Visiting the Northern Youth Project Garden

The Northern Youth Project Garden in Abiquiú empowers young people to learn to grow their own food. The bounty from the garden is distributed to the community. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

By Siobhan Niklasson, Education Programs Director

Con muchas manos el trabajo es menos reads the sign at the Northern Youth Project Garden in Abiquiú. Many hands make light work. And on this day, everyone has a job to help this community garden grow.

The youngest children are on grasshopper duty. They’re hunting grasshoppers to keep these insects from eating the plants. They already have two jars full.

Other youth are weeding the flower beds. They explain that some of the flowers can be harvested for food, like echinacea for tea, but most of them are meant as food for other creatures: specifically, pollinators. They have milkweed for the butterflies and onions and cosmos for the bees, among other flowers. This colorful bed in the middle of the garden helps nurture a healthy population of insects that pollinate the herbs and vegetables, too.

Interns Veronica and Eddie social distance while mulching plants in the garden. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

Two interns are mulching around the plants. Lupita Salazar, the Executive Director of the Northern Youth Project, calls out to them to leave a little open space around each plant. She explains that because of the dry conditions, they mulch like crazy to conserve water. But all of this litter on top of the soil has created a perfect habitat for roly polies and other decomposers, and some of them will eat live plants as well as decaying matter. With some experimentation, the gardeners found that leaving a little space mulch-free around the base of each plant helps protect the plants from these sun-shy creatures.

In the northwest corner of the garden, where the sun heats the soil the most, is the herb garden. The garden staff and youth created a waffle garden to retain moisture. This style of dry-land gardening, where small earth berms are raised around each planting square, was first practiced at Zuni Pueblo, and continues to be used today by water-conscious gardeners at Zuni and elsewhere.

The herb garden is also the oldest part of this community garden, which was started in 2009 by Leona Hillary, a staff member at the Boys and Girls Club in Abiquiú. She realized that once the students aged out of the Club, there weren’t a lot of things for them to do locally. Teens came to her and asked for her help to create a program for them. So the garden was started as a way for youth to find meaningful ways to spend their time and participate in their community. Today, the Northern Youth Project focuses on arts, agriculture, and leadership skills, and serves youth ages 12-21 from Abiquiú and nearby communities. Some of the young people working in the garden today are siblings of the initial teens that were involved and started the project 11 years ago.

A child shows off the grasshoppers he collected while volunteering at the garden. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

The youth harvest their produce and learn to prepare it in monthly cooking classes. They also sell produce at the Abiquiú Farmers’ Market and distribute their herbs in Green Gift bags to local students and families as a COVID relief program.

Veronica, one of the interns, first learned about the garden after buying plants at a virtual plant sale and seed exchange. Her internship is paid by a workforce training program run by Help New Mexico. She’s been able to apply some of the things she’s learned at work to her home garden, like planting to take advantage of the natural flow of water through the site.

The other intern, Eddie, is interested in the irrigation system. The garden is watered by a spring onsite, and from the local acequia once a week. He’s had the opportunity to take agriculture classes at his high school, and sees this internship as a start to what he wants to do as a career.

The Project recently partnered with Padilla Lumber to clear an area of bosque adjacent to their garden. They’re considering extending the irrigation ditch to this area, and hope to be able to plant corn and squash. On the day that I visited, they noticed milkweed springing up in this area. Just as milkweed brings butterflies, this growing community garden is fostering a new generation of land-literate youth.

A sign at the Northern Youth Project Garden reads: “Con muchas manos el trabajo es menos.” This translates to: “Many hands make light work.” (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

Penstemons and Pollinators

A bee drinks nectar from a blue-flowered Penstemon oliganthus. (Photo by Larry Deaven)

By Larry Deaven

Penstemon flowers provide a rich source of moisture and nutrition for a variety of pollinators. This fact is especially important in desert conditions, where both food and moisture are limited. 

A hummingbird feeding on a red-flowered Penstemon cardinalis. (Photo by Larry Deaven)

About 80 percent of all penstemon species have white, blue, or purple flowers. These flowers are usually cup shaped and have relatively large openings. Their shape has evolved to be pollinated by a variety of insects, like bees, moths, and butterflies.

The remaining 20 percent of penstemon species have flowers that are usually red, bright pink, or yellow. These flowers are usually tubular, are relatively long, and have narrow openings. They have evolved to be pollinated by hummingbirds.

If you looked inside a penstemon flower, you would see four stamens (these are the structures in a flower that produce pollen); two of the stamens are on the roof of the flower, and two are on the floor of the flower. This arrangement is designed to maximize the chances of the hairs on an insect’s body picking up some grains of pollen when the insect enters the flower.

