6 Tips for Successful Desert Gardening

high desert gardening

Today I’m welcoming Melissa from Ever Growing Farm to the Prairie Homestead. We share the challenge of gardening in less-than-ideal climates, and I love her ideas for gardening in the desert. Take it away Melissa!

Growing food in the high desert can be an incredible challenge, but I am living proof that you can be successful at it! If you follow a few simple methods to help combat the hot, dry, and windy conditions that are the norm in the southwest, you can be almost guaranteed a bountiful harvest.

Six Tips for Successful Desert Gardening

1. Find the Right Seeds – Seeds that have been grown in and adapted to the high desert are going to be your best bet in the garden. There are countless heirloom varieties that have been protected by the companies that make it their life’s work to preserve the history of our fruits and vegetables. Find them at your local nursery, Farmer’s Market or order them online via NativeSeeds.org, Baker Creek Heirlooms or Seed Saver’s Exchange.

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert - Purchase seeds that are adapted to your unique, harsh climate

 


2. Nurture the Soil 
– The soil in the high desert is full of sand, gravel, and clay and must be amended. Amend your soil with organic matter, such as compost from your own pile or from your local nursery, knowing this is the foundation of a successful garden. Amending, to some extent, will need to be done annually, and starting with your first planting.

You might also consider planting some cover crops during the off-seasons so as to continue building (and maintaining) your soil.

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert

3. Commit to Lots of Water – The high desert has a unique, incredibly arid climate which not only affects plants at their roots, but also affects the plants ability to draw water in through their leaves. Given this, it is essential that, when watering your veggies, you optimize the amount of water they receive. The easiest ways to do this is through drip irrigation and heavily mulching your beds.

  • Drip irrigation is a series of small hoses that allow water to literally drip slowly into the ground around the base of the plant and down into the root zone. The set up involves a network of tubing, pipes, valves, and emitters. Depending on how extensive your garden beds are, setting up your drip irrigation could take a few hours, but the end result is more than worth the effort put in at the beginning. Setting up drip irrigation will not only offer you peace of mind, knowing that your plants are getting the water they need, but it will also save you hours each week since you won’t have to water everything by hand!
  • Water catchment, in the form of rain barrels, can be a life saver (if it is legal in your state). Allowing the rain water to be diverted from your roof and into large barrels or cisterns on your property can help offset your water costs (or alleviate some of the stress on your well) when used to spot water plants that require a bit more water than others. Alternatively, you can set up your rain barrels with hoses and a gravity feed or a timer to water your plants, but that’s another post entirely.

4. Mulch It! – Whether used in the form of straw, pulled weeds (before they go to seed) or the bags you can purchase from your local nursery, mulch pulls triple duty by

  1. Keeping weeds down
  2. Protecting the soil surface and the base of your plants form the elements
  3. Holding moisture in the soil

(Jill: If you’re wanting to dig deeper into the topic of mulching, I highly recommend the deep mulch method. I’m going on my second year of using it our own difficult climate, and I am in love!)

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert

5. Watch that Sun – The sun in the high desert can literally fry your vegetable plants due to the high altitude and the intense UV rays. In order to avoid burning our plants, I’ve found that the following two strategies work best:

  • Companion Plant – Companion planting is usually thought of in relation to safeguarding against harmful pests, but it can also be utilized to shade lower growing plants beneath the taller, hardier plants. For example, you could grow kale or chard beneath a pole bean tee-pee.
  • Shade Cloth – Shade cloth is a wonderful and fairly inexpensive way to protect your tender veggies form the sun’s rays and baking heat. I’ve found that Summer and Winter Squash benefit greatly from a bit of shade at the hottest time of day! You can achieve this by simply inserting PVC pipes in your beds as you would when creating a hoop house or low tunnel and then securing your shade only over the very top of the PVC pipes using small clamps so your plants get some sun, just not the hottest sun of the day.

