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Is it Possible to Have a Forest Garden in the Desert?

 
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I have forty acres that are mostly juniper, live oaks, prickly pear, and yucca. I am US Zone 8a/b with little rainfall.

Is it possible to have a Forest Garden in the desert?

I understand that the book deals mostly with trees and plants that grow in a temperate climate.

This is my tank, in Texas that is what we call a pond:




I also have an abundance of deer, rabbits, raccoons, turkeys and other wildlife.  We have lots of songbirds and butterflies.

I have a wildflower garden and a kitchen garden so how do I start a forest garden?

My soil is mostly caliche and limestone rock.  What would I need to do to it to be able to start a forest garden?

I know that under the oak trees there is an abundance of leaf mold that mother nature has been making for hundreds of years.  Though it is only easily available where there is lots of shade due to grass loving it in sunny spots.




What medicinal perennials would be best to start with or try?

This is the meadow that I wanted to turn into a wildflower meadow:




I do have some medicinal plants in the wildflower garden. The ones that lived through my drought conditions have been rosemary and lavender.  I lost one lavender last year and feel that the reason this one lived is because of the shade from the rosemary.

I have tried goldenrod, yarrow, lovage and several that I have forgotten.  I have lemon balm in a hanging basket and parsley works in a hanging basket also.

I also need to mention that we have apple cedar rust due to so many junipers.  I have never found where it is.  We tried a plum and a pear and neither did well.




 
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Hi Anne,

Interesting project!  No expert here, but that seems like exactly the sort of property that earthworks were designed to address - catching and soaking in what little rainfall there is.

Have you seen any of Geoff Lawton’s “Greening the Desert” videos?  That might answer a lot of your questions as to how an expert would go about developing a food forest on a plot like yours.

Good luck - would love to see your progress over time!
 
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Hi Anne,
You don't say what sort of medicinal herb preferences you have - I guess you might be looking for herbs to dry as medicinal teas, functional foods, aromatics for essential oils and distilled waters, possibly saleable crops of medicinals, or other interests? Coming from an 'oceanic' environment where rain can be incessant, and humidity and slugs a real bind, I am somewhat envious and think you have some very interesting possibilities. A bonus is the ability to dry harvests so that they can be kept for at least 12 months or more. However I do agree with a previous post that for extending the range of possibilities then further water management is likely needed, through storage, capture and reducing evaporation.

In our experience at Holt Wood the creation of a variety of environments is key to having good diversity in medicinal plants. You mention shady areas and some richer soils too so it sounds like you could develop more of these areas, particularly with planting of lines of additional trees as swales? I am not expert on the Texan climate but wonder if there are more Mediterranean possibilities for trees and shrubs that could survive? Walnut, olive, mulberry, sweet bay, chasteberry, broom. On the ground floor level I think yarrow is wonderful - like a supercharged version of chamomile for inflammatory and respiratory conditions. Again if lavender and rosemary would work then Mediterranean herbs like sage, hyssop, should do well. In Spain there is an agroforestry project using alleys of cherry trees (grown longterm for timber) to provide part shade to slow the flowering of aromatic plants like lemon balm, which increases the aromatic content for distillation.

Native medicinal plants may be the best way forward for sustainable planting, or for large areas. You mention a wildflower area and could some of these plants be medicinal? There must be traditional medicine relating to your area (try Foster S and Duke JA (1990) A field guide to eastern and central North American medicinal plants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.?). Perhaps use the grassy areas for prairie-style planting, the grasses provide useful deep rooting and, for example, coneflower species could thrive, great for immune-stimulating herb material. There is a reclaimed prairie planting at the United Plant Savers (UPS) botanical sanctuary in Ohio, and more about UPS at https://unitedplantsavers.org. I have not included desert plants in the Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook but I wonder if there are desert plants that uniquely would thrive for you such as succulents, and a firm favourite for me would be aloe vera which provides a lot of potential for body care preparations in addition to internal uses.
 
Anne Miller
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Anne, thank you for the wonderful reply and great suggestions.  Much of what you said is very helpful.

I have been researching the native plants that grow here and their medicinal qualities. I thought I might do a thread about them for our other member who live in the desert.

