Season’s Muse: Value-Added Farm Crafts Using Traditional New Mexican Food Staples and Wildcrafted Plants

When I was a child, my father would often pack the whole family into the truck and go for extended camping trips in Southern New Mexico, while he did field research for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish on various quail species that lived in the region.  We explored the Organ, Sacramento, Piloncillo, Gila, San Mateo and other mountain ranges as well as the grasslands and deserts below.  I would spend all day roaming the landscape, and then would build mini villages made out of whatever plant and geologic material I found.  I would build complex fairy houses for my baby sister, and we would escape the gritty world for a spell. I was constantly making extravagant wreaths out of the local flora and presenting them to my family members.  I would collect flowers of all kinds and press them in my father’s flower press for later creations at home. He would teach me a bit about the ecology of the area, and I would imagine how previous peoples who lived there would make their way in the world.  Humans, as well as plants and animals, must adapt to their surroundings if they wish to thrive, or even to survive.

Now I find myself with a family of my own in Northern New Mexico, having journeyed from my homeland in Chihuahua, to Southern New Mexico, to Big Bend country in Texas, a stint in Kansas and Austin and finally to my home in Dixon, New Mexico.  Those early botanical experiences have remained an important part of me, and I am still making fairy houses, now with my children, and wreaths, but now trying to make a sustainable living out of it.  I make a wide variety of dried floral arrangements, and source all ingredients from our farm or gather them in the wildlands surrounding Dixon, NM.

My partner Ric and I operate One Straw Farm, an organic (not certified) vegetable and flower farm. My arrangement business, Season’s Muse, is inspired by the culture, ecology and magic of the Upper Rio Grande bio-region. We work hard to ensure that everything we produce stays true to our commitment of growing crops in a way that does not harm the land, water or air. I try to tell a story in my creations about the region by coupling various farm-grown plants and flowers and wild plants together into unique arrangements.  I use many traditional New Mexico food staples in my arrangements such as corn, wheat, sorghum, chile pequin, garlic, pinon cones, gourds and amaranth. I sell my works at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and am one of the artists on the Dixon Studio Tour held every November. Each arrangement also has a bit of my own history woven into it, because everything in it consists of ingredients that I either grew, gathered or bartered.

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Each Spring, we start tens of thousands of plants in the greenhouse for transplanting when the weather is settled.   Everything we grow at the farm is raised using the same organic standards that certified organic farmers are required to use, including only using natural ingredients and not using chemical pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides.  We custom mix our potting mix, which includes our own special compost and garden soil.  The fields are kept fertile by a combination of growing cover crops and applications of compost, manure and minerals.  Weeds are controlled by implementing a system of stale-bed preparation and flame weeding, as well as copious amounts of weeding by hand.

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We irrigate from a traditional acequia and use drip irrigation for all of our crops.  Acequias are 400-year -old community institutions in New Mexico that trace their roots to Spanish, Moorish, Native American and Mexican irrigating traditions.  Every year the parciantes, meaning the users of the ditch of the acequia, participate in “La Fatiga” and “La Jara”, or the annual cleaning of the ditch, a testament to the communal aspects of acequia culture still in place today.  Jaras, or willows, are also a crucial part of many of my arrangements.  I harvest the same willows that are cut every year from the ditch banks and use them to make hundreds of wreath bases before a very busy Studio Tour season of preparation.

A few months of irrigating, weeding, thinning and trellising pass before most things are ready to harvest. When the flowers, grasses, sorghum, chiles, corn and other plants are ready to harvest, I am in the field every day harvesting, and then pressing thousands of flowers in the sand to dry, or bundling, tying and hanging to dry the other crops.

I also spend many days in the wildlands, mesas and forests collecting amazing specimens at various stages of their development created by the original muse, Mother Nature.  When I take part of a plant for my arrangements, I make it a habit to thank the plant for its bounty, and I never take it all. I always make sure not to compromise the health of the plant or the important ecosystem services they provide. Some of my favorite wild plants include Indian rice grass, snakeweed, sage, wild sunflowers, pinon cones, cattails, yarrow and dock.

I also trade our fresh vegetables for other flowers and plants that we don’t grow with other farmers at the farmers market. Santa Fe Farmers Market rules dictate that 80% of farm crafts be locally grown or wild-crafted, further adding to the sustainability of the work I do.

I strive to develop my craft into a valuable example of a sustainable art form that can spark interest and awareness about Northern New Mexican popular food staples, agricultural traditions and ecology. I hope to further the value-added aspects of Season’s Muse by inspiring a desire to preserve not only the traditions but also the natural beauty that surrounds us in the Upper Rio Grande bioregion. The diverse and unique landscape we live in is expressed in my works through the many wild plants that make Northern New Mexico such a rich and vibrant region with astonishingly beautiful landscapes. Because the plants I use in my arrangements are derived directly from these landscapes, it is their unique colors and textures that radiate from my arrangements and are therefore, a direct muse for the resulting design.

The seasons dictate how my days are organized.  The entire Spring and Summer is spent growing crops (and children), and when Fall approaches, signaling a more reflective future, I am able to start making my creations.  Plus, I have a huge new exciting assortment of material grown and collected from the year!  The changing light of Fall triggers the artistic muse within me, and I now spend hours each day making arrangements.  Each wreath is unique, yet related.  Every little zinnia that gets glued next to a chile pequin, that is next to a sorghum sprig, that is next to an elegant dried member of the Polygonaceae family collected from a highway right-of-way, that are all carefully blended into the amazing bright yellow flower ocean of thousands of Snakeweed flowers that are on a jara wreath made from willows from the local acequia, are constant reminders of what I have been creating and developing all year, and all my life.

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Watch a time-lapse video below of me making this wreath, from harvesting the jaras (willow), to making the wreath base and adding the snakeweed, and creating the look that calls out in celebration of the colors, beauty and bounty of Northern New Mexico agriculture.

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