In order to conserve water in our garden, it is recommended to encourage mycorrhizal growth.
But, first off, what is mycorrhiza?
Mycorrhiza is a type of fungus that has developed a symbiotic relationship with plants, in which it increases the absorption of phosphorus and other nutrients. The plant allows the fungus to attach itself to its root system. Because the amount of water and nutrients a plant can absorb is directly dependent on the surface area of the root system, this relationship increases the ability of plants to absorb what they need. Mycorrhizal networks are able to absorb all 15 essential nutrients for plants, and absorb the nutrients through intricate webs. It also makes certain enzymes that can aid in breaking down hard to claim nutrients such as phosphorus in order to make them easier for a plant to uptake and digest.
This is what it looks like close up:
“Ericoid mycorrhizal fungus” by MidgleyDJ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ericoid_mycorrhizal_fungus.jpg#/media/File:Ericoid_mycorrhizal_fungus.jpg
And this is what its symbiotic relationship looks like:
Mycorrhizal growth on roots- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vicia_sepium9_ies.jpg
These organisms can help plants thrive naturally and without fertilizer. They are also great at increasing the ability of soil to hold water because the water holding capacity increases as the amount of organic matter does. This means that less water will be lost by evaporation or runoff so that more water is available to the plants and you do not have to irrigate as much. Loss of water to the environment is a major source of water waste. Mycorrhizae produce humus and other organic glues that can hold the soil together and therefore increase water holding capacity.
Conventional gardening, unfortunately, can make it difficult for plants to interact with mycorrhizae. Compaction, top soil loss, and less organic matter discourages mycorrhizae from growing. Often, the effects of conventional gardening on this relationship are dually terrible because it both isolates plants and discourages fungal growth as well as increasing the nutrient needs. This increases the needs for fertilizers and other water-consuming products in the garden.
So how is it possible to encourage mycorrhizal growth?
Add compost, rather than fertilizer, to soil. While fertilizer gives plants nutrients, it is chemical-heavy and strips plants of the need to develop this relationship with mycorrhizae. The chemicals are detrimental to existing fungi and, although providing plants with nutrients, discourage the development of natural nutrition uptake strategies. Adding compost will increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, and develop a more fertile topsoil, thus making an ideal environment for mycorrhizal growth.
Use minimal tillage. When you till the soil, it can disrupt and harm the fungal growth on the roots of plants. It takes a while for mychorrhizae to grow, so tilling every season can be detrimental to colonies.
Plant cover crops. While establishing different kinds of environments for the mycorrhizae, cover crops increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, thus increasing microbial activity and encouraging mycorrhizae to grow.
Mycorrhizae can be a natural defense against what could devastate a garden: drought and nutrient deficiency. It is in many ways essential to healthy, natural garden that does not deplete nutrients in the soil. Who knew such a little organism could make such a big difference?
While winter storms provided a unique set of challenges, they often bring with them a blessing: water.
The past few weeks have been exceptionally moist here in New Mexico. Rainfall and snow have decorated our landscape with saturated vistas and winter blankets. ??While the heat of summer and scarcity of water may be far from our minds, this winter moisture is key to ensuring the health of plants and animals throughout the year.
However, it???s not just how much moisture we get that???s important. It???s how long we get to keep it.
Snowfall provides an excellent opportunity of this concept in action. Following snow fall, take a look outside. Observe each day where the snow has melted and where it remains. Notice??micro-climates.
While we???re weeks out from our last big snow storm, snow remains on the ground in some places.?? These cooler, protected patches of ground are able to hold onto the snow for longer periods of time and release snow melt at a slower rate. Why does this matter? Slowing down the pace of water moving through a system means the plants and animals in the system can use the water over longer periods of time.
While snow provides an excellent visual for this process, we can treat any form of precipitation the same way. How? Mulch. Build organic matter in the soil. Keep plants in the ground year round. Create shade. Dig soil sponges. Utilize swales. Above all, be creative! Observe patterns of success in nature and explore possibilities in your own space.
The Desert Oasis Teaching Garden has teamed up with the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority to offer a series of WaterSmart Gardening classes. ??Covering everything from waster wise irrigation and catchment techniques to planning a fall garden, this course is a great way to share??agricultural knowledge while helping Albuquerque residents earn a??water rebate at the same time!
