Waffle Gardens

Waffle Garden. mid Rio Grande Times photo: Sue Brown

A thousand or more years ago, pueblo farmers in the Southwest were incorporating principles of permaculture in their farming techniques. This traditional practice uses berms and swales in a sunken garden. These waffle squares work especially well for deep rooted plants.

Twelve to 18 inch squares are laid out in a pattern which has a berm on all four sides. Since there is so much clay in our environment, the clay pulled up from the center part of the square forms the berm and is easily compacted. The berm can be three or four inches high and wide enough that you can step on it to compact it. The remaining soil in the center of the square will probably need compost.

Here are two diagrams to help you lay out a waffle garden.

Pollinator Corridor

The North Campus Neighborhood Association has begun a new initiative to develop a Pollinator Corridor throughout their neighborhood. Humans depend on plants and plants depend on pollinators. Some of these pollinators have a very limited forage range, ie., native bees. This makes it all the more important to have a swath of pollinating plants in our “Bee Friendly City.” The project includes trainings on the importance of native and drought tolerant plants, where to plant in the yard, judicious uses of water, and integrated pest management.

The Solid Waste Management wildflower project has been developing median strips with this concept and now there is an effort to do the same throughout a neighborhood. For more information check out North Campus Neighborhood Pollinator Corridor.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl. Photo: Ryk Naves/Unsplash

Here are some interesting facts about the Great Horned Owl. The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl found in New Mexico, measuring up to more than 25 inches! They are usually about 3 pounds. Great Horned Owls have ear tufts and what looks like a speckled white bib. They nest in abandoned hawk, heron, or crow nests but also live in rock alcoves, hollowed out trees, abandoned buildings, and sometimes on the ground. They are found in woods, mountain forests, desert canyons, marshes, city parks, and urban forests. They prefer open spaces to dense woodlands or living close to a forest where they can hunt. Their nesting season is between January and April. They lay 2-6 eggs and live to more than 12 years. One Great Horned Owl in captivity lived for 29 years!

They eat a lot of things. Here are some of them: cottontail rabbits, squirrels, shrews, jackrabbits, muskrats, mice, weasels, skunks, pocket gophers, snakes, domestic cats, bats, beetles, scorpions, frogs, grasshoppers, and a wide variety of birds, from small passerines like juncos and sparrows to wild ducks, grouse, pheasants, and even other owls. (We think that an owl ate our four chickens.) They eat small rodents whole but bigger prey they tear into pieces. They hunt by sitting on a branch, and when they see or hear something, they pounce on it and eat it. They can pick up prey that weigh up to 60 pounds! Their territory is a little more than 5 miles! These are a few interesting things about Great Horned Owls, and there is probably a lot more to discover! Listen for their hoot – hoot – hoot in your neighborhood at night. by Sam Clouse

Prarie Dogs

Black Tailed Prairie Dog. Photo: Ryan Moehring/USFWS

There are five families of prairie dogs: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs (all of which live in North America). Black-tailed prairie dogs live in western New Mexico, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs live in eastern New Mexico. They weigh about 1-3 pounds, and they are about 11-16 inches long. Prairie dogs are preyed upon by badgers, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, golden eagles, and different species of hawk. Sometimes rattlesnakes and bull snakes eat young prairie dogs. Prairie dogs have sharp teeth to chew through their food, strong hind legs so that they can see over the grass, and pointy claws to dig their burrows. Prairie dogs also have acute vision to search for predators hiding among the grass, and brown fur so that they can blend into the dirt. 

Prairie dogs are not so different from humans in the way their burrows are composed. There is an underground network of tunnels and rooms which makes the prairie dog equivalent of towns. The “towns” are made up of “neighborhoods” and each “neighborhood” is made up of some “houses.” When they dig their burrows, prairie dogs include air pockets so that the chamber will stay dry if there is a flood. Prairie dogs also build a mound a little ways away from the mouth of their burrow so they have a better view over the grasslands they call their home. All species of prairie dog hibernate except Black-tailed prairie dogs. Some people claim to see prairie dogs kiss, but they are actually smelling each other. Some prairie dogs carry the bubonic plague, which spreads through their fleas. The plague spread through their population, decimating their numbers. These are just some of the interesting things to learn about prairie dogs. by Lali Miller

Container Gardening

Gardens are really a part of your home and can be both beautiful and practical. When space is limited, gardening in containers can be an alternative to the traditional high desert garden. Containers are also great because you can control the environment around your plants, move the pots for best light, and coordinate with your outdoor décor.

