You know, sometimes it can really feel like I’m “swimming upstream” as I pursue living a more independent, self-sufficient life. Some obstacles can just seem too big to overcome. But then all of you remind me of what’s possible if I just stick with it! I want you to meet Margaret, a Power4Patriots customer and regular blog reader, who has used a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work to create a garden that not only survives but thrives in the western Arizona desert, one of the toughest environments our great country has to offer. Well, we managed to persuade her to share her secrets with us, and if you thought there was no way to create a garden that could feed your family in the desert, you sure are in for a surprise! The next time I’m grumbling about pulling weeds in my garden, I’m going to remember that there are folks like this out there making this work in much tougher circumstances than mine. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Thanks Margaret!
By M. Ghost Dancer Wene
When one speaks of gardening in the high desert, one speaks of challenges. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they do require a great deal of effort, persistence and patience. When we moved here in September 2005, our two acres were barren. All we had on our land was our house, goatheads and some other problematic plant growth. All of the cactus and agaves had been rustled by people in the area.
We have, first of all, the challenge of weather. The summers can be blazing hot. In my area, we get temps of 120-125 degrees. By 9 a.m., it can already be up to 100 degrees, therefore, our days start early…really early. I am normally up around 4:30 a.m. and out the door as soon as there is enough light to see and work. The work continues until around 11 a.m. when I go indoors to do house things until around 3-3:30 p.m. Then it’s back outside.
Rain does not come often. When we get it, we pray for gentle, feminine, Earth-nurturing rain, not “gully washers” which do nothing for our gardens or Mother Earth herself.
In the winter, we can get hard freezes with temps around 20 degrees. And yes, we do occasionally receive snow. Not much, and believe me it doesn’t hang around long!
The ground here is like rock. To prepare a garden/growing area, one must first break up the soil. I found that the easiest way to do this is to map out your chosen area and clear all native, unwanted plant material. Soak the ground thoroughly and cover it with 6mm black construction-grade plastic sheeting. Let it stand for about four days and then roll back the sheeting, soak thoroughly again and recover. This job gets repeated for about two weeks, then we start digging and turning, praying that we will not run into any caliche (a tough, rock/concrete-like substance).
Once the ground has been turned initially, I wet it again thoroughly and recover it. I then let it stand for three to four days, then uncover it and start adding amend (Kellogg’s Amend). This is an organic blend, which includes gypsum to aid in retaining moisture so that your plantings will thrive, not die off in hard-baked soil. At this point, I also start adding manure, blood meal, bone meal and compost.
The first year of our 20 x 40 garden, we added one bag of amend for each four square feet of space and one bag of manure for every eight square feet of space. Turning the soil and working these in thoroughly is important (we purchased a tiller to make the job easier). Then it was time to start planting.
Please do NOT expect optimum gardening soil the first or second year. It takes time for this to be accomplished.
When planting trees, shrubs, etc., one always needs to add amend to the soil and work it in well.
Cute Ground Squirrels, Lizards, Birds, Jackrabbits, Black Widow Spiders, Scorpions and, yes, Snakes
These are definitely a challenge. I personally hate to injure or kill any critter, but they do have to be kept out of the garden. As for snakes, well, we have rattlers and Mohave Greens (a very nasty type of rattler with an extremely dangerous neurotoxic venom), so caution has to be practiced to prevent any incidents. We found a product online that we have used since we arrived here. Serpent Guard is a 100 percent non-chemical compound that does NOT kill snakes. However, it interferes with their neural system and makes any area sprayed with it extremely uncomfortable for them to be in, therefore, uninhabitable. It is also against the law for us to kill rattlers or Mohaves.
There are many others that we wouldn’t want to kill – Gopher and King snakes, for example – as they hunt and eat the ground squirrels, jackrabbits and so forth. The lizards consume the bugs. Each spring we spray around all the buildings on our property, plus porches, access steps, decks, gardens, landscaped areas and all the fence lines.
The ground squirrels and lizards, as well as the birds, are another situation to deal with. Our gardens are fenced and protected with galvanized hardware cloth, poultry netting and bird netting. The perimeter posts are Yard Guard 1¾-inch by 3½-inch by eight feet. We use steel “T” posts, except in the gate area where the support posts are four-inch by four-inch Redwood posts. All the posts are buried in the ground two feet deep. A one-foot deep trench is dug around the perimeter and the galvanized wire is buried against the post extending up three feet above ground to prevent the ground squirrels from burrowing in.
