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Cheap/free mulches in the high desert?

 
Trish Doherty
Posts: 16
Location: Southwestern NM
forest garden chicken greening the desert
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Hello everyone!  I'm starting out on a small urban project to green up my little portion of the high desert.  I live in a small, somewhat remote town in southwestern NM (no access to deliveries from Lowes, Home Depot, and so on).  My "soil" is mostly rock, with some gravel on top.  One of my first priorities is to rehabilitate it.  I'm looking for some good mulch material that won't cost me an arm and a leg.  However, our town does not have free mulch or anything of the sort.  I've signed up for ChipDrop for over a year and gotten nothing.  I guess there's just not an abundance of organic materials here.  So, looking at buying mulching materials, I was wondering if anyone has experience with this and could weigh in on options and cost involved.  (I don't have a chipper/shredder.)

In the meantime, I'm doing what I can with composting, vermiculture, and have some chickens coming this spring.  But on a regular-sized lot, it seems like that will take an awful long time to effect a transformation.  I'd love to hear any ideas you may have!
 
Ron Haberman
Posts: 35
Location: Boise, Idaho
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You must have some tree trimming companies in the area. Contact them and see if you can get chips from them if they are in your area.
 
Michael Fundaro
Posts: 72
Location: Southern Utah
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I am guessing there are not enough trees around your area for any tree trimming business to have an overabundance of wood chips, and less likely they would be venturing far from their larger cities.

You can check with the local hay and straw farmers for the most affordable option on bales of hay or stray.  

If you are not that far from the mountains, and especially if you have a wood stove, look into a permit to cut firewood and along with the logs you can bring home all the ends of the branches and scatter them around the yard too.  The pine needles will be helpful in the compost process.

Ask at the local grocery store about their old produce.  If they don't already have someone they might let you buy it for cheap if you explain you need it for compost and for your critters.

And, what I am trying to do is grow cover crops that will not only give you greens to use for compost and for chicken food the roots will break up the soil and add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil and help allow water to soak into the soil instead of running off the property.

Do you have hay fields near you?  Try and talk to one of the farmers and ask what they recommend for you to get started with cover crops.  You may need to start with a small area, maybe 10'x10' or 10'x20', but as you learn and as it starts to grow you can slowly expand, or start a second area on the other side of the yard.

And last, read up on Microclimates for the desert.  You will probably want to start out small but by planting flowers and trees and veggies and bushes and grapevines and many other plants you will be adding moisture the the air in that area and the more moisture in the air the cooler that area will become, and then work on ways to make shade, and build up some arbors and trellises.  Maybe look into a small pond for a shady corner, which might eventually grow into an aquaponics garden a year or two later.
https://www.gardeninginthedesert.com/creating-microclimates-for-the-desert-summer/

I am familiar with high desert issues, but fortunately I have trees in my yard and around the area.  I still need to get a successful cover crop going and I need to greatly expand my microclimate, so I am still learning all this myself.  I wish you luck.  Remember, shade and moisture will be your best friends, start small but have plans to expand a little each year, or each month if you have the time and energy.
 
Tom Berens
Posts: 19
Location: New Mexico
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Welcome neighbor, I too have just moved to the area, { Catron County } and making soil is a challenge. What we have is ranchers and some farmers, so manure and wheat hay or straw if you can find it, to make compost, have also used alfalfa. I also use the leaf litter from under my Juniper and pinion tree's.
 
