zone pushing in Santa Fe, NM

chris_sciarrettaJanuary 27, 2006

This message is partly in response to all of the amazing threads I have been reading about growing things like palms in Albuquerque, for instance. I really applaud those who are doing it. I'd love to hear about people's experiences in Santa Fe too!

I am relatively new to Santa Fe and am enjoying growing all kinds of things from seed (like yuccas, agaves, mesquite, palms, etc.) both in the house and garage. I intend to try some of these outdoors one day (once I own a home) and am constantly noting the types of things I see planted around town.

Although at the nurseries they refer to Santa Fe as zone 5, nearly all of the newer books clearly show us in zone 6 (more accurately 6a). Looking at the weather data from the past 30 years, the latter is clearly more appropriate. Just because -18 was reached at some point in the last century (and could happen again) does not mean THE AVERAGE ANNUAL MINIMUM temperature is in the -10 to -20 range.

In any event, for anyone who's interested, the following plants cane be seen in Santa Fe, many are very common, and all are often listed as hardy to zone 7 or so (I realize they are very very common in Albuquerque so this may not be interesting for folks from there)

Palm Yucca (all over the place, all sizes, rarely in warm microclimates)

Soaptree Yucca (and look-alikes, I haven't sorted out species yet)

Parry Agave

Havard Agave

Unknown LARGE Agave, not one of the above

Desert Willow

Calla Lily (west facing wall of friend's courtyard)

Mimosa Tree


Barrel Cactus (no protection, flat ground)

So I guess my first question is, why is there such conservatism when it comes to zone ratings for plants? Even something fully suited to a particular zone has a chance of dying in a given year due to any number of things.

My next question is, are there people in the Santa Fe area (or any nearby similar zone) growing any unusual plants? I would like to see some more lower desert species, such as mesquites, large agaves, large cacti and many others incorporated into the landscapes here, especially for their beauty and drought tolerance. I love the "natural" landscape look of most of residential Santa Fe, where the native vegetation is left virtually intact at the expense of lawns and such, but if you must plant something, it might as well be of particular interest.

As a side note, I'm wondering if anyone in the area has tried a "seasonal greenhouse" for in-the-ground tender plants, in which a temporary wall (of straw bales for instance) is constructed on the north, east, and west sides, and plastic is stretched over the south during the cold months? I've noticed my unheated, uninsulated garage, which is separate from the house, has maintained above-freezing temperatures so far all winter due to three small south-facing windows and a good deal of thermal mass in the floor.

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Wow, go for it. I hope someone in NM answers you soon because my climate is similar to yours and I need some ideas for pushing zones up here in Canada. Good luck and try lots of things and let us know what works. :)

    Bookmark   February 1, 2006 at 1:24AM
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leira(6 MA)

I'm also new to Santa Fe, so I don't have anything to offer you in the way of direct experience, but I can tell you what I know in general.

Of course, not every single place in a given area is the same -- there are microclimates. I've noticed that the stucco walls in my yard absorb a fair bit of heat during the day, and undoubtedly they release it again at night. Things planted near these walls, being protected from wind and getting the benefit of radiant heat (even if only slight) at night, might be able to squeeze by even if they're only rated for a zone or two warmer.


    Bookmark   February 15, 2006 at 2:42PM
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abqpalms(Albuquerque, NM)


Sorry for the delay in posting a response. First off, welcome to this forum! Being one of those "Albuquerque zone pushers" with palm trees and the like, you are certainly one of a similar attitude as I Â a zone pusher!

Unfortunately, since I have only resided, when in the Southwest, in Albuquerque, I cannot give a plethora of plant-specific thoughts regarding Santa Fe. Certainly, Santa FeÂs 7,000+ elevation and northern proximity gives it a different challenge than we have two thousand feet lower south of you in Albuquerque.

However, just in my experiences in ABQ, and from what I know of Santa Fe, I couldnÂt agree any more with your thoughts.

As far as zones go, I think you are right on. I know some on this board disagree with this train of thought, but others like I tend to have this attitude  sure, once every 15 or 20 years or so, Santa Fe may get zone 5-like temps. However, if the long-term trend recently in Santa Fe has been 6a or 6 (as it has been), I think you are absolutely well-served to treat it as such! Indeed, the data shows that  just in the past 20 years  the average min. temps in Santa Fe has not been zone5-like at all.

