Author: karentb

Building Our Soil

Our soil analysis proved that our garden had little organic matter, was virtually impermeable to rain and we suspected sparsely populated with living organisms. To breathe life back into the soil, we needed to take some pretty drastic measures.  After consulting with Gordon Tooley (a wholistic orchardist) and Minor Morgan (an organic Farmer) , we decided to doctor our earth with mechanical treatments, massive amounts of compost, ( and planting with annual cover crops, (see

First, we needed to break up the hard pan with a process called sub-soiling. We hooked up a large, knife-like device to a tractor and slowly pulled the “knife” back and forth along the land, digging about 6 to 8 inches down.

Minor sub-soiling
Minor Morgan sub-soiling
Checking to see correct depth of 6-8 inches
Checking to see correct depth of 6-8 inches

Next, 67 yd3 yards of home-made compost were dumped by truck onto the site.


Two weeks of student labor spread and raked this almost overwhelming amount of compost across the land. Students from the 8th grade earth systems classes, the 10-12 Bio E class, the 10-12 community service students and the 6-12 environmental clubs contributed their muscle and smiles to the operation.

Spreading the Compost
Spreading the Compost


Raking the compost

While students labored, the students even thought up math curriculum to share with their peers. How many student work-hours are needed to move 67 yd3 of compost across a ¼ acre of land?

For a while, I wondered if the mammoth pile of compost would ever be leveled. I needed to finish soon, as the students’ enthusiasm for the task began to wane and the school year end was coming on fast.

But like all things good and bad, the end comes and on to the next thing. Karen Bentrup attached the tiller to the tractor, and tilled the compost into the native soil. The ground was irrigated each morning for three days to prepare for the seeds to create the cover crop. Seeding began and the meadow began to grow.

Karen Bentrup tilling in the compost.


Urban Foraging and the Prickly Pear

Food can be found in places we don’t expect.  The arroyo that runs by my house in a suburb of Albuquerque offers up plump prickly pear tunas every fall, urging me to get out the tongs.   It takes time and patience to harvest and process these magenta marvels, but the delicate flavor is well worth the effort.

Our DOT Garden Team has been harvesting and making prickly pear juice for several years. Below are some of our tips and hints for a glochid-free, wonderful experience! ~Karen Bentrup

Scouting for Prickly Pears

  • Wild-crafting can be really fun and wonderful but these fruits are generally smaller in size.
  • Residential, no-spray cactus are terrific since they usually have received some irrigation, are larger, and generally more accessible.
  • Many home-owners are willing to share. Ask permission first and then say thank you with a jar of their fruit’s jelly!
Lloyd and Karen Harvesting with Tongs


  • A ripe tuna is full magenta, no green on the fruit at the stem end.
  • Definitely use metal tongs for removing fruit. Clasp the fruit the long way and then gently twist. Pops right off. Sometimes you need to tug a bit even if ripe.
  • Drop into large sturdy buckets. No bags.
  • Wear gloves, long sleeved shirt, long pants, closed toe shoes, and for the really safety conscious – sunglasses.
  • Watch where you are standing, leaning and reaching – there are many spines on cactuses.
  • Glochids – these are tiny hair-like short spines clumped together in what look like little round patches all over the fruit. WOW – these hurt.
More Tunas than we know how to deal with!


  • There are many ways to process the fruit – burning off glochids, scrubbing with heavy duty brushes, rubbing with thick leather, putting whole fruit into Vitamix!! – all can work. It all depends on what you are doing and where.
  • Our processing tips are for the home or school processing site for juicing.
  • After harvesting, put prickly pears in a big shallow pan or tub and scrub with long handled scrub brushes. Dump onto rinse area and rinse with water. This helps to reduce glochids. Removes bird poop and mouse droppings too!
Caitlyn using NEW, CLEAN toilet scrubbers!
Final Rinse with Clean Water
  • Cutting – we used large low-sided trays, held fruit with tongs or metal forks and cut and scooped this way. We liked it better than wearing one heavy duty leather glove.
Scooping the Flesh from the Skin
  • For best jelly – taste and appearance – use only the insides of the fruits. NOT the skins. Cut large fruit down the long axis, using an ice cream scoop, scoop out the pulp and seeds. Put in big pot. Add tiny splash of water to make sure there is liquid in bottom of pot. Bring to quiet boil, simmer and process for 10-15mins max.
Ready to Cook
  • For juicing – use whole fruits just cut in half and/or the skins left from scooping out the insides. Add enough water to not quite cover the fruit.
  • Strain thru fine mesh strainer. It’s worth $20-30 for a really good double layer, fine mesh strainer. You can also strain thru an old t-shirt and then its tie-dyed! Or use cheese cloth.


Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe

  • We did double batches and it worked fine.
  • We did an experiment with Pomona Pectin which relies on a different set of chemical reactions and used Agave. Make sure this powder is completely 100% dissolved before adding to juice or it will be very lumpy.


4 cups prickly pear juice (requires around four pounds of fruit)
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 package low sugar pectin


  • Pour four cups of the prickly pear juice into a pot and add a half cup of lemon juice.
  • If juice has been refrigerated, bring it up to warm temp BEFORE adding the next dry ingredients.
  • Mix a quarter cup of the sugar and a box of low/no sugar pectin and add to the juice. Sprinkle in slowly while friend stirs.
  • Bring the mixture to a full boil (a rolling boil).
  • Add the remaining sugar slowly and bring back to a full boil.
  • Boil for one minute, stirring constantly. May need to reduce temp a bit or move off and on the burner so it doesn’t boil over.
  • For the next 2 steps, work rapidly so the mixture does not cool and thicken while you are ladling into jars.
  • At end of 1 minute, take off the heat. Using a flat large spoon and skim off the foam.
  • Glass jars should be tempered in really hot water. The sink works well and you can add boiling water periodically to keep them really hot. Put your ladle or metal measuring cup in this hot bath so it’s hot too when you start ladling jelly.
  • Pour into jars.
  • Wipe to remove excess jelly.
  • Set on cooling racks.
  • If applying lids and rings, finger tighten at this point.

Then you can either let the jars cool and refrigerate OR following your favorite canning recipe.

More about the prickly pear


Family: Cactaceae (Cactus family)
Latin name:  Opuntia spp.
Tohono O’odham Name:    I:ibhai
Spanish Names:
Fruit:  tuna
Pad/s:  nopal/es


There are 12 varieties of fruiting Opuntia cactus. Opuntia engelmannii (Englemann’s Prickly Pear) is native to the Sonoran Desert, and likely can found very near your house. Opuntia ficus indica is a larger, cultivated prickly pear that is often thornless and therefore easily harvested. Englemann’s Prickly Pear has pinkish flower buds that open to yellow flowers. The immature fruit is green and matures to red, pink, or magenta. Pads are paddle-shaped and slightly larger than an adult’s outspread hand. Mature pads are green with medium to long spines.

Thanks to Tom, Alia and Barbara MacFarlane for allowing us to harvest their fruit!

For More Recipes see: Edible Prickly Pear–Recipes for Juice

For More Info: Desert Harvesters

How Dead Was Our Soil?

THe Future SIte of the DOT Garden
The Future Site of the DOT Garden

The soil underneath our new DOT garden has suffered thirty years of abuse; compaction, a monoculture of Kentucky blue grass, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and irrigated with highly mineralized water.  This abuse is rampant the world over.

Before we began the restoration of  the soil that was to become the DOT garden’s meadow, we needed to take the pulse of our soil, to know what signs of life might still be present.

We called our local extension office and set up an appointment to teach our students how to collect and analyze our soil. Cheryl Kent, an NMSU extension soil scientist brought her soil auger, test kits and expertise.

After a short introduction by Cheryl, the students used the augers and applied their elbow grease to drilling down into the cement-like ground to collect 6 to 8 inches of soil. They labeled and packaged the soil and we sent it off to a lab at Colorado State University for chemical and physical analysis. While we waited for the results, the students performed their own analyzes in the classroom. Using a colorometric procedure, test kits available from La Motte, the students tested the soil for nitrate, phosphate, potassium, and pH. In addition, the students analyzed the soil for water-holding capacity, percolation rate and soil texture, see this lab procedure.

Both the CSU report and our own analyzes confirmed that almost no organic matter remained in the soil. Our soil pH is basic, consistent with the limestone, parent rock capstone of the Sandia Mountains, and our soil nutrients are all low. Below the surface layer of the nearly impenetrable hard-pan, the texture is a sandy clay loam, which means that the soil will drain at “low to very low rate”.

Though our soil has a high lime content, it does not suffer from the most serious affliction, soil salinization.

