Our campaign to restore a sliver of Mexico's nature

Once upon a time, say, 400 or 500 years ago, oaks—encinos—and other large trees, were said to grow on the mountains that punctuate the horizon surrounding our ranch, and on the nearby valleys. As the tops of the oaks reached for the clouds their roots dug deep into the ground to keep both the trees and the soil in place.

When they arrived in the 16th century, Spanish colonizers imposed their religion and culture on the natives and plundered the land, leaving what we have around here today: ceremonial vestiges of indigenous culture and mangy-looking mountains.

Mexican gray fox:
Come up and see me sometime. 

Friends have climbed these mountains, “Los Picachos,” and found edenic oases where the air is cool, and old oaks survive, many too large to hug, along with deer and the occasional Mexican gray fox, teasingly flaunting its luxuriant tail.

We’ve heard someone is organizing an overnight horseback trek to these hidden spots; Stew and I plan to go.

One memorable morning, several years ago, we woke up to the rush of finding the mountains around the ranch, and our patio furniture, covered with a gauzy layer of snow. Motorists stopped on the highway to photograph the unexpected Alpine vistas that vanished by ten o’clock.

Since we bought this ranch ten years ago, Stew and I have embarked on a project—part quixotic, part retirement pastime, some might even call it early-onset dementia—to reforest our land, stem erosion and recapture, however faintly, what nature might have looked like in this sliver of Mexico in the old days.

The memorable snowfall of 2006

The latest installment of the restoration campaign is the planting of a dozen fairly large trees, between one-and-a-half to three meters tall, to join the 80 or 90 trees and bushes we’ve already scattered on the property, some by now five and six meters tall, plus the installation of a 5,000-liter water tank, and a pump for irrigation.

Beware dear friends. “Faintly” is the operative descriptor of our efforts. Please don’t show up, camera in hand, expecting to find lovely woods, dark and deep. This is a work in progress and you have to  keep it all in perspective.

When we moved here, the land was barren except for scattered cacti, huizaches, gatillos and other virtually bomb-proof desert vegetation, under daily assault from the neighbors’ livestock, especially the omnivorous goats. Keep a before-and-after image in mind, and the ranch will look to you practically lush, as it does to me when I walk around early in the morning.

Before: The land as it was before we began construction. 

Gardening around here truly is a constant, two-front battle against a harsh, rocky and arid soil, and  unhelpful variations in precipitation during the year.

Except for muddy patches of black soil that turn into ankle-deep goo when it rains, the main feature of our topsoil is rocks, ranging from gravel to immovable boulders the size of an all-terrain vehicle. When the house was going up, the architect had to hire a backhoe with a jackhammer to carve out the hole for our rain collection cistern.

One mistake we made during our original tree-planting campaigns was to dig holes that were too puny. Now we use a backhoe to excavate holes one meter wide and as deep, and backfill them with a combination of black soil, tierra negra; a sandy type soil called tierra lama; and finally, horse manure from a ranch of a friend who boards about a dozen ponies.

We’ve also learned which trees tend to survive best. For the most part we’ve planted different varieties of evergreens—casuarinas, piñón, Michoacán pines, Greggii pines, lemon and white cedars, and one Douglas fir, plus three ash trees that are doing well though growing very slowly. Michoacán pines, with their long needles that shimmy at the slightest breeze, are my favorites. Our latest acquisitions also include three red encinos. 

Two of about ten Greggii pines on our
ranch. This is a Mexican variety
which has done very well for us.

To landscaping mavens our slowly emerging forest might look like an amateur hodgepodge, but I’d rather use the more hopeful intriguing arboreal mélange.

I blame our poor soil on long-term erosion aggravated by overgrazing.  By the end of the dry season, when parts of the landscape look as if they were painted with a blowtorch, goats will eat practically anything, even thorny huizaches. Not long ago, we left two pots of agaves outside the gate and cows ate most of the fronds.

Indeed, water is the second challenge to our reforestation campaign. It rains quite a bit in this area, as much as 30 inches a year, but only between July and October. Our first year here, after several months without a drop, we worried.

Our neighbor Arno addressed the lack of water by digging three connected bordos, or retention ponds, big enough to float a cruise ship. The ingenious, though not terribly attractive, system somehow diverts the water cascading from the mountains during heavy rains.

The ultimate fix, of course, would be to sink a well, an extremely costly project because around us the aquifer is about 350 meters, or  1,200 feet deep, and the digging would have to go through solid rock with a lot of pounding. A heavy duty gasoline pump would then be needed to get the water to the surface.

Instead, we added a squat 5,000-liter black storage tank that we have to refill by water truck every three weeks or so, and use an electric pump to propel the water to all the trees. We tried to camouflage the unsightly tank but, if you catch it from the wrong angle, it looks as if a Russian space capsule crash-landed on the yard.

Our 130,000-liter rainwater collection cistern provides us with filtered water for domestic needs most of the year.  At the consumption end, we’ve installed drip irrigation hoses to several of our trees and our vegetable beds, and even concocted a system to divert the rinse water from the clothes washer to a large plastic trash can with a spigot at the bottom. Surprising factoid: A couple of loads of wash generate 30 gallons of “wastewater” that we now use to irrigate the trees near the garage.

Tomorrow we’re going in the pick-up to get more horse manure—bless those ponies—and wait for the last seven trees to arrive from the nursery.

Then, we’ll all sit and wait.

Sunset from our kitchen window.


Hola, dear readers: If you try to leave a comment and it doesn’t show up, just email it to me directly and I’ll put it in manually. Thanks. Al 

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