Glynis’ Garden Fortress In The Desert

Garden is walled and netted on top.

Garden overview–note the net on top to keep birds out.

Out here in the desert, gardening is quite challenging.  I guess that’s why it’s so rewarding.

We live amidst volcanic craters.  They last exploded in about 1100A.D.  Our dirt is volcanic ash and cinder.  Under the cinder is clay.   This type of soil requires constant fertilization and compost.  We also dump old potting soil into it.  We do just about anything we can think of to improve the soil.

Fortunately, the people who lived here before us dumped their compost in the garden area.  They never grew anything, just dumped their compost.  This actually helped when I was cleaning the garden and preparing to grow food there.  We also compost everything, but we have a big composting bin.  The rodents would go crazy in an open compost pile.

Fortunately, our horses give us a large amount of fertilizer and after 3 years of composting and fertilizing, our garden soil is good.  I do a lot of tilling and cultivating before each growing season.

It’s beautiful out here.  I think the land around our home looks like a moonscape, though, as it’s not very green.

There are high winds.  During the spring, winds of 70 mph are not uncommon.  The blowing dust and cinders destroy any new plants.  For this reason, our garden has a 5 ft metal wall around it.  It is also behind a shed that protects it from high winds.  The winds usually blow the hardest from March to June.

Another issue is the lack of rain.  From March to July, we have little or no precipitation.  Fire season is upon us and everything is dangerously dry. We don’t plant our garden in the early spring.  I made that mistake our first year and the amount of water I needed  to grow it early was more than we had been able to collect.

A snake cruises by, outside the garden.

A snake cruises by, outside the planting area. You can see the sheet metal walls easily here.

I had to buy water to grow my garden.  From then on, I started planting only a couple of weeks before the monsoon rains start in mid July.  This gives us a shorter growing season, but our garden grows until early November so most things mature.  I have learned how to use green tomatoes that don’t quite make it to ripeness.

Then there are the rodents. The desert is full of them.  Our dogs and cat do a lot to keep them away from the buildings, but rodents will do everything they can to get into a garden and eat the seeds and young plants.  They destroy everything.  Once they get in, the snakes follow.  We have a multitude of Bull snakes here.  They are not poisonous and they do good work by eating the ever multiplying rats and mice.  I must admit that I am not fond of these snakes and they give me a start when I come across them.  I don’t like having them in the garden.

This isn't in the garden, but it's on our property, near the house. It's the only plant that loves the arid desert heat!

This isn’t in the garden, but it’s on our property, near the house. It’s the only plant that loves the arid desert heat!

We have crows.  Very large crows.  They will eat anything.  They can ruin a garden in a matter of minutes.  To keep them out, we have a chicken wire roof, which you can see in the first picture above.   This has worked nicely and provides a support for the shade cloth.

We put in sheet metal walls that can’t be climbed by anything. Plus we had to dig a ditch around the perimeter of the garden.  18 inches down AND 18 inches out.  We folded a 36 inch piece of hardware cloth to form a barrier so the rodents can’t dig under the sheet metal wall.  This has worked very well to keep both rats and snakes out.

Yes, shade cloth.  Between the time I plant the garden in early July and the time the rains start, it’s hot.  The sun beats down relentlessly, scorching everything in sight.  It’s dry.

Beans, squash, from the garden.

Last year, the garden produced well for us, especially with beans and squash.

We put a heavy shade cloth on top of the garden when it’s first planted for two reasons.  It keeps the water from evaporating so quickly and it keeps the young plants from frying in the sun.  I keep the shade cloth on until the rains come and we get clouds every afternoon and rain.  If the garden survives until the rains start, then we know it’s going to be ok.

We grow tomatoes, lettuce, squash, beans, cucumbers, peppers and melons.  We seem to have very good luck with heirloom seeds.  I try to grow some things that are native to the area.

Since we live near the Navajo and Hopi nations, we often get heirloom seeds that the Native Americans have been planting for hundreds of years.

Shaded, big garden

Once shaded, and surviving ‘monsoon season’, the garden thrives.

They are primarily melons and squash that are drought resistant and they grow well in this harsh environment.  Other heirloom seeds like it out here, too.  I got Rattlesnake Beans a few years ago and I’ve saved some seeds and replanted them every year.  They aren’t from this area, but they love it here!   Heirloom seeds are heartier and saved seeds grow from year to year.  I don’t get anything that is GMO, either.  Each year, I try something new.  This summer I think I’ll try some different lettuces.  Maybe the Deer Tongue lettuce.

Once our garden gets going, it does well.  It doesn’t supply 100% of our food, but it does give us almost everything we need in the summer and plenty of food to can for winter.  I’m working on ways to expand so that someday we can grow 100% of our vegetables.  Adding on to the garden is really difficult, so I have to be a little more creative.

large sunflower

My lovely sunflowers!

I found that the animals don’t bother cucumbers.  Somehow a few of my cucumber seeds made it out of the garden and moved under a tree nearby at some point last year.  The cucumbers grew just fine there.  I’m going to try that again.  I also have chicken wire boxes for herbs and lettuce.  Keeping these out of the main garden gives me more space.

I don’t often grow flowers.  I like to grow cactus because they have beautiful flowers and don’t require a lot of water.  Nothing bothers them.

Last year, I put out sunflower seeds on the side of the hill near the house, just to see what would happen.  They grew, but somehow they got moved out to a field.  But, they grew.  I’ll leave them there and seed that area again this year.

Out here, if a plant survives, we’re happy!