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NMSU hosts Kansas State Extension horticulturalists on water conservation tour

ALBUQUERQUE - Conserving water is not just a Southwest issue. Extension agents from Kansas State University visited New Mexico recently to learn more about xeric landscaping and irrigation techniques that they can teach to Kansas gardeners and horticulture producers.

NMSU Extension Service Master Gardener Jill Foster demonstrates the olla watering system to Kansas State University Extension agents at the Santa Fe County demonstration garden while Ward Upham, horticulture rapid response Extension associate, takes a photo. The olla, Spanish for earthen jar, system buries unglazed clay pots into the ground as water reservoirs into which water is placed and then seeps into the soil. The Kansas horticulturalist visited New Mexico to learn about water conservation systems and adaptive plants for low-water-use gardens. (NMSU Photo by Curtis Smith)

"We want to learn more about water conservation, particularly as it pertains to landscape and adaptive plant materials for low water use," said Alan Stevens, Kansas State Extension floriculture specialist and graduate of New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "So where better to come than to an area that has had water issues for centuries and has adapted to it."

Because of the time Stevens spent in New Mexico, he knows the state's horticulturalists are already well involved in conserving water through xeric landscaping where native plants that are drought tolerant are watered through drip irrigation.

"Wise gardeners in New Mexico have gardened for centuries in a way to conserve water and maximize plant growth and production," said Curtis Smith, NMSU Extension horticulture specialist in Albuquerque who hosted the three-day tour. "Wells and pumps caused us to forget some things, but we are relearning and reapplying many of the old water conservation techniques and adding new methods as well."

The 22 Kansas Extension agents and specialists visited the nursery of wholesale catalog High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, several nurseries and landscape companies in Albuquerque including the city's botanical garden, and Extension Service Master Gardener's demonstration garden in Santa Fe and Rio Rancho.

Kansas has very diverse precipitation patterns - from 36 inches a year on the east side of the state to conditions similar to New Mexico in the west.

"Our agents are working to teach our residents that they can conserve water and still have an enjoyable landscape," Stevens said.

Dean Whitehill, Finney County agent in Garden City, Kan., summed up the task Extension personnel face in both states: "In New Mexico they are teaching new residents how to use native plants in xeric landscapes to conserve water, and we are teaching our residents to change their plants to those that are less water demanding."

Larry Crouse, Butler County horticulture agent in El Dorado, Kan., northeast of Wichita, said that even though his county had received more than 25 inches of rain in May, "it doesn't rain like that every year. The principles behind xeric gardening apply across the country. Learning more about xeric gardening and adapted plant material for low water use and how some of those principles are employed is always a benefit."

Pam Paulsen, Reno County horticulture agent in Hutchinson, Kan., said the overlying message she took home from the tour was the importance of valuing and conserving as much water as possible.

"I think many in Kansas tend to take water for granted. Seeing some of the landscapes, especially in the Albuquerque area with their limited lawns and trees really hit home on how lucky we are in Kansas," Paulsen said. "It would only take a couple of years of decreased rainfall to be in the same situation. We have already been through a number of years of lower-than-average rainfall and many of our trees are showing the effects."

"Visiting the Santa Fe and Sandoval counties' Master Gardeners demonstration gardens and Albuquerque landscapes provided some great methods of dealing with limited water availability through planting adaptive plants and more efficient watering methods such as ollas," she said.

Ollas, Spanish for an earthen pot for holding water, is a watering technique where unglazed clay pots are used as buried water reservoirs that allow the water to seep into the soil near plants. Paulsen and several other agents thought the technique could be used in their gardens.

Paulsen said she shared the information about using ollas to the Reno County Master Gardeners when she got back to Kansas. "They are now planning to emphasize efficient watering methods next year in our demonstration garden. We will be putting in a bed and some containers with the clay pot watering system," she said.

Smith said the time he spent showing-off New Mexico's water conserving landscapes and discussing common issues with the Kansas Extension professional was as valuable to him as to his guests. "We have a lot of common issues and it was interesting to learn how they are organized and function," he said.