Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Gardening in the high desert has its challenges. Water is scarce. Late spring freezes and hot summers can destroy even the most well-planned garden.
Each year, the Albuquerque Area Extension Master Gardeners operate a gardening hotline to answer the public’s questions about growing plants in the arid Southwest.
The hotline “season” starts on March 1 and runs through the end of October.
Lin Yeskie, who is serving her second year as the hotline director, said the initiative is all about education and conservation.
“We’re a membership of trained volunteers dedicated to sharing horticultural scientific and research-based info to educate the public in safe gardening practices,” said Yeskie, a 25-year Master Gardener with experience in New Mexico and Kansas. “Especially here, we try to encourage people to use native plants, because they’ll do well.”
Hotline volunteers are no rookies. To earn the Master Gardener certification, each applicant must graduate from classes taught by New Mexico State University professors and specialists, and log volunteer hours for local projects. Veteran gardeners also take advanced training.
The experts consult reference books and NMSU publications to answer hotline questions. They also rely on their own experience coaxing trees, shrubs and vegetables from the fickle Albuquerque soil.
If a solution is still evasive, the gardeners may visit a person’s home to assess the problem. The team can also help locals get their soil or plants tested for a more thorough analysis.
The pandemic has interrupted the group’s in-person classes and events at libraries and fairs. Volunteers typically operate the hotline from the NMSU Bernalillo County Extension Office. But this year, the group will answer calls and emails from their homes.
The website, abqmastergardeners.org, has also become a treasure trove of local gardening resources during the pandemic, as the office is closed to most visitors.
In 2020, the hotline fielded a surge of questions about vegetable gardening. Yeskie attributes the rise to the pandemic, which disrupted the food supply chain and prompted first-time gardeners to start digging in the dirt.
“The thing I really like about doing the hotline is that every time someone calls in and we research the answer for them, we can also learn something new,” she said.
About 2,000 pounds of produce from the team’s four demonstration gardens is donated to local food banks each year.
Water is the top issue for hotline callers – not surprising in a city like Albuquerque.
“There’s a legend that one of the extension agents would always pick up the phone and say, ‘water,’ even before the caller started talking about their problem,” Yeskie said.
“We remind people that they have to water deeply. Almost everything goes back to water.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.