The creation of soil in a natural system takes thousands of years, as living things grow, die and decompose, recycling and adding nutrients, providing structure, increasing the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients in place. A heavily degraded soil will recover on its own in time, lots of time. However, with a small amount of skill and a little knowledge and patience, humans can restore the earth’s fertility quickly and easily. The Land Institute in Kansas can teach us to repair the great prairies of the world.  In our own desert Southwest, Gary Nabhan, Bill DeBuyes, Brad Lancaster and Jack Loffler pioneers land restoration techniques that can help show us the way back to an earth noisy with the bustle of worms and percolation of water.

Meadow in July
Meadow in July

Project Upcycle: Basket-making with Reused Irrigation Drip Tape


by Tiana Baca, DOT garden manager

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a basket-making workshop put on by the EECapacity Consortium. The EECapacity Consortium is a project of the Town of Atrisco and the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico.

Before delving into the details of basket-making, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the concept of upcycling. A cousin to the more common term, recycling, upcycling is concerned with reducing waste and reusing materials. However, upcycling also asks us to consider how we might increase the value of a waste product. For example, using a plastic water bottle as a building material or insulation for a home increases the original value of the water bottle. In the context of the basket-making workshop, we took used irrigation drip tape, which would otherwise go to a landfill, and utilized it to make our own bags and backpacks!

Drip tape, also known as t-tape, is a common material used by farmers for irrigating crops. However, the drip tape is only usable to farmers for a few seasons before small holes and build up in the lines make it less efficient for irrigation. At this point, although the drip tape is no longer usable to farmers, it remains a durable plastic which serves as an excellent material for basket-making!

Step 1: Clean, cut, and straighten.


Cut the drip tape to the necessary length for your desired finished project. In my case, I used 31 pieces cut to about 4′ each (19 for the base and 12 for the sides).

Once the pieces are cut, use a damp cloth to wipe down the lines to remove any dirt. After cleaning, the drip tape pieces should be straightened. This can easily be accomplished by using a wooden block and your foot. Place the drip tape on the block, step on it, and then pull the drip tape up. Do this on both sides of the drip tape.

Step 2: Weave the base.


Separate the pieces cut for your base into two piles (length and width). My bag was made to be 6×13 (six pieces wide by thirteen pieces long). You, of course, can make your bag any size. However, make sure the total number of pieces used for your base is an odd number so that the weaving pattern works properly.

Lay out your width pieces (they can be held by a brick) and weave in your length pieces as shown above. Once you have woven together all your base pieces, adjust your base so that your woven base is centered and tight. Use clothes pins to hold in place.


Step 3: Weave in side pieces.

To begin, take a cut piece for the side and use a clothes pin to clip it to one of the center pieces extending off of the base. Weave the side piece around (you’re making a circle) to meet itself. Make sure to double over the end of the piece to help keep it in place. Clothes pins are your friends here.


Alternating starting sides, continue this process until the desired height is reached. Keep in mind, the bag will begin to take shape once you have 3-4 of of the side pieces woven in. Don’t stress over the tightness of your weaving at this point. You will be able to adjust the tightness later on.


Step 4: Tighten weaving and finish top edge.

After reaching the desired height of your bag, you can adjust the tightness of the weaving by pulling on   and scrunching down/over the various pieces of drip tape.


Once you are satisfied with the tightness of the weave, you are ready to finish the top edge of your bag.     Ideally, the unwoven ends protruding from the top will be 5-8” in length. If they are longer, you can cut them to make them more manageable. Then, begin the process of folding over the top pieces and weaving them back into the bag. Note: the ends will alternately be folded to the outside and inside of the bag and woven in. This will maintain the integrity of the weaving.


Continue until all edges have been folded over. At this point you can once again make tightening adjustments.



Step 5: Attach straps


At this point, you’ll have a fully functional basket. However, if you’d like, you can also attach straps. For this project, I used rivets to hold my straps in place. However, non-rivet methods are also possible.

Cut two or more pieces slightly longer than your desired strap length. Weave your straps into the basket a few inches. Drill a hole through the top of the strap where the strap overlaps the basket rim. Then, using a rivet tool, place the rivet in the hole and squeeze to secure.





Step 6: Rock your bag!

You’re done! Time to take your bag out and show off your handiwork.


GOT Gophers?

Rumor has it, that the gopher population on Albuquerque Academy campus has historically been tackled with poison. In spite of the poison, the gophers are still present today in numbers not to be ignored. The playing fields and our DOT garden have gopher holes and mounds reminiscent of Swiss cheese.

Besides failing to reduce the gopher population, the application of poison backfired in a disturbing way – a weasel family enticed to our land by the gopher population, suddenly disappeared.

