Worldwide Travelers: Transferring Crops from Similar Climates

By: Andrew Pick-Roth

When planting in the desert, getting your crop to thrive isn’t always a guarantee, let alone getting it to survive. Plants that make their home here have adapted to the dry seasons and hot summer days and as such require less effort to keep growing when compared to un-acclimated crops. However, other arid deserts exist around the world with a variety of plants that will also grow well in New Mexico.

(https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/newmexico/new-mexico-prairie-and-desert-grasslands.xml)

One of these similar environments is found in Kazakhstan, a country whose southern border is lined with arid shrublands. The landscape of areas like the Kazakh Desert would look very familiar to those living in New Mexico.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazakh_semi-desert)

We planted several crops from this area in the DOT Garden, in the hopes that their traits that helped them survive elsewhere, like the ability to conserve water, will help them thrive in New Mexico as well. One of these plants is the Kazakhstan eggplant, which is already growing happily in our meadow beds.

When adopting crops from other areas, it is also worth looking into what sorts of techniques the farmers from these similar areas may have employed that you can adopt as well. New ways of growing our own crops may prove fruitful as well!

Beat the Heat: Keeping Plants Alive at the Height of Summer

By: Elisabeth Lawton

This past June saw a merciless heat wave sweep through the country, particularly the southwest region of the United States. Here in New Mexico, we reached temperatures of up to 105°F during a time when the highs normally sit in the mid 90°s. Heat advisories were issued, suggesting everyone stay indoors. Despite it all, the garden continued to grow. It will always require care and attention in any weather. If you are feeling the heat, it is guaranteed that your plants are too. There are steps that you can take to protect your plants even in the hottest and driest of climates. Here in the Desert Oasis Teaching Garden we are very familiar with this struggle, and have some good tips to share.

 The DOT Garden is always growing

When trying to keep plants cool, take action to lower the temperature of the soil. Soil can easily trap the heat of the day and lose moisture in extreme temperatures. To shade and protect the soil as well as keep moisture inside, place a decent layer of mulch on top of the soil and around the base of the plants. The DOT Garden often uses the leaf litter from previous autumns as an effective mulch. It will also be important to water thoroughly with cold water. The cold water will lower the soil temperature and replace the moisture that has rapidly evaporated away. However, if watering with an outdoor hose, make sure you check the temperature of the water coming out of the hose before you begin soaking your plants. A dark hose laying in the sun will heat the water inside to burning temperatures; in some cases, you must run the hose for a few minutes before the water reaches a good temperature. You do not want to scald your plants or boil your soil!

The water sitting inside this hose is hot and will damage plants.

Managing sunlight exposure is another important method of controlling temperature. Plants can burn in direct sunlight just like we can, so provide shade in whatever ways work best for you. Choosing a garden location that receives plenty of morning sunlight none of the ruthless afternoon rays will already give you an advantage. However, if this is impossible, building shade structures will also work to protect your plants. Using white row cover or other shade sheets are a good method because they will reflect the sunlight and are easy to take down and move around to meet your garden’s needs.

White row cover shields our delicate lettuce.

Between the natural extreme temperatures of the desert and the uncertainty of the weather due to climate change, gardening during the peak of summer can be a grueling challenge. However, make sure to show the same care to yourself as you do to your plants: drink plenty of cool water, protect yourself from the sun, and rest frequently in the shade. The bountiful harvest at the end of the summer growing season will be a well-earned reward.

 

Bottled Sunlight: Making Calendula Salve

By: Tanya Hebert

In the middle of winter it can be difficult to remember the vibrant colors of the calendula plant.  The deep oranges, yellows and even whites of this beautiful medicinal plant bring back feelings of sunshine and buzzing bees.  When the calendula was in full bloom, we harvested the heads and put them aside to dry.  We were as careful as possible not to mix them with the spent heads that were producing seeds but, alas, our 6th grade Environmental Club had to come to our rescue and separate dried petals from seeds.

The dried petals were put in quart mason jars and filled with olive oil.  The jars lined the greenhouse shelves with their warmth and our kids had fun gently shaking them everyday.  After six weeks in the greenhouse, the kids helped strain the calendula-infused oil (quite a mess!) in preparation for salve making.

