Organic Gardening in the High Desert

This year we've been spending a lot of time focused on gardening and have hopes of growing most of, if not all of our own organic produce at some point in the future. For now, we work alongside our neighbors, the Avalon's, in their well established desert garden. From what I've seen over the past few years, gardening outdoors in the high desert requires patience, attention to detail and even over-engineering to navigate the extreme elements and tenacious pests. Aside from extreme temperatures our gardens must be prepared to withstand fierce winds, minimal rain fall and hail storms, as well as pack rats, rabbits, antelope and free-range cattle.

Vegetable Gardening

Before we began work this spring, the outdoor vegetable garden consisted of 7 framed beds enclosed with rabbit mesh, 2 long, raised beds made from cider block, and a large in ground bed suitable for melons, gourds, squash and cucumbers. This year we've added three more in ground garden beds.

First, we tilled a large unfertilized patch for potatoes just outside the current garden fence. We plan to expand the garden boundaries to include the potato bed at some point, but for now we think they'll be fine. Last year our neighbors down the road grew fabulous potatoes directly in the sand with no fence and we hope that we have the same good fortune.

Second, we tilled an additional vegetable bed inside the garden fence. We mixed many layers of organic plant material and composted manure collected from alpacas and rabbits in with the native sand using a rototiller. After several rounds of organic compost and tilling we wet down the well-turned and richly fertilized bed. To further enrich the new vegetable bed beans will be planted for several years and turned under each fall to increase the presence of nitrogen in the soil.

Third, we created a small flower bed tucked in a corner of the garden. I'm looking forward to planting colorful wildflower seeds and hope to have lovely flowers for table arrangements.

Garden Irrigation System

In addition to building new vegetable beds, we have also begun improvements to the garden irrigation system. Each of the beds is connected into the garden irrigation system and has either a sprinkler or sprayers to deliver water to the plants. Water is supplied to the garden from a nearby fresh water well that pumps to an above ground storage tank. We use a 12 volt pressure pump (taken from a travel trailer water system) to pressurize the irrigation system.

After connecting each of the new beds into the irrigation system we finished running the last of the PVC pipe and closed in the plumbing ditch. We are still researching irrigation control systems and plan to install one that can automate varied watering schedules in several different zones. In the mean time, we are still hand watering the garden and the greenhouse just about every other day. Also. we've discovered that watering in the desert can pose a threat to plants if water droplets are allowed to collect on the leaves. The water droplets magnify the intensity of the sun, burning holes straight through the leaves. Because the garden has no protection from shade cloth, we take care to water in the mornings and to minimize the amount of water that gets on the leaves.

Organic Gardening Progress

In early spring we spent quite a bit of time in the garden weeding out thirsty and tenacious desert plants that had crept up the garden during the previous year. We cleared the dead plant material, adding it to the compost pile for use as fertilizer on new garden beds. Using a hoe and shovel we turned all of the beds over with bunny and alpaca manure and then watered them down. We covered the beds with black plastic not only to encourage the soil to retain its moisture, but to increase the temperature of the beds and eliminate insects that pose a threat to plants. Mid-april the plastic was removed and many seedlings from the greenhouse were transfered into the garden. "Walls of water" placed around the delicate plants helped to protect them from the elements while they were taking root in the garden. (Walls of water are pictured in the top photo)

Vegetable Varieties

We've got lots of things growing in the garden now and should have fresh organic vegetables ready to pick any day. Zucchini and yellow squash are doing well despite a recent freeze, and the green spinach is looking pretty tasty too. We've also planted chard and kale, a variety of green beans, and also Sachs onions which have been traveling in Patrick's family for many generations. Beets are coming up, as well as melons and winter squash, and carrot seeds have also been put in the ground. There are two garlic beds which were planted last year and are just about ready for harvest. In addition a strawberry patch has survived the winter and there is hope for delicious hand picked strawberries this summer. In selecting our vegetable seeds we've taken special care to cultivate hardy varieties that are suited for harsher climates and can withstand both the heat and cold of the desert.

Garden Plans

  • Our biggest priority in the garden is to install an irrigation control system that will automate watering.
  • Soon garden trellises will need to be constructed to support climbing plants.
  • We also want to expand the garden enclosure and erect permanent reinforced fence posts.
  • As it gets hotter we may also be constructing solar fly traps to control the fly population around the compost and garden.

Passive Solar Greenhouse Modifications

Click here to read about our recent greenhouse construction project, in which we remodeled an ordinary greenhouse into a structure that has passive solar heating capabilities.

Sustainable Gardening Books

If you are seeking more information on organic gardening and growing your own fruits and vegetables or for tips on desert gardening, composting, saving seeds or utilizing a root cellar, the following books cover a range of gardening topics.

To choose from a greater selection of books visit the Bookstore. We offer a variety of how to books on topics related to off-grid living, homesteading and sustainability.