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert

6. And the wind… The wind in the high desert can take a vegetable plant and lay it out flat in the course of just a few seconds! In order to protect your plants (and all of your hard work), creative windbreaks are essential.

Ideally, walls and/or fencing can be constructed to protect your garden area. However, if that is unrealistic, straw bales can be placed around your garden area to protect your plants. Whether you surround the whole area, or simply create a wind break protecting your plants from the direction the winds usually travel in, every bit of protection is better than none!

We have tried trellising and supporting our plants, and are not opposed to it entirely, but have found that the wind is often stronger than any trellis we’ve put in place! The plants do survive, most of the time, but tend to be a bit worse for the wear.

desert garden

Growing your own food in an extreme climate can be a bit intimidating, but it is absolutely doable by simply adding a few tips and tricks to your gardening arsenal! So, let’s learn from each other!

Share your tips and tricks to growing food in your unique climate in the comments below.

Melissa Willis of Ever Growing Farm Melissa Willis shares about her family’s adventures in Urban Farming on 1/8 acre in the high desert of Santa Fe, NM on her blog Ever Growing Farm . With 20 laying hens, five fruit trees and 425 square feet of active growing space, every extra hour in the day goes into producing as much of their own food as possible and learning many of the old skills that have stopped being passed down from generation to generation. Melissa can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest

Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

homemade potting soil recipe

I’m back from the dead.

Or at least that’s what it feels like, especially if dead = first trimester.

That’s right, there’ll be a new Prairie Kid on the homestead come October.

The funny thing about me and the first trimester (actually, funny really isn’t the right word…) is that my personality pretty much completely changes…

I go from this hyper-motivated, homesteading, business-running, gardening, cow-milking mama who loves life and loves activity, to someone who really doesn’t care about much of anything, can’t open the refrigerator without dry-heaving, and can barely get off the couch.

So yeah, it’s safe to say there wasn’t much from-scratch cooking happening in my kitchen these last few months. Which explains the lack of recipes here on the blog. I don’t even want to tell you what I’ve been eating. It’s all-about survival-mode, baby…

BUT, I’m officially 14 weeks and I think I’ve finally turned the corner. And let me tell ya, I’m ready to roll off the couch and get back to being my hyper, dig-in-the-dirt, cooking-up-a-storm self.

And what better way to celebrate finally feeling better, than… homemade potting soil. Am I right?

I’ve always kinda cringed when I’ve thrown those green and yellow bags of potting soil in my shopping cart at the garden store. I figured there was a better way, but never took the time to figure it out… Until now.

Thankfully, homemade potting soil is pretty darn easy to throw together. And it’ll save you some $$ too.

potting-soil-recipe

Why These Ingredients for Potting Mix?

Truthfully, mixing your own potting soil isn’t rocket science, and there are plenty of ways to make it happen. A good potting mix will:

  • Be firm enough to support the plant
  • Be light enough to allow air/water to flow with minimal compaction
  • Be free of weed seeds and potential pathogens

But here is why I chose the ingredients I did:

homemade potting soil recipe

Coconut Coir: Many DIY potting mix recipes call for peat moss, but since there is so much debate regarding mining from peat bogs, I decided to steer clear of it and opt for coir instead. Coconut coir is a by-product of the coconut-processing industry, and is basically ground-up coconut husk fibers. It is a fantastic choice for soil-less potting mix, as it retains water beautifully. I got mine in a big brick, and had to soak it in water before it was ready to use. You can substitute it 1:1 for peat moss in potting soil recipes

homemade potting soil recipe

Perlite: Perlite is a lightweight volcanic rock. It holds water and helps to aerate the soil and keep it from compacting. Some people also use vermiculite or plain ol’ coarse sand in place of perlite in homemade potting soil recipes, too.

homemade potting soil recipe

Compost: Well, you know what compost is, so I really don’t have to explain this one. Compost adds nutrients to the soil and it’s usually pretty much free if you make it at home yourself. Just make sure to use finished compost to avoid “burning” your plants or introducing weed seeds into your pots. Also, I used the finest compost I could find in my pile– you may need to sift yours if you have chunky stuff. Worm castings are another great option here.

