As the garden grows

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Conditions might not be perfect, but that hasn’t stopped generations of Valencia County gardeners from working with what they’ve been given — creating one of the most vibrant agricultural communities in the state.

Poor soil, low moisture and destructive insects all make growing a garden in Valencia County challenging, to say the least — but not impossible.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photo: There are about 500 apple trees in Master Gardener Ken Hays’ orchard in Bosque Farms, where tiny apples are already starting to form.

Luckily for area growers, Kyle Tator, New Mexico State University Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service director and extension agriculture agent, and his team of 45 master gardeners are here to make the wonderful experience of watching a garden grow just a little less frustrating.

The Extension Master Gardeners Program is a nationwide volunteer program through the Cooperative Extension Service. It consists of local volunteer individuals who are long-time gardeners with extensive knowledge of how to successfully grow in the area.

Volunteers apply at the end of the year, and if accepted, receive 12 weeks of training in areas such as soil science, composting, plant pathology, entomology and native and adapted tree selection and planting.

In return, the volunteers give back 40 hours of community service.

“The last four years, their contribution has been close to $120,000 in volunteer time,” said Tator.

Tator says Master Gardeners are an important asset to him, the Extension Service and the community because with their help, they can be more places, helping more people than he could do on his own.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photo: A couple of last year’s hay bales sit idle in front of a field at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Los Lunas, where Dr. Tess Grasswitz, entomologist, studies local insects, such as the squash bug.

“What they do for me is they go out into the communities and assist me with the horticultural side of my job,” he said. “Because I could sit here and answer, ‘why are my petunias dieing?’ all day long. Master Gardeners are considered my resource, you know, kind of the experts on our local gardening topics.”

Some of the services Master Gardeners offer include various workshops and about two dozen plant clinics a year at local business. They also help Tator with demonstrations that he gives to the public, such as how to build a low cost green house structure called a hoop house.

Master Gardeners also hold events to help educate and foster an appreciation for gardening amongst county youth by visiting schools and participating in events such as last year’s Summer of Service, in which members of Master Gardeners helped teach youngsters how to make planter boxes and grow food.

“Anytime you work with kids, to me, it’s fun,” said Tator. “You teach them about agriculture and where food comes from. It’s rewarding in its own right.”

Bosque Farms resident Ken Hays, owner of Hays Honey and Apple Farm, has been a member of Master Gardeners for 21 years and a bee keeper for 41 years.

He says that for him, joining Master Gardeners was a way to expand his knowledge and to help others. He got involved to learn how to prune and maintain his apple trees better and in an organic way.

Today, Hays has a lush orchard containing 500 trees, as well as a hoop house that provides him with salad all winter long, and, of course, all his beloved bees that produce honey, bees wax and more.

“The reason (being a Master Gardener) is special is because we help people grow plants and help them become aware that they can grow their own vegetables,” says Hays. “It’s not all about what we have, but how we can help people. That’s what’s cool — is to be able to teach other people how to feed themselves.”

As part of his community service, and with the help of fellow master gardeners, Hays hosts groups of school children at his farm and teaches them about beekeeping and gardening. He also visits schools, where he talks to kids about growing their own food, and assists anybody with a desire to learn about the art of beekeeping. All day long the phone rings and people stop into the farm store to visit and talk bees and gardening.

“It’s a hobby that’s gotten out of hand,” he jokes.

Tator says that successful gardening in Valencia County begins with soil.

“Gardening means so many different things to so many different people,” Tator says.

But no matter whether you’re just setting out a few pots or planting an few acres, a good garden depends on good soil.

In Valencia County, even along the river, the soil is “inherently bad,” says Tator. Usually, it’s too salty or deficient in organic matter.

Tator and the Extension Service work with growers to identify weaknesses in individuals’ soil by testing it through their labs. If, for example, they find that the soil is deficient in organic matter, they might suggest that the gardener enrich it with compost.

Tator advises the first test should ideally be done during the dormant season, before you plant, but it is never too late and tests can be done at any time.