In addition to a thoughtful discussion, we’ve had the opportunity to tour participants around the DOT Garden, highlighting our water saving techniques in action –??drip irrigation for raised beds and in-ground gardening, soil sponges for maintaining tree health, sponge & swale systems for flower gardens, and cisterns for rainwater collection.
If you’re interested in attending, please register at:??https://www.abcwua.org/water-wise-gardening.aspx
See the PDF below for all the information from our presentation, including a great list of resources for your gardening and water catchment questions.
Olla (OY-yah) irrigation provides an elegantly simple, efficient, out-of-site irrigation method best suited for smaller growing areas.
The olla is a round clay chamber with a long neck at the top. The olla is fired but unglazed, ensuring that it remains porous. Typical ollas can hold between one quart and two gallons of water, but can be made to any size. The olla is then buried in the ground so that the opening at the top of the neck is a few inches above the surface. Once the olla is filled with water, the water will slowly seep through the clay body of the olla and into the soil around it. Occasionally cleaning out clogged pores with vinegar will keep the olla functional for many years. The initial cost of an olla ranges from $15 to $30, which can be pricey on a large scale, but their long term benefits and efficiency account for the cost.
Ollas have been used for thousands of years by both the Roman and ancient Chinese empires. Today, olla irrigation is still in use in the Middle East, as well as Central and South America. It is an ideal watering method for dry climates. Watering using ollas is a 70% efficient system, and ten times as efficient as surface watering. Daily watering becomes unnecessary, as most ollas need to be refilled only a few times a week.
After being buried in the earth, ollas can be covered with creative lids to prevent debris or animals from getting inside. Plants will soon grow.
Olla irrigation ensures that the ground will not be soaked with water, but instead only sufficiently moistened. The dryness of the soil and the surrounding plant roots will pull water through the olla walls, but as soon as the surrounding soil is damp enough, water will stop seeping out; this is known as soil moisture tension. Plants can be up to one foot away from the olla and receive water. Because the olla moistens the soil from beneath the surface, soil compaction is reduced. Surface watering causes a lot of soil compaction. Using ollas also greatly diminishes weeds in the garden, which grow on the surface of the soil.
Ollas don???t require frequent care or confusing technology. They are efficient and healthy for the soil and plants. Ollas are an ideal irrigation method for anything from potted plants to raised beds to personal vegetable gardens.
Now that spring is just around the corner ( it reached 70 degrees F last week in ABQ!) our garden team hosted a panel discussion for our community to ask questions about how best to grow and tend a garden using organic principles. Here are some of the fabulous questions and the answers our team, Wes Brittenham, Minor Morgan, Julie Hirshfield, Tiana Baca, Karen Bentrup and Karen Beamish provided:
Q: Given all the warm weather that we are having, is it too late to prune my fruit trees?
A: ?????Wes Brittenham from Plants of the Southwest told us that contrary to what most of us have been taught about pruning ??? the best time of year to prune is during the growing season. This new paradigm was presented at this year???s Think Trees Conference in February in Albuquerque. To learn more contact Wes https://www.plantsofthesouthwest.com/ or visit https://www.thinktreesnm.org/??? ~Karen Beamish
Q: Will my new water softener negatively affect the plants in my garden?
A:?????Yes!Don???t use chemical-based water softeners for water destined for irrigation. The salts used to neutralize hard water can damage soil and plants. An organic alternative is to use the ZetaCore device, utilizing an??electrolysis process. See??Zeta-Core – Water Conditioning for ‘Water that Works’ 2008. Also the use of the Zetacore makes nutrients available to the plant that are normally precipitated out of water. ??? ~ Minor Morgan
Q: How do I rid my garden of bindweed without using herbicides?
A:???On our farm we have accepted bindweed as part of the ecosystem and plant all cash crops into a weed barrier, a permeable cloth that physically??prevents bindweed from killing plants. See ??Shop Landscape Fabric at Lowes.com??? ~ Minor Morgan
A:???A permaculture friend, Michael Reed, has a unique perspective on weeds, acknowledging that every plant/animal in a system has a function. As such, if you want to get rid of ???weeds??? you need to understand what their role is in the system so that you can take over that need/role. In the case of bindweed, not only do we see it often in very disturbed landscapes but it also has incredibly long roots, which may indicate that the plant is working to aerate the soil while stabilizing the earth as well. This perspective/approach to weeds may not be feasible in all situations but it does encourage a different perspective for thinking about weeds.??? ~Tiana Baca
Q:??What recommendations do you have for fruit tree varieties that will thrive in our high desert climate?
