On August 25th 2012, the Leyendecker Plant Science Center, 6 miles south of NMSU in Las Cruces, hosted a Centennial Field Day. This event provided the opportunity to check on the progress of Larry Blackwell’s vegetable garden. The small garden nestles again a white wall, which reflects light and adds to the challenge of desert growing.
Larry Blackwell is a research lab technician in Weed Science. Although his main responsibility is to oversee the weed garden and related research requirements, he still finds a bit of time to nurture some desert-possible vegetables.
The “three sisters” – corn, squash, and beans – have been grown throughout the Borderlands for millennia. Native Americans have legends and stories about how the collaboration works to the benefit of all. Although farmers growing for commercial purposes plant crops individually, companion planting as traditionally employed can work well for backyard gardeners.
Larry’s crops are pumpkin, squash, eggplant, all of which are doing well, and tomatoes, which are a classic Borderlands challenge. Pumpkins and squash are members of the Curcurbita species. Eggplants and tomatoes are members of the Genus Solanum. This is the largest genus in the Solanaceae Family, known also as the potato family. Peppers (Genus Capsicum) and Jimsonweed (Genus Datura) grow well here in the Borderlands, but tomatoes and potatoes do not. Several growers are producing delicious organic tomatoes but these are grown under very special conditions. It’s possible that tomatoes that do well in desert regions similar to here may do better than types better adapted to more moist U.S. regions. Larry is growing the eggplant commonly seen in supermarkets, but across the world, there are hundreds of different kinds, some edible, some not.
One of the truly wonderful things about the Leyendecker Plant Research Center is that it sparks new ideas and new explorations. At the farm, researchers grow different plants under different conditions. Some efforts are carefully controlled as true research experiments, and some, like Larry’s vegetable garden, are more relaxed. These kinds of examples are more accessible to kitchen, backyard and community gardeners specifically because of the informality. It’s easy to see something growing in different conditions and to compare results without having to wait for the paper to be published or to wade through complicated technical words to understand what happened.