The Rio Grand Nature Center is a state park in Albuquerque, located where Candelaria NW ends at the Rio Grande. It has been funded by the state of New Mexico since 1982. You enter the park on a foot path following along a row of old cottonwoods, golden at this time of year. The path leads you into the tunnel entrance of the visitor center, which is open seven days a week from 10:00am–4:00pm. The grounds are open longer, from 8:00am-5:00pm. The center is available to the public for meetings and other special events.

Photo: Ken Gingerich

The exhibits at the visitor center challenge the visitor with questions. For example, the fossil exhibit queries: “Why are the same fossils found on the Sandia mountaintop as found thousands of feet below in the Rio Grande Valley?” Another exhibit demonstrates how a marsh evolves into a meadow. Did you know that there are about 6,000 feet of sand and gravel deposits under Albuquerque? There are educational exhibits of habitats in the bosque, plus displays of birds, trees, and wetlands. There are also viewing windows of the pond next to the center where many turtles and ducks swim.

Several short walking trails provide sights of local plants and birds. These also connect to longer trails such as the Paseo del Bosque and the Aldo Leopold Trail. Aldo Leopold established the first wilderness area in a US Forest in the Gila area and subsequently moved to Albuquerque. Here he became active in the Chamber of Commerce and  championed the idea of preserving the bosque along the river. The Aldo Leopold Trail goes to Montaño Road and has interpretive signage.

Each Saturday and Sunday morning, there are guided bird walks on the nature center grounds. Currently they are averaging sightings of around 30 different species, with 200 species seen over the full year. A special nature walk is coming up on November 11 at 10:30 a.m. with a naturalist. People must register for both the weekly guided bird walks and upcoming nature walk by calling the center at 505-344-7240. Admission to the Center is free, but there is a $3.00 parking fee.


VALLE DE ORO, a National Wildlife Refuge

View of the refuge looking northeast toward the Sandia Mountains.

Two-and-a-half miles south of Rio Bravo on 2nd Street SW in Albuquerque, one of the few urban National Wildlife Refuges in the US is thriving. This 570-acre refuge was once a dairy farm. When it was put up for sale, people in the Mountain View community of the South Valley came together to form the Friends of Valle de Oro. Together with the Tiwa People of Isleta Pueblo, for whom the land is their traditional, unceded homeland, they advocated for it to become a public space. They wanted to have a space where other species could flourish in the midst of humanity, as a way to cooperate with our wild neighbors.  The project began with a survey of 500 households in the area, which was used to make a strategic plan. When Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2012, the staff and volunteers built on the plan to develop a vision of a Refuge that would meet urban environmental and ecological needs in many ways. They continue to make the refuge a creative work in progress.

Interactive display in the visitor center. Photo: Ken Gingerich

Most of the visitor center is comprised interactive exhibits. A visitor can choose short videos on various topics such as ‘community gardening,’ ‘night visitors’ (beavers), ‘nighttime and mosquitos,’ ‘searching for porcupines,’ etc. There are also viewing boxes including an orb spider and its web and pill bugs working to decay leaves. You can even feel the difference between the skin of a frog and a toad. The exhibits and videos are low enough to be accessible to both children and adults. The center also has a library with books on environmental justice for both children and adults, a gift shop, and a meeting room.

Pathway along the bosque. Photo: Ken Gingerich

Outdoor educational opportunities include a pond with signage behind the center and trails to explore farther. Part of the Bosque Trail is currently closed due to habitat restoration and to build a stormwater swell. This area is also part of a future plan to have five different wetlands. During peak spring, summer, and fall months, there is a shuttle to take you from the visitor center farther into the bosque.

The Albuquerque Backyard Habitat program is a major project of the center. This program has a free detailed workbook which is easy to download. It guides the reader in learning which plants in our region are most likely to attract birds, other animals, and insects and how to support their lives year-round. After a residence or commercial space has signed on to develop a refuge area, it is visited by staff, given additional guidance, and then approved as a Backyard Refuge. The space is given a sign and re-qualified on an annual basis. So far, across the county over 100 acres have qualified as urban refuges. The goal is to match new backyard refuge acreage with that of the Valle de Oro refuge, i.e., 570 acres. In spring and fall, the center hosts a Backyard Refuge workshop. Consultants on native plants, water harvesting, pollinator habitats, and more are present to answer questions, and there is a seed exchange.

