Composting in the desert

Anyone who gardens or simply cooks a lot of vegetables quickly finds out – you must have a compost pile! Vegetable waste translates into useful fertilizer and soil very quickly if you compost, so it is a huge waste NOT to create some composting system – not to mention the cost of buying bags of compost. Seems silly to buy compost when you have all the ingredients for it already, doesn’t it?

The composting system I learned back in the Southeast USA (and which worked wonderfully for me there) looked something like this:

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However, I have figured out that this system doesn’t work well out here in the hot, moisture-less air of the desert. You can’t keep the pile wet enough for decomposition to take place at a reasonable pace.

The above photo? It shows the compost bin about a year after creation. Instead of looking like a corral of hay, it should look like soil. As if further proof was needed, it’s stil got decomposing tomato skins in it:

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This is obviously not the system for the desert. Ripe compost is supposed to look like heavy, beautiful dirt, not like it’s still decomposing!

So I have moved on to the pit compost method. First I asked my sweetie pie to dig a hole for me and he kindly obliged. Then I filled the hole with a mix of vegetable waste and moldy hay. I covered it with a last layer of moldy hay and then topped it with some wood boards, mostly to keep the hay from blowing away in the wind, but also as a minimal critter control.

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I decided to do a two week experiment to see if the pit worked better. To start with I added this bin of vegetable waste on May 11th:

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I spread it in with my mulch pitchfork:

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…Covered it up with my insulating layer of moldy hay…

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…Then watered it:

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I watered it once a week then checked it two weeks later. The bin of vegetable waste has decomposed to this:

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Pretty cool, huh? In case it hasn’t fully sunk in for you, here’s the amount of decomposition I obtained in two weeks with pit composting:

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I’m ecstatic that this is working so successfully! I also noticed that the moldy hay I used as a top layer is decomposing much faster this way too, so much so that I needed to add another layer of moldy hay. Compare with my first photo of my above ground compost system with totally un-brokendown straw and you’ll understand why I’m excited.

The next part of this adventure in composting will be to add bokashi into the mix and see how it goes. I have heard Bokashi praised as a great way to compost in the desert since it requires little moisture. My stinky bucket of bokashi compost is just waiting to jump into this pit and join the party!

Sheepy poos

When my husband introduced me to his two icelandic sheep, I asked what their names were. He looked slightly embarrassed and told me he hadn’t named them. Strangely, two names instantly came to me, and I asked if I could use them. He kindly acquiesced.

So let me introduce you to two of the biggest contributors to our gardening enterprises, the makers of our sheep poop, Duncan and Isadora.

This is Duncan.

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He is the more outgoing of the two, and will come over for noggin rubs. In fact he kept coming so close to me that I couldn’t get a good shot of him.

Isadora, on the other hand, is the shy one. Usually she runs across the pen when I come out to say hi to her. She is not camera-shy it seems, as she came over to check me out when I held the camera out towards her.

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Don’t you love her teeth? More stunning though is the beautiful wool on these guys.

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I actually knew nothing about Isadora Duncan when the names popped into my head. I looked her up of course and had a very strange feeling – my type of person! Wild and unconventional. I added her autobiography to my reading list. Also, I’m pretty she’s the one my grandmother warned me about when I took to wearing long flowing scarves as a teenager.

Wild dancers aside, these guys are a great source of organic matter for us. We let their manure compost over the winter and then add it to our gardens in the summer. When you don’t have trees providing you with leaf mulch for compost you have to find some other way to add organic matter to your garden – sheep poop from the sheepy poos works!

It is about time to shear them and there are sunny afternoons full of wool washing in my near future. So far we haven’t used their fleeces but that is about to change very soon. I think it would probably be fitting if I knit a scarf from their wool to leave at Isadora Duncan’s grave. So I guess I better learn to knit!

Desert garden design

Over the past ten years or so my husband has been planting a fairly traditional garden. Each year he tills the ground with a tractor then digs out rows to plant his seeds and transplants. With my visions of permaculture I of course wasn’t satisfied with this approach.

