How to garden in the high desert

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The high desert terrain master gardener Susan Patterson calls home. Photo: Susan Patterson

The high desert terrain master gardener Susan Patterson calls home. Photo: Susan Patterson

The high desert is a stunningly beautiful place to set up a homestead, yet a slightly intimidating and rather complex place to attempt to raise vegetables and fruit. Depending on where exactly you are in the North American high desert, you can experience anything from late season frosts and droughts to mid summer hail storms and wind gusts that can knock you down and ruin a thriving patch of veggies. If you are unfortunate enough, you may have to battle all of these foes.

While gardening in high altitude and arid climates may seem like a waste of time, keep in mind that some of the earliest civilizations made their life in just such a climate. The Anasazi Indians cultivated the river valleys of what we know today as northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado and Southern Utah.

Although the land was hard and they struggled against drought, poor water supply and in hospitable soil, they successful grew food. Mostly because they had a respect for the climate and a strong feeling of stewardship. Interestingly enough, many of the Anasazi’s descendants still farm in the same area—the only difference being they have some modern tools.

High desert defined

Technically, the high desert is defined as any area with an inland elevation of 2,000 feet plus above sea level. For our purposes, high desert will be defined as any inland area that is above 5500 feet and receives about 12 inches of rain per year, experiences very dry and windy springs and incredible summer monsoons.

Intense sun creates poor soil

The sun, which people long for in many parts of the country, shines so intensely at these high elevations that plants respond with rapid growth, yet can require light shading so they don’t burn.

The growing season is often short—sometimes as short as 60-90 days—making the right choice of plants extremely critical. The sun also robs the soil of much organic matter and the lack of precipitation causes calcium carbonate to accumulate.

The first consideration for any high altitude gardener is to address the poor soil. Increasing the soil’s organic content is paramount to success as most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil.

Work as much organic matter into the soil as possible before planting. Two of the best organic soil modifiers to consider are manure and cottonseed meal. Before adding anything, it is wise to take a soil sample so that you know what you are up against.

For crops that may be easily damaged by intense sun, you may be wise to erect a shade structure to protect from afternoon rays.

4 ways to conserve water

There are several ways to tackle water conservation in the high desert.

1. You can build a gray-water system into your home that will use the waste from your sink, bathtub and washing machine to keep your crops watered.

2. Drip irrigation is one of the best ways to be sure that your fruit trees and vegetable crops are getting a constant supply of water. Applying the water slowly ensures that the air supply to the soil is not upset and the right balance of water and oxygen can be kept.

3. Water early: If you do not have a drip irrigation system, the best time of the day to water is in the early morning before the sun becomes too intense.

4. Mulch. Don’t let the soil get too dry before watering as this stresses out the plants. Soil should be kept wet but not waterlogged. A great way to conserve water is to protect the soil with a generous layer of mulch. Compost, straw or spoiled hay are both excellent options when it comes to mulching material. Be sure to give the soil plenty of time to warm up before applying mulch. For high altitudes, sometime in the middle of June works best for mulching.

Fruit crops and late season frosts

Many types of fruit trees, including apples, peaches, cherries, pears and apricots, will grow at high elevations. It is always best to choose late blooming varieties and be prepared to protect trees from late spring frosts. To avoid crop damage, plant your orchard on a north facing slope or another location the landscape that will warm up slowly in the spring. You can also cover the soil with a layer of clear plastic to create a sort of greenhouse effect, allowing the soil to warm up.

If your region is particularly windy, choose a location that has some shelter from prevailing winds. Drip irrigation is best for fruit tees as is a layer of straw or compost. However, be sure to keep the compost away from the trunk by a few inches to prevent disease and insects from damaging trees.

To keep your fruit trees healthy, be sure to prune in early spring and fertilize trees that have less than 10-12 inches of growth on last year’s lateral branches using a 10-10-10 product. For best results, familiarize yourself with the trees and bushes you have and adhere to a fertilizing plan.

Wind protection

You can’t say that you have experienced a windy day until you spend a while in a high desert landscape. Often, the winds come out of nowhere and begin to blow everything around. They are the worst during the early spring; however, they can pop up later and damage unprotected plants. One way to protect plants it to create a living fence around your garden using native grasses, shrubs, etc. Don’t ever create a solid wall fence around your garden; this may keep critters out but will trap wind, resulting in much damage. Choose bush varieties whenever possible as they will sustain the least amount of damage in high winds.

Heavy rain and hail

In many parts of the high desert, strong summer rains and hail are common. While the plants really enjoy the moisture, it often comes in the form of torrential downpours or hail, both of which can easily damage crops. Apart from building a roof-like structure for your plants, having a few rolls of shade cloth around to cover plants is useful. This is only helpful, however, if you know when the rains are coming. They often pop up out of the blue, which makes planning difficult. Be sure to grow low or bush varieties and avoid extensive trellises or vertical growing to minimize damage.

Types of gardens

There are a number of ways to successfully grow vegetables at high altitudes:

A keyhole garden getting started in the high desert by Susan Patterson.

A keyhole garden getting started in the high desert by Susan Patterson.

Keyhole gardens:  These gardens originated in Africa as a way to grow vegetables in a rather unforgiving climate. The concept is simple, yet effective. A 6-foot diameter circular bed is constructed using stones, block, logs or whatever else is on hand. In the center, a notch is cut out and a cylinder-shaped compost bin made. The sides are generally built up and the soil slopes away from the compost bin. The idea is that the compost, when watered, will leach into the soil and improve its fertility while feeding the plants. These beds do well in arid climates as long as the compost pile is watered regularly.

Here’s another great explanation of the purpose and function of keyhole gardens from Inspiration Green, and a simple cinderblock design from The Simple Hive.

This cross-section of a keyhole garden shows the center compost bin and layers laid down to build up the bed. Creative Commons "Keyhole garden" by isapisa

This cross-section of a keyhole garden shows the center compost bin and layers laid down to build up the bed. Creative Commons “Keyhole garden” by isapisa CC BY

Raised beds: The beauty of raised beds, which can be made of anything from wood to stones or concrete, is that you can control the quality of the soil. You can also lay a sheet of glass over the bed to warm the soil or grow veggies during chilly weather.

Container gardens: Who can resist the charm and functionality of container gardens? Container gardens also let you control the quality of the soil and you can move your containers around to take advantage of the best light. You can grow everything from veggies to fruit bushes and even dwarf trees in containers. If you choose to use containers, be sure to water frequently and place plenty of drainage holes in your containers.

Trench gardens: As the name implies, these gardens are grown in trenches, usually lined in rows. These trenches can be filled with compost or other organic matter and provide excellent protection from the wind. Glass panels or clear plastic can be stretched across the trenches to warn the soil up quickly early in the season.

High-altitude gardening is possible!

Although high altitude gardening has it challenges, they are possible to overcome. Choose plants that are best suited for your area and be sure you understand your climate and even microclimate–that can make all the difference in the world.

Start seeds in your home or greenhouse to give you a leg up on the short growing season. Remember, if your great ancestors survived on this land, a garden is more than possible.

Susan Patterson, Master Gardener

Susan Patterson is a Master Gardener and a sustainable living researcher who is always on the lookout for ways to simplify and make environmentally conscious decisions.

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