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NMSU expert promotes organic gardening, encourages sustainability

Looking for ideas to help stretch your dollar? What if you could eat healthy while being kind to the environment, too? Then look no further than the nearest plot of soil. According to an expert at New Mexico State University, with the right care, nearly any location can be made into an organic garden for low-cost, highly nutritious food.

Roy Allender, a volunteer at the Fairlight Garden at the Las Cruces Community of Hope, clears weeds from a vegetable garden. Vegetables grown in the Fairlight Garden are used in the local soup kitchen. (NMSU Photo by Justin Bannister)

"You have a lot of people saying, 'You can't grow anything here in the desert.' Well, you just have to add some organic matter and some water," said Jeff Anderson, an agronomy and horticulture agent for NMSU's Dona Ana County Cooperative Extension Office.

2009 is the Year of Sustainability at NMSU. Throughout the year, the university is highlighting and encouraging programs and research that promote environmentally, economically and socially sustainable ideas.

Anderson is currently working with organizations throughout Dona Ana County, promoting the benefits of planting gardens while using organic principles, which include using compost and organic fertilizers to recharge the soil. It also means using only natural pesticides and only if necessary.

"With every garden I do, I try not to throw anything away," he said. "It takes a lot to make plant material - energy from the sun, water, nutrition. When you return it to the soil, you return those nutrients back to the soil."

Anderson said things such as black and white newspapers, grass clippings and mulberry leaves are readily available and make excellent compost materials. If you are looking for an extra boost, Anderson recommends organic fish fertilizer. It's made from ground fish and while slightly smelly, it is very effective.

Anderson is currently working with the Las Cruces Community of Hope and their Fairlight Garden, which donates fruits and vegetables to the nearby El Caldito Soup Kitchen. The garden started last summer and with just half a growing season, it produced 800 pounds of vegetables for the soup kitchen. The garden uses crushed branches, leaves and other donated organic materials as mulch.

"Other than just feeding people good food, we are also trying to show people they can do this, too - garden organically and eat healthy," said Eric Luther, garden coordinator at the Las Cruces Community of Hope. The organization has established a work/trade program where those who work in the garden receive a box a vegetables they've helped to grow.

Additionally, Anderson is working with Las Esperanzas, a community group that recently established a community garden at the corner of Spruce Avenue and San Pedro Street in Las Cruces. More than a dozen raised gardening beds are available to the community at the site. He's also working with the Colonias Development Council in Chaparral to promote organic gardening for low-income families.

Anderson said organic gardens not only yield low cost food, using materials that would have otherwise been discarded but also promote a sustainable future.