Worried about how the overpopulation of gophers would impact our garden and dedicated to zero use of chemical pesticides, I attended the New Mexico Organic Farming conference last year and met Sam Smallidge an NMSU extension officer.  Sam specializes in Wildlife Management in gardens and small farms. I called him last week and invited him to come and help us with our gopher “problem”.

Sam swooped into our garden like Mary Poppins, with a big bag of tools for handling our pesky neighbors.

First, Sam set the ground rules for my students and I. He explained to us that rodent control has been a concern since the beginning of human civilization, and even with 21st century technology, rodents are still alive and well in most of our communities. So eradication is not possible and should not be our goal.

Resident baby owls
Cooper’s Hawk Perches Nearby

In addition, Sam encouraged us to view the gopher an essentail part of our ecosystem. Gophers provide ecosystem services like soil aeration and are important prey for many of my favorite animals like coopers hawks, coyotes, and the weasel. Encouraging these predators may help us control our gopher population.

Setting up a gopher control program requires us to understand how our rodent lives, what it eats, where it lives and how it reproduces. Learn more about gopher natural history and gopher management.

hardware cloth
Hardware cloth placed at the bottom of the raised beds

Exclusion of the gophers from our raised beds has been easy – hard ware cloth lines the bottoms of the beds, and fencing with chicken wire have helped us keep the gophers out of the veggies. Protecting the surrounding meadow and trees will not be so easy.

Choosing a gopher control program requires us to understand our own humanity. Killing is a part of the natural world. A predator takes its prey without concern for minimizing pain. But, to be human means to consider the manner of death. Minimizing suffering should be our goal.  Gopher traps are designed to kill quickly and efficiently, though the traps success depends on how and where you place them.

Sam taught us how to hunt our gopher. No bait is needed to trap a gopher, but t is important to place the trap in the most recently excavated tunnel. Walking out onto the landscape and stomping each mound down with your feet and then returning the next day will help locate the most recent gopher activity.

Sam then taught us to read the gopher mound’s structure in order to find the gopher’s main tunnel by poking the earth with a long metal rod. He showed us how to dig out the tunnel with a Bonsai knife, in order to place the trap. He showed us several different types of traps – each with a different advantage. Most traps should be tethered and flagged so that the trap does not disappear into the crevasses or tall grasses of the landscape. (link for gopher trap choices and management)

We are now heading into winter, and our vegetable gardens have been put to bed. But since gophers do not hibernate,  we can still hunt our prey and will now have more time to concentrate our efforts on reducing our gopher population. Next week, my students and I will set our gopher traps. Once the traps have been set, we will wait a few days before checking them to see if they have caught  a gopher. Together, my students and I will learn the big lesson that few city folks will get – taking life in order to give life.

DIgging out the entrance
DIgging out the entrance
Probing for the Tunnel
Probing for the Tunnel

As the Native Americans do, we shall say a prayer of thanks to Mother Earth for the abundance of life as we return the gopher body to the soil.

Improve the Soil; Plant a Meadow

Almost finished spreading the Compost
Almost finished spreading the Compost

Without a living carpet of green, the good compost we spread across our land would quickly wash away down the slope in the late summer monsoon rains.  In the spring, while we waited for the comprehensive design to further build our garden, we decided to grow a meadow of annual plants whose roots would hold our soil/compost in place, further enrich our soil with nutrients, help to break up the hard-pan layer of earth, as well as add beauty. We chose a seed mix from Curtis and Curtis Seed company that included barley, monida oats, winter Peas, hairy vetch, and red and white Clovers plus a southwest wildflower mix.  With this selection of seeds, we were planning for a cover crop with leguminous plants to help fix nitrogen in our soil.


Our soil restoration plan has its roots in ideas adapted from Wes Jackson and the Land Institute.


Broad Casting the Seed
Broad Casting the Seed

To broadcast the seed, The 8th grade science students fanned out, an arms width away from each other across the prepared earth.  With a small bucket of seeds, the students were asked to broadcast the seed in an arc.  Then each student would step forward in unison across the land broadcasting and stepping until they reached the end of the prepared earth.





The students then raked the seed into the soil, not too deep, not too shallow.

Raking the Seed into the Soil

With the seed evenly distributed, the land  needed to be watered twice each day until germination.  If the soil dried out, the seed would not germinate.  Spring in New Mexico can be very hot, very dry and VERY windy.

Within the week, our first small green sprouts poked through the soil.  Soon we could see the entire field flush with inch tall barley and squat round lobed oats. Anticipation of mid-summer wildflowers buzzing with bees brought smiles to our faces.