Debbie Ann
Posts: 6
Location: Sedona Az
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Hi Trish,
Moved to my high desert piece of heaven 10 years ago. Nothing but pine and juniper trees, bare ground and scrub oak. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the rock. My acre is/was 95% rock and 5% pulverized rock. No organic matter whatsoever. Been creating paradise ever since. Lots and lots of small gardens and beds up the little hills and down the tiny gullies. Gotta follow the water. On a budget too. I grow organic vegies year round. Have a summer season and a fall/winter season. Don't have spring. 100+ degrees all summer and 30-50 degrees all winter.
My free mulch is leaves. They are the brown stuff for my compost and make great mulch for flowers.
Don't have any deciduous trees so I put a post on Craigslist every November in the Free section and the Farm and Garden section and ask for donations. I specify that they are for organic vegies and I cannot pick up any that have been sprayed with chemicals and I can't take them if you have a dog or cat that uses the yard for their bathroom. I usually get between 50 and 200 bags a year. So I always have a couple of big piles to draw from all year long.
Leaves are good stuff. If I pull a crop and I'm not going to use that bed for another 6 months I dig in a bunch of leaves. There is usually a little bit of fertilizer left in the bed to help them break down. I just water it occasionally and turn the bed a couple of times and the worms show up and the dirt looks better every year. Hope this helps.
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Michael Fundaro
Posts: 72
Location: Southern Utah
11
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Debbie Ann wrote:Hi Trish,
Moved to my high desert piece of heaven 10 years ago. Nothing but pine and juniper trees, bare ground and scrub oak. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the rock. My acre is/was 95% rock and 5% pulverized rock. No organic matter whatsoever. Been creating paradise ever since. Lots and lots of small gardens and beds up the little hills and down the tiny gullies. Gotta follow the water. On a budget too. I grow organic vegies year round. Have a summer season and a fall/winter season. Don't have spring. 100+ degrees all summer and 30-50 degrees all winter.
My free mulch is leaves. They are the brown stuff for my compost and make great mulch for flowers.
Don't have any deciduous trees so I put a post on Craigslist every November in the Free section and the Farm and Garden section and ask for donations. I specify that they are for organic vegies and I cannot pick up any that have been sprayed with chemicals and I can't take them if you have a dog or cat that uses the yard for their bathroom. I usually get between 50 and 200 bags a year. So I always have a couple of big piles to draw from all year long.
Leaves are good stuff. If I pull a crop and I'm not going to use that bed for another 6 months I dig in a bunch of leaves. There is usually a little bit of fertilizer left in the bed to help them break down. I just water it occasionally and turn the bed a couple of times and the worms show up and the dirt looks better every year. Hope this helps.



This sounds very similar to my property on the side of a mountain in southern Utah.  My neighbors keep telling me to cut down the Junipers because they use too much water and rob nutrients from the the Pinion Pines and other plants.  I have been thinning them out a little at a time, either cutting them back away from the Pinions so the Pinions can get more sun and space, or cutting them down completely in areas where I want to open up some space.  Trim off all the small trigs and branches to use as mulch or compost.

I keep trying to plant Aspen around the borders to maintain privacy and add some beauty but my success rate with them is about 40% so that is a slow process too.  I did run a 1/2" irrigation line, using the 500' roll of silly pipe, around my property and I add a drip emitter by each tree or plant that needs water.  I have the irrigation split into 3 sections, each with their own battery operated hose faucet timer so they can water at their own time and for their own necessary duration.

So, if you have Junipers you might want to thin them out to allow more water and sun and nutrients for the other trees and plants.  At least that is what many of my neighbors keep telling me, time and time again.  Like a broken record, with the same song, from a dozen different bands.  LOL
 
Trish Doherty
Posts: 16
Location: Southwestern NM
forest garden chicken greening the desert
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Michael Fundaro wrote:I am guessing there are not enough trees around your area for any tree trimming business to have an overabundance of wood chips, and less likely they would be venturing far from their larger cities.

You can check with the local hay and straw farmers for the most affordable option on bales of hay or stray.  

If you are not that far from the mountains, and especially if you have a wood stove, look into a permit to cut firewood and along with the logs you can bring home all the ends of the branches and scatter them around the yard too.  The pine needles will be helpful in the compost process.

Ask at the local grocery store about their old produce.  If they don't already have someone they might let you buy it for cheap if you explain you need it for compost and for your critters.

And, what I am trying to do is grow cover crops that will not only give you greens to use for compost and for chicken food the roots will break up the soil and add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil and help allow water to soak into the soil instead of running off the property.

Do you have hay fields near you?  Try and talk to one of the farmers and ask what they recommend for you to get started with cover crops.  You may need to start with a small area, maybe 10'x10' or 10'x20', but as you learn and as it starts to grow you can slowly expand, or start a second area on the other side of the yard.

And last, read up on Microclimates for the desert.  You will probably want to start out small but by planting flowers and trees and veggies and bushes and grapevines and many other plants you will be adding moisture the the air in that area and the more moisture in the air the cooler that area will become, and then work on ways to make shade, and build up some arbors and trellises.  Maybe look into a small pond for a shady corner, which might eventually grow into an aquaponics garden a year or two later.
https://www.gardeninginthedesert.com/creating-microclimates-for-the-desert-summer/

I am familiar with high desert issues, but fortunately I have trees in my yard and around the area.  I still need to get a successful cover crop going and I need to greatly expand my microclimate, so I am still learning all this myself.  I wish you luck.  Remember, shade and moisture will be your best friends, start small but have plans to expand a little each year, or each month if you have the time and energy.



Yes, I was thinking maybe straw would work.  I'm trying to sheet mulch a new garden area, so need A LOT of material to go on top.

