Whether hiking in South Africa's spectacular Drakensberg mountain range or back home in the deserts of New Mexico, David Salman's eyes are always trained on the ground, looking for plants. As a plant breeder and owner of Santa Fe Greenhouses and High Country Gardens, Salmon is constantly searching for plants that will grow in the demanding conditions of the western U.S., a vast region west of the Mississippi River that encompasses plains, mountains, deserts, and coastal ranges.
Salmon finds plants from many sources. "South Africa is rich with plant species, many of which do well here," Salmon explains. Western Asia, the Himalayas, Europe ? all are home to varieties that can thrive in the West and in other regions of the U.S. Salmon tries unusual seeds and plants from specialty catalogs and retailers. "Sometimes people pass on recommendations of plants they enjoy and suggest we include them," he says.
Salman also does considerable plant breeding, selecting for specific characteristics and growing the plants out for several generations to develop a uniform strain. "The process averages 3 to 5 years, and I throw out a lot of plants that don't turn into anything special," he comments.
Regardless of where they originate, all plants spend time in Salman's test garden before he offers them for sale. "There's nothing easy about the climate here in Santa Fe," he describes. At an elevation of 7000 feet, the sun is intense, and temperature extremes swing wildly between hot and cold in just one day. Soil is alkaline, with heavy clay in some areas. Drying winds and annual rainfall of only 7 to 12 inches contribute to the rigorous growing conditions.
"I don't pamper plants," explains Salman. "If they grow here, that indicates adaptability over a wider region. I don't do much with damp woodland or bog plants because that's a narrow garden environment in the West. If a plant is xeric (requires little water), that's a plus." He compares his results with a network of friends and horticulturists around the West, checking hardiness, for example, with growers in Denver, where winters are usually colder than Santa Fe. Plants spend varying amounts of time in the test garden. If it's a genus that Salman's very familiar with, such as a columbine, he may grow it for just one season. "If it looks good, I start propagating it," he says. He may grow an unfamiliar plant for several years to track its progress.
Although hard pressed to choose, hummingbird mints (Agastache) are Salman's favorite genus. "They turned out to be amazingly tolerant of a wider range of conditions than I had thought," he explains, "and are great for hummingbird gardens because they bloom in August and September when the birds are migrating through New Mexico." His particular favorite is Agastache x 'Desert Sunrise', a hybrid he created and introduced, with blooms that evoke the pink, orange, and lavender of a sunrise.
Visitors to Santa Fe Greenhouses can tour the half-acre demonstration garden and see plants collected from around the world that are adaptable to western conditions. Salman enjoys educating people about xeriscape principles but prefers the term "water-wise gardening." Over the years, the term "xeriscape" has been nicknamed "zeroscape" and given rise to negative stereotypes of gravel mulch and a cow skull baking in the sun. However, when gardeners walk the colorful display garden or browse the beautifully photographed catalog, they'll recall the pleasurable agony of trying to choose a new toy as a child: It's so difficult to narrow the choices!
Santa Fe Greenhouses/High Country Gardens 2904 Rufina Street Santa Fe, NM 87505 (877) 811-2700