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NMSU sends chile seeds, expertise to 'The People's Garden' in Washington, D.C.

Washington Monument? Check. The Capitol Building? Check. New Mexican chile garden? You bet. Tourists visiting Washington, D.C., can now add an additional stop to their sightseeing list. "The People's Garden," surrounding the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will feature chiles developed by New Mexico State University.

: Chile seeds developed by New Mexico State University will be planted in "The People's Garden" near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The People's Garden started last year as a 6-acre tract near the National Mall that demonstrates conservation and growing techniques. According to the USDA, the garden is meant to help illustrate the many ways the agency works to provide a sustainable, safe and nutritious food supply while protecting and preserving the landscape where that food is produced.

As part of the project, Curtis Smith, an NMSU Extension horticulture specialist, traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month with other experts from around the country to train USDA employees who will volunteer to tend the garden. Carol Sutherland, an NMSU entomologist, will make a follow-up visit in the coming weeks.

Smith heads NMSU's Master Gardener program, which teaches volunteers across New Mexico about soil, plant science and environmental topics. After they complete the courses, Master Gardeners are able to answer homeowner horticulture questions. While training USDA employees, Smith will also deliver an assortment of New Mexico chile seeds to be grown in the garden this summer.

"We sent almost every variety developed at New Mexico State University," said Danise Coon, a senior research specialist for NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute. "It's about 30 different varieties since 1913."

Coon said the Chile Pepper Institute regularly receives calls from all over the world asking about chile, including a call recently from researchers in Nepal looking for chile seeds. She said this is the first time she can remember NMSU chile seeds heading to the nation's capital.

"If they want hot chile, they are probably going to have to buy some grown in New Mexico," Smith said, noting the large role environment plays in growing chile, especially when it comes to heat.

Because Washington's climate is cooler and wetter than New Mexico, chile grown there is likely to be milder than chile grown in New Mexico. Precautions will also have to be taken to ensure the chile plants' soil can adequately drain. Improper drainage can lead to fungus and various other chile ailments.

For chile plants grown this year, Coon said she recommends starting the seeds in a greenhouse within the next few weeks. For seeds planted directly in the ground, waiting until mid April is probably best.

Smith also took blue corn seeds to Washington as well to "give them a real taste of New Mexico."

For more information about this program, or the Master Gardeners program presented by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, contact Smith at (505) 865-7340 or cwsmith@nmsu.edu.