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:


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:


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


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.


Permaculture A Designer’s Manual

bookAll you permies out there have surely at least heard of Bill Mollison’s monumental tome, Permaculture A Designer’s Manual. I have been eyeing it for years but always ended up buying other permaculture books instead. Two thinks put me off about buying this book, its price (upwards of $100) and its monumentalness. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. But now, since I have decided to go for it and start a permaculture design course, I figured it was time.

Well, I am amazed at this book. It is incredibly well written and covers so much more than I could have ever imagined. I think this is going to be essential to helping me figure out some essential issues (figuring out everything that has to do with slope, for instance). There are so many examples in this book, I don’t know how it wouldn’t be useful, even if you only use it for the pictures and don’t read it. But read it you will want to, my friend. I thought it might serve more as a reference for me but I find myself reading it and can hardly put it down.

I got mine for a decent price at Powell’s. Happy reading!

New cold frame

Me and my sweetie went a little crazy ordering seeds a couple of weeks ago. When we combined households last year our seed collections expanded dramatically! I added a lot of perennials, herbs and flowers to the mix, he brought a ton of tomatoes, peppers and squash. But somehow, it seemed we still needed more seeds.

And so now we need a new cold frame! My four DIY jobbies aren’t quite enough. After starting all those seeds, I still have 28 additional seed packs to start. And so, honey bunny and I wandered out into the yard looking at options for an additional cold frame system. We had several panes of glass, a bunch of big rocks and some bricks. Drawing inspiration from an article in Mother Earth News on Chinese Greenhouses, we decided to use the thermal mass from the rocks and bricks to form 3 sides of the cold frame. They should hold heat from our sunny days to keep the starts warm during cold nights. The top and front will be glass.


We, or should I say, he, got a good start on this over the weekend and both of us are psyched. The finished project will be a combo cold frame and garden bed which we’ll use to plant a few things like lettuce that would be useful a bit closer to the house. Which is an important principle of permaculture – keep the things you need to access more often closer to the house. The cold frame and raised bed will be in our zone 1, a few steps outside our front door.

Cheerio and until next time!

Sustainable Design Masterclass

I just took another great webinar with the guys at Sustainable Design Masterclass. About once a week they offer a free class with an innovator in the field of permaculture, and then rebroadcast the video for a small fee. I highly recommend their classes, am learning so much from them, and am always inspired. Thank you Raleigh and Neal!

Check it out if you are, like me, a permaculture junky!

Taking the plunge

After several years of dabbling in permaculture and dreaming of taking a permaculture design course, I am finally committing myself to an online certification program, the one started by Bill Mollison, no less.

Although taking an in person, on-site course at a permaculture learning center is extremely enticing, I won’t be able to take 2 weeks off of life to go to one of those amazing places in the next several months, so I have decided to go with the online version. I have heard good things about Geoff Lawton’s online course as well, but it’s not being offered at this time, and well, I’m ready to get started!

(It’s also possible I was subconsciously influenced by the website’s tree of life logo which resembles my building biology company logo!)

Yay for online learning and yay for permaculture!

Looking at Drip Irrigation

I’m working on a new permaculture design for my home and one of the important elements is drip irrigation. My goal is to eventually make the garden irrigation-free by adding organic matter to the soil that will retain moisture and prevent evaporation. This is a big and important goal for a garden in the high desert! The first couple of years will require irrigation though and a drip line seems like the most practical way to go.

Here’s a few resources for drip line supplies so far:

It’s important that the plastic be non-toxic, so NO vinyl tubing shall be used!


I’m a little obsessed with permaculture.

But let me back up a bit. A few years ago I learned about myers-briggs personality types. I learned that I am an INFJ, which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging. One of the characteristics of this personality type, according to the good people at 16 Personalities, is believing that there are overarching better ways to do certain things and that doing things that way would prevent a lot of pain, suffering, waste, etc. While some people might get excited about volunteering to feed the hungry, instead, I am the type of person who wants to find out: what the problem is anyway, why is the system making people go hungry and what is the solution?

Speaking of food and hunger, I see permaculture as the perfect solution to the problems that plague our food systems (food waste, monoculture, soil depletion, heavy carbon footprint). Permaculture can produce food that is local, sustainable, and customizable to climate. Even better, it is a way for more people to eat more nutritious food.

One day I’d like to create a learning center on a permaculture farm, a place where folks can come to learn about permaculture and related topics. Many people in our society don’t even know how to cook, so cooking is an important permaculture skill too. What use is a bumper crop of squash if you don’t know what to do with it?

Thus my obsession with permaculture. It seems to funnel so many of my interests into one fabulous tool set. Vive la permaculture!