Gardening in the basin: How dry is it? (Google / Alomogordo Daily News)

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Gardening in the basin: How dry is it?

The Daily News
By Bev Eckman-Onyskow, For the Daily News

How dry is it? From March 3 through May 27 I had .08 inches of precipitation in my Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network (CoCoRaHS) gauge. There was a trace May 14 after a light shower, but it vanished overnight. Then on May 29 there was .11 inches. That is not going to do much to make a garden grow, but mulch can help retain moisture in the soil.

First, the drought. Our area is in “D2, severe drought,” according to the May 29 Drought Monitor from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The drought conditions in this area are projected to run through August, which is a little late for the monsoon season. Alamogordo has watering restrictions, limiting watering to three days a week before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m., depending on odd (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) or even house numbers. What’s a gardener to do in this high-desert arid climate? Consider watering through 2-3 inches of mulch. We are even-numbered, so I water late on Saturday and early on Tuesday over the longest spread of days. I believe in deep-watering, 6-8 inches for flowers, 12 inches or deeper for shrubs and trees. I stick the hose nozzle into the ground just inside the drip line on woody perennials, and set the timer for 20-30 minutes, depending on the temperature and whether I’m going to water once or twice that day, and then move the nozzle to the next plant.Native plants do not need as much water, which is why it is smart gardening to plant natives. But all plants need some water to survive the first year, or until they are established.

It depends on the plant. In general, for flowers that are drought tolerant, that means deep watering twice a week for the first month or so, then once every week after, according to the Master Gardener Web site. Shrubs and trees will need once a week until established, then once every week or two. Cactus and succulents may not need additional water after a year or two, but will appreciate a once a month deep watering.

Deep watering encourages root growth. Surface or shallow watering doesn’t accomplish much because it encourages shallow roots, and a lot is lost to evaporation. With our low humidity, moisture evaporates quickly.

However, there’s one major assist available to gardeners: mulch.

I have used mulch for many years, in an effort to keep weeds down and make beds look more attractive. It helps on both counts.

Mulch to save moisture

The most important thing mulch can do here in the Tularosa Basin is hold moisture in the soil.

According to the Otero County Master Gardener Association Web site, mulch conserves water and cools the roots and is essential in New Mexico.

There are many materials. Wood chips from the local sawmill, straw, hay, bark, compost or rocks.

When using un-composted materials (wood chips or sawdust) do not mix into the soil; just lay it on top. Black landscaping fabric will control weeds while letting water through. But mulch needs to be put on top of the black material or the plants will cook.

That sums it up.

I have used wood chips, stones, wood shavings and eucalyptus mulch. I like the last best. It’s an attractive reddish color, and does help keep the moisture in the soil by retarding evaporation.

George W. Dickerson, a horticulture specialist for the Cooperative Extension Service at New Mexico State University has put together a guide, “Mulches for Gardens and Landscapes,” Guide H-121, which is available online and at the Otero County Extension office on the fairgrounds.

According to Dickerson, “Mulch is any natural or synthetic material used to cover topsoil in the garden or home landscape.”

Mulch should be a primary tool for New Mexico gardeners.

Seasonal mulches

There are specific seasonal benefits, Dickerson advises. In the spring, clear and black plastic mulches will warm the soil. Black plastics are often preferred, as they will exclude light and discourage weed growth. Clear plastics are occasionally used to warm soils more rapidly and to solar-sterilize soils in the summer to kill weed seeds and disease organisms before planting.

In the summer, natural organic mulches and white plastic mulch will tend to cool soils. This is important for crops like strawberries, which do not tolerate extreme heat. Silver reflective mulches and aluminum foil not only cool soils, but also reflect light back under leaves, which tends to repel aphids.

In the fall, before cold weather, applying natural organic mulches will help insulate the soil and extend the growing season.

Mulch can also lower your heating bill. “Reflected light from white rock under windows with western and southern exposures will help warm your house in the winter,” Dickerson says. “Dark colored rock will retain heat in the landscape and may offer some frost protection (reradiated heat) for fruit trees in the spring (it also may encourage early breaking of dormancy).”

How to mulch

Dickerson says most coarse, natural organic mulches like straw, bark and wood chips should be applied 2-3 inches deep over the whole area to be mulched.

Grass clippings should be allowed to dry out before applying them to keep them from matting and fermenting. Avoid grass like Bermuda that propagates easily. Do not apply grass clippings over 1-inch deep.

Woody material, like bark, should not be incorporated into the soil as it will tend to tie up nitrogen in the soil, making it unavailable for plant uptake.

Bev Eckman-Onyskow is an Alamogordo-based freelance writer and vice-president of the Otero County Master Gardener Association. E-mail her at She will be on vacation in July. Gardening in the Basin will resume August 3.


This is a fine article on mulching. Looking for good solutions to avoid continuous watering our garden, I am very much in favour of container gardening, which limits evaporation and leaching. On my containergardening blog I describe different techniques to successfully grow different plant species in all kinds of containers with a minimum of water and fertilizer. Even if one has enough irrigation water, saving precious water becomes a universal task for all responsible people. Anyway, mulching remains a fine and very positive method.

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Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.