If involuntary plantslaughter—the horticultural equivalent to the misdemeanor crime—were a punishable offense, I'd surely have violated the terms of my probation many times over. Yet, despite my inability to nurture nature, I wander among it time and time again. As long as none of these photosynthesizing creatures are left in my care, they usually escape unscathed.

For people like me, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden offers a plant furlough like no other.

For more than 20 years, the nonprofit SFBG has provided northern New Mexico with educational programs and two preserves, the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve and the Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve. In early May, it began construction of a water-wise public demonstration garden called Museum Hill Garden, located on Arroyo de los Pinos, adjacent to Museum Hill in Santa Fe.

Santa Feans are no strangers to the differing botanical ecosystems that exist around these parts. It's what draws so many of us to Santa Fe in the first place. For proof, just check out any hiking trail at any hour of daylight and you'll see folks and dogs alike wandering among the junipers and other allergy-inducing plants we love to love and love to complain about come spring. But what makes a botanical garden rock is it's a place to sit, a place to learn and a place to gather.

Any ethnobotanist knows the way in which people relate to plants says a lot about the culture of those people. In Paris, gardens are manicured to perfection, with not a single leaf out of place. The Jardin des Plantes, a 4,500-plant-strong garden in the center of Paris, has row after row of perfectly placed and meticulously labeled flowers, and the nearly 2,000-acre geometric and maze-filled Gardens of Versailles features perfectly manicured lawns.

The gardens of London or the United States seem unruly in comparison, despite sculptural displays and constant pruning. While France and Japan are known for their complete control over nature, English-speaking cultures tend to let things be a little freer.

Currently, the SFBG's preserves are the epitome of Wild West gardening. There is little human coaxing, though the 35-acre Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve has had much restoration and preservation, including the removal of non-native and invasive species. The ponderosa and piñon-filled Ortiz site has numerous ongoing education programs—and it's a great place for bird watching.

Fran Cole, outreach director for SFBG, says the preserve "is a real jewel." "It's a wetland, which lots of people don't expect to find when they come to Santa Fe. It's very green, it has lots of native flowers that are blooming all summer. It's a special place to go and walk and feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, even though you're right off Frontage Road."

The Ortiz preserve, Cole says, is "a very different environment. It is the high desert. It has a really wonderful peak called Placer Peak, which is a rather strenuous hike but the views up there are rather spectacular. It's a special place to go and commune with nature, especially because it's so rugged."

At the Museum Hill site, the 11-acre garden will allow nature lovers to experience a diverse collection of fauna that reflects the area's botanical heritage (be sure to check out the design plans and plant list on SFBG's website). The garden's plans also include several courtyards and sculptures.

"Someday it will be an amazing state-of-the-art garden that people will want to visit when they're on Museum Hill, just like they go up there to visit the museums themselves," Cole says. "It will be a place where locals might go once a week to write, to read, to visit, to see what's growing and what's blooming and what's being added."

Though planting isn't scheduled to begin until 2010, restoration of the Arroyo de los Piños, which runs through the center of the garden's site, is now underway. In addition to developing the new garden—which is located just behind the overflow parking for the Museum of International Folk Art on Camino Lejo—SFBG hosts classes and events all year long. These include everything from kid-friendly storytelling to bat watching to garden tours in several historic Santa Fe neighborhoods. Best of all, many of the programs are free.

"Gardens are a special place that everybody loves to visit," Cole says, "and if you're a gardener it's even more meaningful because a gardener knows what they're looking at."

Of course that's not to say that planticidal people can't enjoy the botanical gardens. So if, like me, you fear taking the lives of plants into your own hands, SFBG offers the chance to stop and smell the roses (and the agave and the yucca) without causing any harm.

Santa Fe Botanical Garden
Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve
Open 9 am-noon Saturdays and 1-4 pm Sundays, May through October.
I-25 Frontage Road, La Cienega

Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve
Open for events select Saturdays and Sundays, April through November
Gold Mine Road, Cerrillos

13th Annual Garden Tours
1-4 pm Sundays, May 31 and June 7
Map for self-guided tour available with ticket purchase

Small Group Tours
10 am every Saturday through October
Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve

Bat Watch
7:30 pm Saturday, June 16
Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve

3rd Annual Fall Fair Plant Sale
8 am-2 pm Saturday, Sept. 26
Santa Fe County Fairgrounds
3229 Rodeo Road