You posted this question, and I couldnÂt agree more with your synopsis:
"So I guess my first question is, why is there such conservatism when it comes to zone ratings for plants? Even something fully suited to a particular zone has a chance of dying in a given year due to any number of things."
I guess that is my attitude regarding some hearty palms in Albuquerque. Sure, maybe my Windmills or Mexican Fans may bite it inÂfor exampleÂ.6 years if we have a much colder winter then that is out-of-the norm of what it generally is like here now in winter. However, at least then: a) I received 6 years of beauty and enjoyment out of my palms, and b) (I would still argue that given proper time, attention, and protection, they could make it through any Albuquerque winter! It may just take some effort in an especially cold year).
Another example would be how some have noted on this board that a big cold stretch in El Paso, TX killed many of their Mexican Fan palm trees in a year in the 1960s. However, when you go to El Paso now, there are just so many enormous, beautiful Mexican Fans swaying in the breezes. That one cold stretch didnÂt dissuade people from planting more, and thank goodness, because if it had, EP would have such striking beauty in their skylines.
At any event, while I wouldnÂt plant palms in Santa Fe, just like I wouldnÂt plant a saguaro in Albuquerque (even though it appears a very small number survive here), I would definitely do what you are observing and doing  push in Santa Fe within reason! As you have listed, most of those cacti, succulents, yuccas, etc., are "outside" the zone scope of Santa Fe. However, they do indeed appear fairly commonly throughout SF, thrive, and add quite a bit of beauty to landscapes! I think that amount of pushing is just a great attribute to the SF landscape, and heck, its fun to do! And indeed, with the dry and SUNNY Santa Fe climate, I think folks would be surprised at what would thrive in the winter.
A few final thoughts:
-Plan on protecting in the winter. If you can, the more protection you provide to somewhat tender plants on especially chilly evenings, the better. Things like walls are EXCELLENT in where you plant for protection. South and west facing exposures help a great deal. Sunny areas are a must. And buy tons of burlapÂ.really helps keep things warmer in colder nights.
-I would equate Santa FeÂs climate as being more akin to DenverÂs than to AlbuquerqueÂsÂ.but certainly drier than Denver. What folks could think of perhaps if they so chose is that while it isnÂt exactly Phoenix (or even Albuquerque) in Santa Fe, it isnÂt exactly Embarrass, Minnesota either!
Go for it! Would love to hear more of your observations / experiences!

    Bookmark   February 16, 2006 at 4:57PM
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Thanks abqpalms for your response. Your posts were what got me interested in this forum in the first place. Prior to that I just had no idea that people were growing such interesting things successfully in Albuquerque.

By the way, the larger Washingtonia palms you have seen around town... do any of them produce fruit(I thought I remembered reading that on some thread)? When I lived in Southern California, I loved snacking on the W. filifera "dates" (spitting out the seeds of course), they make a great syrup, and then I could keep some around for germinating later. I would be excited to have a source of these just an hour away.

Well, thanks again for your advice. I'll keep reading your interesting posts. Enjoy the end of winter.


    Bookmark   March 2, 2006 at 12:09PM
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abqpalms(Albuquerque, NM)

Hi Chris

Well, thanks for the kind words!

I do have to say, in an act of full disclosure, there are a few other kind souls who post here too, who have a much different view on pushing somewhat cold-sensitive / less hardy, or non-native plants and trees in Albuquerque. And I can, while respectfully disagreeing, see where they are coming from, and to be honest, they likely are (as is nearly everyone who posts here!) far more experienced and knowledgeable than a layman like myself.

However, having said that, there are several others who post here (or just who live around Albuquerque Metro) who seem to share my enthusiasm for pushing items like palms and cacti, and more than not, at least in my experiences, these plants seem to do pretty darn well (given the proper care, attention, etc.). A very knowledgeable, great poster here who shares most of my viewpoints is cactus_dude. He knows a lot about items like palms and cacti growing around townif you see his posts, youll enjoy them too, like I have. I have learned a lot from them!

