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:


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.


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.


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.


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:

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, )

#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, )

#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.)


Bulkhead fittings on Cistern #1 are really durable and tight fitting. From Banjo brand valves and fittings( )


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.


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.


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!

WaterSmart Gardening Class

The Desert Oasis Teaching Garden has teamed up with the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority to offer a series of WaterSmart Gardening classes.  Covering everything from waster wise irrigation and catchment techniques to planning a fall garden, this course is a great way to share agricultural knowledge while helping Albuquerque residents earn a water rebate at the same time!

In addition to a thoughtful discussion, we’ve had the opportunity to tour participants around the DOT Garden, highlighting our water saving techniques in action – drip irrigation for raised beds and in-ground gardening, soil sponges for maintaining tree health, sponge & swale systems for flower gardens, and cisterns for rainwater collection.

Garlic Beans Basil

If you’re interested in attending, please register at:

See the PDF below for all the information from our presentation, including a great list of resources for your gardening and water catchment questions.

WaterSmart Garden Class – Powerpoint Slides


Wet Weather Pest Problems

While all this wet weather is a desert blessing, it’s also important to keep an eye out for moisture loving pest problems in your garden. If you have tomatoes, here are a few fungi to keep an eye out for.
Early Blight
Early Blight, caused by the fungus Alternaria solani, is common on garden tomatoes and potatoes, and also occasionally infects eggplants and peppers
Symptoms typically appear soon after fruit set, starting on the lower leaves as tiny dark brown spots.  The spots enlarge to over 1/2 inch in diameter and develop a grayish-white center with a darker border.  As the spots enlarge, they develop concentric, target-like rings.  Spots may also develop on fruit and stems.  Stem spots may enlarge to girdle the plant.
With the progression of the disease, leaves turn yellow and the spots make them appear “freckled.”  Eventually the leaves turn brown and drop off.  Black pycnidia (fungal fruiting bodies that appear as pinhole sized black dots) form in the center of the spots as they mature.
Septoria leaf spot is caused by a fungus, Septoria lycopersici. It is one of the most destructive diseases of tomato foliage and is particularly severe in areas where wet, humid weather persists for extended periods.
Septoria leaf spot usually appears on the lower leaves after the first fruit sets. Spots are circular, about 1/16 to 1/4 inch in diameter with dark brown margins and tan to gray centers with small black fruiting structures. Characteristically, there are many spots per leaf. This disease spreads upwards from oldest to youngest growth. If leaf lesions are numerous, the leaves turn slightly yellow, then brown, and then wither. Fruit infection is rare.

So you have blight/septoria, now what?

Here are some immediate and long term pest management strategies:
1. Remove diseased leaves. If caught early, the lower infected leaves can be removed and burned or destroyed. However, removing leaves above where fruit has formed will weaken the plant and expose fruit to sunscald. At the end of the season, collect all foliage from infected plants and dispose of or bury. Do not compost diseased plants.
2.Improve air circulation around the plants. If the plants can still be handled without breaking them, stake or cage the plants to raise them off the ground and promote faster drying of the foliage.
3.Mulch around the base of the plants. Mulching will reduce splashing soil, which may contain fungal spores associated with debris. Apply mulch after the soil has warmed.
4.Do not use overhead watering. Overhead watering facilitates infection and spreads the disease. Use a soaker hose at the base of the plant to keep the foliage dry. Water early in the day.
5.Control weeds. Nightshade and horsenettle are frequently hosts of Septoria leaf spot and should be eradicated around the garden site.
6.Use crop rotation. Next year do not plant tomatoes back in the same location where diseased tomatoes grew. Wait 1–2 years before replanting tomatoes in these areas.
7.Try a copper based fungicide spray.Fungicides will not cure infected leaves, but they will protect new leaves from becoming infected. If it rains, you will need to reapply the spray.

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.