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.


Shiprock New Mexico

Last year on our trek across the country, we took a detour to go see Shiprock. This plan came about one day on our trip while Chad was studying the map. He said something like, “One possibility if we go through New Mexico would be to stop and see Shiprock.” I’m sure my eyes lit up and that I couldn’t even respond with a sentence, just an “OoooOOOOO!!”

I had seen images of Shiprock while doing keywording work years ago. The idea of a huge rock in the middle of the flat desert was enticing, even worth adding extra time to an already long day of driving.

We weren’t able to get very close to it because it’s on tribal land and is considered sacred to the Navajo. They don’t want silly tourists bumbling around this amazing spot with their cameras. Can you blame them? So we kept a respectful distance and looked on in awe.




Milkweed is one of the loved, cherished weeds we have growing on our property. The plant is very important for monarch butterflies and may be edible (this subject gives rise to much debate!). And they are beautiful! We were wondering, though, if this was the RIGHT milkweed for monarchs in our area of the country. So I finally decided to check.


Seed head from Showy Milkweed in fall

And yes indeed, our property is home to Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) which is the best milkweed for monarchs in the Intermountain West region, followed, according to Monarch Watch, by Broadleaf Milkweed (Asclepias latifolia).

Why is having the RIGHT milkweed important? Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, and then the caterpillars only eat milkweed. If you plant the wrong type of milkweed for your region, it can severely mess up the monarch’s reproduction cycle (they might lay their eggs at the wrong time). More on that here: Plan to save monarch butterflies backfires

So, if you also have milkweed or are thinking about planting some and want to make sure it’s the right one for your region, check out this guide at Monarch Watch and you can quickly find the right varieties.

And as far as eating milkweed goes? I figure the butterflies need them more than we do anyway. Problem solved.

Cold frame conundrum

I have four cold frames that I made using plastic storage bins and two more that use glass with the thermal mass of bricks and stone. These are experimental and so far I’m seeing some clear differences in the results.

The seeds started in the thermal mass cold frames are thriving and growing much more quickly than the others. While not the exact same varieties, there are tomatoes and peppers started in both the plastic frames and the glass-brick frames.

There is one cold frame in particular (Cold Frame 4) where the seeds are ESPECIALLY slow coming up. I have only spotted one seedling in here so far:


Cold Frame 4

Compare with Cold Frame 3, started on the same day:


Cold Frame 3

And the big difference is with Cold Frames 5 & 6 which have the advantage of thermal mass keeping them warm at night. These were started a couple of weeks AFTER Cold Frame 4 but are growing much faster:


Cold Frame 5


Cold Frame 6

I have a couple of ideas about why the seeds in Cold Frame 4 aren’t coming up, or aren’t coming up as fast as all of the others.

The thermal mass surrounding Cold Frame 5 and 6 are certainly helping keep the seeds and seedlings in there warmer at night. In the desert environment here it gets a lot colder at night than it is during the day. (Why? Humidity in the air keeps the temperature more stable. You’re welcome.)

But the other  plastic cold frames are also doing better than poor Cold Frame 4, which is the lower container below:


I’m guessing that perhaps the height on the other bins is somehow allowing for more warm air to accumulate, keeping those seedlings warmer at night too.

Or, perhaps when the plastic cold frames were next to the house #4 took on too much water one night and washed all the seeds out of the pots. It’s possible!

In any case, it’s a good learning experience. Next time I will go with thermal mass all the way. And perhaps for the time being I’ll go out and pile up some bricks next to Cold Frame 4 and see if that helps.

This episode of geeking out in the garden has come to a close! More garden geekery next time!