When planting in the desert, getting your crop to thrive isn???t always a guarantee, let alone getting it to survive. Plants that make their home here have adapted to the dry seasons and hot summer days and as such require less effort to keep growing when compared to un-acclimated crops. However, other arid deserts exist around the world with a variety of plants that will also grow well in New Mexico.
One of these similar environments is found in Kazakhstan, a country whose southern border is lined with arid shrublands. The landscape of areas like the Kazakh Desert would look very familiar to those living in New Mexico.
We planted several crops from this area in the DOT Garden, in the hopes that their traits that helped them survive elsewhere, like the ability to conserve water, will help them thrive in New Mexico as well. One of these plants is the Kazakhstan eggplant, which is already growing happily in our meadow beds.
When adopting crops from other areas, it is also worth looking into what sorts of techniques the farmers from these similar areas may have employed that you can adopt as well. New ways of growing our own crops may prove fruitful as well!
This past June saw a merciless heat wave sweep through the country, particularly the southwest region of the United States. Here in New Mexico, we reached temperatures of up to 105??F during a time when the highs normally sit in the mid 90??s. Heat advisories were issued, suggesting everyone stay indoors. Despite it all, the garden continued to grow. It will always require care and attention in any weather. If you are feeling the heat, it is guaranteed that your plants are too. There are steps that you can take to protect your plants even in the hottest and driest of climates. Here in the Desert Oasis Teaching Garden we are very familiar with this struggle, and have some good tips to share.
??The DOT Garden is always growing
When trying to keep plants cool, take action to lower the temperature of the soil. Soil can easily trap the heat of the day and lose moisture in extreme temperatures. To shade and protect the soil as well as keep moisture inside, place a decent layer of mulch on top of the soil and around the base of the plants. The DOT Garden often uses the leaf litter from previous autumns as an effective mulch. It will also be important to water thoroughly with cold water. The cold water will lower the soil temperature and replace the moisture that has rapidly evaporated away. However, if watering with an outdoor hose, make sure you check the temperature of the water coming out of the hose before you begin soaking your plants. A dark hose laying in the sun will heat the water inside to burning temperatures; in some cases, you must run the hose for a few minutes before the water reaches a good temperature. You do not want to scald your plants or boil your soil!
The water sitting inside this hose is hot and will damage plants.
Managing sunlight exposure is another important method of controlling temperature. Plants can burn in direct sunlight just like we can, so provide shade in whatever ways work best for you. Choosing a garden location that receives plenty of morning sunlight none of the ruthless afternoon rays will already give you an advantage. However, if this is impossible, building shade structures will also work to protect your plants. Using white row cover or other shade sheets are a good method because they will reflect the sunlight and are easy to take down and move around to meet your garden???s needs.
White row cover shields our delicate lettuce.
Between the natural extreme temperatures of the desert and the uncertainty of the weather due to climate change, gardening during the peak of summer can be a grueling challenge. However, make sure to show the same care to yourself as you do to your plants: drink plenty of cool water, protect yourself from the sun, and rest frequently in the shade. The bountiful harvest at the end of the summer growing season will be a well-earned reward.
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.
A keystone element of sustainability is water conservation and, for a desert garden, rainwater collection is paramount. The DOT Garden in collaboration with Adaptive Terrain Systems (a Division of Soilutions), New Mexico Water Collaborative, and the ABC Water Utility Authority designed and installed 3 systems for rainwater harvesting and use.
So how do you begin a rainwater harvesting project?
With lots of questions, planning, and ideas. Research, reading the work of Brad Lancaster, online videos, and the guidance of local experts are all really helpful too. It helps to answer some basics like: How big is the roof? How much water can I use? Is there an overflow plan? Is the water for plants, animals or people? How does this catchment fit in with the big picture for the space now and in the future?
Really great news for all of us!
The New Mexico Water Collaborative is updating a rainwater collection guide for our region. It will have loads of information, installation stories and plans from right here in Albuquerque, plus links to installers, gutter companies, and more. The complete DOTG cistern project will be included here. The Guide should be available spring 2016 in print form and online. Keep checking here FMI: https://nmwatercollaborative.org/projects/rainwater-harvesting-project/
DOTG cistern installation project overview
We installed three rainwater collection systems: cistern #1 in May in the courtyard, and cisterns #2 & #3 in August near our raised bed area. Taking advantage of summer monsoons, we used rain catchment from #1 to irrigate vegetables, supply water for our greenhouse starts, brew compost tea, and supplement a small pond that is home to fish, frogs, and a water source for birds and insects. Cisterns #2 & #3 are serving our major food production area, which includes 9 raised beds and 4 sunken beds devoted to the cultivation of vegetable and grain crops, as well as 10 mature pine trees, and a cover cropped Meadow.
Some cool design features and photos
Cisterns are 1,650 gallons each, about 5???8??? tall, 24??? around, and made of heavy duty black cross-linked polyethylene that has been proved to be algae and mold resistant. (Sourced from Phil Monfette, www.ineedawatertank.com??)
We used inexpensive crusher fine, packed down as a substrate and a level pad for the cisterns. (Sourced from Vulcan Materials Company,?? www.vulcanmaterials.com )
To exclude sunlight from making algae and bacteria grow inside the cisterns:
For cistern #1, we updated an existing system which did not have vertical clearance for a bend in the downflow to reduce/eliminate sun from entering the cistern. We had to make an ???internal downspout shade??? – a small angled piece of metal was screwed into the downspout.
For cisterns #2 and #3: Simple elbow-bend in downspout so sunlight cannot enter from above.
(All our guttering repairs and new installations were done by ABQ Gutter Pros, Inc., David Palsce, 505-345-1640.)
Bulkhead fittings on Cistern #1 are really durable and tight fitting. From Banjo brand valves and fittings( https://www.banjovalves.com )
Frost-free spigot for gravity outflow at base: Designed by Jim Brooks, this experimental design uses a vacuum breaker, extra long internal pipe, and is tilted toward the outside to prevent freezing. This should allow us to keep water in the cisterns over the winter so that rainwater is available for early spring planting. We may even be able to use it all winter in our row-covered beds. We???ll keep you posted.
Utility-pump assisted outflow from the bulkhead near the top: A standard utility pump is lowered into the tank, rests on the bottom of tank with the pump hose quick-connected to the junction in the vertical hatch area, then standard garden hose is connected for a low-flow pumping outflow. We???ve even got electrical cord dry-connection options on Cisterns #2 and #3 if we want to keep the pumps in longer term.
Custom-designed easy-to-lift downspout connection to the cistern inflow. We needed a connection that was easy to move by kids and adults and we got it! This way we can check easily clean the filter basket, look for biological growth (that we don???t want), and access the pump outflow quick-connect.
Our OverFlow Plans are fantastic!??The internal system is a bit complex but basically allows rainwater inside the cistern to run into internal ABS pipes near the top and then water comes out near the bottom.
The surge basins, swales and sponges were designed by Tiana Baca, our Garden Manager and permaculturist, with guidance from Adaptive Terrain Systems. All these systems are working really well.
Special thanks to the Project Learning Tree Greenworks and William H. and Mattie Wattis Harris for funding this project, Whole Foods Academy for lunches, Jim Brooks and his crews, the participants in our August installation, and all our community volunteers. We got RAINWATER!
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; firstname.lastname@example.org