Grit Blogs > Desert Homesteading

Breaking New Ground: A Garden in the Desert

A photo of Dave LarsonBarbara and I chose to homestead on a piece of ground not easy to garden. We live on a bajada, a rocky alluvial fan. Rocks have been washed down from the nearby mountains for centuries, lying in wait just below the silty surface to defy digging a garden. Besides being rocky, our land is covered with scrub mesquite, rabbit brush, and cat claw. Once a rolling and grassy savannah, the cattle boom of the late 1800s brought a level of overgrazing that altered the face of the valley forever.

Despite rocks, scrub trees, and brush, we knew that we were going to have a garden. We also knew that my back was not up to digging up the root systems of the many mesquite trees on our chosen garden site. With mesquites, there is a great deal more “tree” underground than above, or at least it seems so when digging them out.  So out came the baby backhoe aka Dave’s Tonka Toy. On one of the days of early garden prep, my son, Brent, and grandson, Lydon, were visiting. Nothing makes a boy smile (or a grandpa) like the first time on a machine.

         Brent and Lydon on Backhoe
 

After all the large rocks and trees were removed with the Tonka Toy, I hauled over about 20 loads of old horse manure from our neighbors pile and spread it on the garden site with the front loader. Two days worth of work with a front-tine garden tiller turned in the first application of fertilizer. Then we staked out and installed our fence, the first line of defense against jackrabbits, deer, and javelin.

        Irrigation System
 

In the desert, water is key to any attempt at gardening. As we wanted to control our water use, we ran a system of drip irrigation and installed valves at the head of each bed. This method saves water and gives us a lot of control over the amount of water to our garden beds.

            Raised Beds for Planting
 

After the irrigation lines were in, we put in raised beds of landscape timbers. Our garden naturally slopes and the raised beds enabled us to have a level bed to control water distribution. We built the beds 36” across inside dimension to make it easy to reach the middle of the bed from the aisles.

     Screening into Wheelbarrow
 

Before the planting began, we dug each bed one more time with a round-nose shovel and screened the soil through a framed screen of 1/4" mesh hardware cloth into a wheelbarrow. The rockless soil was then replaced in the bed. A heavy layer of manure, screened in the same way, was then added to the bed. We put four wheelbarrows of screened manure in a 15’ bed. Then out came the rototiller for a final turn and mix of manure and soil.

      Pest Control Boxes
 

The emerging plants look pretty delicious to our crop of quail and other birds, so we built tents of hardware cloth and boxes covered in poultry netting to keep the birds from our new plants.

           Tomatoes in Basket 
 

Over the past couple years, we have experimented with different methods of supporting tomatoes in an area of serious wind and intense sun. A simple rail fence is our newest method and one that we’ll keep. It is easy to install and provides easy access to our great tomato crop. Last year we ate fresh tomatoes until December and then switched to the bags of frozen tomatoes in the freezer.

          Barbara with Vegetables
 

One of life’s real pleasures is watching Barbara in the garden as she works her magic with the plants. Most of our meals consist of a very high percentage of produce from our garden and orchard. Inexpensive, healthy, and incredibly tasty eating has become a consistent part of our lives.

              Harvest Garden    
 

To look out over our garden during harvest time and then to look beyond the garden to the brushy and rocky desert offers a contrast that is hard to believe. Over the past few years, we have continued to enrich our beds with compost and each season brings more exuberant crops. With love and hard work, a lush garden in the middle of the desert can be a reality. For more information on desert gardening, I invite you to visit our site at www.grow-cook-eat-beans.com.

dave larson
9/5/2011 8:57:05 AM

Hi N Dave, Thanks for the visit and the comments. Our well, up here off the valley floor, is about 650 ft deep. (OUCH)- but the water is great and the volume is more than enough for garden and orchard. We are pretty careful not to waste any, though. We get great root crops - we have put up nearly two dozen jars of pickled beets and plant our carrots in rotation so we have fresh carrots through the winter - Nantes does really well. Lettuce is great here, but bolts quickly in June and July. Take a look at the website - www.grow-cook-eat-beans.com for some pics of our produce varieties. We haven't had much luck with broccoli, but cabbage, kale, and garden herbs all do well, especially cabbage. Again, we rotate the cabbage, planting about six at a time. Fresh cabbage much of the year. Sooo good. As to projects, they are never done. We are still putting down flagstone and next is a built-in desk and bookcase against an interior wall. Love it. Almost time for the Sandhill cranes to be moving your way and then they come down to our valley to winter over by the thousands. Enjoy your Nebraska autumn!


dave larson
9/5/2011 8:41:30 AM

Johnny, Thanks for the kind words as well as the tip on hog panels. We used hog panels for our tomatoes in our Minnesota garden. These yucca stems work about the same way. An additional advantage for us is the larger diameter support of the yucca as the wind doesn't tend to break the stem on the wires. Panels are great, though.


dave larson
9/5/2011 8:36:47 AM

Hi Cindy, Thanks for your comments. You might suggest to your friend near Tucson that a frame with shade cloth during the hottest months works pretty well. She can get shade cloth in varying degrees of density to keep out either more or less sun. Happy Gardening.


cindy murphy
9/4/2011 8:57:29 PM

Very, very cool, Dave. I'm going to have to show this to my friend who lives outside Tucson. She's tried container vegetable gardening for a few years, and has had some success early in the season with some crops. Other crops though, she complains that no matter how much water, fry once the extreme heat kicks in, (I'm not sure, but I think she uses drip irrigation also). Maybe she can glean some helpful hints from your blog. It's a beautiful garden!


johnny
9/4/2011 1:30:55 AM

Greetings, Totally enjoyed the blog about the desert garden, and wanted to input on an option for the tomato support...I've found the hog wire panels work great when installed between two poles. (I prefer to put my panels off the ground a foot or so, since the tomato grows up and around the wire.


nebraska dave
9/3/2011 8:48:05 PM

Hey Dave, that's a pretty amazing garden for the middle of the desert. I expect you had to drill a well for your property and water would be certainly a conservation item. What kind of tomatoes do you grow that will with stand the desert heat. I imagine root crops like carrots and potatoes are not grown in your garden nor the cold weather crops of lettuce, broccoli, and radishes? You two really put a lot of planning and hard work into all your building projects. Don't you? Do you have any projects on the drawing board for the future or are you now going to kick back and enjoy the fruits of all your hard work? If you are anything like me there's always something bouncing around in the back of my mind that would become a great project. My garden here in Nebraska is starting to wind down. I may get a few more tomatoes but that's about all. I dug up a few potatoes and they seem to have done all right but it's nothing to brag about. Last week I planted my fall garden which consists of carrots, broccoli, and lettuce. It's my first time trying to plant a fall garden so we shall see how that turns out. Have a great day in the desert garden.