There is no admission fee. This is an opportunity to enrich both yourself and the community as you develop your own Backyard Refuge.


This 57,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 when it was noticed that few sandhill cranes were using this traditional winter flyway. The Refuge began making food available as a way to support the birds. This has evolved into multiple marsh ponds,15 miles of driving roads, hiking trails, a visitor center, and habitat for many birds, mammals, and insects. Because of its location along the Rio Grande, water can be directed through channels and used to grow marsh crops such as millet and bullrush and, in the grain fields, alfalfa, wheat, and clover. This system makes the area a rich source of food for wintering birds.

Bosque del Apache is best known for hosting the winter feeding grounds of the Sandhill Crane. In recent years, about 10,000 cranes have wintered here. Since they can fly up to 500 miles a day, it is no problem to come from their summer homes in Wyoming and Montana. They spend the night standing in shallow water or on patches of marsh, safe from predators, and fly out to forage first thing in the morning. There is fossil evidence that this unique bird has been around for the past nine million years, giving it the longest history of any other current bird species.

A festival to honor the crane is held annually; this year it will be from December 6–9.  The Friends of the Bosque website is full of nformation on the available lectures, tours, and transportation. Beside the cranes, one may also see some of the 20,000 Ross’s and Snow Geese, eagles, 20+ species of ducks, mule deer, coyote, muskrat, javelina, and porcupine.

Bosque del Apache’s history is more than birds. The Piro Pueblo People once lived on this land. A Pueblo village was on land that is now known as the Little San Pascual, a 20-acre parcel adjacent to the Refuge that is one of three nearby federally-designated Wilderness. This Pueblo village once had 1,500 rooms, and it is thought that about 7,000 Piro People lived in the 60-mile stretch along the river in what is now Socorro County. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Piro People were beset with new illnesses and skirmishes. By the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Piro People were dead or scattered and never returned to the area.

There is no fee to visit the museum, but it costs $5.00 to drive through the Refuge and the Festival’s lectures and tours require a registration fee. The Bosque del Apache is a unique New Mexican experience, rich in history and habitats. Enjoy!

MUSHROOMS – the fungus among us

A mushroom is the reproductive part of the mycelium of a fungus. When the edible reproductive part is above ground, we call it a mushroom; when the reproductive part is underground, we call it a truffle. Since the latter are much harder to find, we mostly settle for hunting the visible mushroom. Mushrooms are not plants – in fact, in some ways they have more in common with animals as they require oxygen.

Honey mushrooms. Photo: Estere / unsplash

New Mexico is a remarkable place for finding mushrooms since there are so many micro-climates, from desert to alpine mountain tops. Each niche in the land has its own species of mushrooms. The total number of mushroom species in New Mexico is unknown, but David Augustyniak, a mycologist from the Art FarmUNIncorporated, was able to identify 500 species in our state last year! Mapping the species is an important scientific endeavor. In the next year, David hopes to collect and clone local strains of New Mexican fungi to better identify them and be able to offer new ones to the community.

We are learning more and more about the role of fungus and their mycelia in healthy soil. The future of forests and our food chain depend on healthy soil. The international organization Fauna Flora Funga (FFF) encourages countries to protect fungi as they become endangered species. The polypore group of mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest is already on the endangered list. Polypores are leathery and large – specimens have been found weighing up to 290 pounds!

Fungus need certain things for growth and fruiting, for expample, healthy air is critical since fungi need oxygen and release carbon dioxide. They need the right food source, as different species have evolved to use different sources. The amount of moisture and the right level of humidity dictates whether a certain species could survive in the desert. Also, each species has adapted to a particular range of temperatures.

Forays to help people identify and search for edible mushrooms are organized by the New Mexico Mycological Society. The Society meets from March to December, and they sponsor regional forays, mostly during the monsoon season in July, August, and September.  About one in three years is good for gathering mushrooms.

