Artwork for podcast GREEN Organic Garden Podcast
Replay of 50. David Salman | Horticulturist and Xericsape Expert – Native Landscaping | Sante Fe, NM
13th February 2018 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 01:12:17

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This episode was originally published June 1, 2015 but I am replaying it because we talked about similar concepts etc on Monday’s episode with Mark Highland and I thought this would be a good fit this week.

David Salman, founder and chief Horticulturist at High Country Gardens, has spent over 25 years in pursuit of better plants for eco-friendly landscapes. For decades, David has espoused using environmentally friendly practices when gardening, long before ‘organic’ became a household word.

A native New Mexican, David Salman opened Santa Fe Greenhouses in 1984. It was his first retail store and he set out to transform western gardening by cultivating and growing beautiful blooming perennials, native & ornamental grasses and unique cacti & succulents. These water-wise/xeric plants attracted a loyal fan base and David changed the face of western gardening from rocks and cactus to lush, blooming eco-friendly garden habitats.

With the demand for his plants extending far beyond northern New Mexico, in 1993 David started High Country Gardens, the mail-order division of Santa Fe Greenhouses.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Actually raised in Houston TX, I’ve been living here in New Mexico for 40 years, but technically I’m not a native. I grew up in the piney woods around Houston and that’s where I became interested in plants and started to learn about Texas native plants, my first couple of jobs in a native plant nursery and an herbarium in Houston. That kind of peaked my interest in plants but from that point on I knew it was going to be my future. Here I am many many years later in Sante Fe, still working on plants very involved not only in growing and selling plants but also in educating consumers about better ways to garden and better ways to utilize plants in our landscapes to extend their usefulness just beyond being beautiful.

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

I think my first serious gardening effort was in Taos, NM. I was going to high school, at Taos high I was graduating and I planted a fruit orchard in the early 1970s. There were a few successes, but mostly blistered hands, and not nearly as many as fruit and vegetables as I had hoped. That’s always part of being a gardener is being an optimist,  even in the face of difficult gardening conditions which has certainly defined gardening in Taos. It’s a very cold climate and a short season, if you’re lucky you get about 90 days frost free. It was a great learning effort. That really continues today  as far as always learning about gardening and techniques.

The lowest point in New Mexico is 4000 feet, Taos is up at 7000 feet, and Sante Fe is also at 7000 feet. Elevation has it’s pluses and minuses – pleasant weather, the high elevation is very nice. It’s  typical to have a 30-40 degree temp swing between daytime highs and night time lows, but as far as growing fruits and vegetables especially ones that like it warm.

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

You know it’s evolved for me, I came up through more of a traditional horticultural education. I’m a graduate of Colorado State University and my degree is in Horticultural Science. Back then in the 70s’ the emphasis was on traditional chemical based horticultural methodologies. The concepts of organic gardening were still very very fringe, and not considered mainstream. I came from a very non-organic background, and over the years as I was getting into business for myself,  I was looking into making my customers more successful, that was my introduction to organic gardening. Currently, I would say it’s a way to protect ourselves and the environment from our toxic chemicals and a way to get better results from our efforts.

It’s also for me a rejection of corporate agriculture and the corporate takeover of agricultural with GMO’s and all of the toxic culture in traditional agriculture and is also about protecting our soil, which is probably the thing that has suffered the most from conventional agribusiness and conventional agriculture.

Carol Blake talks about the Millions Against Monsanto in Episode 47.

It really started with the soil, because gardening here in Northern New Mexico, we typically have clay soils, many visitors to Sante Fe enjoy and marvel at our adobe architecture, basically building with mud bricks. So our soil makes fabulous mud bricks but it’s a challenge to garden in. That’s how I began to approach and appreciate the value of organic gardening to enhance and improve our soils, to make our customers more successful. It’s basically starting Organic Gardening from the ground up, we were always out there looking for new products. This is before there were commercial compost suppliers where you can actually buy compost in bags and that sort of thing. It was a very educational and illuminating experience 30 years ago trying to find innovative products for consumers to enhance their soil and of course back then we didn’t really have the knowledge about soil and what goes on underground that we do now, it was gradual process.

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

It also helped me, one of my original tenets when I founded my retail greenhouse and garden center was I wanted to plant extensive test and ornamental gardens to show customers what the plants would look like when they were mature.  In addition to making my customers more successful with different soil building products, I also used and tested it in my display gardens.

How did you learn how to garden organically?

