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Questions about homesteading/permaculture in the desert

 
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Hello all,

I have some questions about the possibility of homesteading in the desert. I have this fascination with arid land and it's a real dream of mine to be able to own a little plot and start building something out of nothing. But, I currently know next to nothing about how to start.

For some context, I'm interested in getting a little plot something like this: https://www.landwatch.com/Colorado-Land-for-sale/pid/37001550. I think of it as "scrubland" or "semi-arid" but it's probably fair to call it the desert. My questions are pretty basic:

- How do I find what kinds of crops I could plant? I know that I associate certain kinds of fruit trees, like pomegranate, or certain crops, like millet, with being able to grow in the desert, but how can I figure out what would actually work where I am?

- Should I be concerned that there are no trees where I'm looking? I've read a lot about how they get trees to grow in places like the Sahel in Africa by building holes and burns to manage the water, but I have no practical knowledge.

- What's the best way to look to find the best land? How can I tell if land is good without seeing it.

- What are the major costs I'm not necessarily thinking of?

I would appreciate any help and advice!! I've been reading all I can on this site, but please please send as many useful links/guides as you can.

Thanks so much,
Carter
 
master pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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The single most useful book I have found about arid lands is Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands Volume 2 by Brad Lancaster.  His website is also very helpful:  https://www.harvestingrainwater.com/

A helpful book which lists many varieties of plants suitable for arid lands is Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land by Gary Nabhan.

How to look for a suitable parcel of land:  https://www.geofflawtononline.com/videos/video/property-purchase-guide/

The greatest danger in choosing the wrong piece of arid land is to find oneself in a floodplain.  Floods in dryland are devastating.  Though one wants some runoff in the land, it is easy to find oneself with a massive flooding problem (I know - I bought such a piece of land) which may be quite difficult to work with.
 
Carter Merenstein
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Thanks for the suggestions! I just ordered Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands from my library, it looks very promising.

Right now we're looking at some land in Elko, Nevada, where we hope to be able to purchase a few acres.

According to the agent, it's not in a floodplain, but on google maps it looks like there's a dry creek bed that runs through. Is it possible to tell how much an area might flood just from looking at satellite pictures?
 
Tyler Ludens
master pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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I would say based on our place here in Texas, avoid a parcel where the creek takes up a lot of the land, or crosses the land between where you want to build/garden and the road.  Our place has two seasonal creeks that are dry most of the time, but in flood the entire bottom portion of our land can be under two feet of water.  This is, unfortunately, where our driveway goes out to meet the county road.  The creek bed itself looks tiny in that area.  We had no idea it flooded that much!

Looking at the image you linked to, I think it's possible that all the light areas along the creek indicate flood scouring, although it's possible it's just overgrazing in those areas, if this land has livestock on it.

Found a website with a link to a flood risk map, which might be helpful:  http://nevadafloods.org/risk.htm
 
Carter Merenstein
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Thanks! That flood zone map is super helpful. Looks like where we're looking is in an "area of minimal flood hazard."
 
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I live close to the SAN Luis property. Up near Crestone. Pomegranates are out.  Too cold. Most anything will grow with water. Very short growing season so look for plant varieties with short maturity. My biggest problem has been rabbits. You'll have to fence a garden in. I am planning on building a greenhouse so I can grow longer maturing veggies.
 
Posts: 182
Location: 7b desert southern Idaho
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Pinion pine might be a good place to start.
 
steward
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Carter, Any time I see land with white soil I wonder about alkali or salt deposits. Some of the cheap land being sold is pretty bad in this way. One of the things I do is to see if the google maps have a close by highway that will let you do a street view. Sometimes you can get a closer look of the area. Looking for other peoples homesteads and what they are growing might give you a hint. One of the great things about permies is that you might be able to find some folks close by to the land you are looking at, who can give you some inside info.  You might also be careful about local zoning and county rules. I know that Costilla county has had a lot of changes over the last few years that are not very friendly to homesteaders. Maybe Rick can say something about that?
 