I'm working on cover crops as well... so far without great results.  I tried Sudangrass last summer, hoping to produce some biomass, but it only grew about a foot tall, sadly.  The sun was just killer last summer and fried most everything, so I have figured out that shade is a huge priority and am working on that with both hardscape and trees/bushes/vines.  I'm going to try some alflafa (see it growing in fields around here) and some daikon to break up the soil, but I also have dandelion and mullein volunteering, so I'm going to encourage that as much as possible.  I also planted Jerusalem artichokes last year and they did great, so I'm thinking they will provide some good biomass if I grow that patch bigger (which apparently isn't too hard).  

We also don't have a truck, so hauling logs and the like becomes much harder, but I love the idea of pine needles.  Maybe I can get a friend to help.

I've dug some mini-swales, and I do have some trees (mostly weed trees and scrub) on the property that are going to be chop-and-dropped, but that's something that will take some time to accumulate.  I need about a foot of mulch right away to cover the new garden area, so it looks like straw might be the way to go for now.  I'm also digging a mulch pit for spiky mulch--or maybe I should say mining, because about a foot down there's nothing but solid rock-- (am planting some native honey mesquite seedlings this year) and will add chicken manure to that, direct swales toward it, and hopefully get the mulch breaking down quicker, as right now piles of brush just sit there forever without breaking down.  I'm also prioritizing all water-related things, and really hoping to put in a greywater system so that I'm cutting down on water usage while also getting some moisture into the landscape.  The mini-swales I dug last year have not shown a lot of results so far, but monsoon was not great last year.  We never had a rain that was enough to fill them.  We've had some snow recently, so hopefully that will help get a bit of moisture in before things start growing.

Your suggestions for a pond and shade are spot on.  I'm hoping to transition the mulch pit to a pond, and also to eventually transition the greywater system to include a wetland and series of ponds.  However, the state code on greywater is confusing at best... it says you can't have an open greywater pond.  At the same time, I see that different permaculture sites up north include greywater ponds and creeks.  I'm wondering if maybe a pond is allowed if it's a collection area after the greywater has been filtered by other means, which is what I want to do, but I can't find any literature on it, so I guess I'll be making some phone calls when I get to that point.  There's a lot to do before then!

I'm only just starting to figure out microclimates.  Thanks for the helpful link!  I've ordered some succulent groundcover and am working on getting in more trees and shrubs.

Oh, yeah, and junipers are rampant around here.  I only have tiny ones on my property, but I'll take your advice and turn them into mulch.  My allergies will probably appreciate that as well.  :)

Thank you so much for your helpful suggestions!  I will definitely be using many of them!
 
Trish Doherty
Posts: 16
Location: Southwestern NM
forest garden chicken greening the desert
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[quote=Tom Berens]Welcome neighbor, I too have just moved to the area, { Catron County } and making soil is a challenge. What we have is ranchers and some farmers, so manure and wheat hay or straw if you can find it, to make compost, have also used alfalfa. I also use the leaf litter from under my Juniper and pinion tree's.[/quote]

Oh, hey!  We really are neighbors!  I'm in Grant County!

I have some open scrubland off beside my house, so maybe I can take a wheelbarrow out and collect some of that juniper leaf litter.  I never thought of that!  It just looks so desolate out there.
 
Trish Doherty
Posts: 16
Location: Southwestern NM
forest garden chicken greening the desert
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Debbie Ann wrote:Hi Trish,
Moved to my high desert piece of heaven 10 years ago. Nothing but pine and juniper trees, bare ground and scrub oak. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the rock. My acre is/was 95% rock and 5% pulverized rock. No organic matter whatsoever. Been creating paradise ever since. Lots and lots of small gardens and beds up the little hills and down the tiny gullies. Gotta follow the water. On a budget too. I grow organic vegies year round. Have a summer season and a fall/winter season. Don't have spring. 100+ degrees all summer and 30-50 degrees all winter.
My free mulch is leaves. They are the brown stuff for my compost and make great mulch for flowers.
Don't have any deciduous trees so I put a post on Craigslist every November in the Free section and the Farm and Garden section and ask for donations. I specify that they are for organic vegies and I cannot pick up any that have been sprayed with chemicals and I can't take them if you have a dog or cat that uses the yard for their bathroom. I usually get between 50 and 200 bags a year. So I always have a couple of big piles to draw from all year long.
Leaves are good stuff. If I pull a crop and I'm not going to use that bed for another 6 months I dig in a bunch of leaves. There is usually a little bit of fertilizer left in the bed to help them break down. I just water it occasionally and turn the bed a couple of times and the worms show up and the dirt looks better every year. Hope this helps.



