Breaking New Ground: A Garden in the Desert

Barbara and I chose to homestead on a piece of ground not easy to garden. We live on a bajada, a rocky alluvialfan. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Published on Sep 2, 2011

Grit Magazine

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