Inez Elementary: Gardening in the High Desert

Inez Elementary high desert School gardens offer a unique tool for teaching students to respect their local ecosystem, the importance of native plants and how to use sustainable growing techniques. 2019 Budding Botanist Winner Inez Elementary’s quest to turn a challenging courtyard into a vibrant living classroom to teach about local culture and the beauty of their native Intermountain Shrubland and Grassland ecosystem is a prime example of the benefits that can be derived from using nature as inspiration rather than trying to install a school garden from a standard garden template.

Inez Elementary is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is located on the Southern Colorado Plateau. The annual rainfall averages 9-11 inches, which is far below what is needed for many traditional garden crops. “New Mexico may be the Land of Enchantment, but it certainly takes some unique knowledge, wisdom, and reframing of typical gardening methods if you want success,” shares Inez Elementary PTO Officer Rebecca Brinkerhoff.” However, don’t let the Southwest deceive you into believing it a vacant, barren wasteland. It is quite the contrary. How else could we be home to the Acoma, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) continually inhabited communities in North America for the past 2,000+ years?”

Rebecca explains that “sustainability, appreciation for the beauty and depth of our arid environment, and respect for our traditional and Pueblo community knowledge is what our garden program is all about.” They are developing their educational programming around three main garden features:

  • Inez Elementary high desert garden
    "Red Hot Poker," a native plant to the Albuquerque region

    Students will learn about erosion and how to manage water runoff through the installation of a unique erosion management system. A construction technique using a series of rammed earth berms will be installed to prevent soil loss. The installation of infiltration trenches (aka “sponges”) will assist with water absorption. They will also learn about important role the root systems of native vegetation play in preventing erosion.

  • Lessons about water conservation will be demonstrated through a newly developed area enclosed in adobe blocks (handmade by students) that will help retain water. This section of the garden will be irrigated using a 5,000-gallon water harvesting tank.
  • Finally, the garden will feature native plants (including native edible vegetable plants). Students will learn about the benefits of growing plants that are well adapted to their environment versus plants that are imported from other ecosystems.

In addition to these features, an outdoor classroom area was constructed to turn their renovated courtyard into a convenient learning space to encourage teachers to take their classes out into the garden regularly.

The garden offers endless possibilities for integrating academic, environmental, cultural, and sustainability teaching goals and objectives. Rebecca explains that, “academically, we will be teaching about plant basics along with native habitat exploration and understanding of water conservation. Which ties directly into the environmental component. Planting of plants with high water needs or planting in ways that do not conserve water can be not only impractical but potentially irresponsible depending on the rain fall eachyear. We also want to foster a love and appreciation for our high desert environment as well as show students the bounty that is possible when planting is in harmony with our region. Culturally, there is so much to learn regarding plants for habitat and food production. Additionally, incorporating the traditional building techniques of the region such as adobe and rammed earth with xeriscaping principles make water flow management and retention possible. And when we combine all of these principles, we are able to achieve a very sustainable project.”

Inez Elementary high desert garden
"In our courtyard we are learning to... predict, plan, observe, weed & water, measure, calculate, research"

The careful design and plant selection will allow the space to be relative self-sustaining. They also anticipate that it will provide a home for local wildlife such as local birds, pollinators, lizards, and more. The school also plans to establish a seed saving bank to contribute towards efforts to ensure the biodiversity of agriculture crops in the future. Here is a list of some of the plants they have selected for their garden:

Fallugia paradoxa - Apache Plume

Mahonia fremontii - Blue Algerita

Baileya multiradiata - Desert Marigold

Bouteloua gracilis - Blue Grama grass

Gaillandia grandiflora – Sun blanket flower

Penstemon strictus - Rocky Mountain Penstemon

Eriogonum species - Wild Buckwheat

Nasella tenussima - Threadgrass

Linum perenne - Blue Flax

Sphaeralcea ambigua - Desert Globemallow

Wyethia scabra - Desert Mule Ear

Phaseolus vulgaris - New Mexico Bolitas

Zea mays - Navajo Copper popcorn

Lagenaria siceraria - Zia Pueblo Canteen

Cucumis melo “Acoma” “Cochiti Mix” - Muskmelon

Cucurbita maxima “Calabaza Temporal” – a native squash variety

Capsicum annuum “Chimayo” – a native pepper variety

Ultimately, the hope is that the students and parents who participate in this garden program will understand the value of designing landscape and gardening spaces in harmony with the local environment and will becomes stewards of their local ecosystem striving to protect both plant and animal species. KidsGardening and the Klorane Botanical Foundation were honored to be part of their garden journey through the Budding Botanist grant program. Imagine the impact we could have on our world if every student had the chance to learn about their local ecosystem in this amazing hands-on way.

Inez Elementary high desert
Adobe bricks at the Inez Elementary school garden. This section of the garden will be used to learn about water conservation.

Inez Elementary high desert garden
A garden bed made of adobe blocks, which will help retain water.