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RIO RANCHO - Master gardener Tina Forgrave believes most West Side gardeners would conserve more water if somebody showed them how. That's why she helped establish the Rio Rancho Water-Wise Demonstration Garden.
"Many of our residents are gardeners who know how to garden in wetter states where they came from but not in our dry climate," Forgrave said. "They need someplace to go that's right next door to see what water-wise plants look like and to consider planting them in their own gardens."
The garden, now beginning its fourth growing season, shows about 80 different water-wise species, with some 200 trees, shrubs and native grasses on display. New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, which runs the master gardener program, worked with the City of Rio Rancho to plant and maintain the 24,000-square foot garden, located next to the city library.
"Most people learn visually, so we wanted to create something that residents can see and duplicate at home," said Rudy Benavidez, Sandoval County agricultural agent.
The city's Water Conservation Division organized the project, investing nearly $40,000 in the garden to encourage homeowners to consider Xeriscaping.
"We want to show residents that native plants can be very lush and colorful, that water-efficient landscaping includes trees, shrubs and flowers and not just rocks and cacti," said Lorri Skeie-Campbell, water conservation manager. "Nonnative turf and vegetation uses about three times more water than native vegetation, so we want to encourage residents to use native plants."
The garden is divided into eight sections: alpine trees and shrubs, roses, native grasses, New Mexico wildflowers, high-desert plants, meadow vegetation and xeric plants, Forgrave said.
A wide variety of deciduous and evergreen species are on display. Trees include Gambel's oak, chitalpa, desert willow, piņon and scotch pine. There are dozens of shrubs, including threeleaf sumac, snowberry, butterfly bush, desert broom, chamisa and cherry and prairie sage. The rose section includes seven native species.
All the garden vegetation is low water use, but the riparian section includes plants that occasionally need deeper watering, such as New Mexican olive trees and shrubs like redtwig and yellowtwig dogwoods, Forgrave said. That section demonstrates swales and other landscaping techniques that catch extra runoff water for such species.
The garden also shows five different watering systems, including surface and subsurface drip systems. "We have two different buffalo grass sections with a traditional sprinkler for one and a subsurface drip system for the other to demonstrate the difference in water use," Forgrave said.
The garden blooms with a vivid array of colors in spring and summer, but Forgrave urges residents to visit during the winter, too. "There are colorful plants even in the cold months that homeowners will want to see if they are considering planting them at home," she said.
The city sponsored a garden party last fall to recognize local businesses and community organizations that contributed to the garden, such as the Rio Rancho and Santa Ana garden centers, the High Desert Nursery, True Green and J&H Supply. At the ceremony, the city awarded Forgrave and 14 other master gardeners plaques and certificates of appreciation.
The garden is always open to the public. From March to October, master gardeners are on site every Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to answer questions and teach about Xeriscapes.
Meanwhile, the master gardener program offers many other opportunities for West Side homeowners to learn about gardening. Extension initiated a six-week series of classes on gardening in the Southwest on Feb. 5 that will teach about soils, xeric plants, vegetables, herb production, trees, shrubs and turfgrass, Benavidez said. Participants can attend individual classes for $5 per session or the entire series for $15.
During the spring and summer, master gardeners manage a gardening hotline, run information booths at growers markets and even teach classes to schoolchildren. In fact, Forgrave helped establish three educational gardens at Colinas del Norte Elementary that includes a biopark with 85 native plants and a reading garden for students and teachers.
"They've helped beautify our campus," said Ellen Bruno, the school's vice principal. "The gardens are like outdoor classrooms and learning centers for the children."
For more information about the master gardener program and gardening classes, call Benavidez at (505) 867-2582. For information about the Rio Rancho Water Wise Garden, call Skeie-Campbell at (505) 896-8715.
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