We have pecan trees that almost grow wild though they are all near rivers, which I am not.

Again, thank you.
 
pollinator
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Making a food forest in the desert is just the same as a food forest elsewhere, but with different species.  The difficult part is finding adapted species of food plants, particularly those that will tolerate our extreme hot summers as well as coldish winters.  Planting adapted support trees, shrubs, and ground covers is very important.  I need to plant more support plants in my food forest.  I was able to start the forest without waiting for the support trees to grow because I'm growing under a canopy of dead oaks and living elms, cedars, and hackberries.  So far the fruits showing most promise are Pomegranate, Mulberry, and Pineapple Guava.  I think Jujube will be one to try.  Moringa is also a promising food tree.

I would personally not try starting a food forest in the open here.  I would get shade developed with support trees, or plant under existing trees.

Most trees, unless started from seed, will require irrigation.

 
Tyler Ludens
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Food plants that currently grow at my place with no care once established:

Spineless Prickly Pear
Garlic Chives
Asparagus
Jujube*
Elephant Garlic
Buffalo Gourd
Canada Onion
Chile Piquin/Bird Pepper


*my Jujube doesn't bear fruit because it has no pollinator
jujube.jpg
Jujube growing with no care
Jujube growing with no care
 
Tyler Ludens
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Anne Miller wrote:
I have been researching the native plants that grow here and their medicinal qualities.



A terrific book I need to revisit is Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest by Delena Tull.  There are a tremendous number of useful native and adapted plants in this region that grow under harsh conditions.  I believe we can grow many more if we improve our forest garden soil with support plants and chop and drop.
 
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I live in SE Arizona, and I have a forest garden. The 4 acres came with mesquite and yucca. Over the years I've discovered globe mallow, sorrel, desert marigold, purslane, daylilies, mullein, dragontail, wood sorrel, pepper plant, devils claw , amaranth, and lots of things I cant remember right now. These all arrived uninvited.
But I started planting 20 years ago, so now have 45 ft pine trees, fruit and nut trees, medicinal herbs, cactus, agave, and lots of perrenial and annual vegetables.
I stopped mowing about 15 years ago, unfortunately not before I could stop my ex husband from mowing before seeds were set. One of the many reasons hes an ex.
Cant help but wonder how many plants I lost because they didnt have a chance to propagate.
I love my desert/forest/jungle. Its wild and prolific and beautiful!
 
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We are in 8b and probably have less rainfall than you. Although I've not yet seen standing water in our tank, I'm sure it has in the past since there are pieces of clay settled on horizontal mesquite branches up to about 2 feet off the ground. I'm also finding plenty of powdery clay/dirt on the grass (which grows to 10' tall in our tank). In order to have some organic material to do some composting Johnson-Su-Bioreactor style, I'm cutting dead and live grass and removing dead branches from the mesquite tree and also some vine plant that seems to be harming the tree by shading out and weighing down the branches. I'll have to monitor the tank to see how high the water gets and how long it stays before deciding what will be OK to plant there in the bowl of the tank. There is the one mesquite tree in the center of the tank and numerous mesquite and desert willow and other trees and shrubs around the perimeter. Between the center mesquite and the perimeter is mostly the tall grass with some clumps of the vine and a few purple nightshade plants and little else that I have noticed so far. One thing I believe would do well in our tank is bamboo and I'd just love to have a small bamboo forest out here in the desert. Outside of the tank on most of the rest of our property the predominant plant is creosote bush and we also have numerous varieties of cactus and some other much shorter thinner varieties of grasses. Nothing resembling a lawn by any means but if you look for it, you can find grass here and there. I don't think our soil is caliche. Some of the flatter parts of our property have soil that can be dug with a shovel but much of our land is very rocky and requires a pickax to dig. I planted a fig a year or two ago and it is doing well so I'll be looking to add lots more figs in the future. I've ordered mulberry seed so we can have lots more trees than our current single tree that is also doing well. The mulberry would probably grow faster and larger if I gave it more water but then I worry a bit about it becoming dependent on irrigation. We have Texas Persimmons growing wild but just barely enough to keep up with my daily consumption during their season so I've got to plant lots more of those to have enough to preserve for eating throughout the year. Pomegranates are also on my list of trees for my food forest. I've ordered some jojoba seeds that I believe will do OK here once I go pick them up from the mailbox and get them planted. Our 10 Dwarf Nigerian goats are doing their part to help with improving our soil and thankfully they love the seeds/berries from the creosote bush and eat some of the leaves as well. I thing the goats are a bit on the lightweight side to do much in the way of trampling to break the crust of ground in parts that need that done to help allow water to penetrate and soak in rather than run off. I'm also looking into getting some blackberries growing. For shade, I'm thinking of growing grapes on suspended horizontal cattle panels or possibly cattle panel arches.
 
