds in the trees eating juniper berries and the trees up the hillside had no berries below the 6 foot graze line from mule deer.
I was glad to have a bumper crop of wildflower seeds and did not cut the stalks down for winter so birds could forage with a little protection from that pesky Red Tailed Hawk. Last winter I watched the birds scrabbling on the ground, half hidden among the stalks eating fallen seeds. The amaranth patch was the most popular.
Keep in mind that I have been doing all this based on the “New Mexico” sizes of these plants as I perceived them while collecting. I know many of these plants in Texas size also, but here they are generally farther apart and much shorter due to low rainfall and poorer soils.
This year had unbelievably heavy rainfall. My bitty plants turned into giants. Those one foot tall Mexican Hats are three feet tall today. Two foot purple asters are four feet. Eighteen inch wild lettuce got six feet tall. Perennial sunflowers are a whopping eight feet tall and their stems are looking like tree trunks.
I am living in the land of the giants.
A few of my dry land lovers retreated to steeper spots that were bare last year. My two foot wide pathways got overwhelmed so I bought loppers (work best avoided) and carefully cut a way through the abundance to reopen my paths.
I chose not to cut plants back to keep them under control. One, they are generating a lot of composting material for my expanding vegetable garden and much of it will compost in place. Even New Mexico plants fight over a rich dab of soil. Two, I have at least one prairie rattler that is possibly hiding in there catching mice (good job) and I prefer he not catch me (bad and wrong) or Little Guy, my Papillon that has more courage than common sense.
I would only be mildly annoyed if the rattler caught the neighbor’s cat that sneaks around here trying to kill my girls that lay eggs for me.
Most of the time I can see whether that three foot rattler is in the vicinity but not during the Year of Giants.