Q: Why is tilling bad for the soil and how do I garden without tilling?
A: ???Excessive tilling can destroy microorganisms in the soil. On a small-scale garden you can add a 3″ layer of organic compost at the end of each growing season and the next season directly plant without any tillage at all. A cubic yard of organic compost at Soilutions costs $44 and will cover a raised bed size 10′ X 6′ at 3 inches thick. Or make your own compost. see??Soilutionshttps://soilutions.net/??? ~Minor Morgan
???A complex, symbiotic relationship exists between the soil surface and??the micro-organisms deep in the soil, which contributes to a natural,??healthy soil structure. Digging into or tilling the bed can interfere with??this process and disturb the growing environment. It can also cause soil??compaction and erosion, and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface where??they will sprout. With no-till gardening, once the bed is established the??surface is never disturbed. Amendments such as compost, manure, peat, lime??and fertilizer are top dressed, i.e added to the top of the bed where they??will be pulled into the subsoil by watering and the activity of subsoil??organisms. Weeding is largely replaced by the use of mulch. By adding??material in layers, the underlying soil surface remains spongy, making it??easy for the young roots of newly planted seedlings to work through the??soil. This is similar to the way soil is formed in nature. ??? ~Julie Hirshfield
Q: How do I keep roaches out of my worm bin?
A:?????Worm Bins (AKA vermicomposting bins) can be kept in ways that reduce roach infestation. These worms, the red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) like to live just under leaf litter in that fantastic microbially active decompositional zone where it is very moist, dark, warm, even temperatured, and layered. Worms don’t have teeth, they are slurpers! Microbes break down the organic matter and the worms slurp it up.
Here are some common problems that can increase the roach interest in your worm bin:
throwing whole or large parts of food into the bin. If you toss in a half of a rotten potato, it will take so long for the microbes to break it down, it isn’t really worm food – it’s a roach or mouse attractor.
putting the food on TOP of your bin material – red wigglers like it moist and dark. They will rapidly retreat from sunlight and light. So food on top, does not get broken down, and it sits there – smelly and attractive to roaches. Pull back the bedding and spread the food out.
feeding too often for the number of worms. Yes red wigglers eat alot but they are small, so feed in small batches and check every other day or so to observe the progress, then adjust. Worms eat more when it’s warm and less when it’s cold.
dumping a big pile of food scraps in one place. You need to spread this out, think thin layers.
Remember, worms need it moist. Don’t flood your bin but keep them very moist – if your bedding were a sponge and you picked it up and gently squeezed water should drip slowly out – that moist.
A worm bin is not like a large outdoor “dump and forget” compost pile(which works for a non-worm composting system). Think of your worms like tiny livestock – they need correct living environment and feed.?? Great online resources include Rodale Institute, county extension services, and master gardener programs. And the classic, Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof – at your library! Happy worming!??? ~ Karen Bentrup
Q: What can I do about tree roots encroaching into my raised bed?
A: ???Really, optimal garden placement is the smartest thing you can do.????If??you have trees all around the beds, you can build a root barrier.????It’s a??big job though – you need to dig a trench about 18 inches wide and deeper??than the tree roots (often a at least a few feet deep), prune any visible??roots, line the trench with galvanized metal, and back fill the trench.???~Julie Hirshfield
Q:??Where can I locally source seeds?
A: ???If you are looking to buy seeds from NM companies, there are just a few resources: Plants of the Southwest and Epic Seeds. However, Native Seed Search and Seed Savers Exchange also offer regionally adapted varieties of non-GMO seed. Other good non-GMO seed sources are Wild Garden See, Johnny???s Selected Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Peaceful Valley, and Baker Creek Seeds. Baker Creek also works with ethnobotanists and often showcases wonderful stories about the history and origin of different plants.??? ~Tiana Baca
Q:??How do I protect the strawberries I plan to grow from the snails in my garden without using harmful pesticides?
