The Trials of Desert Gardens
Living off grid is about sustainability for the most part, but it's also in part about self-reliance. Without being connected to the corporate or government utilities, we don't have to be concerned if there is an outage, shortage, contamination, rate increase or any other unforeseen issues that go along with relying on others for your basic needs. However, there is one basic need that we still have to concern ourselves with and that is food.
At this time in our lives, we are vegan and eat a plant-based diet. So, we don't rely on animals for food in any way and while many homesteaders have animals for meat, eggs and milk, we don't consume those products. The upside to that is that we don't have to provide feed or land for the animals. The downside is that I have to get really good at gardening.
Every time people hear I am vegan, they ask me how I get my protein. Plants are packed full of protein, especially beans, nuts and seeds. At this time, my garden is a far cry from self-reliant. It's more like a nice supplement with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, kale, lettuce, raspberries and green beans. (At least I hope all of these end up being fruitful.) We also planted apple and plum trees, which might take a couple of years to fruit. Aside from cooking herbs, I planted calendula, nasturtium, mint, lavender and chamomile for herbal remedies. Next year, I'd like to add potatoes, corn, edamame, fava beans and peas for more protein sources. Since we live close to a pinyon and juniper forest, we could learn from local custom to collect pine nuts. I'd also like to learn to forage for mushrooms and other edible plants as in past years I have wildcrafted some of our medicine, such as coneflowers and nettles.
The pagan cross quarter day of Lughnasa has just passed, marking the start of harvest season and an opportunity for me to reflect on my organic garden this year, what worked and what didn't work. This is the first garden in our new location. Being the type of person who moves houses every six or seven years, I know that it takes me two or three summers to make my garden abundant. I need to learn the lay of the land and what grows well and what doesn't.
This year, I made the mistake of planting late. Global Warming has extended the growing season in the last few years. Also, the desert seems to get hot earlier even though I'm in the same growing zone. It's a delicate balance knowing when to plant because a late frost is not uncommon in the Rocky Mountains. Since I was so late to planting this year, the starts remaining in nurseries for purchase had big root balls that were difficult to pull apart without damaging the plants. I believe this is why my tomato plants have stayed so small.
I've always been really bad at starts (starting plants from seed). Mainly because I can't seem to successfully harden them off. I either leave them out too long or forget about them all together. I did try some starts this year, but our house being so small doesn't really have enough window space for them. Direct sowing has always been my jam and where my garden thrives. I think I will need a greenhouse or a cold frame box or some version of one or both in order for me to grow more food in the future.
What I got right in my garden this year is our lovely shade cloth hoops. I am using four raised beds that I moved from our rental that are a good solution for our gravel yard. We used PVC pipes and clipped shade cloth to them. I have had no issue with burnt or withered plants, which is great in this climate. We have wind blocking fences as well.
There's always the issue of water. I've written about our trials with water many times. Water in the desert. We have our two cisterns and our water pump and Eric built me an outdoor spout for easily watering the garden, however, I have yet to be able to make our drip system fully functional. I wanted to use the soaker hoses to conserve water and to be able to put the water on a timer for when we are out of town, but it seems there is not enough pressure to get water to all the beds. I will continue engineering this issue and hopefully be able to resolve it for next year. In the meantime, the monsoons have been doing a great job of taking care of the watering for me.
For some things, I have no excuse. Like, why does my kale stay so small when I see other people with giant kale plants up to their knees? I have no idea. I have read a few gardening books, but mostly I just wing it. I call myself a khaki thumb. Not quite brown but definitely not green.
So why do I garden if I'm not particularly good at it? Like most gardeners, I enjoy the simple act of digging in the garden. The rich smell of a deep brown soil relaxes me. The moments pulling weeds from the beds are such a simple act of care for my plants and so rewarding. Each plant is offering me and my family a small gift of their bodies for our nourishment. In turn, I care for them with compost and water. Sometimes I hum or sing while working in my garden to show my appreciation. Many books have been written on plant communication. Botanical studies have shown that plants react to environmental stimuli such as light, scent, sound and touch, revealing that plants have their own system of intelligence. Both NASA and the Smithsonian have done experiments that show plants respond to vibrations positively or negatively. And some research has proven that speaking to plants nicely helps them to grow, while yelling at them is a deterrent. (Who would yell at their plants?!) All this is to say, that it is possible for humans to be in relationship with their plants. I have a relationship with my garden of mutual nourishment.
I have lots of ideas for the ways in which I can make our food source more self-sustaining and maybe in two or three years, I'll have a fully functioning operation with greenhouse, cold frame boxes, seed saving, fava beans and more. For now, I'm savoring the precious delight of growing a yummy salad for lunch.