Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Garden Dreams

January is garden dreaming time on the homestead. I have to be honest and say that our homestead gardening motto could be stated: "Gardening? Dream On!"  We really struggle to have a good garden here. I'll try to paint a picture.

First challenge: Our elevation is 7,000 feet. Our topography is high desert prairie, and our forty-acre homestead is flat and all native prairie grass - only a couple of trees. (There is a four-letter reason for this - wind! More on this later.) We are right on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert and our lack of natural rainfall reflects this. Because of elevation, our average growing season is 119 days. I'm told to plan on May 5th as the last frost date, but in 2014 we had frost on May 28th!  Our usual first frost comes sometime in September, but we often have very nice weather through October. So, while the length of our growing season is pretty good, and can even be deliberately extended with careful planning, the altitude keeps the nights very cool and the daytime sun very strong. It makes for pleasant living, if you aren't a tomato.

Second debilitating challenge: The wind blows constantly on our homestead. I'm not exagerating. Now and then I get a pleasant surprise when I step outside and the wind isn't blowing, but usually I can count on the wind. I'm not sure why it blows here so consistently. I have my uneducated suspicions, but the reasons don't really matter. The wind blows and it sucks the water from the plants quicker than the laundry on the line. It took several years to understand that our garden problem was not merely the lack of available water, but rather the ferocious wind. We have tried several barrier ideas that have helped a little. Planting in stacked tires has been the most helpful solution for some plants. We have finally built a large storage shed on the windward side of the garden this last year and, although the shed intrduces other issues, we hope it will help reduce the #1 problem of wind. If we can tap into some additional water (see the next challenge) I am going to try planting a vining windbreak this year.

Third challenge: We live in the desert pretty much. We just don't get enough consistent rainfall to produce the beautiful gardens you see in more richly blessed areas. We have a very short green-up of early grass in the spring and then there really isn't much green anywhere. Trees are scarce. So the garden and fruit trees must be irrigated and irrigation water is very precious. Our goals for the garden this year include better irrigation ideas and a water harvesting system to catch the summer monsoon.

Fourth challenge: Our soil is very rocky and highly alkaline. If that isn't enough, there is a thick layer of caliche that underlies everything. We have worked on this problem for many years in our garden spot. We've added admendments to the soil and it is now a pretty good growing space. But this is another reason why there are few trees on the property. You have to dig a massive hole to get past the caliche layer and create room for the tree roots to grow. We don't have a back hoe, so that means digging by hand. It is pretty easy to put this off.

Fifth challenge: Discouragement, plain and simple. We have struggled and failed with our garden so many times that it just seems impossible to harvest enough food to make it worth spending precious water. A couple of years ago our well went dry and that created enough discouragement for a lifetime. Praise God we drilled again and found deeper water, but we haven't had the usual garden since then. However I am the daughter of several generations of farmers and I learned the proper mantra; "Maybe this year!" We have made more plans and refined more goals and we are trying it again this year.

Which brings me back to January dreaming. I am deep into the process of choosing what to plant this year. I'm reading about varieties and paying particular attention to locally successful plants as well as water-efficiency and hardiness. There is a lot to choose from and I don't have much room for experimentation. I think I may need more hot cocoa...

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