Red Clover will add Nitrogen to our Soil
Red Clover will add Nitrogen to our Soil
Pollinator Heaven
Pollinator Heaven
Meadow in July
Meadow in July


Fall Production in Our Raised Beds

Caitlyn and Brooke plant our Fall Crops
Caitlyn and Brooke Plant our Fall Crops

Summer has been wonderful in our 7 raised beds – one permanently planted in herbs and the other 6 rotating crops. Three beds are continuing to grow tomatoes, peppers, and Amaranth into these warm early fall days.

Three beds have just been planted with cooking greens like kale, mustard greens and spinach (which is also a salad green), root vegetables like turnip and beet which will also provide greens, and one bed of salad mixes. Our new interns, Brooke and Caitlyn, learned how to direct seed, create rows, set irrigation lines, and spread a thin layer of straw. They will be hand watering in the seeds and newly sprouted plants, then switching to drip irrigation once plants mature. We are adding hoop-supported row cover this week to prevent flying-hopping insect pests like grasshoppers (seen them lately?!) and other cold crop (Brassica oleracea) attacking moths. We’ll keep you posted as to the progress of our wonderful fall beds.

Grow the Future

The Candelario Farm
The Candelaria Farm

Last Monday, 150 8th grade students visited 5 farms located throughout Albuquerque’s valley, where farmers have been growing food for centuries.  My team of students was invited to Lorenzo Candelaria’s Farm, located in the South Valley, where Lorenzo has nourished his family for over 300 years.

Lorenzo sharing his knowledge with the 8th Grade Students
Lorenzo sharing his knowledge with the 8th Grade Students

Before the Rio Grande was channelized and controlled by levees and damns in the early 1900’s, when the Rio traversed the mile-wide flood plain, most farmland was inundated each spring, making growing food a dicey proposition.  However, for most of the 300 years that the Candelaria family has farmed, the floods swerved around their plot of land, allowing the family to continuously provide for each generation of children, each generation passing down the traditional agricultural knowledge of growing corn, beans and squash.


Today, Lorenzo’s grandchild, now only 8, will become the 8th generation of farmer to tend the land.  Lorenzo’s gift to his grandson is more precious than gold.  Lorenzo’s deep knowledge of the land is coupled with a spirit of gratitude and an appreciation that all life is connected.  Five years ago, Lorenzo returned his land to an ethic echoed by many in the sustainable food movement.  Lorenzo certified his land as USDA organic, in an area of town where I suspect most people have not the coin to spare on such seemingly extravagant credentials.  But more than this certification, Lorenzo speaks of a care for the soil, the plants and the animals that made me want to cry out and hug the small gentleman with joy.

Now the Fields are flooded using the Acequia System
Lorenzo’s fields are irrigated with water from the  Acequia.

As we strolled along the acequia, Lorenzo told me about the problem that he had had in his greenhouse with ants.  The ants were infesting the greenhouse and destroying his tomatoes.  He told me that everywhere that he had asked about how to remove the ants, he was given ways to kill the ants.  Reluctant to employ even organic, non-toxic extermination methods, Lorenzo continued his research.  He read somewhere that ants did not like water, so Lorenzo devised a way to flood the floor of his greenhouse by filling up buckets with small holes in the bottom, continuously providing a gentle stream to dampen the floor.  The ants picked up house and moved away – just to the outside of the greenhouse, out of range of Lorenzo’s valuable crops.  Lorenzo explained that ants have right to life, that they too have a spirit.

Lorenzo's Farm harbors frogs too!
Lorenzo’s Farm harbors frogs too!

Lorenzo’s farm has expanded beyond his ancestor’s crops of corn, beans, squash, and chilies.  He now grows asparagus, blackberries, several varieties of cucumbers, melons and even his chilies have a modern face – their scoville value is 600,000!  We were warned not to touch our skin with these as they could burn on contact.

Lorenzo’s mission is to feed his community with more than just nutritious food.  His mission is to feed the soul of his community – to reconnect them with the spirit of the land.  He invites children and adults to come and learn, to dig the soil, to plant the seed and harvest the fruits.

8th grade students dig the soil
8th grade students dig the soil

Our thirty 8th grade students listened, learned, tended and tasted.   Inspired by Lorenzo’s gentle stories and Travis McKenzie’s charismatic teachings, our students gained a cultural experience that has the potential to change their lives.

8th grade students plant the seeds
8th grade students plant the seeds

To learn more about the Grow the Future, contact Travis

To purchase Cornelio Candelaria’s Organic produce