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Los Alamos Demonstration Garden Grows and Diversifies

LOS ALAMOS - For years, the Los Alamos Demonstration Garden has offered visitors a chance to learn about gardening in a semiarid environment while strolling among colorful flowers, trees and shrubs.



Janine Fales, a master gardener who helps maintain the Los Alamos Demonstration Garden, sniffs sweet-smelling nicotiana, commonly known as flowering tobacco. Fales and other members of the Los Alamos Master Gardeners Club have expanded the demo garden from three-quarters of an acre to 1.5 acres, and they've added many new educational features. (11/10/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Now, thanks to a major expansion, visitors can learn about fire-defensible landscaping, water harvesting, invasive weeds and plants that stimulate the senses.

"We've doubled in size and added a lot of new educational features," said Janine Fales, a member of the Los Alamos Master Gardeners Club, which maintains the garden. "The new sections emphasize things that are particularly important to local residents, such as fire-defensible space and water-wise gardening techniques."

The garden, established in 1991 by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, expanded this year from three-quarters of an acre to 1.5 acres after master gardeners received a $35,000 grant from the county government.

"It's become one of the largest demonstration gardens in New Mexico," said Carlos Valdez, an agricultural agent with the Los Alamos County Extension office. "It occupies nearly two city blocks on the north side of town."

The garden now includes a model fire-defensible landscape with a small cabin made of noncombustible materials to show how to protect homes located near forests.

"The cabin has stucco walls, a metal door and metal roof, and a fire-resistant sealant on all the wood," Valdez said. "We planted nonwoody perennial shrubs and flowers around the house, plus a lawn with cool-season grass that serves as a firebreak from the forest, followed by a row of Austrian pines to represent the forest. It clearly shows what fire-defensible landscaping means."

The cabin includes water-harvesting features to teach visitors how to maximize use of rainwater.

"Roof gutters collect water, and then it spills down through spouts into a rain barrel on the ground and into perforated pipes buried in the garden," Valdez said. "The ground on the cabin's north side is also sloped so that runoff water flows toward a small vegetable garden we planted on that side."

Another garden section is filled with natural plant growth to show how lawns might look if homeowners did nothing.

"We pulled out the more unsightly weeds and left the rest," said Emmy Hopson, another master gardener. "Some of the plants can make a nice, native-looking landscape."

Garden paths have been lined with invasive weeds in clay pots to show people what to avoid. "We have common weeds and noxious weeds that homeowners need to look out for," Valdez said. "It's a controlled setting so the weeds won't propagate."

Another section includes fruit trees that grow well in high altitudes, such as black gold sweet cherry, contender peach, Stanley prune plums and gala and fuji apples.

In addition, master gardeners planted a sensory garden to allow visitors to touch, smell and even taste a variety of low-water-use plants. "We want visitors to exercise all their senses," Fales said.

A visual flower bed includes brightly-colored plants such as yellow golden rod and evening primrose, red cardinals, pink twirling butterflies and purple aster.

A texture bed includes strawflower that feels like paper, fuzzy lamb's ear and prickly poppy. An edible bed includes licorice-scented fennel, sour dills, peppery nasturtium and spinachy swiss chard. Aromatic plants include sweet-smelling nicotiana and herbs like rosemary, sage and mint.

There's also a small rock fountain to add a serene sound of trickling water, Fales said. "We encourage visitors to smell, taste and touch everything."

The garden is designed for easy wheelchair access, including wide paths and raised beds to get up close and personal, Fales said. Solar-powered lights have been added for nighttime visits, along with wooden stands with information about the plants in each section.

A new patio in the center of the garden has wooden benches that can seat up to 100 and an overhead structure for shade.

"The educational patio is for people to gather, relax and listen to garden talks that we'll be holding throughout the spring and summer, starting next year," Fales said.

Visitors are welcome anytime. The garden is at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Oppenheimer Drive. For more information, call Valdez at (505) 662-2656.