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Gardening in the wind needs a different approach

An amusing higgledy-piggledy look in my small vegetable garden these early-summer days has resulted from the variety of inverted containers which I've used to cope with the dry winds in Santa Fe, N.M.

This is a major challenge to gardeners in these parts and can be used in any area where the wind blows.

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Even the native plants and grasses, which New Mexicans are growing in increasing numbers, need protection, according to David C. Deardorff of Plants of the South West as he guided a Sierra Club walk through the Cerrillos Hills south of town.

"Protect plants from windburn, sunburn, and dessication," he cautions, "by providing light shade for the first few days, or for as long as you feel it is necessary."

Then he adds: "Water generously, of course."

Palemon Martinez, agriculturist for the New Mexico Extension Service, asserts:

"Use hay, peat moss, sawdust, pecan hulls, black plastic, or three layers of newspaper covered by soil. A windscreen also can be helpful."

Margaret Johnson, horticulturist and teacher of landscape design at the College of Santa Fe, suggests that planting a windbreak is more complicated than most novice gardeners realize. An extensive windbreak can change the ecology of the plot. Also, the direction of the winds varies in different parts of this ancient city, which nestles between the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountains.

After considering Mrs. Johnson's advice -- and if you think you would like to experiment with a fenced windbreak -- make certain that the fence is slatted so as to let the wind pass through with reduced force.

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A solid wood fence, such as the one which surrounds my property -- constructed more for privacy than as a wind break -- may become part of the problem. The wind goes over it with resulting harmful gusts. Many gardeners find that a hedge, which allows some wind to pass through, is useful. Obviously , you have to give up growing space, but the increase in vegetable production might make up for the loss.

"An important consideration in this part of the Southwest is not to plant too early," advises Robert Smith, author of "Organic Gardening in the West: Raising Vegetables in a Short, Dry Growing Season."

"The winds can really blow across the countryside and dry out blossoms and beginning plants," he says.

My rather unusual improvised remedy grew out of forced economy and the fact that I am always attempting to disprove the saying of Ed Wynn, the late commedian, that "every radish pulled seems to have a mortgage attached to it."

After exhausting the supply of large pots to invert over small plants, which could be easily removed as the winds changed, I turned to cardboard containers.

The heavy cylinders, such as those that oatmeal comes in, were ideal, with the tops removed, to place over the tender, young pepper plants. Then large rectangular containers -- nonfat dry milk packages, for example -- fit well over the tomato plants whose blossoms had almost been torn off by the gusts.

Both need to be anchored firmly in the ground.

Gardening is always a challenge, but seldom the same one that I've found in Santa Fe. To deal with this new aspect, I may have to start a new conservation with my neighbors: Save those containers.

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