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Home and Garden: In Los Alamos, desert gardening can be a breeze

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In Los Alamos County, a gardener’s thumb doesn’t have to be green. A better color would probably be the bluish gray of a dwarf spruce or the bright yellow of a Chamisa plant.

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In other words, a gardener in Los Alamos County would be more successful in growing species native to the county’s main habitat rather than trying to raise an acre of plants native to Connecticut or Florida. In fact, if a gardener’s thumb is green in Los Alamos, they may be doing things wrong.

According to New Mexico State University Extension Agent Carlos Valdez, Los Alamos County is high desert country. That means Los Alamos gardeners would do well to stock their gardens with plants, trees and flowers native to the high desert.

This doesn’t mean gardeners can’t have a colorful garden, either. There are plenty of high desert plants, trees and flowers that gardeners can grow in their gardens that require little water.

Probably the most important of these factors is water. According to Valdez, White Rock receives an annual average of 12 inches of precipitation a year, and Los Alamos proper receives about 17 inches of precipitation a year. Valdez highly recommends staying within that range if a gardener wants to be successful.

Another important factor to consider is light.

“The light intensity, as compared to other areas, is quite a bit more,” Valdez said. “Those are the two biggest factors when it comes to plant selection.”

Valdez also recommended that once the plants are acquired, special attention is paid to where they’re planted. Even though it may not seem like a big deal, the success of high desert plants, flowers and trees can often be a matter of a few feet or inches.

To guarantee success, Valdez recommended putting the plants trees or flowers that require the highest amount of water near the sides of buildings to take advantage of the roof runoff and shade. Plants that require less should be planted further out, and so on.

Speaking of roof runoff, rain barrels can keep your water bills to a minimum and your garden looking beautiful. A typical rain barrel can hold 50 to 55 gallons and has a valved spigot at the bottom for connecting a garden hose. Gardeners maneuver their roof spouts so the runoff goes right into the barrel, where the water is stored for use later.

The NMSU Los Alamos Extension Office keeps a website and an online database of native plants, trees and flowers for gardeners to choose from. According to Valdez, the database designed so gardeners can search by light and water availability, color, blooming time and other factors.

The extension office even has a demonstration garden at the corner of Oppenheimer Avenue and Central Avenue for people who want to see to see how it all works in the wild. The office has been there since 1993.

“Everything in the demonstration garden is tried and true,” Valdez said.

To help gardeners along, the NMSU office holds a master gardener class every year from February through April. Each class lasts three hours. There are about 12 classes. In May, Valdez may have a shorter gardening course at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos. Valdez is also available Fridays for onsite inspections and help.

People can also visit the New Mexico State University Los Alamos Extension Office building at 1251 Bathtub Row, which is located between the Mesa Public Library and Fuller Lodge. It’s also known as the Red Cross building.

Call 662-2656 or write email losalamos@nmsu.edu for more information about gardening in Los Alamos, or visit losalamosextension.nmsu.edu and lamgonline.org.