Next, a planter must have knowledge of when a particular plant should go into the ground. Usually, this information can be found on a seed package or online, but not always.

For cool-weather crops, such as spinach and carrots, he says they should have been growing for a couple of months already. But for most other vegetables, such as squash, cucumbers and chile, they should go in the ground — either as a seed or a start — after the last frost.

Tator says for this area, the last freeze is usually toward the end of April, but to be safe, he tells people to remember Cinco de Mayo as a safe last frost date.

It is a good idea, Tator says, to research the best plant date for each type of plant you are planning to grow as some are more delicate and can be harmed by low temperatures, even if it is not cold enough for a frost.

If, however, a late, unexpected frost might occur — as it often does in New Mexico — you can use a row cover, or bed sheet to cover and protect your plants. This is also an effective way to protect your fruit trees, which, he says, have a tendency to bloom too early here — as soon as the first warm spell occurs, even if cold weather isn’t over for good.

Hays says he believes this is going to be a good year for apples since it has been so warm, “knock on wood.” He says because we’ve gotten decent moisture, there will also be a lot of flowers, which means it will also be a good year for honey.

Taylor also advises people to know how big their plants are going to get so they don’t accidently plant them too close, which would eventually cause them to compete with one another.

For example, he says, a mature chile plant is going to bush out, and if its neighbors are planted five inches away from it, they will compete and you will have to thin some of them out.

A squash, he says, will grow and sprawl indefinitely, so proper spacing between plants is vital.

Even after you’ve got your plants in the earth and growing successfully, you might not be on safe ground.

Pests, such as the squash bug, could be lurking under any leaf. Dealing with these unwelcome visitors in a safe and organic way can be difficult, but Tator and Tess Grasswitz, entomologist at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Los Lunas, have a few tricks up their sleeves to make a potential invasion more manageable.

The squash bug is dangerous to crops because when it feeds, it injects a virus into the squash, or other plants in the squash family, such as cucumbers and melons.

“The first thing to say is there’s no silver bullet when it comes to killing squash bugs, it’s a very tough insect,” says Grasswitz.

Tator says local “old timers” have told him one way to save a crop from the squash bug is to plant a “sacrifice crop” early, the logic being that the bugs will attack it instead of your garden.

A variety of squash, highly preferred by the insect, is the blue hubbard, so that could be a good choice for a sacrifice crop.

Grasswitz says that the over-winter generation of squash bugs typically emerge from hibernation as adults the first or second week of June. That’s when they start looking for hosts, mates, and begin laying eggs.

“There’s this old wive’s tale that if you plant squash after the fourth of July, it escapes,” says Grasswitz. “But actually what we’ve found, because (squash bugs) emerge so late from over wintering, it’s possible to beat it in a different way, or at least get some early season squash, by planting a quick maturing variety of summer squash, like early yellow crooked neck.”

She says that if you plant the early maturing variety now, at mid- to late-April, indoors, the transplants will be fairly big by the last frost date. If you get them in the ground by early to mid-May, they will mature quickly, providing you with about four to six weeks of squash before the bulk of the squash bugs emerge from hibernation.

Another tactic is to keep the plants covered with floating row covers, uncovering them only in the morning when their pollinators are active.

However, once you have the bug, there is not much that can be done aside from diligent, good old fashioned squashing.

One way to effectively squash large amounts of bugs at once is to use trap boards by placing wooden planks or tiles around the base of the stem. The bugs will sleep under the boards, so if you go out in the early morning and turn over the boards, you will find many to kill at once.

One type of invasive pest that only appeared in the United States last year is the Bagrada bug, an African stink bug that made its way across the ocean to California, then to Arizona, then to Las Cruces and is now in Valencia County.

It is especially hard to kill, even with pesticide. Its preferred crop are brassica greens, such as arugula and mustard, including wild mustard, which Grasswitz says is going to be plentiful this year.

“That’s the one to watch,” she says.


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.