FARMINGTON — At the Samaritan Village Community Garden in Aztec, a few rows are ready for planting. A thin layer of leaves is spread over the ground to enrich the soil beneath. In one bed, a few onions have started to poke up through the soil.
In the next couple of months, gardeners around the Four Corners will start planting fruits, vegetables and flowers. And those gardeners will face a variety of choices, including what to plant, when to plant and how to prepare the soil. Area gardening enthusiasts say now is the time to start prepping for spring planting.
Right now, Joann Clifford, the Samaritan Village Community Garden coordinator, is lining up greenhouses to house the group's indoor sow plants. These plants will be moved outside once the danger of frost lifts.
Clifford said the garden relies on community help. In the four years since it started, whenever anything is needed, the community has provided it, she said.
"It's been blessed the whole time," she said.
Last year, a new garden member put up a greenhouse when the group needed it. Aztec High School has also offered the group use of its greenhouse.
However, not every plant needs a greenhouse. While looking at the community garden last week, Clifford pointed to a few plants that survived the winter. A large broccoli plant has lived a couple years, but hasn't produced much.
"I think it's time to dig it out," Clifford said.
Some cabbage also survived. Clifford said if the cabbage greens up, it may produce a few leaves for a salad.
While some garden plants need to be planted in warmer weather, San Juan Nursery owner Donnie Pigford and assistant manager Scott Rubenstein said there are a wide variety of plants that can be planted right now. Those include potatoes, onions and garlic.
While some plants are planted directly into the soil as seeds, others are started inside. Pigford said plants such as corn can be planted as seeds. Others, such as tomatoes, peppers and melons, should be started inside and moved outside after Mother's Day.
When planting flower gardens, Pigford said perennials, or flowers that come back year after year, can be planted early while annuals, or flowers that bloom for only once year, should be planted after Mother's Day. Pigford said Mother's Day is a good marker of when to plant because usually it doesn't freeze after Mother's Day.
He said one of the most important things gardeners can do to prepare for planting is a soil test. Gardeners can buy the test kits or take samples to San Juan Nursery to get tested.
The test looks at the pH of the soil, as well as nutrient deficiencies of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Pigford said people tend to use the basic 20-20-20 fertilizer each year, which contains 20 percent of each nutrient. This can actually cause problems because if the soil has too much phosphate, it can lock up other nutrients in the soil.
"When you get off one way or another, it can throw the whole thing off," Pigford said.
Rubenstein said while the potassium, phosphate and nitrogen are important, gardeners also need to remember micronutrients such as baron, iron and copper.
"There are 17 elements that are universally required for plants to live," he said.
These elements are broken into two categories — macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are nutrients plants need in large amounts, such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Micronutrients are elements the plants need in smaller amounts, such as chloride, manganese and zinc.
Rubenstein said it is also important for gardeners in this area to remember that soil tends to be alkaline. He said that people can "throw down all the great goods in the world" but, if the pH isn't right, it won't make a difference. The pH levels can be adjusted by adding lime or wood ash to raise the pH or aluminum sulfate and sulfur to lower pH.
Having the right soil conditions also helps prevent pests like squash bugs.
Rubenstein said squash bugs can be killed with preventative sprays when they're young, but, as adults, the small insects are almost impossible to kill. However, he said if the plants have all the nutrients they need, they can defend themselves.
Samaritan Village Community Garden: sustainablesanjuan.com
Shiprock Community Garden: 734-347-9866
Bonnie Dallas Senior Center Community Garden: 505-566-2256
Garden of Eatin at Bethany Christian Church: www.bethanydisciples.net
Bloomfield Senior Center Community Garden: 505-632-8351
Clifford said the Samaritan Village Community Garden has luckily avoid problems with squash bugs. Instead, the garden's main problem has been rabbits and other burrowing animals. Members have put up fences and barriers, but these don't always work. To combat these animals, the members placed partially buried wine bottles throughout the garden. As the wind blows across the tops, the bottles create a whistling sound that scares the burrowing animals.
For a beginning gardener, Clifford suggests first creating a plan, getting the seeds in the ground and using cuttings or leaves to keep the soil moist. Beginners can also join a community garden for experience.
Other gardening options are hydroponic and aquaponic gardening. Hydroponic is a method of gardening that uses water and mineral and nutrient solutions to grow plants without using soil. Aquaponic is based on the same concept, but uses aquariums. The fish waste provides the nutrients the plants need.
Pigford said the most effective way to do aquaponic gardening on a small scale is to put a tray on top of the fish tank and plant the plants in it. Then, gardeners can pump water from the fish tank up into the tray and have it filter back down into the tank. However, people can also buy aquaponic systems.
San Juan Nursery currently has a hydroponic system to grow strawberries and tomatoes.
"You can grow indoors, so you can actually grow all year round," Pigford said.
He said the hydroponic systems constantly push water and nutrients past the root system of the plants. So, instead of focusing on growing large root systems, the plants grow faster and will produce higher yields. Because the water is recirculated through the system, Pigford said hydroponic gardening actually uses 70 to 80 percent less water than traditional gardens and less water is lost through evaporation.
While planting, Pigford said the type of seed also matters. The nursery offers a wide variety of seeds, including a selection of Botanical Interest seeds, which Pigford recommended for organic gardening. He said the Botanical Interest seeds are not genetically modified. This means a gardener could grow a Botanical Interest squash, harvest the seeds in the fall and grow them the next year. Pigford suggested going with more natural varieties of tomatoes due to the taste. He said some tomatoes have been genetically bred to be round, smooth and red. However, he said the best tasting tomatoes are often ugly. They come in oblong shapes and sometimes are yellow.
Pigford said he encourages families to involve their children in gardening. He said he raised his kids helping in the garden. During the summer, when his children were playing outside and got hungry, they would pick tomatoes from the vines and eat the tomatoes. Their friends, however, would ask for chips or some other snack food.
In the nursery there is a sign that reads: "A garden is a friend you can visit anytime. Start with your kids and plant big smiles, grow giggles and harvest love."