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! 

Consider:

  • 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 takeitoutside@peecnature.org 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