Xeric Landscapes, Works of Art

Santa Fe Botanical GardenOur correspondent in Santa Fe, New Mexico writes in about the city’s new botanical garden, a combination of artful design and water-wise planting:

(drawing by Lisa Flynn, courtesy of Santa Fe Botanical Garden) …

After several years of work and planning (and fundraising), Santa Fe’s new botanical garden, located on Museum Hill in the city’s high-and-dry southeast section, is about to open its first phase. Designed by renowned landscape architect and artist W. Gary Smith, this orchard garden phase incorporates artistic design of the sort Smith is known for even as it employs an emphasis on water conservation.

Walking the garden a week before its opening finds some surprises. Yet a bit of imagination is required in the surprising. The “orchard garden” is centered on a rectangular stand of various fruit trees common in northern New Mexico: apricots, apples, cherries, peach, pear. The orchards where these trees are found are usually located in the area’s river bottoms — the Rio Grande cuts a fertile green path through the state as it descends from Colorado towards Texas — and along its acequias, the system of community run irrigation ditches that date back to the days the area was a Spanish colony. But the garden’s fruit trees, planted well above an arroyo, a usually dry watercourse that fills after one of the area’s heavy monsoon rains, don’t have any natural access to water.

So the garden was designed to bring water to the trees and the other plantings. At the highest point on the two-acre site along a natural drainage, garden designers have constructed a rambla, a stone-lined stream bed to collect water and channel it to the garden’s various growing areas and eventually to the arroyo. The rambla winds through the garden, and different points broadening to create dry ponds where water will collect and seep slowly into the ground. These ponds are planted with grasses, one of the few places in the garden that are, that will not only benefit from the runoff but help hold the soil in place with their roots. The water, of course, will help nourish the fruit trees.

The rambla and its holding ponds are crucial aesthetic components of the garden’s design. It snakes through the gardens sometimes intersecting the paths that visitors will follow to the various parts of the orchard. Even dry, it gives the place a sense of movement, allowing the eye to literally follow its path from top to bottom. The areas around the holding ponds contain the garden’s richest plantings and one can anticipate that they’ll be lush after a summer of monsoon rains.

Why is imagination required to appreciate the garden? Most of the plantings are new — the fruit trees aren’t much higher than you can reach — and it will be a season or two before the various herbs, flowers, ground covers, and vines grow up to give the place the dimensional texture that’s been envisioned for it (the cacti are already full-sized and flowering). Water will play an important part in this realization. The garden does have watering options during the extremely dry periods of spring and fall. Drip irrigation has been installed in many of the plots and a single, recessed sprinkler head sits in the middle of one of the native grass covered ponds. We even spotted some hand watering going on while we were there. But the idea is to use them only as necessary. The place got a good soaking just last week during one of the summer season thunderstorms.

Smith’s design stays true to many of his artistic landscape concepts that are outlined in his book From Art To Landscape: Unleashing Creativity In Garden DesignIt’s a fascinating look at how artistic principles can be applied to landscape design. Smith, who’s worked on everything from the lush Winterhur Museum & Country Estate garden in Delaware to the Children’s Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, shows in the new Santa Fe Garden, filled with native plants and water conservation abilities, that beauty, at least in the xeric garden, can be more than skin deep.