What about Dirt?

Sorry… I meant to say soil. (I always get at least one reader correcting me when I call it dirt instead of soil.) 😉 You can absolutely use regular ol’ soil in your potting mix, and many folks do. However, it’s advised to sterilize the soil first, to eliminate weeds and potential pathogens. This can be accomplished by baking the soil at 200 degrees in your oven.

Why didn’t I do this? Because I could only imagine the mess I’d make trying to bake 10 gallons of dirt (er… soil) inside my kitchen… It just didn’t sound like fun, so I opted for coconut coir instead. Also– using straight soil in your pots can open you up to issues with compaction. So, even if you *do* decide to use sterilized soil, make sure to add some sand or other lightener in there, too.

homemade potting soil recipe

Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

(this post contains affiliate links)

*a “part” can be anything you like– a measuring cup, a coffee can, a five-gallon bucket, etc. It just depends on how much potting soil you want to make.

If your coir came in a block, you’ll need to hydrate it.

homemade potting soil recipe

I did this by allowing the coir “brick” to sit in water until I was able to break it apart. I then added more water until it was easy to flake apart in my hands and very moist.

homemade potting soil recipe

Next, mix the coir and compost. Add more water if you need too– I found it much easier to handle/mix if the mixture was damp.

homemade potting soil recipe

Add in the perlite, give it a stir, and you’re ready to go!

homemade potting soil recipe

Use your DIY potting mix like you would storebought mix.

DIY Potting Soil Notes:

  •  Keep in mind this recipe is super flexible and lends itself well to substitutions.  In some of the other recipes I’ve seen, people substituted sterilized soil or peat moss for the coconut coir, vermiculite or coarse sand for the perlite, and all sorts of different fertilizers (kelp meal, bone meal, blood meal, worm castings) for the compost.
  • This stuff is mucho easier to mix if it’s damp.
  • How does it compare in price? I paid $15.96 for an 11-lb brick of coconut coir in Amazon and $16.70 for a bag (18-quarts) of perlite. My local garden stores are pretty dismal when it comes to specialty ingredients, so it was unlikely I could have found those things here. The compost was free. Considering I only used a fraction of my ingredients for my first batch,  they should last me for a while… And if you substituted coarse sand or sterilized soil, it would be even cheaper.

homemade potting soil recipe

How to Test Seeds for Viability

how to test seeds for viability and germination

You dig, you till, you fertilize, you plant, you water…

And then you wait. And wait.

And you scratch your head when nothing pops out of the ground…

Was it lack of water? A hungry animal? Poor soil? Bad seeds?

Whatever the cause, it’s always frustrating when you have to replant. Last year my bean rows had a germination rate of around 20%. It was dismal, especially considering all the big plans I had for those heirloom Golden Wax beans…

While there are lots of factors that could potentially cause your seeds to no-show, I’ll show you how to eliminate one of the variables today with this simple way to test seeds for viability

Seeds are tough little buggers, and can potentially withstand a decent amount of time in storage (especially if stored correctly). But if you come across a packet of older seeds, it’ll save you time and headache if you can test their germination rate before poking them into the ground.

This is what I’m doing with several of my packets this year, especially considering someone (aka: me) accidentally left them up in the shop attic where they proceed to get blazing hot, and then freeze in the fall before I remembered them. Whoops.

Better safe than sorry this year… I refuse to be beanless again!

how-to-check-seeds

How to Test Seeds for Viability

You will need:

  • Old seeds in need of testing
  • 1-2 paper towels
  • Resealable plastic bag
  • Sharpie marker (for labeling-optional)

Dampen the paper towel– it doesn’t need to be dripping wet, just nice and soggy.