This sounds a lot like what I'm dealing with.  We're maybe a touch cooler, and I have a few weed trees, but other than that, you described my yard!  I'm going to start asking for leaves.  Great idea!
 
Michael Fundaro
Posts: 72
Location: Southern Utah
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Trish Doherty wrote:
Yes, I was thinking maybe straw would work.  I'm trying to sheet mulch a new garden area, so need A LOT of material to go on top.

We recently discovered Perma Stall rice hull bedding to use for our duck house.  When they clean out the house and scatter it around the chicken/duck/turkey/goose run it makes a great ground cover.  I know I will be using this as a top dressing mulch on my planter boxes and garden areas.  We get a 6 cubic foot bag for just under $10.00.  Depending on you stray/hay supplier prices this might be something to consider if your local farm/ranch store carries the Rice Hull bedding.

I'm working on cover crops as well... so far without great results.  I tried Sudangrass last summer, hoping to produce some biomass, but it only grew about a foot tall, sadly.  The sun was just killer last summer and fried most everything, so I have figured out that shade is a huge priority and am working on that with both hardscape and trees/bushes/vines.  I'm going to try some alflafa (see it growing in fields around here) and some daikon to break up the soil, but I also have dandelion and mullein volunteering, so I'm going to encourage that as much as possible.  I also planted Jerusalem artichokes last year and they did great, so I'm thinking they will provide some good biomass if I grow that patch bigger (which apparently isn't too hard).  

Thanks to the snow, and upcoming spring rains, you may want to plant your cover crops as soon as possible.  Check with your local farmers, or probably the local seed store, and ask what might be the best cover crop to begin using in your hard packed sandy soil, and ask how soon you can begin planting the seeds.  I have a farmer across the highway that spread new seed the end of December  Even with 4 or 5 snowfalls the seeds have sprouted and are about 6" tall now so you may be getting close to planting season.  The more it grows before the summer heat the better it will be for you.  It may die in the summer, but it will break up the soil and help make the next crop that much better.

We also don't have a truck, so hauling logs and the like becomes much harder, but I love the idea of pine needles.  Maybe I can get a friend to help.

Maybe consider a small trailer that will be towable behind your vehicle.  Just a thought.

I've dug some mini-swales, and I do have some trees (mostly weed trees and scrub) on the property that are going to be chop-and-dropped, but that's something that will take some time to accumulate.  I need about a foot of mulch right away to cover the new garden area, so it looks like straw might be the way to go for now.  I'm also digging a mulch pit for spiky mulch--or maybe I should say mining, because about a foot down there's nothing but solid rock-- (am planting some native honey mesquite seedlings this year) and will add chicken manure to that, direct swales toward it, and hopefully get the mulch breaking down quicker, as right now piles of brush just sit there forever without breaking down.  I'm also prioritizing all water-related things, and really hoping to put in a greywater system so that I'm cutting down on water usage while also getting some moisture into the landscape.  The mini-swales I dug last year have not shown a lot of results so far, but monsoon was not great last year.  We never had a rain that was enough to fill them.  We've had some snow recently, so hopefully that will help get a bit of moisture in before things start growing.

What I have been doing prior to cutting down trees in the yard is using the branch loppers and cutting off all the small ends and branches and tossing them in a pile to use for compost.  Also, you mentioned swales so take some of the 1" to 2" thick branches and use them on the down hill side of the swales to support the dirt bank.  I didn't exactly make swales but I made berms to terrace the yard and before I piled up the dirt I put down tree branches and piled the dirt on top of the branches.  The branches will help hold the dirt in place and as they break down it will improve the soil.  And, as you mentioned you will need moisture for the compost to break down, whether is is wood chips or branches or manure or food scraps, it will need moisture.  Maybe consider a sheet of plastic to cover that compost mine you are building.  It will help hold in the moisture.  Oh, and when digging through that hard packed ground soaking it with water should help make digging a little easier.

Your suggestions for a pond and shade are spot on.  I'm hoping to transition the mulch pit to a pond, and also to eventually transition the greywater system to include a wetland and series of ponds.  However, the state code on greywater is confusing at best... it says you can't have an open greywater pond.  At the same time, I see that different permaculture sites up north include greywater ponds and creeks.  I'm wondering if maybe a pond is allowed if it's a collection area after the greywater has been filtered by other means, which is what I want to do, but I can't find any literature on it, so I guess I'll be making some phone calls when I get to that point.  There's a lot to do before then!

I think the guidelines you are reading for the grey water means they don't want a stinky pond smelling up the neighborhood, and potentially allowing bacteria to grow and spread.  Initially your ground water will be soaking in the ground for quite some time until you establish a good amount of moisture in the soil.  I would let the grey water flow where you want it, and if it starts pooling in an area divert and continue down hill to your next project area.  Use your brain, you will be OK.

