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Los Alamos Demonstration Garden Shows Attractive, Arid Landscaping

LOS ALAMOS - Master gardener Janine Fales was appalled by the drab rock landscapes that dominated Los Alamos neighborhoods when she moved here from Michigan in 1986.

From left, Los Alamos County Extension program director Carlos Valdez and master gardeners Janine Fales and Kay Morris examine chamomile and calendula. The plants are growing in an 80-square-foot herb patch that Morris is raising in the center of the Los Alamos Demonstration Garden. (09/03/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson)

"Nearly everybody in Los Alamos is a transplant from another state and most newcomers don't know how to garden in an arid climate," she said.

Fales' dismay led her to volunteer with the Los Alamos Demonstration Garden, established in 1991 on the north end of town by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

"We set up our demonstration garden to teach people that they can have a beautiful landscape that looks perhaps as lush and attractive as where they came from," she said. "They just have to learn low-water-use techniques and maintenance."

The garden provides living, hands-on lessons for residents of Los Alamos and surrounding towns about home gardening in the Southwest.

"It's an excellent venue for teaching local gardening techniques to residents who are really not familiar with growing plants in these dry conditions," said Carlos Valdez, Extension agricultural agent and county program director. "It also serves as a colorful little downtown park that attracts thousands of residents and visitors each year."

The garden is managed by the Los Alamos Master Gardeners Club, which includes about 50 volunteers who graduated from Extension courses that emphasize plant selection and care in semiarid conditions. Master gardeners donate a total of 500 to 700 hours per year of service in the garden, Valdez said.

"They weed, water, plant new trees and shrubs and generally maintain the garden," he said. "They also conduct free annual garden tours for the public, and they periodically give small group and individual hands-on lessons to home gardeners."

The garden includes dozens of plant and tree species, the majority chosen for their low-water requirements and adaptability to local conditions, Fales said.

"There's a broad gamut of plants, from ground covers to perennials," she said. "We've got herbaceous perennials, deciduous trees, evergreen trees, evergreen plants like pine leaf penstemon and lots of grasses, especially persistent winter foliage grasses. The idea is to show that xeriscaping is not just laying down rocks."

Kay Morris, a master gardener from White Rock, south of Los Alamos, recently planted the demonstration garden's first herb patch, an 80-square-foot plot in the garden's center. "We've got about a dozen culinary herbs, such as garlic chives, borage, sage, thyme, fennel and chamomile," Morris said. "It's really popular with visitors."

Other highlights include a native grass plot, a sloped garden area that displays hardy-root plants that grip the soil, and a rock garden that showcases plants that grow well in shallow, rocky soils because their roots tend to fill vertical spaces.

"Many residents live on slopes, so we show them plants that do well in hilly areas like Russian sage," Valdez said. "Some homeowners have shallow soils that rest on bedrock, so we showcase plants that grow well in those conditions, too."

The garden will soon be registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a "backyard habitat" that provides water, food and shelter for birds and butterflies, Fales said. Master gardeners added a small water fountain and birdbath that attracts hummingbirds and even an occasional deer.

"The wildlife is a pleasant, educational addition," Fales said. "We teach homeowners to chose vegetation animals won't eat and to protect plants they do feed on."

By next spring, the garden will double from three-quarters of an acre to 1.5 acres, thanks to a $49,000 grant from the county, Valdez said. The grant will pay for new educational plots, such as a model fire-defensible landscape with a 200-square-foot cabin made of noncombustible materials. Master gardeners will also add more xeric plants and features, such as water harvesting and swales.

"We really need to add the fire-defensible space and water-wise features in light of the Cerro Grande fire and recent drought," Valdez said. "Those things are particularly important for Los Alamos residents."

Other upgrades include an educational kiosk for workshops and information, an experimental garden for plant trials and summer horticulture projects for children, and a "sensory garden" with plants selected for texture, fragrance and taste.

"We invite the community to become volunteer 'friends of the garden' by donating their labor," Morris said. "Or, just come visit the garden and learn from it."

For more information, call Valdez at (505) 662-2656.