Santa Fe Greenhouses’ David Salman has spent over 20 years in pursuit of better plants for western landscapes
by LAUREN SPRINGER OGDEN
A troop of plantspeople is scrambling among gargantuan basalt boulders at 11,000 feet elevation in the Drakensberg, the highest mountain range in southern Africa. Our guides call us baboons for the way we fan out and scour the landscape: heads down and behinds up in foraging mode. It isn’t food we’re looking for, but new horticultural treasures. The most intrepid baboon of all—the first to jump out of the van, never tiring on day-long hikes, the last one back in the vehicle—is David Salman, owner of Santa Fe Green-houses and High Country Gardens mail-order nursery.
This athletic yet reserved and thoughtful man does not call much attention to himself, and his horticultural passion and keen powers of observation are not always obvious. Yet what he has done in less than two decades for plant-starved gardeners in the drier parts of the American West is astounding. He has made it his mission to bring the best-adapted, water-thrifty, most beautiful plants to the landlocked, overlooked gardeners in these regions. Many of the offerings are so new and appealing that the plant-pampered folk of the Pacific Northwest and the East are ordering from High Country Gardens as well, trying their best to make the lovely penstemons, agastaches, and salvias happy in their moist, temperate climes.
Such an undertaking does not come to fruition overnight. It takes a person who is intimate with the environment and the web of life to dedicate himself to ecologically intelligent horticulture. Born and raised near Houston, Salman was always drawn to nature, hunting around the bayous for insects, lizards, and snakes. His search for larval food for a butterfly collection taught him many of the native plants. In high school he landed two jobs that focused his passion for nature on plants: first he did herbarium work for the renowned Texan botanist Dr. Robert Vines, and then he helped out in the native plant nursery of another mover and shaker in the Texas plant world, plantsman Lynn Lowrey. He spent summers hiking in the mountains near his family’s ranch in northern New Mexico, where he began a life-long love affair with hardy cacti, and finished high school in the scenic mountain town of Taos. The rugged, wild beauty of New Mexico entered his soul. David started college with his eye on botany, but quickly shifted to horticulture to fulfill his desire to grow and create plants. A self-proclaimed hands-on student rather than a bookworm, he soon got a chance to put into action all that he had learned.
A BUSINESS IS BORN
After a few years working in nurseries and greenhouse production in Colorado and New Mexico, David took the big plunge. With the emotional support of his wife, Ava, and financial support from his father, he made a huge gamble and bought a range of greenhouses in Santa Fe in 1983. Santa Fe Greenhouses opened its doors, and a year later David planted his first display and demonstration garden, complete with educational signage, something not being done at the time. His commitment to educating customers has since grown to include a vibrant workshop and lecture series.
The switch from traditional to more regionally adapted perennials came naturally. David had seen his mother, an avid gardener, struggle in New Mexico with her plant pets from eastern nurseries. And he took This display garden was designed to show off cold hardy Mediterranean plants. Salman has made excellent use of texture, shape, and color. note of what worked and what didn’t in his own display and home gardens. He also credits other pioneers in western plants and gardening, notably Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver nurseryman Kelly Grummons, Tucson seed collector Sally Walker, and, right down the road in Santa Fe, Gail Haggard and her nursery and seed company Plants of the Southwest.
In 1991 David expanded the display gardens. Always quick to try something new and never afraid to go for it, he gave over a quarter acre of Santa Fe Greenhouses’ not-so-large parcel to a new xeriscape demonstration garden. The ideas and terminology were in their infancy at this point, but not to David. He had been developing a new model of plants and gardens for the arid West for some time already. His love for the rocky landforms of New Mexico prompted him to add 20 tons of stone, creating a naturalistic rock garden setting. There he planted his true loves, cacti, among a litany of western natives and Mediterranean plants.
MAIL ORDER BEGINS
This garden soon became a mecca for Southwestern garden-loving visitors, who only wished they could get the same plants at home. In 1993, David and Ava launched a mail-order company, High Country Gardens, taking yet another big risk and listing well over 200 plants—natives and xeric plants, hardy perennials, groundcovers, flowering shrubs, cacti, and other succulents.
The debut catalog was a knockout—48 full-color pages, chock-full of information on everything from plants to soil preparation and maintenance tips to preplanned gardens. Plants were arranged by cultural requirements, rather than A to Z. It redefined what a plant catalog can be and has become a guidebook for western gardeners.
But success didn’t come right away. The xeric plant category in the catalog fell flat in the beginning—many people didn’t even know what it was. And David couldn’t give away his beloved hardy cacti and succulents the first few years. Success took a little bit of letting go and allowing others to do what he always had done himself. With the hiring of a general manager, Ava officially took over the mail-order division, with a keen dedication to old-fashioned personal service and quality. (Just recently I overheard a woman in northern Arizona telling her friend how she had called High Country Gardens wanting recommendations for 10 perennials for her difficult, rocky yard, and that she was so utterly surprised and delighted that they had called her back within the hour with a detailed list tailored to her needs.)
The two businesses work well together. Whatever didn’t sell in the early days of mail order went back on the tables for on-site retail sales. Santa Fe Greenhouses was supporting the mail-order division until 1996, when water restrictions curtailed gardening in Santa Fe. This was a portent for what was to come: the years 2000 through 2003 saw strict water restrictions and even bans on new planting. Mail order, which had by then reached its stride, helped carry the business during those difficult times.
With the business flourishing, David continues to look ahead, offering plants, information, and display gardens that help teach people to value and care for remaining natural places by way of intelligent, low-impact gardening. In an era of box store garden centers and breeders paid by global conglomerates, gardeners can be thankful that David Salman’s present passions include hardy South African plants, improved selections of western natives, and drought-tolerant native grasses.
David has come full circle, back to his innate curiosity and the exploration of nature. With the help of talented staff he now has time to travel, to observe plants closely both in the wild and in his gardens and greenhouses, and to make new selections. He continues to oversee production planning, and still writes and produces the catalog. But typically he is bent over a plant—perhaps a member of his favorite genera, Agastache, Salvia, and Scutellaria—his chiseled features focused on pollinating a potentially perfect partner. But as I follow him through the shipping area of the mail-order business, he spies a drooping artemisia in a flat about to be packed, grabs a bottle of water, and gives it a drink. Those powers of observation and that connectedness to plants have never left this intuitive, largely self-taught 47-year-old horticulturist and businessman. H
Among the many plants David has made available to gardeners are a number that he introduced, either for the first time commercially, as new discoveries from the wild, as hybrids that occurred from his breeding and selection, or as chance seedlings in his test gardens and plots. These are a few of his favorites.