Some desert gardens use microclimates to benefit the plants. North facing walls provide cool shaded areas. Roofs, sidewalks and streets create areas of high water runoff for collection. Cool air flows into valleys. Be aware of walls and paving which add heat and channel winds. The microclimate includes variables such as sunlight, temperature, exposure, humidity and wind. Big differences can be found in microclimates among neighboring houses.
Desert gardeners face conditions that would challenge any gardener: less than ten inches of rainfall annually; rocky or caliche (clay) soil with few nutrients; extremes of temperature and weather; and, oh, a bit of wind. This article was written for the New Mexico area, however the principles apply to most of the deserts in the Southwest
Gardner Mary Lou McCord brought four hundred pots of cactus with her when she moved to Southern New Mexico’s eastern Sierra County from Tucson three years ago. An avid cactus collector, she found many of her plants didn’t survive the cold winter and strong, drying winds.
Sally Bickley is a native New Mexican currently living in Sinton, Tex. She actively writes about Sierra County’s history and the many outdoor activities that are available in New Mexico. She has written articles on such topics as endurance riding with horses, winter activities at Elephant Butte Lake, and Indian detours. Her articles are currently appearing in Enchantment, Southern New Mexico Magazine, Stable Kids, Southern New Mexico Online Magazine and .com.
Dave Lamb, co-owner of Buffalo Bill’s Exotic Cactus Ranch, located in Truth or Consequences, NM, recommends digging a gallon-sized hole in the ground to check for drainage. Fill it with water and check the time it takes to empty. Two to four hours is good drainage. If it takes longer to drain, add gravel, or coarse sand.
Groves of small trees or shrubs provide wind control and create “outdoor rooms” for microclimates. Form a mini-oasis by grouping moisture-loving plants where they can absorb collected rainwater. Color influences microclimates, as dark rocks or walls retain heat, and white reflects it.
Orient a shady patio to minimize the heat and glare during the hot seasons. Be aware of the daily movement of the sun from east to west and seasonally from north to south when planning the shade structure. Group shrubs and trees together. Design an arroyo, or dry stream bed, lined with gravel and river rocks, with plants alongside. A small fountain or trickle of water attracts birds, adds pleasant sounds and a little humidity. Plant native grasses or wildflowers to suggest a meadow.
Surprisingly, even cactus gardeners face a challenge in the Chihuahuan desert. Much colder than the famous Sonoran desert of Arizona and Northern Mexico, the higher altitude of the Chihuahuan desert creates problems for non-native cacti.
Diminishing the harsh aspects of the desert is important in any desert garden. Wind, sun and glare rob plants of moisture. Designing a garden from scratch, or improving an existing one, requires planning and work before anything gets planted.
Desert gardeners face conditions that would challenge any gardener: less than ten inches of rainfall annually; rocky or caliche (clay) soil with few nutrients; extremes of temperature and weather; and, oh, a bit of wind.