Author: karentb

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.

Unintended Victim of Poison
Unintended Victim of Poison

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.

Locating the tunnel
Locating the tunnel
Gopher mound and tunnel
Gopher mound and tunnel

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)

Types and brands of gopher traps include (clockwise from upper right) Victor Black Box, Macabee, Gophinator, and Cinch.
Types and brands of gopher traps include (clockwise from upper right) Victor Black Box, Macabee, Gophinator, and Cinch.

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.

Tribute to Estevan Arellano

51+N8scPDdL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The DOT Team joins the many thousands of New Mexicans whose lives have been touched by the work of Estevan Arellano. Our large-scale, multi-dimensional community growing and learning space owes its origins to Estevan and his publication, Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming, a compilation and first English translation of the Obra de Agricultura, by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera, the first book in the Spanish language about agriculture written in 1513. This book and the work of Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan (a colleague and dear friend of the Arellano family) created the philosophical foundations for our garden.estevan-arellano


We were blessed to host Estevan in November 2013, to present to our students and the community. He offered a perfect blend of storytelling, cultural dimensionality, and food growing tips – in three languages! His clear love of the land, that sense of querencia, was his whole being. Listening to Estevan speak and reading his words in his final book, Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water, is to know what it means to be a true citizen of this land, to be ‘of a place.’ Estevan was an exemplar steward of New Mexico’s heritage, his ancestral lands and water and he challenged each of us to find creative ways to be stewards of our places.

We are so grateful that Estevan shared his wide-ranging understanding of life in the southwest. As all the projects that Estevan contributed to, the Desert Oasis Teaching Garden will continue to honor his life’s work for decades to come benefitting students, families, and the larger Albuquerque community.

Growing Up Organic

Garden Classroom a la Francais!

The North American Association of Environmental Education held its annual conference in Ottawa this year. I was fortunate to attend the conference as a representative of the Community Climate Change Fellowship. As part of the conference, I went on a field trip to three Ottawa school gardens, led by Alissa, the founder of Growing Up Organic, a unique non-profit that helps to build, support and provide curriculum and workshops to over 42 school gardens throughout Ottawa.

When I signed up for the field trip, I had been hoping to visit BIG school gardens, gardens with a mission, vision and size as BIG as the dream of the DOT garden, so I was initially a bit disappointed to learn that we would be visiting small gardens. But I soon discovered that I could learn a lot from simple, comfortable and yes, very small school gardens.

Garden Harvest

Alissa explained to us that the school gardens were, by design, small, comfortable, and easy to use. By starting small, the hope was to invite and not intimidate teachers to begin using the gardens to teach all subjects from music to language arts to science and math.

Growing Up Organic believes that it is important to get the students involved in all parts of the garden in the beginning – construction of the beds and the compost bins and soil making all the way to the seeding, growing, harvest and of course EATING.

Garden Lesson in French











At the Devonshire School, which is a French immersion school, the students were encouraged to answer important questions like “ Why is it important to work in the garden?”. The answer of course was “ So that we can eat the veggies”. Stephen Skoutajan, a teacher at Devonshire, believes that after 5 years with the garden, the school has developed a culture of local food where little understanding or value of this had existed before. Stephen recommends that we all ask our students to share 10 healthy recipes with 10 other students – just as Jamie Oliver says.

At the Joan of Arc Academy for girls, the young passionate principal, Derek Rhodenizer, is pioneering a bigger garden at his school, but has also started small with a series of tiered gardens based on the principles of permaculture and hugelkultur. Tiered gardens provide for micro-climates which allow for plants with different water and temperature needs to support each other – true interdependence.

Tiered Garden provides Microclimates
Tiered Garden provides Microclimates

Derek has also created a wonderful garden project that not only teaches students about horticulture, but also provides them an opportunity to grow food that will help alleviate hunger in the community. By growing potatoes in an intensive way, Derek and his students grew 750 pounds that were donated to the local food bank. My students and I hope to partner with Wilson Middle school this spring to emulate Derek’s Potato Project.

creating the potato garden out of recycled olive bins and hockey sticks!
creating the potato garden out of recycled olive bins and hockey sticks!











At Connaught Public School, I learned about the Jerusalem artichoke, a native plant to North America that can be grown in our garden to help feed people suffering from diabetes.

Jerusalem Artichoke
Jerusalem Artichoke
Jeruselum Artichoke









Connaught students shared with us the pesto that they had made from pea sprouts grown in their tucked away school garden. This seemed serendipitous, as I had been planning to harvest our garden’s basil to make our own pesto the week I returned from Ottawa!

Life Lab

Why do you have to be careful about telling a secret in a cornfield? Because the corn have ears. 

Gardens teach deeper learning, patience and inquiry.

But engaging young people in gardening requires knowledge, garden skill and people management.  Imagine trying to teach twenty 7 year-olds outside, while they run in all directions, some joyful, some fearful, and some just plain loopy.  I shudder at the thought and I have been teaching for 18 years now.

