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