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Carter,

When looking for land I would pay close attention to how far away the parcel is from a decent road and a small town for basic supplies. If you're off the road a bit check your county for easement access. You can check County records for how deep surrounding wells are to give you a ballpark figure in case you want to drill a well someday. You can also use county GIS sites to get info on parcel owners who may sell you their land for cheaper than using a realtor.

Are you planning on living on this land full time? Some of these arid deserts are forbidding terrain. I know it sounds romantic to live in such a place (I have 40 Acres in arid northern NV) but the practical side is that you may need to rely heavily on traditional resources to get this homestead off the ground. Be prepared for worst case scenarios. If something were to happen  to you out in a remote parcel could you walk to the nearest civilization? Something as simple as car trouble can turn dangerous very quickly.

Getting resources to your land by the pickup truck load can be very costly and at times very difficult. So know what you're up against in terms of money and time.

I think this is an amazing dream you have, one of mine as well, but be prepared. If you'd like some cheap land come be my neighbor near Montello, NV. Google Wincup Gamble Ranch. For a cool video of the area.

Best wishes!
 
pollinator
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Greening the desert is a huge focus of many of the big names in permaculture. So you would be following in some very good footsteps if you do the same.

As for salty land you can actually change that, check out what happens when Geoff Lawton decides to do permaculture near the dead sea









 
Dennis Mitchell
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Location: 7b desert southern Idaho
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Chad Zavala wrote:Carter,

When looking for land I would pay close attention to how far away the parcel is from a decent road and a small town for basic supplies. If you're off the road a bit check your county for easement access. You can check County records for how deep surrounding wells are to give you a ballpark figure in case you want to drill a well someday. You can also use county GIS sites to get info on parcel owners who may sell you their land for cheaper than using a realtor.

Are you planning on living on this land full time? Some of these arid deserts are forbidding terrain. I know it sounds romantic to live in such a place (I have 40 Acres in arid northern NV) but the practical side is that you may need to rely heavily on traditional resources to get this homestead off the ground. Be prepared for worst case scenarios. If something were to happen  to you out in a remote parcel could you walk to the nearest civilization? Something as simple as car trouble can turn dangerous very quickly.

Getting resources to your land by the pickup truck load can be very costly and at times very difficult. So know what you're up against in terms of money and time.

I think this is an amazing dream you have, one of mine as well, but be prepared. If you'd like some cheap land come be my neighbor near Montello, NV. Google Wincup Gamble Ranch. For a cool video of the area.

Best wishes!



I’ve been to Montello. Even checked land prices. I did notice a house south of town that looked like someone knew a bit about permaculture. I love that country!
 
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Location: Sonoran Desert, USA
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Re: how to figure out what you can grow, what will work, where you are.
I would do research into the average temperatures, average humidity levels, average rainfall, and average 'soil' (alkaline, etc...) for your plants vs. where you are buying land.

I grew up in a desert in New Mexico, and ended up in a desert in AZ. I have used techniques and plants that worked in NM well, only to find they flopped entirely in AZ. heat levels combined with humidity levels were often a big issue. Either it was too hot or cold for a particular plant, or it was too dry and had too little water, you know?  But doing just a little climate research (even if I don't do soil research), has helped a lot in figuring out what will work well, and what may work if I tweak it a little (like growing something near a wall for extra heat can offset a slightly colder climate than the plant was expecting).


Next, I would see what has been, or was, grown by people who have lived in that area for the last few hundred years. Are there any local tribes where you want to buy, for example? What types of crops they grow is a good clue what will work. The thing to remember is that it may not be foods you are used to eating, you know? What native plants there are edible or usable? If they grow there already, it's going to be easier to grow on your property.