It was basically trial and error, and trying a lot of different products either successfully or not successfully, I really didn’t have a set curriculum that I went through to learn organic gardening. I have been gardening most of my life, so I knew how to garden. A lot of it was unlearning how I was taught to grow in the greenhouse because I grew up at a time when organic gardening techniques were considered very fringe and questionable. A lot of the University research and publications were traditionally oriented. Basically it was just my education and background was based on using traditional chemical inputs for pest controls and soil fertility and what not, so I  had to move outside my comfort range to learn organic techniques going back to my eternal search for new products to make my customers more successful, was a big part of it. I would get samples of insecticidal soaps and various composts so it was a combination of both product testing as well as in the garden use to determine what was the best way to get it done and which products to utilize.

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

In the grips of a catastrophic drought for the last 5 years, between the lack of rain and the rabbits, it was a challenging year. What I did learn from last year in a drought year its best in terms of ornamental gardening to get an early start, as soon as the ground thaws, and gets them growing before it gets hot. In general it made a better success wait, much better than waiting till after the frost to plant. Probably the thing I learned most last year gardening in the drought.

It’s a little different now, Sante Fe gets a lot of our water from the Rio Grande, from the middle of the state. Drought here in New Mexico is the norm, and normal years are the exception since about 1996. The first couple of droughts we did have severe water restrictions, we weren’t allowed to plant anything, here was a planting ban, we were only allowed to water once a week. Then the big drought hit up in Colorado in 2002-3, they were just going crazy trying to deal with it. In New Mexico, it was our 2nd or 3rd drought in that decade, so we were a little more familiar with trying to save water and watering more efficiently we were using water-wise plants those sorts of techniques.

Can we talk about that water-wise plants, and techniques you can use in a drought situation?

I think it’s really important certainly, the drought in California has gotten a lot of recent publicity recently and coverage in the media. People’s reaction to the drought vary from common sense gardening, to the absurd. One of the most absurd things people do is to rip out your lawn and put down gravel. That’s a knee-jerk reaction. It is encouraged by municipalities because they had not done any drought planning or education prior to the drought. So we’ll just pay people to rip out their lawns so it saves us water, but in the long term that just encourages and enhances the heat island effect, for many Americans living in the suburbs because it will make it hotter and dryer, which puts more stress on water resources. I think the first thing people have to do in a drought is not over-react.

Well I think probably the most important thing is to just stop watering the lawn as much, many common lawn grasses like Kentucky Blue grass, the only reason it’s green in the summer is because we water it so much. It actually likes to go to sleep in the summer, it’s a cool season grass.  Lots of people in Boise, ID traditionally let their lawns go brown in the summer. The real detrimental thing to ripping out the lawn is that the shade trees are connected underneath the lawn to the water.  If you have 20-30 years going into that big beautiful shade tree and then just to save a couple of hundred dollars a month you let it go. Then the shade trees die off. Ripping out lawns can be extremely detrimental to the urban forest canopy. Of course when your shade trees die, then your house is hotter and your electric bill goes up, and your water use increases, because somewhere they are burning coal to generate the electricity to cool your house, so their just using that water somewhere else. So just stop watering the lawn everyday. Give the tree a good soaking once a month, lawns can be replaced but trees no matter how much money you have you can’t replace that time. Shrubs can be replaced but trees can’t be replaced. Trees are a really important part of our landscape. They provide a lot of benefits that to kill them because of a drought is just insanity.

Have to look at gardening efforts in relation to time, you can never get that time back. The things growing in our yard  that we’ve spent many years cultivating we want to value those the most.  Some other crops can just be moved, or something like that, but it’s really important to value our plants and those that have been in the ground longer the more valuable they become.

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

I’m looking at a lot of lawn alternatives in regard to plant materials. I think the tide is starting to turn a little bit vis-a-vis lawns and covering our lawns and landscapes using different plant materials then lawn grasses. I think it’s a combination of factors that people are becoming more acceptive to using ground covers for areas that don’t get any foot traffic.  People are becoming more aware of the benefits that a well done landscape can give back to the environment to supporting our pollinators, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, that sort of thing. A garden is become more then just something your yard service takes care of and that lawns are really just kind of a nightmare in terms of when it comes to such a mono-culture situation, that really don’t do anything, particularly useful especially in terms of providing habitat you couldn’t find a less useful plant in terms of supporting pollinators. Not a lot of people, but some of them are starting to understand our traditional lawn care methods, are just poisoning ourselves and our immediate environment and a lot of things are beginning to shift when it comes to lawns and how can that part of my landscape be used more productively.