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We've been trying to figure this out, too, Anne! Certainly possible, the questions are just where, how, and what, right? Everyone else has great tips and suggestions I'm taking notes on. I'm not sure whether to reply here or in your medicinal plants for desert forest gardens thread, so perhaps I'll post different versions of this in both places!

Are you thinking of starting under the live oaks? Certainly where we are -- a bit east of Leila -- with a similar climate to you, we need shade to establish most other things as Tyler says, especially since we don't have a well or regular irrigation. We use mesquite as nurse trees to get things, including new trees, established, and they are great food, fuel, and medicine. We also have desert willow like Robert, and we don't use them as nurse trees because they don't cast all that much shade, but it is great medicine (leaves, antifungal and reportedly good against valley fever) and tea (flowers).

This late spring has really been challenging our tree plantings, but so far the mulberries and one of the jujubes seem like they'll make it well. We just got some new tiny baby mulberries to add in, then realized they can't go in the ground just yet because of a bug infestation (tiny hopping insects seemingly connected to wet winters leading to flushes of tansy mustard) that's decimating stuff right now. The elder was looking amazing and is now really suffering, but I have high hopes it will still make it. The Emory oak I'm worried about, but if you can get that growing there, the acorns are sweet and wonderful. A neighbor who grew a forest on his property suggested Italian stone pines, so I ordered a few seeds and have a couple of potted seedlings I'm nursing along. I've also got baby seedling locusts, palo verde, hackberry, and peach to try, and I'm sure I'm forgetting things. I haven't gotten Arizona walnut to propagate yet, but I'll keep trying. It might do well by you, too. We're going to order fig cuttings and would also love to try pomegranate. Many of these trees are medicinal as well as edible.

For shrubs, do you have any Lyceum spp. near you? Wolfberries are great -- we've got Lyceum berlandieri and L. pallidum in our gardens now -- for food and medicine. Creosote is wonderful medicine as well, although it doesn't play that well with others. If hibiscus grows well by you, that's a good tea herb bush I'm trying again this year (last year's didn't make it through the winter, but I haven't given up). I'd like to try chaya, even though it's just out of our zone range, and goumi, aronia, and hazelnut. I'm jealous of your blackberries and would like to try them at some point, too. Those prickly pears are great medicine as well as food! The yucca, too (do they count as shrubs?), with all those saponins. We encourage (root cuttings, distribute seeds, etc.) both of those as well as foraging them.

For vines, does Passiflora incarnata grow by you or mostly elsewhere in TX? It's great medicine. It was thriving here until some Gulf fritillaries found it, and their offspring ate all the vines down to the ground... Clitoria ternatea (butterfly pea) would probably die back in winter there as here, but it might come back in warm zones of your garden. The flowers are great in tea. The buffalo gourd that Tyler mentioned supposedly has good edible seeds with a high fat ratio, which we've been meaning to try roasting.

For herbaceous stuff and roots/tubers, in addition to what others have said, have you tried saffron crocuses there? I planted some last fall, too late to get flowers yet, and now they've gone dormant for the summer, but I'm hoping they come back with the monsoon. Horseradish seems to do OK so far. Chiltepines (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) or any wild or wild-ish chilies that grow near you are great. The tiny hopping insects here got the two that had come back this spring, but we have six more to plant when the bugs die down and the rain returns. I finally managed to get calendula and cilantro to grow by seeding them in early fall. They overwintered nicely and really took off this spring. Sage and oregano have done pretty well, and peppermint of all things has decided it has plenty of water here! Bee balm (find your local native Monardas), lemon balm, anise hyssop, Korean mint, chia, and other mint family things like that could work for you, too. Some seem to be working here, others struggling more. Do you have native chia there like we do here? Oh! And horehound! There's an "invasive" warning on that, but it's good medicine like so many "weeds."

