SustainAbility column July 25, 2009

Living in the desert is “perfectly possible.”

Humans have lived in the desert for thousands of years and survived.

According to Master Gardener Laurie Reiser, living in the desert is “perfectly possible” and doesn’t have to be scary.

The key is respecting the land and adapting.

Reiser is a proponent of “living mindfully,” but it is not her style to force change on people. She would rather lead by example and teach children to be “stewards of the land.”

Reiser likes to “gently nudge people toward adapting.”

Lured by Reiser’s enthusiasm, I visited her home away from home, the gardens at the Colorado State University Tri River Area Cooperative Extension by the Fairgrounds. Curt Swift and Susan Rose helped with the tour.

The quest for the best ways to grow things in our desert takes place in the many gardens at the site.

The research garden experiments with a variety of herbs including lavender. Reiser said they are trying to promote lavender as a cash crop because of its versatility. The herb can be used in teas, baking and aromatherapy.

The adaptive garden features square-foot gardening on tabletops and an array of creative container gardens. Reiser wants people to see they can garden successfully even with very limited space or varying levels of mobility.

The tabletop gardens are 4 feet by 4 feet and divided into 16 one-foot squares.

Miniature varieties of vegetables, microgreens and flowers are thriving in four tabletop gardens built to different depths.

The soil depth determines what types of plants can be grown and it is important to use very good soil. Reiser also recommends succession planting so an area can produce food over a longer period of time.

Almost anything can be used for container gardening as long as you drill a hole for drainage.

A pair of old ski boots was waiting to be transformed into funky container gardens.

When there is room, more than one type of plant can be grown in the same container. Container gardening has become so popular there are special varieties of plants intended just for that use. Lettuce, tomatoes and peppers were just a few of the items I saw growing in containers.

Irrigation systems are to scale and employ microsprays, bubblers and small spay nozzles to minimize water usage. Even the smallest garden needs to be watered and weeded.

Reiser volunteers her time at the various gardens and said you can learn new types of gardening by helping out or taking classes.

The new Ute Ethnobotany Learning Garden started with an idea but required much teamwork and patience to grow.

According to Reiser, this cooperative effort involved the BLM, Forest Service, Museum of the West, Mesa State College’s ethnobotany program and a number of people who work with native plants.

A unique relationship with the Northern Ute Nation from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Fort Duchesne, Utah, has ensured a high degree of cultural sensitivity and cooperation during the project.

Ute Elder Clifford Duncan even helped set up a donated Nu-gan, the Ute word for teepee, in the middle of the garden. Visitors can learn why the Nu-gan faces east and proper etiquette for entering the structure.

Seed money from the Bureau of Land Management was used to begin the project of transforming a weedy lot into a showcase of the area’s climate zones. Tons of dirt and rock were moved to create the features, which include berms dedicated to specific plants zones. A path meanders between the berms in what will become meadows.

The garden has two entrances and interpretive signage will be put up to identify each plant and explain the different zones.

After several years of effort the Ute Ethnobotany Learning Garden is well under way and will have an open house on Sept. 16 for students from Fort Duchesne on their way to the Council Tree Pow Wow.

Many local businesses donated time and materials to the undertaking. Cash donations for the new garden and help pulling weeds are always appreciated.

There will also be opportunities to train as visitor guides, or docents, to conduct educational tours of the garden.

To learn more or get involved with the extension office gardening programs, go to or call 244-1836.

As Reiser said, “We can combine today’s technology with native know how to make living in the desert sustainable.”

Adele Israel is a Grand Junction writer who has been involved in sustainability efforts for some 20 years. Have a question or column idea for Adele? E-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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