The most important thing if we were going to do one area in terms of converting to organic techniques it would be lawn care, because we use more chemicals on our lawn, I think there is approximately 10 million acres of lawns, and probably 9.9 million acres, is taken care of with chemicals fertilizers, fungicides, pre-emergent herbicides, insecticides, basically it’s all-out-war on nature, when it comes to lawn care that paradigm has to shift.

Indicative of overall kind of ignoring our landscapes, not being aware of what the landscaper is using on our lawn, and wondering why our kids are sick and our dogs get cancer, and all of the other things that are tied into that. And most of all is these huge corporations that are invested in keeping us taking care of our lawns chemically, so if you want to protest Monsanto etc, the best thing you can do is tell Scott’s Weed-n-Feed to take a hike, and convert to organic lawn care people will save water and save money, it’s just common sense lawn care gardening, but people don’t give it a lot of thought.

(I couldn’t find the lawn average but I did find some statistics on lawns from the Environmental Protection Agency website) 

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.

I didn’t do a lot of planting this past year, because of the intensity of the drought, so a lot of what I did didn’t work very well, but I would say  in a normal year, when drought and lack of water isn’t such a concern, I would say, planting ornamentals that aren’t well matched to my soil. I always think I can outsmart this plant and make it work in my garden, trying to plant things that aren’t matched to my soil. Thinking I can amend my soil to make it right, need to match the plants soil preferences to the soil in your yard.

Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.

Ornamental grasses, are generally a pretty no – brainer plant for the landscape. Well an ornamental grass is typically not a lawn, generally more clumping type grasses that have height, maybe 6 inches or 6 feet. More adaptable, not as showy as a petunia or a dahlia, they have a subtle beauty to and add habitat and environmental value that exceeds other plants, but when your garden is asleep in the winter, they provide a lot of winter interest with their beautiful seed heads. So many new varieties its‘ time to start experimenting if its a plant they are not familiar with but its easy to grow and they grow quickly, and you can see the results with your ornamental grasses fairly quickly.

Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate.

I take a bigger approach, then saying  plant A or B, need to understand the conditions you’re going to garden in, know what’s your soil type? Are you going to be growing in sand, or gravel? What’s your soil? Make a concerted effort to match your plants to your soil. If you have clay seek out clay loving plants, if you have sandy soil seek out plants that do best in sandy soils. Educate oneself about what are regionally suitable plants. Seek out info about what grows locally. Need to understand the meaning of a regionally suitable, then match the plants to your soil.

Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden?

Repairing irrigation systems, gardening in the west, you have to irrigate to really have much of a garden. So unfortunately we have to deal with irrigation on a continuous basis.

What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.

Pruning, I love to prune. And seed collecting. I raise a lot of my own seed, that I grow my crops from. I spend a lot of time cultivating plants for their seeds. When it’s time to collect seeds, it’s one of my favorite times either in the garden or out in the habitat in the mountains and plains. Its a very satisfying activity. Of course when you collect them then you need to clean, weigh, and package everything about seeds is definitely one of my favorite things.

And then pruning trees or bushes?

Basically everything, whether it’s clipping back the garden at the start of spring to make room new growth, pruning my fruit trees, or flowering ornamental trees or my shrubs, I like to have a pair of clippers in my hands.

Unlike fruit trees, when your pruning shade and flowering trees, you need to stop topping trees. When you top a tree, you cut the top off of a tree, that’s basically killing the tree, get some books, learn or research how to prune trees, where do you cut a small branch, how to cut small suckers, particularly this time of year, it’s important to make sure suckers don’t steal energy from the part of the tree you want to grow.

The time to do the pruning, once the trees have flowered or leafed out, people want to go moderately how much wood you remove from the tree. Heavy pruning needs to happen when the trees are dormant.

Firewood, always keep well away from your trees, because there is so much damage being done to trees from infested firewood. Pine and spruce bores, the emerald ash bore.

Solarize your firewood, just bake the heck out of it, cover it with clear plastic, to kill an beetles or larve in your firewood. If a nursery sells trees and firewood keep going. I see that so much.

Vegetable gardeners, collecting your own vegetable seeds is just super important, it only takes 3 generations to adapt for your own climate, heirloom vegetable seed movement is a very important one. Seed collecting is a great way to get in touch with your plants,  that’s the best way to understand their growth cycles, how the weather and rainfall affects their health and ripening time. Even though it’s at the end of the gardening process it can teach you a lot about the gardening process from the very beginning. Learn about it a little bit, what seeds will cross-pollinate. Tomatoes are a great thing to save seeds because they self-pollinate.

A plant’s entire purpose is to set seed, they want to propagate themselves, and they can become pollinated in two ways, either via the wind like corn, it’s basically a grass is...