Tilling with a tractor compresses the soil and also damages the beneficial microbes and earthworms in the soil. Untilled soil makes healthier soil. If you think about how a forest works, mother nature deposits organic matter in the form of leaves and other dead vegetation. The floor of the forest gets built up with nutrients continually. Which is kind of the opposite of how conventional gardening and agriculture goes.

Another one of the downsides of this garden is that watering is a huge pain. The garden is on a slope, so watering involves standing at the top of the garden at the head of each row and letting the water trickle down the row. This gets really time consuming, especially once you’ve mulched the rows, slowing down the water flow.

Chad agreed to let me try to come up with a new design that would be no-till and make watering easier. This was my first design for the garden plot:

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It’s pretty, isn’t it? I was going to incorporate both drip irrigation and perennials into this design. However, in the meantime we created a bunch of cool garden beds in our front yard, aka, “the Low Garden.” This meant that we didn’t need quite as much space in “the High Garden” (what we now call the garden plot in question). We also weren’t sure how extensively we wanted to add perennials, shrubs and trees to this plot yet.

Meanwhile the weeds in the High Garden had settled in. With our last frost date rapidly approaching, I was anxious to decide what kind of design to go with and get the plot prepared for planting. We spent a couple of hours looking at the plot, talking and kicking around ideas. We both agreed that we should only plant about half of the space, but none of our design ideas seemed quite right. Then I suggested using the existing rows, NOT tilling, just digging them wider and deeper, and connecting them so that you could set up the hose to flow at the high point of the garden and water the whole thing at once. Both of us got excited and knew this was the right solution for us this year. And later I had to point out that this was one of the permaculture principles in action: “Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”

Chad started whacking weeds with an old-fashioned manual weed whacker and I wet down the rows and started digging them out. Before getting them wet, they were like hot city cement; after they were like cool melty ice cream. Guess that is an advantage of having a lot of sand in your soil! It was hard work but we had fun doing it.

Eventually I let Chad take over with the shovel and I filled in the garden plan, rotating plants from where they were last year and figuring out companion planting groupings. This is our plan for the High Garden:

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And here’s what our beautiful garden canvas looks like, almost ready for planting:

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It just needs to be amended with sheep manure and then we are ready to roll! Since we are in a dryland climate, we will plant our annual vegetables in the low rows which are about 2 feet wide, 6 or so inches deep and 27 feet long. And we will mulch heavily!

Even though I really loved the first design I had come up with, the interesting shapes of it and the curves, I think this new design is better for our current needs and might even be better period from a watering stand point.

Now I am just wondering if we should plant some perennials between the rows…  Swales are usually on contour, but I can’t help wondering if swales on slope would work!

Gardening in the desert

Contrary to what you might think, people can and do garden in the desert. However there are certain obstacles to overcome that those of you in more clement areas won’t have to worry much about.

For one thing, we only get about 7 inches of rain a year here. Yes, a YEAR. Back in NC we would sometimes get 7 inches in one storm. So water is important and the way you treat your plants has to take this into consideration.

Rather than making sure plants aren’t planted too deep (so their “feet” don’t get soggy), here we have to plant them lower than the surrounding ground intentionally. We want what little water does fall to be directed toward the plant roots and to stay there.

Mulch is very important in drylands. It will help slow evaporation and keep the soil moist longer. There aren’t many trees growing in this area though, so free mulch in the form of wood chips or fallen leaves isn’t something that will play a big role. Reading my permaculture bible I found good recommendations for mulch for drylands: rocks, bones, manure, even paper. We’ll probably be going more with rocks and sheep manure.

Also the soil is quite alkaline, which is common to dry areas. The dryness of the soil actually causes it to become more alkaline. One remedy, I’ve learned, is to add manure to the soil. Pretty groovy since we’ll be doing that anyway.

My first reaction to gardening in this climate was, I admit, one of frustration. Now that I have learned about some of the best tactics for growing food here, my frustration has faded and I’ve embraced the challenges with something akin to glee. If you are going to grow food in a climate like this it is even more important to use creative techniques and to look to other similar climates around the world to see how traditional cultures solve these problems.