We would also see a fifth stamen that does not produce pollen. This structure is called a staminode, and it is often covered with hairs. In some flowers the staminode extends outside of the flower opening where the ball of hairs acts as a landing platform for flying insects. In other flowers, the end of the staminode is inside the flower where the ball of hairs forces an insect to brush against the stamens and pick up some pollen grains as it travels to the back of the flower to find nectar.

A flower of Penstemon triflorus showing strong nectary guides to direct an insect to the nectar at the rear of the flower. The yellow structures are stamens containing pollen. (Photo by Larry Deaven and Terry Foxx)

Another structure inside the flower is the pistil, a rod with a knob on the end of it. The object of this design is to use insects to pick up pollen grains from a stamen and deposit them on the pistil (to pollinate the flower).

A flower of Penstemon barbatus, viewed under the microscope at the nature center. The yellow stamens are well-placed to deposit pollen grains on the feathers of a hummingbird’s forehead. (Photo by Larry Deaven and Terry Foxx)

The most frequent insect visitors to penstemon flowers are honey bees, bumble bees, and native bees. Less frequent, but still common, are several kinds of flies, butterflies, and beetles. Most of these insects visit the flowers to collect nectar, but some of them also collect pollen that is then eaten by them or by their developing young. This collected pollen is a loss for the penstemon, so an abundance is produced. In the flowers of some species, the pollen is produced in a sac with raspy teeth on the opening. These teeth partially block the opening, preventing an insect from taking all of the pollen in a single visit.

The red-flowered, tubular penstemons are difficult for most insects to enter, so they are favored by hummingbirds. These flowers have the same internal structure as the other flowers. When hummingbirds collect the nectar, they pick up pollen grains on their foreheads, which they carry to other flowers. 

Some bumblebees have learned to land on the base of these flowers, make a small hole, and drink the nectar. This is called “nectar-robbing.” Perhaps the next evolution in penstemon flower structure will be some protective element at the base of each flower to prevent nectar theft!

Week 5, Day 4: Water-wise Gardening

A Nature Playtime participant helps install a modified olla that will provide water over time directly to plant roots. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Residential water users in the United States use about 30% of their water outdoors, on their lawns and gardens. Today, learn about ways to conserve water in your garden.

This week’s Take It Outside activities are brought to you in partnership with the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities (DPU), as part of our virtual water festival.

Look for our Droplet Dude to indicate virtual water festival activities. All are welcome to take part, and we especially welcome fourth graders!

Blog Post:

Denise Matthews, PEEC’s Play-based Education Specialist, shares some information on the water-wise garden that is coming to the nature center, thanks to Boy Scout Ignatius Kuropatwinski. Read today’s blog post here.

Virtual Water Festival: Make a Rain Gauge

One way to conserve water is to keep track of how much precipitation you get. Make a simple rain gauge to put in your garden or yard. Then, when we (hopefully!) get rain, you can check the gauge to see if you still need to water your plants with your irrigation, or if you can skip it. 

Starting May 1, the Water Rule W-8 goes into effect in Los Alamos. This rule asks Los Alamos residents to conserve water by:

  • Watering outside before 10 AM or after 5 PM
  • Irrigating on Sun-Wed-Fri for odd-numbered addresses
  • Irrigating on Tues-Thurs-Sat for even-numbered addresses

If you enjoy tracking precipitation using your rain gauge, check out the CoCoRaHS community science project that has observers all over the world.

Craft & Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

A waffle garden is a traditional garden design method practiced by the Zuni people. This method, where plots of soil about a foot square are surrounded by raised berms, helps trap water where it’s needed for plants.

Form soil into one or more waffle squares in your yard! Try pouring water into the grid and see what happens to it. You could even start seeds inside and plant them after our last frost in May.

Pictured here is a waffle garden at Ts’uyya Farm in Albuquerque.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

A microclimate is the climate of a small area, especially one that is different from its surrounding climate. You can take advantage of the microclimates created in your yard when gardening. 

Go outside and look for microclimates in your yard or favorite outdoor space! 


  • What parts of your yard get the most and least sun? Place plants, like greens, that like it cool in shadier areas. Plant crops that prefer the heat, like tomatoes, in sunnier spots.
  • Does your yard have natural windbreaks like fences, brick walls, or your home itself? Planning your garden with this in mind can help protect your plants from New Mexico’s intense winds.
  • Are there places where water pools in your yard? You may want to take advantage of water flowing, but pooling water can negatively impact plants if they don’t have proper drainage.
  • What are you planning to plant? Can you use the shade from plants that grow tall, like corn or tomatoes, to provide some protection for lower growing crops?

In addition to the microclimates that your yard and garden create, you can create artificial microclimates by using row cover to provide shade or warmth to your plants.

