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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Demonstration Gardens Highlight Xeric Plants and Drought-Tolerant Grasses

FARMINGTON-Homeowners and landscapers in northwestern New Mexico can tour a new xeric demonstration garden and view research plots that highlight drought-tolerant grasses at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington.

Dan Smeal, an agriculture and irrigation specialist at NMSU's agricultural science center at Farmington, measures irrigation levels for native and nonnative grasses on research plots at the center. Smeal is testing water requirements for warm- and cool-season grasses to promote use of drought-tolerant varieities in the Four Corners area. (10/01/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"The drought is adversely affecting local landscapes in the Four Corners area, but residents can mitigate its impact by planting drought-tolerant species," said Dan Smeal, an agriculture and irrigation specialist at the center who is directing the Xeriscape and native grass projects. "We want to show people that they can still have very attractive landscapes that don't require a lot of water."

By promoting water conservation in San Juan County, the center hopes to alleviate water shortages locally and in other counties, because nearly 60 percent of New Mexico's surface water runs through the state's northwest corner via the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers, Smeal said. The county ranks second statewide in irrigated cropland with 150,000 acres or 10 percent of the state's total. In urban areas like Farmington, landscape irrigation accounts for about 50 percent of domestic water use during summer months, Smeal said.

"Some surveys have shown that up to 70 percent of water used on landscapes could be saved if we replace high water use grasses and nonnative flowers, shrubs and trees with Xeriscapes that contain native, drought-tolerant species," Smeal said. "But to do that, we need to research water requirements for native species, determine which ones grow best with the least amount of water and then educate the public about our findings."

Smeal directed a three-year study of 14 varieties of native and nonnative grasses that showed that warm-season varieties such as buffalo and Bermuda grasses use about 40 percent less water to stay lush than the nonnative, cool-season blue grasses, rye grasses and fescues often used as lawns. Smeal also developed irrigation guidelines for optimal greening of all varieties that allows landscapers to plan for minimum daily watering without forfeiting grass quality. In 2001, he began another three-year study of 15 more grass varieties.

All the research plots and study conclusions are now open for public viewing, Smeal said.

"We're in a transition zone where homeowners and turfgrass managers can grow either cool- or warm-season grasses, but they can save water by using warm-season varieties without forfeiting quality. We want to show that to the public," Smeal said. "We've had visitors who were so impressed by the high quality cover of warm-season grasses that they replanted their yards with those varieties."

The center also planted a xeric garden last year with about 90 native species. Slightly smaller than a football field, the garden contains nearly 500 plants for public viewing, Smeal said.

"This is the first xeric demonstration garden in the Four Corners area," he said. "We've got some really beautiful plants, such as red yucca and western sand cherry. There are several species of penstemons, junipers, pine, sage and mahogany."

The garden is divided into four sections with identical species. The center is irrigating three of the sections at different levels while providing no water in the fourth section to evaluate water requirements for each species and compile irrigation recommendations, Smeal said.

"It's not a scientific study because this is primarily a demonstration garden, but at least we can get some idea of water requirements and allow visitors to see the differences in plant growth and quality in the four different sections," Smeal said.

The garden also demonstrates water conservation techniques, such as drip irrigation and mulching, Smeal said. "The drip system is exposed so people can see what it looks like and how to use it," he said.

The garden includes gravel pathways and a pleasing layout to inspire gardeners to plant their own Xeriscapes. "Native plants offer an immense variety of colors, forms and sizes that can be arranged to create very attractive, drought-tolerant landscapes," Smeal said. "A stroll through the garden will quickly break down the stereotypical rock and cactus images that people commonly associate with Xeriscapes."

Visitors can tour the garden and turfgrass plots weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call Smeal at (505) 327-7757.