The salve is prepared by mixing beeswax (locally sourced) with the oil at a gentle heat to liquefy the beeswax.  Some of the salve got an extra special dose of lavender essential oil (also locally sourced).  The salve is poured into tins while it is still a liquid – this is an adult job as it cools quite rapidly.  The end product is a tin of beautifully scented hand salve infused with the healing quality of the calendula plant.

Tie-Dye With Native Plants

By: Tanya Hebert

On a beautiful fall day back in October, the 6th grade Environmental Club took a walk to explore the arroyo on campus.  We spent some time gathering bright gold flowers and stems from the native chamisa (rabbit brush) plants that grow abundantly here in the desert southwest.  Chamisa is a plant that has been used for hundreds of years by the native peoples of the desert to dye yarn for weaving.

To make the dye, we boiled the chamisa stems and flowers for 3 hours and then strained the beautiful golden liquid.  We then added alum as a mordant to help the color attach permanently to the fabric.  We cut squares of white cloth, used rubber bands in a way that would create designs on our creations and then put them into the dye for 3 more hours at a boil and then soaked overnight.  In the morning we hung the fabric to dry and a couple days later we had beautiful all-natural dyed cloth.   This process was repeated with both 7th and 8th grade Environmental Club members – all the kids loved this project!

 

Encouraging Mycorrhizal Growth in Soil to Conserve Water

In order to conserve water in our garden, it is recommended to encourage mycorrhizal growth.

But, first off, what is mycorrhiza?

Mycorrhiza is a type of fungus that has developed a symbiotic relationship with plants, in which it increases the absorption of phosphorus and other nutrients. The plant allows the fungus to attach itself to its root system. Because the amount of water and nutrients a plant can absorb is directly dependent on the surface area of the root system, this relationship increases the ability of plants to absorb what they need. Mycorrhizal networks are able to absorb all 15 essential nutrients for plants, and absorb the nutrients through intricate webs. It also makes certain enzymes that can aid in breaking down hard to claim nutrients such as phosphorus in order to make them easier for a plant to uptake and digest.

This is what it looks like close up:

Ericoid mycorrhizal fungus.jpg“Ericoid mycorrhizal fungus” by MidgleyDJ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ericoid_mycorrhizal_fungus.jpg#/media/File:Ericoid_mycorrhizal_fungus.jpg

And this is what its symbiotic relationship looks like:

File:Vicia sepium9 ies.jpg

Mycorrhizal growth on roots- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vicia_sepium9_ies.jpg

These organisms can help plants thrive naturally and without fertilizer. They are also great at increasing the ability of soil to hold water because the water holding capacity increases as the amount of organic matter does. This means that less water will be lost by evaporation or runoff so that more water is available to the plants and you do not have to irrigate as much. Loss of water to the environment is a major source of water waste. Mycorrhizae produce humus and other organic glues that can hold the soil together and therefore increase water holding capacity.

Conventional gardening, unfortunately, can make it difficult for plants to interact with mycorrhizae. Compaction, top soil loss, and less organic matter discourages mycorrhizae from growing. Often, the effects of conventional gardening on this relationship are dually terrible because it both isolates plants and discourages fungal growth as well as increasing the nutrient needs. This increases the needs for fertilizers and other water-consuming products in the garden.

So how is it possible to encourage mycorrhizal growth?

  1. Add compost, rather than fertilizer, to soil. While fertilizer gives plants nutrients, it is chemical-heavy and strips plants of the need to develop this relationship with mycorrhizae. The chemicals are detrimental to existing fungi and, although providing plants with nutrients, discourage the development of natural nutrition uptake strategies. Adding compost will increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, and develop a more fertile topsoil, thus making an ideal environment for mycorrhizal growth.
  2. Use minimal tillage. When you till the soil, it can disrupt and harm the fungal growth on the roots of plants. It takes a while for mychorrhizae to grow, so tilling every season can be detrimental to colonies.
  3. Plant cover crops. While establishing different kinds of environments for the mycorrhizae, cover crops increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, thus increasing microbial activity and encouraging mycorrhizae to grow.

Mycorrhizae can be a natural defense against what could devastate a garden: drought and nutrient deficiency. It is in many ways essential to healthy, natural garden that does not deplete nutrients in the soil. Who knew such a little organism could make such a big difference?

Resources:

http://www.fungi.com/blog/items/mycorrhizal-management.html

http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/212.html

Abundance in the Desert: The Beauty of Winter Storms

While winter storms provided a unique set of challenges, they often bring with them a blessing: water.