Arrange the seeds on the paper towel. I like to use 10 seeds of each type, as it makes figuring the percentage easy, and ensures you’re getting a solid random sampling of the packet.

If you’re using seeds that look similar, be sure to label each area of the towel with the marker to keep them straight. Or just use separate towels.

how to test seeds for viability and germination

Roll up the paper towel, or place a second paper towel over the top, to ensure the seeds is completely surrounded by dampness.

Place the damp towel/seeds in the plastic bag, seal, and set aside in a warm place.

how to test seeds for viability and germination

Depending on the type of seeds you’re testing, they should begin to germinate anywhere from 2-14 days. (Seeds like peas and beans will sprout faster, while seeds like carrots or parsnips will take much longer). If your seeds are of the slow-germinating variety, you may need to spritz the paper towel with more water to keep it damp. If it dries out, the seeds will stop the germination process.

Once the seeds being to sprout, give them a day or two, and then take note as to how many sprouted vs. how many did not sprout. This will give you a germination rate. Example:

Out of 10 Tested Seeds

  • 1 seed sprouts = 10% germination rate
  • 5 seeds sprout = 50% germination rate
  • 10 seeds sprout = 100% germination rate
how to test seeds for viability and germination
This batch had a 90% germination rate. We’re good to go!

 

Obviously, the higher the germination rate, the better. Anything over 50% is decent. Anything lower than 50% still might be usable, but you may need to plant more seeds to potentially make up for the “duds.”

My beans had around a ___% germination rate, so I’m feeling confident they’ll work it the garden this year!

Seed Viability FAQs:

Do I need to do this for ALL of my seed packets?

Nope. If the packets are new, or you are confident in how they have been stored, you shouldn’t need to do this. I’m only doing it for my older seeds that have been sitting around for a while.

how to test seeds for viability and germination
little baby beans…

 

What do I do with the seeds after they sprout?

If gardening season has arrived, simply plant them. If it’s not quite time to start digging outside, you can just compost them, or feed them to your chickens.

How should I store my seeds?

Seeds store best in a cool, dry place. Heat and humidity is definitely the enemy here. If you have room in your refrigerator, that’s a great place to keep them between planting seasons. If stored properly, some seeds can last for years.

Where’s a good place to buy heirloom seeds?

My favorite resource is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I’ve been using them for years!

how to test seeds for viability and germination

Other Gardening Tips

Planning an Orchard for Your Homestead

planning an orchard for your homestead

I must confess… Just saying the word “orchard” makes me green with envy… Fruit trees do NOT thrive here in Wyoming, therefore, my dreams of a homestead orchard probably aren’t going to happen as long as we live here. So, I’ve invited Angi Schneider, author of The Gardening Notebook, to share her best tips for planning an orchard with us today…

Fruit trees and bushes are important on the homestead, with minimal effort they can supply your family with many pounds of produce every year.

Unfortunately, growing fruit is often one of the most neglected things on a homestead, especially on a small homestead.

Growing fruit takes time. Sometimes there will be years between planting and harvest. So, the sooner you get those fruit trees and bushes in the ground the sooner you’ll have a fruit harvest.

While fruit trees truly do take minimal effort, it’s not as easy as digging a hole, planting a tree and calling it good. There is some planning that needs to happen before you buy and plant your first fruit tree.

SchneiderPeeps - Mulberries ripening

 Planning an Orchard for Your Homestead

1. Make a list of all the fruits your family likes.

This is the time to dream. Even if you think something won’t grow in your climate, but your family likes it, write it down.

