Water. Back at the Ranch

Together, my garden clients and I are proving we don’t need much water to make beautiful gardens. I think it’s safe to say that setting a design focus on integrity inspires us all to express and enjoy the kind of beauty that endures throughout time.

Now my husband and I are putting this philosophy—less water is more (beautiful) —to work at home too! Our property in northern New Mexico is currently undergoing a huge transformation that will enable us to use less water to irrigate the 8 acres of land we use for pasture and growing vegetables.

Choosing the right plants is always at work in my mind both on the ranch and when I’m designing a low water garden. I focus on what is needed for the plant to grow and thrive and how the mature plant will fit into it’s home. And, since its needs for water will change over it’s lifespan, will the homeowner be able to manage that easily?

Our community irrigation ditch, or Acequia, as it’s called here, will start flowing again for the growing season in a few short weeks, and we’re racing to get a new head gate installed beforehand. The structure is pictured above with me and Patrick Lovato, the master welder who crafted the gate from nearly one ton of ¼” steel. The head gate controls the amount of water that will surge from the irrigation ditch into a new system of buried 10-inch PVC irrigation lines, alfalfa valves, pasture valves and gated pipe, also due to be installed. Soon.

All of this work is going on thanks in part to a grant we received from National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) New Mexico. The grant is for renovating our fields and upgrading the irrigation system so that we can use less water and nurture and preserve soil for growing. It’s the first time in anyone’s memory that our land has been cared for, and friends and neighbors want to know what's going on down here. Though reducing water use is paramount, the grant also enables us to grow more efficiently. This, in turn, enables us to steadily improve the soil and avoid topsoil runoff.

Who and what is the NRCS? I love this excerpted history of the NRCS below. I also studied the Dust Bowl in 10th Grade, interviewing my parents who'd lived through it and the conditions left behind. Another valued source for Dust Bowl history is "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan.

"The NRCS, formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service, was created as a national response to the Dust Bowl catastrophe of the 1930's. Hugh Hammond Bennett, the agency's first chief, convinced Congress that soil erosion was a national problem. Bennett explained to Congress the need to have a permanent agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that specifically responds to private landowners’ stewardship opportunities and responsibilities. Congress agreed and created the Soil Erosion Service (changing to the Soil Conservation Service and currently the Natural Resource Conservation Service -- NRCS).  NRCS built a partnership of federal agencies with local communities to help farmers and ranchers conserve their land." http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/nm/about/

Our previous three summers of irrigating had required digging and clearing trenches by hand with a pickax and shovels. It was a level of labor (often, of love) that had to be done in between conference calls, meals and sometimes sleep.  I remember Dan getting up out of bed at 2am and driving our truck up to the ditch, turning on the off-road lights so he could adjust water flow with a ½ thick piece of plywood wedged across the Acequia, trying to make most efficient use of our allotted water time. And, instead of gated pipe, we directed the water flow with boards stuck in the mud!

This year, we will be able to open the head gate and the pipes for just the amount of time needed to water every part of our fields. Now that the land has been laser leveled to be perfectly flat east to west and just barely slanting north to south, no extra trenching by hand will be needed to try to direct water uphill and no more hacking through weeds. Most important, we’ll be using a fraction of the water used before as we bring this beautiful land back into fruitful production

Next up: planting the fields to start restoring the natural balance of the topsoil.