I am fortunate in my outdoor teaching experience, as I teach respectful, eager middle-school and high-school students, who understand (most of them anyway) how to act when a bee lands near, or how to maneuver a wheel barrow without tipping the mulch in the wrong place (well, OK some of them do….).

As a teacher, my heroes are people like Mary Irwin, a distinguished garden teacher at Wilson Middle School and Julie Hirshfield, Farm Camp teacher and director for Los Ranchos Farm Camp.  These veteran garden teachers have so much to teach me, in garden skill and outdoor classroom management.   Wanting to be like them is why I signed up last weekend for the APS Growing Gardens workshop.

Teachers at the APS Growing Garden Workshop

Thanks to the McCune Foundation, a Presbyterian grant and EEANM support, the APS Growing Gardens workshop brought in a garden teacher from LIFE LAB – a California organization dedicated to teaching all subjects through the lens of the garden, ,  as well as provided us all with a free LIFE LAB garden curriculum book.

A Must Have Book
A Must Have Book

The workshop also offered experts from the NMSU extension office, veteran garden teachers like Mary Irwin and Helen Horn and networking opportunities with other garden teachers.

Some of the nuggets that I took away from the workshop include;

Garden Teaching Books and Websites;

Teaching Tips

  • Before Going outside, start with expectations
  • Respect all living things – what does this look like?
  • Walk, don’t run (or you will miss the magic)
  • Take time to observe
  • Always ask what you can and cannot eat
  • Proper tool use and handling
  • Low and slow watering
  • Clearly define process, order and pathways
  • Agree on symbol for gathering
  • Listen to others
  • Number your garden zones
  • Journals – use the back of the book for thinking and reflecting, writing prompts stapled in back are helpful.
  • Team roles; research manager, watering manager etc.
  • Set up stations to help manage numbers – each station might have hand lens
  • Employ different senses; Taste testing events, scent canisters
  • Determine if anyone has allergies to plants or insects

Garden Tips:

  • Keyhole garden design allows students to gain easy access to all parts of garden bed
  • Can use empty glass bottles for raised beds
  • Can use old skies to build a shade structure
  • Chicken wire does not work for keeping out gophers – use hardware cloth instead
  • Vertical wall garden adds dimension and beauty
  • Don’t use tires without painting them first – toxins can leach into the soil and then into the plants
  • Old rubber boots work well for planters – put wholes in the toes for drainage.
  • Use water meters!  Cheap and easy gauge.
  • Make bug nets out of old pillow cases
  • Naturally occurring root disease in tomatoes – virtislium – can treat with solarizing the soil with black plastic
  • New pest coming to NM – drosphilia species that attacks berries!


Dress up Like a Plant!
Dress up Like a Plant!

Meadow Moat to Prevent the Goat!

The Goat Head – Garden Scourge

One of our community volunteers pulled goat heads out of the Meadow and then tilled today. We now have a “till strip“ or “weed moat” around part of the beautiful DOT Meadow.

Meadow Moat
Meadow Moat

Here’s Why: Our Meadow is filled with cover crops that flourished all summer thanks to terrific advice and seeds from Curtis & Curtis Seeds, Plants of the Southwest, and Miller’s Feed & Supply – all New Mexico seed suppliers. (check out our Resources section for links).IMG_1104 We grew wonderfully prolific crops, including Barley, Monida Oats, Winter Peas, Hairy Vetch, and Red and White Clovers plus a southwest Wildflower Mix. Our Meadow has been incredible – attracting pollinators, hummingbirds, solitary huge bees, beneficial flying insects, and young rabbits (not our favorite!). The abundant growth drove the pocket gophers right out of the area. Gophers much prefer open, dry, low grass or minimal plant growth. Goat Heads snuck into the west side of the Meadow and escaped our late summer attention and were covered with sharp and nasty spines. Goat Heads are also called Puncturevine (as our cyclists friends know well). This plant, Tribulus terrestris, is an annual plant in the Caltrop Family, widely distributed around the world, and is well-adapted to grow in dry climate locations in which few other plants can survive. It is an invasive species in North America. In addition to spreading by seeds, it reaches out with lengthy vining portions of the plant. So to prevent Goat Heads from creeping into our Meadow and making it impossible to walk through with students for plant identification hunts, weeding, and re-seeding each season – we tilled a rototiller-wide strip just outside the Meadow to create a barrier to slow the weed invasion. We will repeat this tilling a few times until frost kills the plant. This is not a permanent solution, just a way to deter or diminish invasion. A till strip can be used in residential areas, but is more common in farm-scapes. Our use for this Meadow is for soil improvement until we are able to fundraise sufficiently to begin developing this space into specialty demonstration gardens. So, we need to reduce goat head intrusion. And yes, tilling does disturb soil microbes and their larger insect buddies, but one thin strip will not permanently harm this ¼ acre of space. While we don’t spray anything but OMRI approved chemicals, this website is a fun read about puncturevine: OR we could harvest the goat heads and sell them.  Apparently this plant is used by both Chinese traditional and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for increasing physical and sexual strength!