If you get down to Albuquerque at some point from the Capitol City, offhand I could direct you to at LEAST 50 different locations where palms generally T. Fortuneis (Windmill Palm), Washingtonia Robusta and Filiferas (Mexican Fans and California Fans) are growing in yards or businesses and doing great! Robustas and Filiferas here WILL have their fronds die off and burn in the winters here it is just a fact of life if you want to grow them. However, this does not seem to hurt the trees in our climate permanently, as by March, they are very rapidly starting to sprout off new green fronds like crazy again. With Windmill Palms, they actually depend largely on where they are growing and how big they are. Many, many here (generally bigger and more established ones) actually have no frond damage or burning / browning through the winters at all. In fact, for example, I know of two that are northeast facing (pretty much the worst exposure for palms in our city you could have), freestanding (eg: no walls to protect them) in a yard in the Far Northeast Heights (well east of the "Banana Line" of Eubank west), that never suffer an iota of burning to their fronds in winter, as they have been there for decades and are really well established.

Many will say as conventional wisdom "palms are impossible to grow around Albuquerque"however, just going for walks through neighborhoods would indicate that just simply isnt the case. There are just too many large palms around town (admittedly, you do have to look for them) that have been in their yards for a few years (or more) that show that they do actually grow here. You just have to realize, again, that their fronds will burn off for a few months. And, you this is my opinion have to give them some protection in winter.

As for your question regarding any fruit the Washingtonias would produce, that is a great question, and one for which I have no answer. I know mine does not, but mine is still very young. The fronds grow like gangbusters in the spring, summer, and fall, but no fruit. I would guess but this is simply a guess that perhaps youd need to go to a warmer place like El Paso to see that from a Washingtonia. But truly, I have no knowledge there unfortunately.

But as it relates to your situation in Santa Fe, I think you and I share a very similar attitude! I wouldnt try to grow a palm there, however, for within what is conventional (overly conservative?) plant wisdom in SF, I see no reason not to push up there with care and consideration plants that otherwise might be more suited to a high 6 or a low 7 climate zone! As you have observed, some folks would be amazed at what items are able to grow and do well in the very high desert climate of SF!

I keep using Albuquerque examples (sorry), but conventional wisdom would state that there is no way a saguaro would ever make it through even one Albuquerque winter. However, folks on this forum directed me to a very tall saguaro in the South Valley of Albuquerque that has been there for years. So again, when it comes to pushingwhy not try it?

You enjoy the rest of your winter tooin the Santa Fe / Albuquerque corridor the last few weeks, with temps in the 60s and even 70s, it sure feels like spring is here (knock on wood)!

Let us know how things continue to go for you up there!

    Bookmark   March 2, 2006 at 12:38PM
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Hi Chris, I am a transplanted Californian (Bay Area)who lived in Santa Fe for several years, and while there I was an unabashed "zone pusher" myself. I contented myself, while missing palms, to transplanting large specimens of palm-like yuccas--- specifically Y. thompsonianas, Y. carnerosanas, and Y. Elatas. Work and life took me to Albuquerque and Las Cruces, where I currently split my time. I haven't pushed the envelope too much yet in Alb., but that is mainly a matter of limited time: I have put so much effort into planting W. filferas and robustas, P. canariensis, and a few other reliable zone 8 hardy species, that I haven't been able to take on the Alb. yard just yet.
I am no expert, but I have learned, whether planting tree yuccas in northern NM or palms in southern, that planting early in the warm season to get the most root development possible, and keeping the plants relatively dry in the winter, has provided the most success. So far, I haven't lost any palms after 4 years. Most are thriving, with limited winter burn.
I have read a lot of postings that abq palms and cactus dude have written, and I basically agree with their philosophies. A garden is a living thing, constantly changing, and if done within reason, such as using xeriscape principles in our water starved region, should reflect the passions of its makers.
I do have a suggestion for a plam you could try in Z6 Santa Fe: Rhapidophyllum hystrix. You can purchase one from TyTy nursery, one of the best places to buy palms on the web.
Regards, David

    Bookmark   March 6, 2006 at 10:19PM
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Thanks David for relating your personal experience in Santa Fe. I also love the palm-like yuccas, as well as many other plants from a bit farther south. I would love to try the palm you suggested (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), I have read a bit about it on hardy palms websites, and it certainly seems to have a good reputation for cold tolerance. Anyway, thanks again,


    Bookmark   March 8, 2006 at 11:16AM
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