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Human beings will be happier - not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That's my utopia.
~Kurt Vonnegut
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Survival Mode

Gardening in the desert, on the scale I aspire, has meant a lot of trial and error. Gardening IS trial and error regardless, but the desert possibly contributes more to the error side of the equation. Because I am pretty much stuck at home with my mother, I've been learning much of it on-the-fly. I can't go to workshops or spend hours asking questions at a garden center. My climate is not like Phoenix and not like Albuquerque, so learning resources are a bit scarce.

This is an agricultural area, but the research and support appears to be geared more toward industrial type monoculture, not toward the home gardener. Chiles, pecans, onion, cotton, alfalfa, melon and iceberg lettuce seem to be the major crops. Farmland here, like most places, was being swallowed up by subdivisions. Now much prime farmland lies fallow with for-sale signs decorating the perimeters, dotted with other signs marked 'zoned commercial' or 'residential'. If I had the money, equipment and knowledge, I would snap up one of those pieces of land, perhaps making it into a community garden. Instead, I have to work with the yard I have.

We get less than 10" of rain a year making rainbarrels a priority. I now have 6-60 gallon barrels set up. That won't really water much, but it's something in a pinch. Our community water unfortunately has high levels of uranium, which is ok to water plants with, but not so good for drinking. Plants apparently do not take up heavy metals, but humans do. Reverse osmosis is recommended for removing uranium, but it uses 3 gallons of water to yield 1 gallon of drinkable water. For now, we fill up water jugs at a 'water island' station, and then filter again at home through a Berkey. Ultimately, if the water island stations disappear due to the economy, the Berkey will have to do, filtering rain, or even river water, after being purified. I hope it doesn't ever come to that, but water security is first priority. Even with the scarcity of water most of the year, we do have to worry about flooding during the monsoon season. Who would have thought it would be a good idea to buy flood insurance in the desert?

My second priority was identifying native edible plants. Prickly pear cactus and mesquite pods are plentiful. From the cactus pads I can make nopales (think slimy green beans), and from the fruit of the cactus, the tuna, I can make jelly and syrup. Mesquite pods can be ground into a sweet flour. That's hardly enough to live on, but both grow without much intervention on my part.

The first year I was here I tried growing tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, chile, potatoes and strawberries, just as an experiment. None of them produced much. The second year I tried all the above again and added garlic, green beans, bell peppers, basil, cucumbers, artichoke, lettuce, and assorted herbs. I had a much better yield and was even able to can tomatoes. We are still eating the garlic and green beans and salsa. Basil was especially prolific so I froze a lot of pesto. I won't be able to plant as many tomatoes this year because I have to rotate my beds, but since cherry tomatoes seem to do well here, I will grow a couple plants in containers. Flooding washed out our pomegranate bush, so we need to plant another, and I would like to plant a couple fruit trees.

One of my other projects has been flood prevention. We had several heavy rains last summer, and because a neighbor rerouted an arroyo (illegally) it has caused a lot of grief. I'm not sure what to do about the neighbor because I absolutely hate conflict, but I'm trying my best to work with the land, and attempting to harvest as much rainwater as possible. Doing that work requires a lot of heavy physical labor and I have to be mindful of neighbors downstream as well.

I have been setting up drip systems for watering, but I still have to devise a system for the garden area I plan to plant this year. One problem I have found with drip systems; critters like to chomp on them, and they put holes in the tubing where I did not want holes. They get thirsty too. Can't they just use the birdbath?

The intention of this post is to inspire you, the reader, to continue thinking about your own area, and what will sustain you as our economy continues to collapse. Your problems/priorities will be different than mine. Maybe your garden is so prolific you need to get a pressure canner and learn to use it. Maybe you get too much rain, or your growing season isn't very long. Maybe you don't want to garden or don't have any place to grow anything, but you're thinking about storing some food. The important thing is to think about it and act. Again I'll mention that pressure canner, whether you can grow food or not. They are not as scary as your mother made them out to be. Really. I was terrified the first time I tried, but I love it now.

My very best tip for anyone, no matter your climate, is to get a sproutmaster and seeds so you can always have something fresh and nutritious. It's easy and only takes water.

For a look at what others near my neck of woods (60+ miles away) are doing, albeit with far more energetic prowess than I, visit Holy Scrap Hot Springs. Their experiments are inspiration. Papercrete, solar, desert gardening, biodiesel and
posted by Cyndy | link | | |


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