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NMSU Works with Master Gardeners To Demonstrate Water-Saving Techniques

LOS ALAMOS - Master gardener Amy Lawrence's backyard in Los Alamos is a model of water-wise gardening, with a low water-use blue grama lawn, xeric trees and shrubs, a rock-covered swale to catch runoff water at the lawn's lower edge and drip irrigation throughout.

George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, sets the timer for a drip irrigation system at the Los Alamos County Community Garden. Master gardeners maintain two test plots at the garden as part of a statewide trial of water-saving techniques. (07/02/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

To reinforce her commitment to water conservation, Lawrence added a vegetable patch to her backyard for a New Mexico State University effort to demonstrate how drip irrigation and mulch can help home gardeners conserve water. Over the next three years, Lawrence's garden and 13 others in the Rio Grande Basin will provide raw data on the water efficiency of drip systems and offer demonstration sites where homeowners can learn to install and use drip systems.

"We live in a desert where water is a precious commodity, so we need to use the most water-efficient systems possible in our gardens," Lawrence said. "This project should help demonstrate the water-saving qualities of drip irrigation and mulch, and hopefully sway other home gardeners to install them."

The project, financed by NMSU's Water Task Force, began this spring with 10 master gardeners and four other experienced growers, said project supervisor George Dickerson, a horticulture specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

"We have 14 participants spread out along the central Rio Grande corridor from Las Cruces to Cerro near the Colorado border," Dickerson said. "We wanted to get a variety of different soils and growing conditions. Some participants have gardens as small as 12 feet by 12 feet, and a few specialty growers have up to a tenth of an acre."

Participants are comparing water efficiency for three drip irrigation systems: soaker hoses and two quarter-inch hoses with in-line emitters spaced 6 and 12 inches apart. They're testing four different battery-operated timers that turn the systems on and off, and they're comparing differences in water use with and without mulches for each drip system.

"A lot of home gardeners are intimidated by commercial drip systems because some of them are complicated," Dickerson said. "We chose three simple systems that can be bought in most gardening stores to show homeowners how easy these are to use and how much water they could save."

Each individual garden is divided into two identical, side-by-side plots with the same drip system, one with and one without mulch. Most participants are growing a variety of warm-season vegetables, although a few are raising some culinary herbs and cut flowers.

"We're recording water use in all the plots," Dickerson said. "We expect to use about half the water in mulched plots compared to nonmulched plots."

In Lawrence's garden, an in-line emitter hose with 6-inch spacing was laid in the mirror plots, but just one side has hay for mulch. Lawrence is growing tomatoes, peppers and beets on both sides, but the mulched plot is being watered every three days and the non-mulched plot every other day, Dickerson said.

Three years of data on water use, drip system durability and salt buildup in soil will be compiled and distributed in Extension publications, Dickerson said.

In addition to home gardens, Dickerson also established two culinary herb gardens at the Santa Fe and Taos County Extension offices. The plots, with about 30 different herbs, will become permanent demonstration gardens to showcase herb production and use of drip systems and mulch.

"People who move to this area always want to know what types of herbs can grow successfully here, so this will allow us to research different types and varieties and show them to the public," said Patrick Torres, agricultural agent with the Santa Fe County Extension office. "We can also demonstrate how home gardeners can save water when they grow these plants. That's particularly important in Santa Fe, where there are extreme water shortages."

There will be on-site demonstration tours of selected gardens beginning in July. The tours, which are free and open to the public, will take place July 9 in Las Cruces, July 17 in Rio Rancho, July 18 in Belen, July 24 in Santa Fe, July 29 in Taos and July 30 in Los Alamos.

For more information, call the participating county Extension office nearest you: Doņa Ana County at (505) 525-6649, Sandoval at (505) 867-2582, Valencia at (505) 865-9561, Santa Fe at (505) 471-4711, Taos at (505) 758-3982 or Los Alamos at (505) 662-2656.