The Ojos y Manos vegetable plot at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden is a terraced circle, like a giant's salad bowl. The spice of basil lingers in the air, mingling with the scent of smoke from recent wildfires. It's early September but the weather has already brought snow, and the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps team is scrambling to harvest chile, eggplant, tomatoes, fava beans, corn and -other veggies before another freeze beats them to the punch.
Crew Leads Mira Engel and Natasha Farmer (full disclosure: Natasha Farmer is the writer's sister, but she was not interviewed for this story) have been working with their interns since July to grow fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs in the plot on Museum Hill (which is now open to the public by reserved tickets, btw, and well worth the trip). This season, in spite of the hungry rabbits and other critters that have reclaimed the garden in the absence of human visitors, they've had a bumper crop.
"The harvest is the most exciting part," says Engel. "We've recently harvested radishes, tomatoes, green beans, spinach—no, that kinda got eaten by the bunnies—but we've had wonderful basil, cilantro and mustard greens."
So far, the program has resulted in donations topping 145 pounds of pesticide-free produce to Kitchen Angels, the food-based nonprofit that's been serving the community since 1992. Daily, its drivers deliver free, nutritious meals to homebound clients and kids under 12 in single parent families—it'll even tailor meals to clients' dietary needs.
"We're so thankful to have developed terrific partnerships with local organizations such as the Botanical Gardens," says Dwayne Trujillo, development officer for Kitchen Angels. "They're tremendously thoughtful and generous to consider Kitchen Angels as beneficiary to their bountiful produce."
According to Trujillo, Kitchen Angels' client base has increased roughly 10% during the pandemic as it continues to serve toothsome and nourishing meals (2020 marked its 1.5 millionth served). Newly instated pandemic safety precautions keep their clients, volunteers and staff healthy, and partnerships with Santa Fe and Albuquerque Veterans Affairs locations and St. Elizabeth's Shelter mean delivering meals to people who are experiencing homelessness as they quarantine or wait for COVID-19 test results.
"We buy all of our food and produce that we prepare for our clients," Trujillo tells SFR, "so we definitely appreciate when local purveyors donate locally grown, fresh produce. That's what makes Santa Fe a true community—local organizations helping local nonprofits."
This year has, of course, been difficult, but Trujillo's comments illustrate Santa Fe's strength in times like these. For the Youth Conservation Corps workers, this comes in the form of giving back to—and sustainably taking from—the land. And the land they work at the Botanical Garden's orchard and Ojos y Manos garden is designed to educate visitors about traditions from Native and Hispanic communities associated with the plants grown there.
"These gardens honor the local community's use of plants and their stories," says Cristina Salvador, collections manager at the Botanical Garden. "Knowledge from these cultures lives today in local artists, farmers, cooks, healers and artisans who depend on these plants."
Around the upper level of the garden, placards in Spanish and English tell stories of New Mexicans who have special connections to native plants like cottonwood, chile and yucca. Salvador also says they "honor the wishes of the local communities, and out of respect for their culture and beliefs, we do not translate the signs into Indigenous languages."
There's even an Ethnobotanical Stories Tour app featuring the traditions of the four primary uses of the plants: fibers and weaving, herbs and healing, wood and carving and crops and cooking.
Still, the garden is struggling financially this year, and Director of Institutional Advancement Lindsay Taylor says New Mexico's COVID-19 restrictions closed its sites during what is usually the height of its season, decimating ticket sales.
"Those closures caused significant financial stress for the Garden," Taylor explains, "which doesn't have an endowment it can draw on in tight times such as these."
The Garden received an Urban Agriculture Resilience Program grant, which supports food-growing programs during the pandemic, but even with a shot to the wallet there's still pressure. COVID-19 has been a reality check, and it's shown us the necessity of a strong, sustainable local food system that works in synergy with New Mexico's unique cultures and climate.
As Salvador says, "By preserving and building on the knowledge passed down through families, [we can] protect and maintain valuable traditions for future generations."