This microclimate evaluation from the University of California may be useful when looking at your own space.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about water in your surroundings! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn more about water infrastructure in our area.

Water-wise Garden Coming to the Nature Center

In Denise’s first year growing on her current property, she created two Hügelkultur beds and grew prolific tomatoes, basil, carrots, and zucchini. (Photo courtesy of Denise Matthews)

By Denise Matthews

An underground web of life lives hidden away in the soil of every healthy garden. This community of micro and macro-organisms works together to release nutrients for plant growth. The worms, insects, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi living in your soil thrive best in cool, moist conditions, but maintaining these conditions in the arid Southwest has always been a central challenge in gardening and agriculture.

In New Mexico, traditional practices for making the most of our limited water supply include:

  • Choosing crops, such as corn, that are tolerant of the sun
  • Planting crops that grow well together and create microclimates that benefit their companions, like in Three Sisters gardens
  • Planting in areas that receive more water flow than surrounding areas
  • Slowing down run-off with dams and other structures
  • Shading the soil with the plants themselves or with rock mulches
Some initial drawings for the new water-wise beds coming to the nature center. (Drawings by Ignatius Kuropatwinski)

At the Los Alamos Nature Center, we are working with a Los Alamos High School student, Ignatius Kuropatwinski, who is working toward becoming an Eagle Scout, to build a new water-wise education garden that demonstrates a mix of water-conserving methods you can try in your own home garden.

Ignatius says, “I wanted to combine my Eagle Project with a special award called the William T. Hornaday Badge. The William T. Hornaday Badge asks that you complete five wildlife protection merit badges, then plan, lead, and carry out a significant project in natural resource conservation. Fewer than 1,100 people have earned this badge. I spoke with PEEC and settled upon building three garden beds with a drip water irrigation system that also doubled as a learning opportunity for young children.”

The native soil in New Mexico is often low in organic matter and can be improved by adding compost and soil amendments for vigorous plant growth. Filling a raised bed with commercial topsoil is a short-term solution that will quickly dry out, lose nutrients, and require heavy amendment. The nature center’s new education garden will take advantage of a layered soil system, called Hügelkultur, to build long-term soil structure.

To get her Hügelkultur beds started, Denise added branches and logs to contained area. She put wire fabric underneath to keep out gophers. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Hügelkultur, a German word meaning “Hill Culture”, builds healthy soil by creating a mound with layers of branches, manure, leaf litter, straw, and topsoil. Hügelkultur beds decompose over several years, releasing nutrients for plant growth. This minimizes the amount of fertilizer needed and reduces excess nutrients that can leach into groundwater. The branches act as wicks that absorb water, then distribute and release it during drought conditions. 

The garden will be maintained by our weekly Nature Playtime class, where children will be able to plant vegetables and pollinator-attracting flowers, play, and learn about water-saving strategies. The children will experiment with both traditional and modern watering methods including ollas, waffle gardens, and drip irrigation. Inconsistent watering creates stressful conditions for both plants and soil life, so a combination of watering practices will be useful for our once-a-week program. Drip irrigation provides scheduled, low-volume watering and greatly reduces the amount of evaporation and run-off that occurs when watering with a sprinkler or a hose.

Denise added straw, grass clippings, leaf litter, manure, and compost to her beds at home. Soak with water and then add topsoil to the surface. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

After planting, a nice layer of mulch added on top traps precious water in the soil. Free garden mulch from the Los Alamos Eco-Station or straw are good options for mulch. Finally, in order to discourage grazing wildlife from the nearby canyon, Ignatius’s garden design includes cages that can be flipped off to allow access for gardeners.

The combination of thoughtful soil structure, water-wise irrigation, and mulch are one way of making the most of New Mexico’s dry growing conditions. We are excited to see this new education garden completed this summer. Many thanks to Ignatius for all his hard work in planning.

The nature center currently has three other plant demonstration gardens maintained by volunteers, including drought-tolerant, native plant, and pollinator gardens, all of which employ various strategies to conserve water. You can find a list of plants represented in these gardens here

Week 4, Day 2: Gardening

A member of PEEC’s Nature Playtime group digs in the garden bed at the nature center. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Since many of us are spending so much time at home, we’re spending more time than usual staring at the state of our homes and gardens. For some of you, your gardens are getting nervous, wondering what’s in store for them this year!

Whether you have a prizewinning garden, or can hardly even keep your weeds alive, gardening is a sensory experience, a never-ending puzzle, and can be a great way to spend some quality time outside at your own house.

Blog Post:

Natali Steinberg was our featured naturalist at the nature center last year. Learn more about her in this short video.

Natali Steinberg, a veteran farmer who is now responsible for the gardens at the senior facility where she lives, not to mention the beautiful native plant bed at the Los Alamos Nature Center, shares some of her tips for a successful spring garden.