The past few weeks have been exceptionally moist here in New Mexico. Rainfall and snow have decorated our landscape with saturated vistas and winter blankets.  While the heat of summer and scarcity of water may be far from our minds, this winter moisture is key to ensuring the health of plants and animals throughout the year.

However, it’s not just how much moisture we get that’s important. It’s how long we get to keep it.

snow and oats

Snowfall provides an excellent opportunity of this concept in action. Following snow fall, take a look outside. Observe each day where the snow has melted and where it remains. Notice micro-climates.

While we’re weeks out from our last big snow storm, snow remains on the ground in some places.  These cooler, protected patches of ground are able to hold onto the snow for longer periods of time and release snow melt at a slower rate. Why does this matter? Slowing down the pace of water moving through a system means the plants and animals in the system can use the water over longer periods of time.

snow 1

While snow provides an excellent visual for this process, we can treat any form of precipitation the same way. How? Mulch. Build organic matter in the soil. Keep plants in the ground year round. Create shade. Dig soil sponges. Utilize swales. Above all, be creative! Observe patterns of success in nature and explore possibilities in your own space.

Gardening on the Dark Side

First Snow on the DOT Garden

While winter may not officially arrive until the middle of the month, frosted plants and frozen ground are sure signs of its arrival. Our winter greens are still cozy under their row cover and our exposed cover crops continue to push upwards, even through brief blankets of snow. While we’ve already noticed a slower pace of growing in the garden, we’ve reached a time of year when it’s put on pause altogether – it’s called the Persephone period.

Recalling Greek mythology, Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, was abducted by Hades. Zeus intervened to bring his daughter back to the land of the living. Unfortunately, Persephone had already consumed the seeds of a pomegranate which bound her to Hades for part of the year. Her period of time in the underworld corresponds to the winter season, during which Demeter’s grief of losing her daughter makes the soils barren.

Mythology in mind, we’ve reached the time of year when we have less than ten hours of daylight, which is critical to plant growth. As such, you may notice your own gardens on hold as plants wait for the return of the sun.  Luckily, winter solstice not only marks the beginning of winter but the resurgence of light.

We look forward to seeing you on the bright side!

So you want to save seeds? A brief guide to the mess-ups you’ll make:

Chives

With a growing interest in seed saving over the past few years, it’s not uncommon to stumble across local seed swaps or read articles touting the benefits of saving your own seed. Not only can you select for plants adapted to your local microclimate but saving your own seed can help maintain a genetic library of heirloom or non-GMO varieties in your own backyard. Additionally, in an era of corporate agricultural giants, saving seed can also be a political act in which seed savers challenge the patenting of life and strive to keep cultural traditions and knowledge alive. This all sounds pretty noble, right? Well, now that you’re inspired to embark upon your own seed saving journey, let me share some of the hiccups you might encounter along the way.

Grow seed. Save seed. Right?

While the general idea of seed saving does involve growing a plant and then saving the seed, the actual process is much more nuanced. As such, let’s work through four main considerations you’ll need to address to ensure a successful seed saving venture

It All Starts With the Seed!

Beans - mixed

Before you begin growing, it’s important to know what kind of seed you have: an open-pollinated variety, an heirloom variety, or a hybrid variety. Seed Savers Exchange provides great descriptions for what each of these terms mean (Seed Savers Exchange, 2012).

  • Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.

Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.

  • An heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture.

An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), other companies identify heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.

  • Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention.

Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybridized seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to breed a desired trait. The first generation of a hybridized plant cross also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor’. However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Not only will the plants not be true-to-type, but they will be considerably less vigorous. Gardeners who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seed every year. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many year.

Give them some space!

Another important factor in seed saving is the distance necessary between plant varieties/species to keep them from cross pollinating. This spacing is known as the Isolation distance.

Blue Corn

Here’s where a little botany knowledge can come in handy. Peas and beans can produce asexually and do not need large distances to keep them from breeding true. Corn, on the other hand, relies on gravity and wind to pollinate. As such, several miles are needed to isolate one variety of corn from another.

Pea

In cases where space limited, it is also possible to isolate plants through time staggering. This means planting one variety several weeks earlier or later than another to ensure that they are not flowering at the same time.

Mix it up!

