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Cooperative extension orchard helps educate adults and kids in gardening

A 1-acre facility in North Las Vegas serves its surrounding community through researching and demonstrating fruit production under Nevada’s desert climate.

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Research Center & Demonstration Orchard, 4600 Horse Drive, tests and demonstrates a variety of tree fruits and vegetables such as grapes, blackberries, strawberries and nopales.

“The orchard has been here for the past 20 years,” said M.L. Robinson, horticulture specialist at the orchard. “We place a special emphasis on water conservation, and we do a lot of demonstrations to see which trees do best in this type of climate.”

The 10-acre orchard is a cooperative effort between the University of Nevada, Reno and UNLV.

New information is developed from research and demonstrations at the orchard, which is published in university fact sheets and distributed to the general public through mass media programs.

Jonathan Chodacki, who oversees approximately 25 volunteers and workers, manages the orchard.

“This climate is not made for great agriculture,” Chodacki said. “There are a lot of adjustments that have to happen to the soil and a lot of work that is involved.”

Research and educational activities are aimed at backyard and small-scale organic fruit production under desert conditions.

After much study, Robinson recommends that people plant deciduous fruits, such as pears, figs, apricots and peaches, which work well in the Southern Nevada climate.

In order to aid people with their gardening, the orchard provides horse manure and a stockpile of natural organic mulch for a donation.

The mulch helps retain water, provides nutrients for beneficial microorganisms and keeps the soil cool in the summer, according to Robinson.

He suggests people mix 3 to 4 inches of mulch with the soil in their gardens or around trees.

The orchard also provides a space for people to meet and learn about gardening through the Master Gardener program.

In order to become a Master Gardener, people must complete 80 hours of training, which consists of 20 classes of instruction.

Classes are offered from 8:30 a.m. through 12:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the spring and fall semesters. Classes include three hours of lecture and one hour of hands-on activities.

There is a $150 fee charged to offset program-operating expenses.

Volunteers must sign an agreement to volunteer 50 hours a year to the program in order to stay certified as a Master Gardener. They answer phone calls, send out informational materials and develop community gardens.

“I joined the program because I moved here from Florida, where the climate was very different,” said volunteer Nancy Grimm. “There’s always something new to learn. We’re always trying different techniques. It takes a lot of patience.”

Various workshops are also held throughout the year.

In the winter, pruning workshops are held, which focus on the selective removal of parts of a plant, such as branches, buds or roots. Most workshops range from one to two hours. A $5 donation is requested.

Upcoming workshops will focus on spring planting, Robinson said.

Past workshops have included water conservation training, ways to reduce pesticide and fertilizer chemical use, landscaping, grape crushing, wine making and gardening tools.

There are 12 beehives at the orchard. The bees aid in the pollination of fruits and vegetablesand provide honey for local chefs and the public through sales at farmer’s markets, according to Robinson.

For people interested in gardening, Robinson suggests that people plant fruit trees in their backyard.

“These trees are great for providing shade; they flower in the springtime, and they provide food,” Robinson said. “It’s better to grow food rather than wasting time and resources on plants (used for decoration).”

He also said grapevines and pomegranates can be used as ornamental plants that can provide fruit in the Nevada climate.

“People can not only feel proud of producing their own food, but they understand all of the work that farmers go through,” Robinson said. “Plus, gardening is much cheaper than therapy.”

The Research Center & Demonstration Orchard is open from 8 a.m. to noon Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more information, call 702-257-5555 or visit www.unce.unr.edu.

Children can also participate in gardening classes through the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Food for Thoughts program at 4600 Horse Drive.

Karen Johnson, Food for Thoughts School Children’s Demonstration Garden coordinator, is in charge of the school garden in North Las Vegas. The garden is open to schools and the community.

“We started the demonstration garden for teachers and their students to come out, learn and get ideas,” Johnson said.

The garden consists of apriums, apricots, pluots, apples and peaches. Grapevines decorate the walls, and there are also rows of artichokes, onions, broccoli, cabbages and garlic growing.

The garden is protected by cages and bird blocks, which avoid the use of pesticides.

“The biggest challenge of maintaining the garden has to be watering,” Johnson said, “especially when the weather gets dry.”

The 155-foot-long garden is also used to teach the Junior Master Gardeners program.

The two-year program occurs every spring and fall on the first and third Saturday of the month. A new program starts every semester.

There is also an optional summer program for anyone 6 or older.

Lisa Vargas has been teaching for more than a year. She said the program consists of 90 minutes of instruction inside the classroom and 90 minutes of hands-on projects.

“Children can learn so much through the program,” Vargas said. “We teach them about the cycle of life, nutrition, tool safety, discipline and patience. It also teaches them about where their food comes from.”

Every semester, the children must also participate in a community project.

Children who graduate from the program receive certificates and leadership opportunities.

The program is aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds. At the end of the semester, children can harvest vegetables and fruits to take home.

Efforts are being made to create a storybook-themed garden, which will create a space for families to relax during the summertime surrounded by blossoming flowers.

“This place is really dear to our hearts,” Vargas said. “Kids learn not to be afraid to get their hands dirty.”

For more information, visit www.unce.unr.edu/programs/sites/foodforthoughts or call Johnson at 702-257-5523.

Contact North Las Vegas and Centennial View reporter Sandy Lopez at slopez@viewnews.com or 702-383-4686.

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