The process begins with the choice of a container. It may take the form of a pot, tin, basket, tub, or maybe even a barrel. Whatever you choose, make sure it has drainage holes. Many people prefer plastic pots as they are lighter and easier to move around, and because the soil will not dry out as fast as terra cotta pots. Whatever container you choose, it must have a drainage hole. Variety in color and shape of containers can add interest and beauty to your garden.

Bigger containers are necessary for tomatoes or potatoes which have root systems going down 12 to 15 inches. A five-gallon pot is needed for these. Flowers and herbs do well in three-gallon pots.

A good organic ‘potting soil’ or ‘container soil’ is required because it is quicker draining than regular garden soil and is the most costly part of container gardening. If using a pot more than two feet high, the bottom 1/3 can be filled with old plastic bottles or other non-organic trash so you do not waste space with the expensive soil mix. Fill the pots with soil but leave a space of 1-2 inches at the top for watering.

Fertilizers are required for nutrients not found in the potting mix. After your plants have recovered from transplant shock and new leaves are starting to form, an organic fertilizer such as Job’s Organic or Sea Grow can be applied. When growing veggies, more phosphorus than nitrogen is needed during the time of fruiting in order to get more produce, so you might want to use a different fertilizer then.

Potted plants require frequent watering, possibly twice a day. The way you know it is time to water is by putting your finger in and pushing down an inch. If the soil is dry, time to water. If you are having trouble judging this, buying a moisture meter might help.  And remember, plants like some sun every day.

It is recommended to repot every two years. Sometimes when pulling a plant out of its pot, you will find the roots wrapped around the soil. If they are root bound like this, cut through some roots an inch or so into the soil and re-work the roots.

A vertical tower is another approach to container gardening. You can make a vertical tower with a piece of five-foot wire mesh rolled in a circle so that the round end fits into a tub. Vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers (with a little additional horizontal support), and peas will do well grown on this vertical mesh. There is an extremely creative do-it-yourself website, “23 Family Gardens”.

Vertical hydroponic systems are also a possibility and can be checked out on the internet.

Wasps and Hornets

Wasps are an important part of our environment because they control other insects, using them as their food source. There are about 13,000 species. They are social insects like bees, ants, and termites, which means they cooperate with the care of their young, live in multigenerational colonies, and have a system of those who reproduce and those who do not (often called workers or soldiers).

There are three different types of wasp: (1) parasitic, which lay their eggs on a host insect which the larvae then use as food; (2) hunting , which bring their prey back to the nest; and (3) social, often called paper wasps because they construct nests out of plant fiber and saliva.

Female paper wasps can initiate colonies by themselves, take over abandon nests of another female and raise the orphans, or cooperate with another female and make a larger nest. This colony founding happens in spring, but if there are not enough insects to feed on, the foraging females die.

Yellow jackets are the paper wasp which most people recognize as they hover around picnic sites and get onto open cans of soda. They are aggressive, especially in August and September when they are defending their nests. These nests may be in trees but are often under eaves on porches. Their sting is very painful.

Hornets are the largest of the paper wasps. There has been a lot of hype lately about the murder hornet. This paper wasp is indeed large, being two inches long. Their sting is not so much a threat to humans; killing fewer than bees, wasps, and other hornets combined Their real danger is attacking honey bees’ nests. Bees are already under siege.

New Mexico’s state insect is a hunting wasp called the Tarantula Hawk Wasp. This wasp stings the tarantula, drags the spider back to its home, and then lays its eggs on it. The larvae use the spider as their food source as they mature. This wasp rarely stings people, but if it does, its sting is described on the Insect Sting Scale as one of the most painful: “excruciating and unrelenting sting and it shuts down one’s ability to do anything but scream.” Fortunately, this intensity lasts only about five minutes. Interestingly, this wasp’s main predator is the Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird!

If stung by a wasp (or bee), apply a cold compress for 15-20 minutes and take an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl. Vinegar will decrease the pain in the area of the sting.