2. Do a little research to find out what varieties will actually grow in your climate.

You can search fruit trees for your gardening zone on the internet. If you don’t know what gardening zones you are in, you can find your cold hardiness zone by entering your zipcode in the USDA’s interactive map and you can find your heat zone on the American Horticulture Society’s website.  Talk with local gardening friends to find out what varieties grow well in your area. Also, don’t overlook your local nurseries. They have a vested interest in you being successful, so they are usually super helpful. Master Gardeners clubs can also be a helpful resource. One last thing to consider is chill hours, some fruits need a certain number of hours per year below 45°F to produce fruit. County Extension Co-operatives keep these records so if you cannot find your hours online you can always call your local office.
But don’t cross a fruit off your list just because you’re told it won’t grow in your climate. Some fruit trees grow very well in pots. Meyer lemon and Satsuma oranges are two citrus trees that can be grown in colder climates inside in a pot.

SchneiderPeeps - bee on citrus bloom
3. Learn what trees are self fertile and which ones are not.

Self fertile trees are exactly what they sound like – the flowers from this kind of tree will pollinate themselves. Here’s a list of most self fertile fruits: apricot, pomegranate, citrus, fig, grape, persimmon, most peaches, most berries, and European plums (although they do better with two varieties).
Some trees are not self fertile and need two trees to produce fruit. You need to make sure that the two trees are different varieties that bloom at the same time. Two trees of the same variety won’t work as pollinators and neither will two different varieties that don’t bloom at the same time. Now, that does not necessarily mean you have to have two trees on your property. If your neighbor has fruit trees, find out what kind he has, get a different variety and they can cross pollinate. This is a great way to get fruit in an urban yard, since the trees need to be within 50 feet of each other. Apples, pears, Japanese plums, cherries and nuts trees are not self-fertile and require a pollinator.

4. Determine how much space you have available to plant fruit trees and bushes.

If you live on an acre or less, you can still have an amazing orchard but you might have it spread out in different areas of your property instead of one large orchard area. Consider using any walls or fences and espaliering some of the fruit trees. An espaliered tree is a tree that you will prune in such a way that it fans out over the wall or fence. This is a great space saver and yet you’ll still get a lot of fruit. If you live on an urban or small homestead you will also want to consider planting dwarf trees. Dwarf trees are trees that are grafted onto a root stock that will not allow the tree to grow large so you get the same great fruit in less space. Standard size trees have about a 20 feet spread, semi-dwarf trees have about 12-15 feet spread and dwarf trees have about a 10 feet spread.
SchneiderPeeps - apple blossoms
5. Put your plans on paper.

This is the fun part! Get out some paper and colored pencils and map out your yard or acreage. Take your list of varieties and start putting them on your map.  Go outside and walk the map and make sure your plans will work. Is there enough space for a full size tree of the variety you have listed? Is there enough sun? Is there an adequate water source? When the tree is full size will it cast a shadow on an area that you don’t want shaded, your vegetable garden for instance?  When planning your spacing you can stagger your trees to get more in less space. Make sure you keep this map in a safe place, like your gardening notebook, so you can refer back to it when it’s time to plant your trees.
6. Don’t think you have to plant the entire plan this season.

An orchard is a long term relationship, so you have time. Try to add just a few new trees or bushes each year and before you know it you will have a full orchard. It’s a good idea to start with either the fruits that your family loves the most or the most expensive ones to buy.
Schneiderpeeps - full Meyer lemon tree

How Much Fruit Can a Home Orchard Produce?

Just to give you an idea of just how much fruit these trees can add to your homestead, a mature lemon tree can give you over 200 pounds of lemons, a mature peach tree can give you well over 75 pounds, so can a mature plum tree. That is a lot of fruit!
So, unless you plan on selling your fruit or have a lot of friends who you love to have freshly picked fruit, you don’t need more than one or two trees of each fruit. Diversity is key in the home orchard.

planning an orchard for your homestead
About Angi

Angi Schneider is a minister’s wife and homeschooling mom.  She is passionate about growing food for her family and living a simple life. She blogs their homesteading and homeschooling adventures at SchneiderPeeps.com and is the author of The Gardening Notebook which she wrote to help other gardeners remember all the great information they are learning.