Creating painted stone plant labels are a great way for kids to help out in the garden. Start by finding small rocks outside. Then, let kids paint them different colors, representing the plants you hope to include in your garden. Add details with a Sharpie or paint them to make a face!

Don’t have a garden? You can paint stones to look like different insects, creatures, designs, or inspiring words, and then place them in potted plants, or use them as decorations around your house and yard.

Find detailed instructions here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Members of Nature Playtime show off a worm! (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Soil is the foundation of your garden. Did you know that soil contains both biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) components, and that these parts work together to support plant growth? Go outside and gather a container of soil. Try to find the following parts, using a magnifying glass if you have one:

  • Pieces of rock of different sizes
  • Sticks, leaves, and other plant matter
  • Insects or worms
  • Air pockets
  • Water (can you feel any dampness?)

After you’ve examined your soil, try this experiment: pour a scoop of soil into a transparent container with a lid. Fill the rest of the container with water. Close the lid, and shake the soil thoroughly. Watch what happens as the soil settles. Draw the layers you see.

For more about the parts of soil, check out the book Dirt: The Scoop on Soil by Natalie Rosinsky. From the publisher’s site you can read it online or have it read to you!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

There’s so much more happening in soil than meets the eye. Many gardeners add organic matter to their soil to improve nutrient content and water absorption, among other benefits. Learn more about different garden soil types here and how to test your soil in this video. Take a closer look at the organic matter in your soil, or in the soil in a favorite natural area. Many of the components are too small to see with your naked eye, but try to find the following:

  • Living organisms (including earthworms, arthropods, and fungi)
  • Recently dead plant material
  • Actively decomposing material
  • Humus, the “end product” of decomposition, which makes soil black
  • Evidence of organisms eating other organisms

To learn more about the fascinating soil system, see the National Resources Conservation Service’s page about the Soil Food Web.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us how you like to enjoy nature! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about creating art in nature!

Getting Your Garden Started

The penstemon garden at the nature center will soon be blooming in its full glory! Even if the nature center remains closed, you can stop by and look at the garden. (Photo by Bob Walker)

By Natali Steinberg

In these trying times, what could be better for your mental and physical health than getting outside with the family, enjoying fresh air, and noticing the first signs of spring? Whether you’re on a trail or in your yard, looking for what plants are coming up can cheer you up and give you a sense that Mother Nature is normal, even if the world around us isn’t.

Now is the time to start planning for our gardens. Whether you are a first-time gardener or an experienced one, the act of growing your own food or flowers is an exciting and rewarding process. Having a vegetable garden provides new insight into our food system, is a sustainable and inexpensive way to access high-quality food, and is a lot of fun!

Take inventory of what you’d like to plant this year and note what should be started from seed indoors to transplant outside later and what should be directly seeded in your garden. Planning your garden can be one of the most fun parts of the process. Make a list of the vegetables or flowers you want to grow and sketch out your spring garden.

Now is a good time to check out your soil. Does it need humus (the result of composting) to break up the hard clay, provide some organic matter, and be nice and loamy? The hardware stores are open and carrying whatever you need to get started. Petree Garden Center in Los Alamos is offering curbside pickup and delivery services. Metzger’s Hardware Store also remains open. At this time, it is good idea to call your favorite nursery in advance to ensure that they are open.

If perennial flowers are in stock, April and early May is a good time to plant them. Getting these plants in the ground in the spring will allow them to become more established before the hot days of summer arrive.

Harvesting food grown in your own garden is a rewarding and fun experience. (Photo by Rachel Landman)

You can start your annual flowers and cold weather veggies like kale and lettuce inside in a sunny window or under a grow light now. They should be ready to plant outdoors after Mother’s Day when the danger of frost is over. Be sure to use a sterile seed starting mix rather than potting soil. Seeds started indoors in garden soil or potting soil are subject to a fungal disease called damping off. It usually hits when your seedlings have two or four true leaves, and it causes the stem to fall over at soil level.

You’ll want to plant carrots, radishes, beets, and peas directly in the ground from seed. Be sure to follow planting instructions on the seed packets. This guide from the Old Farmer’s Almanac provides a general guide for when to plant different vegetables for our region.

If you’re not sure how much of one vegetable to plant in your garden, this guide from The Spruce gives a general idea for a family of four. Of course, the numbers depend on how much you plan to depend on your garden for food, how much space you have, and your own family’s favorite vegetables and preferences.

Aren’t we lucky, right now, to be living in such an isolated and marvelous community? Purchasing groceries can be somewhat of a chore, but we have the uncrowded trails to walk and our yards to give us rewarding times in the garden. Even sifting soil through your fingers can feel rejuvenating while it dirties your fingernails!