If you are still looking at Elko, Nevada, there's going to be some desert plants that are going to be out for you, due to temperature, I'm thinking, just looking at the climate data. For example, in the Sonoran desert in AZ, the average winter temps are in the 40's. In Elko, they're in the teens, and you get a few feet of snow, on average. I am on the edge of the Sonoran desert, a little higher up, where the average temp is in the thirties, and even here, I have trouble growing some of the lower desert plants (like moringa, for example). Pomegranate might be problematic, but you might be able to make it work.  Most fruit trees that do well in deserts, that I can think of, are going to want warmer temperatures, more water, or both, you know?  Higher deserts don't tend to have much in the way of native fruit trees for a reason.
If you check out what grows in some of the higher deserts in New Mexico, based on the temp, at least, that might be useful to find some compatible plants.  

But you can probably swing some of the lower water usage fruit trees that can tolerate slightly colder temps (I'm sure there must be some).  

The rainfall average is less than 10 inches a year in elko, as well, so that is definitely going to be an issue to consider as well.  It can be harvested, from your home and some areas, but there are also some strict rules on irrigation from waterways, or blocking any waterways (even arroyos that only run with water part of the year) so you will have limits on what you can use from it.

re: concern over trees not being on property, and should you worry - kinda of yes, and kind of no. I'd do a check. Was there cattle grazing there or farming that could explain it? If not, then a lack of trees might indicate something that you could be problematic but you can overcome with some time - like high winds - or it could indicate something that is problematic and you might not be able to overcome, like some insane caliche. There's a famous story of an Baldassare Forestiere in fresno, ca who bought enough land for growing citrus, but then it turns out to be caliche so deep that he ended up carving out underground living quarters and gardens, instead (it's admittedly pretty spectacular, but most of us aren't looking for that (http://www.undergroundgardens.com/about )

Basically...it's gonna take some research, is all. But doable.

re: major costs you may not necessarily think of - growing things quickly in the desert seems to take either lots of time, or lots of money. Time for things to grow naturally, in the environment you have. Or money to add lots of extra water and/or additions to the soil to get it started and grown  more quickly to the point the plant systems start to support themselves more. Maybe there are other ways, but from what I've seen, that's pretty much it. The big greening the desert projects I know of had large amounts of extra water donated or purchased in the beginning to get things started, seedlings instead of seeds, etc... Me, I don't have that and I have just been slowly letting things grow for over 10 years (also slow as I don't have a lot of labor helping), and it's still nowhere near done.  So if you don't have a lot of money, just be prepared for it to take longer to get self-sustaining than it would if you weren't in a desert.  

Also, heads up - we have some local water and native plant experts here in AZ and they are all predicting less water and higher temperatures in the coming decades for most of the southwest. Estimate I was told was to expect maybe 10 degrees higher, on average, by 2030 around here, and I would assume Nevada would be no different, you know? So I'd factor that in.

Also, water use is high enough in the southwest as a whole, and with many areas lacking any regulations that would actually help curb it, that the water table is going down in many areas, so we are seeing wells dry up. I expect this may be more frequent in the next few decades as well. I would consider water harvesting as a big factor for your water on property, even if you have a well, just in case.


That said - I love the desert. I love living here, and growing things here seems especially rewarding as it's more of a challenge and it feels that much more wonderful when it works.  But also - there are limits to what you can do. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you want to try doing something in the desert, you really gotta like the desert first, you know? Because you may have a greener and more awesome desert, by the end, but it's still going to BE a desert. And a desert is tough, and hot, and it's one of those places you often either love it or hate it, and you definitely don't want to live somewhere you hate.
 
Dennis Mitchell
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Location: 7b desert southern Idaho
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That underground garden is facinating. That might be gardening in fifty years.
 
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There is a permaculture design certificate course and a month internship at the Greening the desert project coming up in November - December..




GREENING THE DESERT PROJECT PDC





GREENING THE DESERT PROJECT INTERNSHIP
 
Oh, sure, you could do that. Or you could eat some pie. While reading this tiny ad:
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