In the beginning--as when the Spaniards arrived in this area during the 16th Century--the hills around San Miguel supposedly were densely wooded, including oaks, ash, walnuts, mesquites and other hard woods. But then, between the Spaniards cutting down trees to use as fuel in silver mines and Mexicans collecting wood to make charcoal, the hills were effectively denuded.
Today, looking at the hills from our windows there's more brown barren land than trees, and the latter are mostly huizaches, cacti and other vegetation typical of semi-desert locales. Particularly during the dry season the landscape looks like it has the mange. Nothing like a forest or a woody area.
Perhaps, or probably, because of the loss of vegetation, there's been considerable erosion. Rocks, some damn near the size of riding lawn mowers, are all over our land. There's some black soil, in some places about 18 inches deep or so, but any effort to dig a hole to plant a tree inevitably involves a mano-a-mano combat with rocks.
The are patches of commercial agriculture around San Miguel, and larger and very green valleys farther away, where lettuce, garlic, broccoli and other crops grow, with the help of considerable year-round irrigation.
When we first arrived at this land--architectural plans in hand and gardening fantasies in my head--I envisioned a systematic replanting of mostly native trees that would stave off further erosion, soften the desert-like views and also provide a visual barrier from people who might build around us. A noble and visionary plan indeed.
Nearly 18 months and about 100 trees and shrubs into this project, the results are not exactly promising. It's not hopeless but anything resembling a wooded area around the house is going to take considerably longer.
Some of the problems were man-made, starting with the self-serving advice one often gets when buying saplings or bushes from local nurseries. "¿José, is this a good tree for sunny or shady spots?" The short, cheerful reply more often than not is "¡Sí!" Translation: "I just want to sell this baby and will tell you anything you want to hear to close the sale."
So we planted some trees out in the open that were unsuitable for the location. One example is the "Cow's Foot" or "Orchid Tree", which has large leaves shaped like a cow's hoof and once a year explodes with beautifully intricate, orchid-like blooms. Ours struggled for nearly a year until we moved it two months ago inside the front patio, where it's protected by walls on all four sides. It's now thriving. Some of the trees and shrubs we planted outside just croaked without even bidding a quick "adios."
The other human error was improper planting. Our first wave of 12 or 15 trees was installed by an older guy with a drinking problem and irregular working habits, who didn't dig big enough holes. That's a bad combination. Particularly in this harsh terrain you need a hole that is at least four times the diameter and depth of the original root ball, filled in with good, loose dirt improved with compost. That way the tree can develop a strong root system before taking on the native mix of dirt and rocks.
So Felix is now digging up some improperly planted trees, including two jacarandas, enlarging the hole and replanting them. When he dug up some Pepper Trees and Jacarandas that were nearly dead he found the roots coiled around themselves, unable to penetrate the existing soil. The originally holes were only about 10 inches wide, barely big enough to accommodate the root ball, let alone allow for expansion. The trees were choking.
We also underestimated the relentless power and harshness of the terrain. Nature can be a beneficent mother but also a bitch. The location of our ranch, according to Google Maps, is approximately 6,900 feet above sea level, or about 150 feet higher than downtown San Miguel. And compared to in-town locations which are shielded by buildings and warmed by the reflection of the sun on cement and other man-made surfaces, our ranch if fully exposed on all sides.
Then there's the wind, which kicks up usually late in the afternoon and aggravates whatever weather conditions there are: If it's cold or freezing, it can add to the wind-chill factor; if it's hot and sere the wind can make you feel like you're under a blow drier. During the past few days we've had temperatures in the mid-90s and humidity in the 10 percent range.
It's far preferable than 95 degrees and 95 humidity, Miami-style, but still hard on the vegetation. Félix, Stew and I made a rough census about ten days ago, and about 15 or 20 trees and bushes have either died or are extremely unhappy.
A bit of good news is that the three peaches, one apricot and one apple we planted are doing very well. I suspect the cold snaps we had during the winter might have helped them. Maybe that's it: Maybe we should just plant dozens of fruit trees and start a jelly or apple sauce operation.
So what is to be done? For me, tranquilizers might be a good start along with a humility-inducing drug if there is one. Improving this land both visually and substantively will take years and years. If we bump into a drought or other climate mishap, it might take longer.
Second, Felix is on the right track to replant some of the constipated trees and hope that better soil and the upcoming rainy season will give them a new start.
Third, dust off my books about xeriscaping, or dry-climate or desert gardening. For one thing, in a desert or semi-desert landscape, all vegetation of necessity will be sparse and therefore needs to be chosen carefully. I will research and choose my trees more carefully too, and pay less attention to the local nurserymen's advice about what goes where.
Also we're seriously considering a drip irrigation system that will water trees regularly during the long dry season.
Finally I need patience, lots of it. As I write these lines there are gray clouds hovering overhead that look like water balloons ready to burst. But then we've had the same clouds, and even some thunder, for several days in a row and all we've received are brief spits of rain, just enough to mix with the flying dust and mess up the windows Felix so methodically cleaned three weeks ago.
I've tried staring down those so-promising clouds, and urging them on: "Come on, come on, let it rain." But they don't respond. I guess I'll just have to wait.