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.

Our Black Gold

Albuquerque Academy's on-site Compost Yard
Albuquerque Academy’s on-site Compost Yard

According to the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), “food wastage ranks as the third top emitter of green house gases after the USA and China.”1  Most food waste in the United States ends up in the landfill, anaerobically decomposing into methane gas, which escapes into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.  Methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas (30 times more powerful than CO2)2 is overlooked by most of us in its ability to turn up the earth’s thermostat.  But we also over look the fact that food waste dumped into a landfill is a wasted resource. At Albuquerque Academy, 1200 people eat lunch every day at the school’s dining hall.  In 2008, my students measured a disturbingly large amount of food waste (1700 pounds/week) produced and thrown out in the trash, trash which is then driven  40 miles out to the Cerro Colorado Landfill on the west side of the city.  In 2009, the AA sustainability program seized an opportunity to turn our food waste into black gold.  Consulting with Walter Dods from Soilutions, Tim Grey with the NM Environment Department and Steve Glass, a microbiologist, we set up an on-site compost facility, managed by Mark Mellott, an AA employee trained with the NM Master Composting program.

Green BIns Make Composting Easy
Green Bins Make Composting Easy

The process for making our black gold is easy and the ingredients are free.  Students and adults easily sort the food-waste. Since our food waste is decomposed in large thermopiles, all food waste, paper products and even wooden popsicle sticks can be composted.  The decision “to compost or not to compost” comes down to the question “was this waste once alive?” The food waste is collected each day in clearly labeled, distinct green bins – made easy to transport by the trolley wheels they sit upon.  Brown materials needed for the carbon content, such as wood chips and manure are given and delivered to us for free.  Landscape companies are eager to drop off their chipped material so that they don’t have to pay a fee at the dump.  A local horse farm is equally thrilled to bring us their poop. Periodic temperature measurements of the thermopile, application of water, and turning by our front loader result in a rich compost ready to be sifted and applied to our gardens and fields within 6 months.

Compost piles are monitored for temperature,
Compost Piles Are Monitored for Temperature,

Money saved from waste disposal fees and fertilizer costs add up to roughly $20,000 a year! But the real winner is the soil.  This black gold will not only return nutrients to the depleted soil, but also provide habitat to the soil organisms, and most critically in the desert ecosystem, increase the soil’s water holding capacity. And educating our students and community about the value of composting is our primary goal.

Students learning about the whole process of composting
Students Learn About the Whole Process of Composting

To learn more about how you can reduce your own food waste: THINK EAT SAVE



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.

Travis and the Armenian Cucumber
Travis and the Armenian Cucumber

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

Plant the Water

Brad Lancaster shakes his booty across the stage when he addresses his audience and asks them to shift their perspective regarding water availability.  Brad’s cheerful approach to water conservation and thoughtful observations about how the land greets the water, have helped to create a paradigm shift about water resources in the desert southwest.

Brad - Water Harvesting Guru
Brad – Water Harvesting Guru

A native of Tuscon, Arizona, Brad has watched his growing city drain the local watershed, making the city and the land ever more thirsty.  But rather than wringing his hands and speaking of the coming doom, Brad cheers us to consider that water is abundant.  Abundant, if we re-think our relationship with water.  Yes conserve – refrain from those long showers, growing those lush green lawns and using those water-hogging appliances.  But to Brad and his converts, the water that falls from the sky is in truth more than enough to thrive, even in places like Tuscon, where the average rainfall is only 10 inches a year.  He implores us to stop building roads, landscapes and houses that shed the incoming water.  Instead he says lets CAPTURE the rain and plant the water! Create earth works like berms and sponges, which help the water percolate down into the earth and encourage the water to stay a while.  Water kept in the soil longer, helps support the plants, which in turn provide shade, food for wildlife, and beauty for the soul.  Water kept in the soil can help to recharge aquifers that feed springs and rivers. Earth works are inexpensive to build and highly effective. The surface area of the earth that can be employed to capture rain is limitless. You can build surfaces with permeable materials, and shape landscapes to cup and help the water linger.  Once the land has been reshaped and amended to capture water, then Brad suggests we build cisterns to capture the runoff from our houses, buildings and schools.  Brad’s ideas are explained in more detail at his super friendly website,, and his books V1and V2 called Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.

At the Edge of Lake Superior
At the Edge of Lake Superior

I write this post sitting at the edge of one of the greatest fresh waters of the world, Lake Superior.  The waves crash against the shore and the horizon is filled only with water, no land in site.  Yet even here, there are murmurs of water decline.  According to an article in National Geographic, even the water levels in the Great Lakes have been declining due to climate change;  Warming Lakes: Climate Change and Variability Drive Low Water Levels on the Great Lakes. 

Water abundance or water scarcity?  It is perhaps just a matter of perspective, a matter of how we use or abuse this precious resource.