While isolation distance is important to keeping plants from cross pollinating, it is equally important to have a large enough population of plants to ensure you get plenty of genetic diversity. There are plenty of tables and charts online which can provide you with the ideal population size for any type of plant.

If space is an issue, fear not! There are other ways to increase the genetic diversity of your seed stock. You can plant saved seed with purchased seed. You can also swap seeds with other local growers. In either case, plant a few of your seeds with the other seeds so that their genetics can mingle.

You’ve grown it, now what?

Once you’ve grown your plants out, you’ll need to collect your seed. To start out, you can collect any ripened fruit or pods. However, as you build your seed saving skills, you may wish to only save seed from early ripening or disease resistant plants.

Start simple.

Tomato

While collecting the seeds may seem easy enough, some plants require special processes to make sure they are viable for planting later. Tomatoes, for instance, need to go through a fermentation process to collect viable seed.

Raab

If you’re unsure how to save a particular type of seed, fear not! Details for each type of plant can be found in books and online. Remember to start simple! Work on saving seed from easier plants like lettuce or kale before getting to the trickier plants. There’s no rush.

Rainwater Cisterns Installed at DOT Garden

A keystone element of sustainability is water conservation and, for a desert garden, rainwater collection is paramount. The DOT Garden in collaboration with Adaptive Terrain Systems (a Division of Soilutions), New Mexico Water Collaborative, and the ABC Water Utility Authority designed and installed 3 systems for rainwater harvesting and use.

So how do you begin a rainwater harvesting project?

With lots of questions, planning, and ideas. Research, reading the work of Brad Lancaster, online videos, and the guidance of local experts are all really helpful too. It helps to answer some basics like: How big is the roof? How much water can I use? Is there an overflow plan? Is the water for plants, animals or people? How does this catchment fit in with the big picture for the space now and in the future?

Really great news for all of us!

The New Mexico Water Collaborative is updating a rainwater collection guide for our region. It will have loads of information, installation stories and plans from right here in Albuquerque, plus links to installers, gutter companies, and more. The complete DOTG cistern project will be included here. The Guide should be available spring 2016 in print form and online. Keep checking here FMI: http://nmwatercollaborative.org/projects/rainwater-harvesting-project/

DOTG cistern installation project overview

We installed three rainwater collection systems: cistern #1 in May in the courtyard, and cisterns #2 & #3 in August near our raised bed area. Taking advantage of summer monsoons, we used rain catchment from #1 to irrigate vegetables, supply water for our greenhouse starts, brew compost tea, and supplement a small pond that is home to fish, frogs, and a water source for birds and insects. Cisterns #2 & #3 are serving our major food production area, which includes 9 raised beds and 4 sunken beds devoted to the cultivation of vegetable and grain crops, as well as 10 mature pine trees, and a cover cropped Meadow.

Some cool design features and photos

Cisterns are 1,650 gallons each, about 5’8” tall, 24’ around, and made of heavy duty black cross-linked polyethylene that has been proved to be algae and mold resistant. (Sourced from Phil Monfette, www.ineedawatertank.com )

#1 basic cistern view

We used inexpensive crusher fine, packed down as a substrate and a level pad for the cisterns. (Sourced from Vulcan Materials Company,  www.vulcanmaterials.com )

#2 pad prep crusher fine tamping

To exclude sunlight from making algae and bacteria grow inside the cisterns:

For cistern #1, we updated an existing system which did not have vertical clearance for a bend in the downflow to reduce/eliminate sun from entering the cistern. We had to make an “internal downspout shade” – a small angled piece of metal was screwed into the downspout.

#3 sunshade

For cisterns #2 and #3: Simple elbow-bend in downspout so sunlight cannot enter from above.

(All our guttering repairs and new installations were done by ABQ Gutter Pros, Inc., David Palsce, 505-345-1640.)

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Bulkhead fittings on Cistern #1 are really durable and tight fitting. From Banjo brand valves and fittings( http://www.banjovalves.com )

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Frost-free spigot for gravity outflow at base: Designed by Jim Brooks, this experimental design uses a vacuum breaker, extra long internal pipe, and is tilted toward the outside to prevent freezing. This should allow us to keep water in the cisterns over the winter so that rainwater is available for early spring planting. We may even be able to use it all winter in our row-covered beds. We’ll keep you posted.

