Restore habitats with native plants
Residential sprawl, energy development, intensive agricultural practices, groundwater withdrawal, and climate change have all taken a serious toll on natural habitats. In our region, grasslands and wetlands are among the most threatened. Indeed, grasslands (prairies, savannas) represent the most endangered and least protected habitats on Earth.
Some of North America’s largest and best remaining grasslands can be found in the prairies and deserts of New Mexico, west Texas, southern Arizona, and northern Mexico. Sadly, over the last century a great portion of these grasslands have degraded into mesquite woodlands because of grazing practices, fire-suppression policies, and the introduction of non-native plant species. The loss of these natural areas has encouraged erosion, reduced watershed function, and decreased available habitat for many native plant and animal species.
Removing invasive species and re-establishing native habitats requires deep knowledge of the regional environment and can be a very labor-intensive process. One viable technique for controlling undesirable vegetation, improving wildlife habitat, and managing native plant diversity is practicing prescribed burns in restricted areas. When fire is properly applied, in conjunction with other management practices, it improves grassland and wetland habitats by creating a more open area with a greater diversity of plant species.
Over time many native plants have adapted to naturally occurring fires, and some actually need fires in order to reseed. Burning helps to eliminate invasive plant species and to make space for the native flora to reappear. Early succession- al native species are the first to reclaim such areas. They are hardy and may make good cover crops for more fragile native species. Most of the time, the later-successional native species (those native species that appear during later waves of colonization) are poor competitors with the invasives we seek to replace.
In recent decades, an impressive number of restoration projects have been initiated in New Mexico. The River Ecosystem Restoration Initiative has awarded 27 grants to restore 2,394 riparian acres and 33 river miles within 17 counties in New Mexico, including restoration of the Santa Fe River, the Gila River, the big-river habitat along the Pecos River, the Santa Clara watershed, and the Abó Arroyo riparian restoration project. The Nature Conservancy has beenworking on protecting the prairie and desert grasslands here in New Mexico. For years the organization has worked with government agencies and local communities to protect these fragile habitats as well as the traditional farming and ranching way of life. Another outstanding organization is the Santa Fe Watershed Association. Together with the Randall Davey Audubon Center, it has helped to restore and maintain the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, also known as the Two-Mile Dam area, by removing invasive plants and seeding it with native grass, wildflowers, and shrubs.
As individuals with outdoor spaces around our homes— be they as contained as small patios or as abundant as acres— we too can make a powerful difference in regional ecosystems by incorporating native plants. Because these species have adapted to our harsh environment, once established they require less care andwater than do most non-native species, and they play an invaluable role in supporting native fauna. Your back yard may be the only place nearby for migratory birds to rest before they continue their journey or for native pollinators to over-winter. New Mexico has hundreds of species of plants suitable for various gardening styles. And as a result of the dedicatedwork ofmany horticulturists, landscapers, ecologists, and researchers, we have a broad selection of nursery-grown arid-land natives available to us here in Santa Fe and elsewhere throughout the state.
For native-plant recommendations, visit the websites of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico (www.npsnm.org), the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico (www. xeriscapenm.com), the Santa Fe Master Gardener Association (www.sfmga.org), and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden (www. santafebotanicalgarden.org).
Márta Gyeviki has a Ph.D. in horticulture from Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. She was an assistant professor and worked with both Hungarian and European farmers’ associations until moving to Santa Fe. She spends most of her time raising her two sons, but joins other Master Gardeners at the Audubon Center, learning and teaching about the network of native pollinators and plants.
View of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Santa Fe Canyon Preserve (Márta Gyeviki)