“It is hard to motivate people to care about something they do not know about or understand,” according to FFF, so while we may make fun of the “fungus among us,” their critical role in our future is not a joke. The book review of “Finding the Mother Tree,” in Issue 30 of the mid Rio Grande Times highlights this.

This article was written with input from David Augustinyak.


Prickly Pear is in the Opuntia genus; all 300 of the species in that genus can be found in arid areas of the Western Canada, US, and Mexico. The flat pads are called nopales in Spanish, and the fruits are called tunas. They are a good year around food source and have been used for eons by the Indigenous peoples of North America. In the Fall, the ripe prickly pears were smashed up, made into a flat cake, dried and used by tribes as a food source during prevent starvation.

According to Denee Bix, the Navajo nutritionist who owns Tumbleweeds Nutrition, a cup of smashed pears has only 60 calories but 5 grams of protein, and is high in Vitamin K and Calcium and low in carbohydrates.

The plant is honored by its incorporation into Mexico’s flag. An eagle, snake, and prickly pear cactus are seen in the middle of the national flag. It is based on the Aztec legend that an appropriate place for its capital city (now Mexico City) would be found by looking for an eagle eating a snake while sitting on a cactus.

Most colonizers in the US ignore the plant, probably because of their intimidating sharp spines and small, hairlike prickles called glochids. You can remove glochids from a tuna by rubbing it in the sand, roasting it, or rubbing it with a towel. Red tunas are the most prized. Some small businesses make prickly pear jam, chips, beverages, and salsa.

Lilia Avila, who sells through the Three Sisters Kitchen, shares her recipe for Prickly Pear salsa.

     2-3 prickly pears – clean off the spines with cloth or knife
     2 tomatoes
     2 hot peppers (jalapeños, serranos, or green chiles)
½ onion
1 clove garlic

GRILL the above until blackened. Cut the prickly pear in half lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon. Add

    ¼ cup cilantro
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar

BLEND all above in a food processor . Enjoy on chips.

Prickly pear has a parasite called the cochinilla insect. These insects live in a white tunnel along the nopal and use the plant for water and food. According to Mexican shipping records in the 17th century, insects had more in value by weight than silver when shipped to England.. The British used the bright red dye from crushing these insects to dye their now famous cloth for their army uniforms, the Red Coats.

The annual Prickley Pear Festival features Indigenous knowledge of this fall fruit combined with many workshops on current uses. The festival is held usually in September at the Guiterrez Hubbel House at 5945 Isleta SW. The workshops are free. Time to try something new. People can live more sustainably in the mid Rio Grande Watershed.


New Mexico trees. Photo: Garreth Paul / unsplash

Tree New Mexico has 30 years of urban tree planting experience. Their informative website covers the planting and care of trees using easy-to-follow instructional videos. There are also videos on pruning trees and staking them.

The organization also offers a course on urban forestry called Tree Stewards. This 16-week course begins annually in August and covers topics such as tree anatomy, planting, pruning, and watering. The course is free, but you have to apply by May. After finishing the course, participants are encouraged to teach in the community and make themselves available for consultations. Soon there will be up to 75 trained stewards in Bernalillo County, and courses are now available in Cruces and elsewhere in the state.

Another Tree New Mexico program is NeighborWoods. Eighty-five percent of trees in Albuquerque are on private property, so this program focuses on planting trees on private property, with the owner of the property agreeing to care for the tree(s). With the help of volunteers, 100 two- to three-and-a-half-inch caliper trees are planted at a time in a neighborhood. The next week, the participating families are eligible for a gift tree, which has more diverse choices available than the street trees. This program is a collaboration with city councilors who provide funding. Tree NM has on its website a schedule of upcoming tree plantings in September, October, and November.

Dakota Tree Project began in Albuquerque in 2020 as a memorial to Dakota Powell and his desire to serve his local community. In partnership with the City of Albuquerque, the project has evolved into three programs: MemorialWoods for serene settings to remember loved ones; CommunityWoods planting in low income / high heat neighborhoods; and CommercialWoods on commercial properties targeted for improvement. These woods have a varying designs and do not have a set number of trees that are planted at any one spot. Ongoing maintenance is by agreement with city departments for larger plantings and by sponsoring organizations for smaller plantings.