The wire cloth is secured to the posts with wire ties. Then the poultry wire is attached, running to the top of the posts and overlapping the wire cloth, here again secured with wire ties. Down the center of the garden, we install galvanized pipe uprights and bars to form a support system for the bird netting. Once that is done, we spread the netting and here again secure it around the perimeter with wire ties. (Netting will last about two years here due to the heat and sun). The gate is made of 2-inch by four-inch wood, treated with a weather-resistant stain and screening. Poultry wire put in place around trees and shrubs will protect them from the jackrabbits and other critters that would feast on them, right to the ground.
Out here, we are in a constant conservation situation when it comes to water, and it’s one we do not take lightly. Drought is the norm, so ensuring that the gardens/landscaping get what they need without waste is mandatory. All of our landscaping and gardens are maintained by drip line watering. We installed and ran waterlines to various watering stations around the property to ensure that we were not wasting water. These separate lines also have below-ground shutoff valves from the main water lines.
The main lines from the watering stations are buried underground and the drip tubing is run from them to each plant in the landscaped areas. The vegetable gardens have three-quarters-inch drip line running above ground along the planting rows with a shutoff valve where each is attached to the main line.
To ensure that the ground stays moist and does not become hard baked, I use construction-grade 6mm black plastic over all of my landscaped areas around and up against the house and the gardens. This is laid down with more than ample openings around each plant, perforated so that any rain we get is allowed to seep through, and then topped off with crushed or decorative stone. We do not use crushed stone topping on the vegetable gardens.
Watering of the landscaping is done on a schedule. Commencing in February, landscaping plants are watered once a week for one hour (due to the amount of landscaping, it actually takes three days to do this). In May, it is increased to 1½ hours per day for the three days and continues through August. In September, we return to the one hour per day schedule, and in December we go to one time every two weeks. Then, once a month in January, UNLESS we have freezing temps. And yes, we do get them!
I have always used the hill method of planting. After tilling the ground, I rake the soil into hill planting rows, then spread and secure black plastic over the entire area. The plastic is slit across the top of the rows, folded under and secured with u-shaped metal stakes to expose the planting area. Then planting gets underway. Drip lines are then laid along the planted rows to ensure that there is a water supply to everything.
During the growing season, additional composted material is worked in around the plants to ensure that they have the needed nutrition. I do not use chemical fertilizers EVER. Kellogg’s does make some excellent Organic Fertilizers and I do use them on my fruit trees. Remember also that rotation of crop planting is necessary; design a planting layout each year and make sure you’re not planting the same thing time and again in the same spot.
Our household composts EVERYTHING we possibly can. At the end of the growing season or as plants no longer produce, we chop them up and add them to the composter. The exception to that rule is the tomato and potato plants; we do not compost them. We also do not compost newspapers, magazines, etc. nor do we use these items as mulch, because of the dyes in the inks. I just do not trust them.
The gardening season
Out here, we are really lucky as we have two growing seasons. We can actually start planting in late February and then a new crop of certain things can go into the ground in August. I have had many plants started in February that are still producing in early December. This means I have lots of food to process either by drying, freezing or canning. It also means I have seeds to start/plant for the new growing season. My kitchen garden (lettuce, mesclun, chives, spinach, parsley, onions, basil, etc. is right outside the back patio door and produces year ‘round. This past fall, I let it go fallow and this spring I am changing it to raised beds (which will be easier on my aging back).
Closing the garden
In the fall when the plants have blessed us with their final gifts, we take up the water lines, clean out the spent plantings and take up the black plastic from the current season. The planting hills are spread down once again and the area turned gently. The entire area is once again watered thoroughly, and after a month, watered again. Then black plastic goes on again (this will be used on the new garden again in the spring), perforated to allow water through and left to sleep for the winter.
I have been exceedingly successful in growing both landscape plants and food crops here. We have Agaves, Cactus (several types), Red Yucca, Oleanders, Jasmine, Texas Sage, Sacred White Plains Sage, Australian Bottle Brush, Pomegranates, Palo Verde Trees, Fruitless Mulberry Trees, Grapes, Peaches, Plums, Nectarines, Apricots, Beets, Carrots, Jalapeno and Bell Peppers, Tomatoes, Zucchini, Eggplant (two varieties), Peas, Snap Beans, Acorn and Lakota Squash, Asparagus, Strawberries and Iris. I just planted four Pistachios last year, and my orange and lime trees have yet to produce.
The gardens and trees have not only provided for my husband and me, for gifts of canned jellies, jams, pickles, etc., but also for a neighbor living on a very small income and a family with eight kids whose father has been out of work for two years. We have been blessed abundantly.
So you see, growing is possible even in the high desert, if you are willing to work at it!