A:?????If your snail infestation is not too big, Wes suggests getting some turtles for your yard to eat the snails. However, I had thousands of snails in my yard ??? they were literally crawling over the fence from miles around! So the two turtles that I bought at the pet store to eat the snails did not dent even the exploding population. I tried drowning the snails in beer traps and a few other things that other people had tried ??? bit I had no success. Finally I had my student???s research for me and they found Sluggo! This is simply iron-phosphate. It kills the snail, but is not toxic to anything else (birds, turtles or kids). When it rains, the iron-phosphate complex breaks down into iron and phosphate ??? both helpful to plant growth. It truly worked like a miracle. Wes sells it at Plants of the Southwest or you can get it at Home Depot.??? ~ Karen Beamish
A: ???Plant strawberries (or any snail-loving plant) in full sun, so the??soil and garden stays as warm as possible. Grow your strawberries on??raised beds or planters and amend the soil with organic matter, such as??compost, so the soil will warm up and dry out faster. Cultivate around??plants frequently and avoid mulching. Slugs and snails love to hide in??weedy patches and under mulch. A good population of toads or turtles may??help keep the slug and snail population low.????Planting aromatic leaved??herbs, such as rosemary, sage, and lavender may also help. You can also??nail copper flashing or mesh around the perimeter of a raised bed or??container – snails hate crossing copper.??? ~Julie Hirshfield
Q:??What recommendations do you have for fruit tree varieties that will thrive in our high desert climate?
A: ???In our microclimate here in the North Valley we get a lot colder at night and have a high “chill hour” environment. Many fruit trees including peaches require a certain number of hours in dormancy when the air temperature is below 45 degrees. This is known as a chill hour. For our microclimate, we go with peach cultivars with high chill hours such as Contender (1050 chill hours), Cresthaven (850 chill hours) and Redhaven (950 chill hours). Gordon Tooley, a local orchardist is an expert in cultivating fruit trees that are adapted to our high desert climate. See??Tooley???s Trees apple apricot cherry pear plum other trees & shrubs planting & tree care. Tooleys Trees P.O.Box 392 Truchas, New Mexico 87578 (505) 689-2400 https://tooleystrees.com/??? ~Minor Morgan
Q: Where can I locally source large volumes compost that is good quality and organic?
A:??Don’t use the compost that the city sells on your vegetables. It is made using the waste water effluent and may have heavy metals and other contaminants that would be harmful to your health. ??Buy your compost from Soilutions!??https://soilutions.net/
Q:??Where can I locally source woodchips to use as mulch?
A:Contact Karen Beamish ??? Albuquerque Academy has large piles that she will give to you for free; email@example.com
Greta Long, Class of 2015 attended the Quivera Conference this past November. ??This is what she learned;
“I attended the??Quivira Conference in downtown Albuquerque. The theme of the conference was ???Back to the Future,??? featuring speeches pertaining to??the regenerative agricultural movement. Within this realm,??the presentations encompassed a wide variety of topics, including??the design of resilient agriculture, the integration of carbon and nitrogen cycles, and the significance of agroforestry, among others. Each speech that I listened to??was incredibly informative. ??The presentation??that I found to be the most successful??was Paul Kaiser???s speech, titled:?????Soil is Life, Tillage is Death: A Future with No-Till Vegetable Agriculture.???
Before viewing this particular presentation, I was unaware of the??detrimental impacts of soil tillage. Through its intense process of mechanically digging, stirring, and overturning soil,??tillage reduces:
The amount of organic matter in soil
The presence of soil cohesion (and soil compaction)
The water infiltration rate of the soil
Clearly, the practice of intensive tillage??does not promote the health and longevity of agricultural farmland. At Paul Kaiser???s farm (Singing Frogs Farm), four key components ensure??the health??of soil:
Disturb the soil as little as possible ?????This one???s easy; just don???t till!
Grow different species of plants ??? Incorporate??a diverse selection of crops into the garden. In order to do so,??Kaiser recommends the use of perennial hedgerows. This technique proves to be advantageous, as it??increases food for soil microbes, decreases wind and rain erosion, decreases evapotranspiration, moderates temperature fluctuations, produces animal fodder, attracts native pollinators, attracts beneficial insects (not pests!) and even provides nitrogen fixation.