OK, I'm going to your other string now. :)
 
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Your land does not look barren. A food forest really tried to emulate an oak savanna with lots of edge and less the dark forest floor of a tropical rainforest. So what you already have is already 'perfection'.

But the food trees are a bit lacking. There are a few options we have that we can play with.
Look for plants that natively grow in 'dry areas' like Fig, Pomegranate, Grapes, Apricot, Almond, Pistachios, Guava. Sage, Oregano, Thyme and the rest of the family.
Next is creating land races/cultivars. Plants 10,000 seeds, neglect them then cherish the ones that survive, by grafting or saving the native seeds and back-breeding
Catchment Area, if you have a creekbed that is 2,000ft long and you have two rows of plants on both side. That is 8,000 linear feet. with 500 trees planted every 16ft.
Right where water enters your land you can stop and spread the water, basically creating your own kid of moist creekbed. you can plant there too.

Lastly I don't think that a food forest to provide for ones food has to be huge. 300 or so trees on just an acres or so every 15ft is more than enough. Another 1/4 acre for a fish pond. 3+ bee hive, a chicken coop. another 1/4 acre for herbs and such and another 1/4 acres for vegetables. Just 2 out of that 4 acres and you are already golden. It could be close and easy for you to water and nurture while young if needed. Not too hard to fence and protect from the wildlife. Once you have that core 2 acres you can then expand at whatever rate you would like.
 
Tyler Ludens
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S Bengi wrote:
Catchment Area, if you have a creekbed that is 2,000ft long and you have two rows of plants on both side. That is 8,000 linear feet. with 500 trees planted every 16ft.
Right where water enters your land you can stop and spread the water, basically creating your own kid of moist creekbed. you can plant there too.



Planting in or near creeks in this habitat likely won't work because of flash flooding.  Most creeks in this region become raging torrents in flood, likely to tear out or severely damage any plantings.  Strategic diversion swales might be able to pacify and transport excess water to another area where it can be used to grow food plants.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Though I caution against planting near creeks in this region, I am actually trying a small experiment by the creek behind my dad's house.  It doesn't often flood beyond the main and secondary channels, so I am going to try planting just above the secondary channel, and make a robust brush berm anchored by trees and stakes.  This is a guerilla food forest experiment, so if it all gets destroyed, no big deal as we don't own the land anyway.
brushberm.jpg
beginnings of brush berm along creek channel
beginnings of brush berm along creek channel
 
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What would a native american some hundred years ago  survive on, in a similar area?
I have noticed that locals in the tropics with good rain eat much more greens, tubers, all sort of fruits, and carbs in general, while those in desert areas might go for more (animal) protein, some herbs maybe some hardy fruits/berries (I notice jujube did well in Asia) and other roots etc. I have also noticed that people in desert area eat less, and might not be as active, and might burn less calories. I am not saying it should be so, it's just an observation I have made while travelling in different areas, continents and climates.
You don't need to chop a lot wood, for instance, and so so don't need as many calories. Freezing and being cold also consumes calories.
 
Beth Wilder
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Beth Wilder wrote:For herbaceous stuff and roots/tubers, in addition to what others have said, have you tried saffron crocuses there? I planted some last fall, too late to get flowers yet, and now they've gone dormant for the summer, but I'm hoping they come back with the monsoon.


Just read some more on this, by happenstance:

"Saffron, the 'mellow yellow' from India and the Mediterranean, boosts the mood-lifting serotonin signal as effectively as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) for depression." - Nicolette Perry, Your Brain on Plants: Improve the Way You Think and Feel with Safe - and Proven - Medicinal Plants and Herbs, "Introduction."
 
Anne Miller
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Saffron crocus are really pretty and come in some pretty colors.  Thanks for the suggestion.







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