Thoreau would definitely love this place, I think as I sit with longtime Plants of the Southwest employee Susan Westbrook, each of us haloed by shafts of golden sun at our backs. Feeling like a warm, contented cat, I gaze around their spacious sales area, marveling at the simplicity. Nothing is extraneous in this nursery-there's a modest selection of well-made gardening tools, wall displays of seeds and a collection of carefully-chosen resource books, most of them describing details about how to live la vida sustainable.
Back in the mid-seventies-1976, to be exact, a tumultuous year as the 200th birthday of the Declaration of Independence competed for attention with Patty Hearst's armed robbery sentencing and punk music's rebellious rise-Gail Haggard and a few friends quietly opened Plants of the Southwest. At the time, the nursery was a complete anomaly. Those were the days when prevailing minds believed what we needed to make the west fit for habitation was miles of lawn and a lot fewer cactus. Sustainability wasn't even listed in the dictionary back then.
"Gail has a great love of seeds and of place," says Susan. "She was the main force behind Plants of the Southwest in the beginning. She wanted people to not only be able to grow things more easily but to appreciate where we are, the beauty in it-including the sky. Back then, people really didn't look at the native plants. In fact, I would say some people might not have considered opening a nursery like this to be a smart business move. They thought, "These are only weeds!'"
Especially people who come here from other parts of the country, Susan adds. "They feel drawn here but then they want to plant what grew back where they came from to give them a little bit of comfort. People think at first there's no color, but the colors are incredible here, the sky, the light!" And that's what Gail wanted to impress upon all of us when she started the business. It's still her main emphasis: to encourage the cultivation of subtly beautiful native plants through sustainable growing methods.
Listening in on our conversation is Trees of Corrales owner Andrew Lisignoli, who's standing over by the cash register, nodding enthusiastically. "Gail Haggard is light years ahead of her time!" he tells me. "She was so advanced back in the "70s that nobody knew what to do with what she was trying to demonstrate."
The neatly sprawling nursery grounds, recent home to Santa Fe's renowned Treehouse Café tucked in near the main building, are almost park-like in their tranquility. People come there just to sit, Susan says. "It's a peaceful place. I think that's really important. We want this whole property to be that way-we want people to feel welcome to come here and slow down, listen to the birds. We have mothers sit here and breastfeed their babies."
All the vegetable seeds Plants of the Southwest sells are of the open pollination variety. "That means," Susan explains, "you can plant it from one season to the next and it comes true, as opposed to hybrids. So save your seeds from year to year!" This is definitely not the kind of advice you're apt to hear at a more standard nursery.
"We still hand-collect our wildflower seeds," she says. "Some we find along roadsides, others we get permits to search for, (on BLM land and other wilderness areas). Some we grow in pots or in our seed garden on our farm in Madrid. A lot of our wildflower seeds are unavailable elsewhere in the world."
Call it the artisan approach to running a nursery. And it's worked-for over 30 years. Plants of the Southwest has followed the current admonition to "Buy Local' ever since its inception. If they didn't grow it themselves, Susan says, "we wanted it to come from somebody close to us, as close to home as possible. We'll even take something grown in somebody's back yard if it's a quality plant."
Longtime northern New Mexican tree grower Gordon Tooley, for instance, supplies all the trees for Plants of the Southwest. (Gordon was on the May 07 cover of localflavor.) "We're the only ones who carry his trees. What he's doing is incredible! This business has spun off a lot of other small businesses. And, you know," Susan adds, "there's a synergy when you do things that way. It's so worthwhile-for everybody."
Besides trees, natural grass, vegetable and wildflower seeds, Plants of the Southwest sells shrubs and perennials. "If you can't afford a big plant, we'll find you its smaller version, in a two-and-a-half inch pot, that you can afford." Their book collection includes a healthy selection of children's books. "We try to always encourage kids. We've got some who came here as kids themselves and now they've grown up and come back with their own kids. If I see a kid interested in something, I always ask, "Do you want to take this home and plant it?'"
With the arrival of spring every year, they used to make a big lunch to share with whoever was there that day. "It wasn't advertised. We'd make it a communal thing, to show people what was in season and how to prepare it."
Plants of the Southwest, says Susan, is a lifestyle, not just a place. "You could take how we do business and you could plop it down and you could live that way," she tells me, gesturing around us at the solar adobe buildings, the water catchment systems, and the permaculture-based cultivation going on throughout the property. "Really, it's all common sense-just be observant about where you live. What's the hottest part of my house, where's the water runoff, things like that. You've got all this water you can use, just collect it off your roof. It doesn't even have to be treated."
Oftentimes over the years and especially more so recently, as interest in sustainable building techniques and the practice of permaculture have grown, people want to actually see these methods in use, see what it all looks like on the ground. Susan and the other employees are more than happy to show them. "If somebody says they want to have a compost pile, we show them how easy it is. Just use straw bales to surround it and, as the straw bales start to break down, there's your mulch. We can show you, we have compost piles right here."
Water-efficient growing methods are right there for viewing, also, such as swales for the prevention of rain run-off, sunken plant beds and a technique called waffle gardening that was originated by the Zunis at Jemez Pueblo. There are several constructed wetlands areas on the property, big, green and lush, two feet deep with river stones, attracting salamanders, water snakes and birds of all kinds. These wetlands are filled from the water that runs down from the bathroom sinks and the café's kitchen sink, where it's filtered and reused. All the buildings at the nursery are rammed earth, made of unstabilized adobe, which means no petroleum was used in the mixture; the plasters are all made of natural materials, as well.
The Plants of the Southwest conducts some interesting-sounding classes-winemaking, food preservation and drying, rain catchment, vegetable gardening and beekeeping (they have their own hive on the premises). And every fall, the nursery hosts a party for its customers, with music and food. "And people bring stuff from their gardens," Susan adds. "We just enjoy each other. People are so good to us all year, we just want to give something back."
That sense of tight-knit community, of people coming together as friends and neighbors the way Santa Fe used to be, is obviously still alive and well, at least here at the nursery. "You just have to scratch a little deeper to see it. There's beauty in diversity. And strength. That's true for landscapes and it's true for people."
Employees at Plants of the Southwest seem like one big family. "I think this business is one of the best places anybody could ever work," Susan believes. "It's not perfect-the dynamic works sometimes, sometimes not. But everyone who's ever worked here over the years has left a little part of themselves here-the nursery is really all of us."
They try not to preach at people, Susan says. "But we're excited and that excitement translates to other people. We want people to discover things that they can do for themselves. We're not competitive with other nurseries-they're our friends." The more people who practice sustainable practices, both inside their homes and outside in the dirt, the better off we'll all be, she contends. "There are people living this way all the way up to Taos and all the way down to the Rio Grande valley. That's strength for everyone!"
In the Albuquerque area Plants of the Southwest is located at 6680 Fourth Street NW, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. 505.344.8830.
In Santa Fe it's 3095 Agua Fria Street. 505.438.8888.