Cover the soil????? At Kaiser???s farm, crop transplanting proves to be an effective method. Transplants guarantee 100% crop coverage, have little to no trouble outcompeting weed species, and spend less time in the field, optimizing maximum annual crop yield.
Keep living plants in the soil as long as possible – Kaiser suggests the use of cover crops to guarantee that the soil remains a living organism and does not stagnate.
Our soil analysis proved that our garden had little organic matter, was virtually impermeable to rain and we suspected sparsely populated with living organisms. To breathe life back into the soil, we needed to take some pretty drastic measures. ??After consulting with Gordon Tooley (a wholistic orchardist) and Minor Morgan (an organic Farmer) , we decided to doctor our earth with mechanical treatments, massive amounts of compost, (https://www.thedotgarden.org/our-black-gold/) and planting with annual cover crops, (see https://www.thedotgarden.org/improve-the-soil-plant-a-meadow/).
First, we needed to break up the hard pan with a process called sub-soiling. We hooked up a large, knife-like device to a tractor and slowly pulled the ???knife??? back and forth along the land, digging about 6 to 8 inches down.
Next, 67 yd3 yards of home-made compost were dumped by truck onto the site.
Two weeks of student labor spread and raked this almost overwhelming amount of compost across the land. Students from the 8th grade earth systems classes, the 10-12 Bio E class, the 10-12 community service students and the 6-12 environmental clubs contributed their muscle and smiles to the operation.
While students labored, the students even thought up math curriculum to share with their peers. How many student work-hours are needed to move 67 yd3 of compost across a ?? acre of land?
For a while, I wondered if the mammoth pile of compost would ever be leveled. I needed to finish soon, as the students??? enthusiasm for the task began to wane and the school year end was coming on fast.
But like all things good and bad, the end comes and on to the next thing. Karen Bentrup attached the tiller to the tractor, and tilled the compost into the native soil. The ground was irrigated each morning for three days to prepare for the seeds to create the cover crop. Seeding began and the meadow began to grow.
The soil underneath our new DOT garden has??suffered thirty years of abuse; compaction, a monoculture of Kentucky blue grass, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and irrigated with highly mineralized water. ??This abuse is rampant the world over.
Before we began the restoration of ??the soil that??was to become the DOT garden’s meadow, we needed to take the pulse of our soil, to know what signs of life might still be present.
We called our local extension office and set up an appointment to teach our students how to collect and analyze our soil. Cheryl Kent, an NMSU extension soil scientist brought her soil auger, test kits and expertise.
After a short introduction by Cheryl, the students used the augers and applied their elbow grease to drilling down into the cement-like ground to collect 6 to 8 inches of soil. They labeled and packaged the soil and we sent it off to a lab at Colorado State University www.ext.colostate.edu for chemical and physical analysis. While we waited for the results, the students performed their own analyzes in the classroom. Using a colorometric procedure, test kits available from La Motte, the students tested the soil for nitrate, phosphate, potassium, and pH. In addition, the students analyzed the soil for water-holding capacity, percolation rate and soil texture, see this lab procedure.
Both the CSU report and our own analyzes confirmed that almost no organic matter remained in the soil. Our soil pH is basic, consistent with the limestone, parent rock capstone of the Sandia Mountains, and our soil nutrients are all low. Below the surface layer of the nearly impenetrable hard-pan, the texture is a sandy clay loam, which means that the soil will drain at ???low to very low rate???.
Though our soil has a high lime content, it does not suffer from the most serious affliction, soil salinization.
The creation of soil in a natural system takes thousands of years, as living things grow, die and decompose, recycling and adding nutrients, providing structure, increasing the soil???s ability to hold water and nutrients in place. A heavily degraded soil will recover on its own in time, lots of time. However, with a small amount of skill and a little knowledge and patience, humans can restore the earth???s fertility quickly and easily. The Land Institute in Kansas can teach us??to repair the great prairies of the world. ??In our own desert Southwest, Gary Nabhan, Bill DeBuyes, Brad Lancaster and Jack Loffler pioneers land restoration techniques that can help show us the way back to an earth noisy with the bustle of worms and percolation of water.