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Utility-pump assisted outflow from the bulkhead near the top: A standard utility pump is lowered into the tank, rests on the bottom of tank with the pump hose quick-connected to the junction in the vertical hatch area, then standard garden hose is connected for a low-flow pumping outflow. We’ve even got electrical cord dry-connection options on Cisterns #2 and #3 if we want to keep the pumps in longer term.

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Custom-designed easy-to-lift downspout connection to the cistern inflow. We needed a connection that was easy to move by kids and adults and we got it! This way we can check easily clean the filter basket, look for biological growth (that we don’t want), and access the pump outflow quick-connect.

#8 custom fittings from downspout

Our OverFlow Plans are fantastic! The internal system is a bit complex but basically allows rainwater inside the cistern to run into internal ABS pipes near the top and then water comes out near the bottom.

#9 inside pipe view

The surge basins, swales and sponges were designed by Tiana Baca, our Garden Manager and permaculturist, with guidance from Adaptive Terrain Systems. All these systems are working really well.

#10 swale for courtyard cistern

Special thanks to the Project Learning Tree Greenworks and William H. and Mattie Wattis Harris for funding this project, Whole Foods Academy for lunches, Jim Brooks and his crews, the participants in our August installation, and all our community volunteers. We got RAINWATER!

International Visitors to the DOT Garden

On Thursday, we had international visitors in the DOT Garden. Sarah Montgomery, Director of The Garden’s Edge, a local non-profit, brought two farmers that she works with in Rabinal, Guatemala. These farmers, Maria Elena and Julian, showed us how they process amaranth, a grain that is critical to their community – in addition to being yummy and super healthy!

Two 7th graders harvesting amaranth at last year's harvest Festival.
Two 7th graders harvesting amaranth at last year’s harvest Festival.

In the DOT Garden, we have grown amaranth because it is a drought-hardy, healthy, and beautiful plant. However, the tiny seeds can be very hard to separate from the rest of the plant after harvesting.

Maria Elena and Julian have a lot of practice winnowing the tiny seeds from the chaffe for both seed saving and food production, and they shared their skills with 8-9 and 6th grade Environmental Club students, as well as a few of our volunteers and friends.

We learned a few important tricks about amaranth:

  • It is much better to harvest amaranth when it is fresh – not dried, as it gets prickly when it dries. When it is fresh you can use your hands to get most of the seeds out of the flowers. If you do dry, you have to do the “amaranth dance” to loosen the seeds (our students ended up having fun with the amaranth dance, although Maria Elena cautioned us that they never do this in Guatemala because then you shouldn’t use it for food).
Students doing the Amaranth Dance to separate seeds from dried amaranth.
Students doing the Amaranth Dance to separate seeds from dried amaranth.
  • You can easily winnow the seeds from the lighter bits of plant using wind or a fan, which Julian was an expert at! Hopefully our 7th graders can do it as gracefully for Harvest Festival on October 2nd.
Julian showing us how to winnow amaranth.
Julian showing us how to winnow amaranth.
  • Amaranth can be used in many ways! You can put the seeds in just about anything, but it is best when popped, which Maria Elena showed us how to do – over high heat and with no oil. All of our students were excited to try the popped amaranth, which was “like miniscule popcorn!” The popped amaranth can be used in cereal bars, on ice cream, or, it seemed, in just about anything. The seeds can be cooked for morning cereal or ground into flour!
6th grade students tasting popped amaranth while Maria Elena demonstrated the popping process.
6th grade students tasting the popped amaranth while Maria Elena demonstrated the popping process.
  • Amaranth is incredibly healthy. It is high in protein and contains complete amino acids. Maria Elena tells us that amaranth aids memory and cognitive function (a nice brain boost for our students in the middle of the day!). In Guatemala, they use amaranth for healthy snacks, especially for pregnant women and young children, in order to prevent childhood malnutrition.

Sarah’s story of working in Guatemala is a wonderful one, and we encourage you to check it out on their website. Working with farmers like Julian and Maria Elena, Sarah helped start a farmer’s collective in Rabinal called Qachuu Aloom “Mother Earth” Association. They work especially with women, many of whom were widowed over the course of Guatemala’s long civil war. Over the years, they have gone from collecting a few heirloom seeds to hundreds of gardens, a scholarship program for young girls, a micro-lending program, and the most recent addition, a maternal health and nutrition program that also trains young people to conduct health assessments on the young children in their community! It is a very impressive organization and we were so lucky to have them share their time with us!