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Touch, Smell and Learn about Lavender at Alcalde Workshop

ALBUQUERQUE - Herb producers and gardeners can learn about lavender varieties best adapted to New Mexico growing conditions and optimal planting dates during a free workshop July 14 in Alcalde.

Charles Martin, an agricultural specialist with NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde, squats amidst rows of grosso, one of six lavender varieties that Martin has been testing. Martin will discuss research findings during a free lavender field day July 14 at the center. (07/07/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The lavender field day will showcase variety trials conducted at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde.

"This is one of the first science-based lavender research projects in New Mexico," said Charles Martin, an agricultural specialist at the center. "We've been recording data for three years, and now we're ready to present results to the public. The plants will be at peak bloom, so participants can appreciate their full color, size and hardiness."

Martin is testing about 60 different herbs at the center. He began lavender variety trials in 2002 to help local growers choose plants suited for New Mexico.

"There's a great market for lavender and New Mexico has ideal growing conditions," Martin said. "Most lavender likes hot, dry climates with cool, mild winters like ours. It's also drought tolerant and it prefers well-drained, sandy soils."

Martin tested the six most popular market varieties: angustifolia, hidcote, munstead, grosso, provence and super. He recorded plant growth and yields and had samples tested at NMSU's Medicinal Plant Laboratory in Las Cruces.

All varieties demonstrated excellent root establishment, except for hidcote, Martin said.

"Hidcote had poor survival rates, probably because it's a semidwarf variety and the smaller root system makes it difficult for the plant to reach down enough to get the moisture it needs," Martin said. "It's a good ornamental if gardeners give it lots of water, but commercial growers may want to choose other varieties."

Super and grosso were the highest yielding lavenders, producing hundreds more pounds of flowers and stems per acre than other varieties. But oil quality is much lower because of high camphor content, Martin said.

"Consumers often prefer the sweet, floral fragrance of angustifolia to the pungent, medicinal smell of super and grosso," Martin said. "Because of the high camphor content, those varieties earn a much lower price, even though they produce a lot more."

Martin also compared fall and spring plantings to determine the best season for root establishment.

"We found that cool fall temperatures boosted root growth, producing a much healthier plant with more vigorous yields than spring-planted lavender," Martin said. "With fall-planted varieties we achieved marketable yields the following growing season, but with spring-planted ones we had to wait an entire year before they even bloomed."

At the field day, Martin will offer a guided tour of the lavender plot, presenting trial data on root establishment, production rates and oil quality. He'll discuss organic control of weeds, pests and diseases, as well as differences in plant performance under drip and furrow irrigation. Participants will also tour the herb demonstration garden, where Martin is growing about a dozen other lavender varieties.

Kahsia Hartwell of Dixon-based Moon Mountain Farms will provide a hands-on lavender distillation demonstration. Martin will ask participants to try various oils extracted from varieties at the center as part of a consumer preference survey.

After lunch, Martin will facilitate an open discussion about forming a lavender growers cooperative or creating a lavender subcommittee within the recently formed New Mexico Herb Growers Association.

The workshop runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. To get to the science center, turn west off Highway 68 at mile marker 7 between Espaņola and Velarde.

For more information, or if you are an individual with a disability who is in need of an auxiliary aid or service to participate, call Martin at (505) 852-4241.