The average cost of a tree is $250.00 and up, so these local not-for-profits rely on donations from citizens and contracts from the city and other sources in order to do their work…and volunteers to do the planting. When planted and cared for properly, these trees have an 85% three-year survival rate, which is considered a successful replanting of our tree canopy.


Living in the desert, we all know how important water is for life. “Aqua es Vida” is the often heard refrain, and it applies to both humans and our whole ecosystem. As we plant trees, shrubs, vegetables, and flowers, there are many techniques for watering that differ according to the time of year, age of the plant, and its species. There is no one way which suits all nor do all the landscape folks agree on the best ways to water. This article provides some things to consider as you perfect your watering technique for outdoor plants.

Drip line spirals to the edge of the root growth zone. Photo by Sue Brown.

First and foremost, when you first put a tree or shrub in the ground, be sure to water at the periphery of the pot line so the roots of your new plant are kept moist for at least the next two or three months.

Drip irrigation means black or brown ¼ inch lines with emitting holes six, nine, or twelve inches apart. In an hour’s time, each hole will emit the amount the manufacturer states, often listed as GPH (gallons per hour). If the irrigation line is placed in sandy soil, the water might penetrate many inches, but if the plant is in clay, much less water will penetrate per hour.

You can get an idea of how far the water has penetrated by pushing a piece of rebar or a three-foot screwdriver into the ground as far as it will go near the emitter. It will push through moist earth but stop short when it hits the dry ground. This works as a test for water penetration for any kind of emitter or after hose watering.

Sprinklers are another way to water. Sprinklers are most often used on lawns, but of course lawns are not recommended in our region because they use a lot of water. An additional problem is that, as the days heat up, water left on leaves is apt to burn the plant. So, even with evening or early morning watering, sprinklers are becoming less of an option.

Irrigation systems such as Netafim are especially for watering trees. Tubing (either black round or brown flat) is wrapped in concentric circles around trees from the drip line out with the holes emitting .9 gallons/hour. The caliber of this tubing is larger so it has to be attached differently to the main irrigation line than 1/4 inch tubing. The first circular placements have to be moved out as the tree grows. Wood mulch needs to be spread over these lines (or any irrigation line) to cut down the evaporation of water. Mulch can be up to four to six inches deep. Again, you can always check the effectiveness of the irrigation line with your rebar/screwdriver tool. You do not need to be able to see drip lines or emiter holes..

It is recommended that plants with the same need for water be planted on the same timer line, but since most yards have been planted over time, this is difficult. Hand watering often has to fill in the gaps. If you need to water by hose, a steady dribble of water for three to four hours is usually enough. If it is a large tree, you will have to move the hose to a few different places.

Another interesting way to retain water in the soil is to construct berms and then plant along them. Berms work well on slopes. Soil is mounded up along contour lines and the trench above the mound catches and holds the water. Plants are planted on the berms and water trickles through to their roots.

Soil sponges are an easy, low cost mothod to increase deposits of organic matter that will retain water. They are less frequently employed but a great way to irrigate trees, according to Kelly White at Tree New Mexico. “The larger the sponge, the more trees and shrubs can take advantage of it.” A sponge can be whatever size you want to make it. Find a depression, which could also be a downhill slope, with water from roof runoff that flows towards it. Dig a hole in the depression and pack it with organic matter such as your junk mail, newspaper, old cotton or wool clothes, branches, logs, paper bags, cardboard, etc. Cover it with soil or mulch. It will sink over time as it rots, so you will need to pile more organic matter on top. Some people put a piece of PVC into the sponge and pour water through it periodically, especially if the depression hasn’t been getting much rainwater. It is best to make a sponge before planting a new tree, but they can be made afterwards – just be careful to dig them well beyond the drip line of any trees.

Sponges are not compost. Compost is balanced, with nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals in the right proportion; sponges are just deposits of any organic matter which will retain water while it rots.

And do you water in the morning or at night? Watering in the morning lets you walk around more easily and see how your plants are doing. Watering at night lets the water sink in with less evaporation as the air is cooler.

Every yard is unique so experiment and note what works and doesn’t work for you. Please share any watering techniques that you have found which work for you in our comments section.