I'm only just starting to figure out microclimates.  Thanks for the helpful link!  I've ordered some succulent groundcover and am working on getting in more trees and shrubs.

It is new to me, too.  But I have a friend near Phoenix that is able to keep her yard comfortably about 20 degrees cooler than ambient temperature after only about 3 years or effort in her yard.  It is possible, just keep researching and expand a little at a time.

Oh, yeah, and junipers are rampant around here.  I only have tiny ones on my property, but I'll take your advice and turn them into mulch.  My allergies will probably appreciate that as well.  :)

Junipers are a good home to spider mites.  Mites, not spiders, but they if present they are so tiny you wont see them and you may end up with bites that later in the day will resemble pimples on your arms or legs if you are wearing shorts.  I don't always get the bites, but when I do Tea Tree Oil works well to reduce the itch.

Thank you so much for your helpful suggestions!  I will definitely be using many of them!



One last thing, if you have a tree near your patio area you can put a sprinkler head on top of a 3/4" PVC pipe and run it up just above the top of the tree top, then about a half hour before break time or evening R&R time turn on the water and sprinkle the area.  The water will cool down the area and make it comfortable to sit and relax.
 
Elisabeth Webber
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Hi, Trish,
I've been living in Durango CO for the last 30 years. Ready for warmer winters, less people, and to start learning and living permaculture.
I am going to head to Silver City in the next couple of months to check out the area as a very likely new home base. I want to connect with others who are practicing permaculture in Grant County. Would you be willing to talk? My email is eweb20002000@yahoo.com.
 
Trish Doherty
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Elisabeth, I just sent you an email. Nice to meet you!
 
Elisabeth Webber
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Hi, Trish, Nice to meet you, too. I just answered your email.
 
Joshua Bertram
Posts: 448
Location: St. George, UT. Zone 8a Dry/arid. 8" of rain in a good year.
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This thread talks about mulching/growing in/composting with prickly pear cactus.  It might be of interest.  https://permies.com/t/22258/Composting-prickly-pear-compost-ingredients
 
Trish Doherty
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Joshua Bertram wrote:This thread talks about mulching/growing in/composting with prickly pear cactus.  It might be of interest.  https://permies.com/t/22258/Composting-prickly-pear-compost-ingredients



Thanks, Joshua!  This is a fantastic idea.  Prickly pears grow like crazy here.  The only thing is that I'm a little reluctant to chop mine down because they're beautiful and an important desert food plant as well.  I'm actually going to be propagating them to make a firebreak, so in the long run, I'll have a lot of them to work with.  I also have an abundance of cholla (also great for food), but I'm wondering if that might work as well.  The cholla seriously needs to be chopped back, because it's spreading out into "people space" where we're likely to get poked!
 
Trish Doherty
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Reading more about prickly pear composting and found this study on composting prickly pear and moringa... conclusion was that prickly pear was good but worked best with inclusion of biodynamic preparations (BP).  <---I think this is like fermented compost teas and such that are sprayed onto the pile, but it would be great if someone who actually knows what they're talking about could weigh in on that, lol.

https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opag-2019-0023/html
 
Rich Wilcox
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Your post caught my eye, and as it sounds we are working in similar areas.  I enjoyed the thread very much, thank you for creating!

Thoughts:

Sheet mulching sounded difficult to me in the desert. I would imagine at minimum the areas would need protection from wind to work. It will take a lot of water to keep it from drying out. Maybe sunken beds?

Alfalfa hay is supposed to be the best mulch money can buy in desert areas. I would spend all my extra cash on it.

What cholla are you referring to? Cane (Tree) Cholla? Regardless just cut it back and take those cuttings to the same place the prickly pears are planned.

I also am curious what kind of juniper? I would be careful to get rid of shade producing trees on your small property, even if they are junipers. Something will grow with them and you could find them useful for wind block etc. I wouldn't worry about them stealing water unless the other trees are up close.

You mentioned a foot down in your soil is hard rock? Hopefully not bedrock? Our soils can be very shallow, especially on slopes 2 degree or greater. It's called listic contact with bedrock or something similar. Where I am you hit volcanic rock. I say all this because you may have to use raised beds for vegetable beds to work well, which is also difficult in the desert without proper protection from wind and afternoon sun.



 
Rebecca Norman
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Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
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I'm in the high desert but a different continent! There is almost no biomass left unused here, and there are certainly nobody ever cutting down trees or shrubs and chipping them up as "waste." I've found only two or three forms of unwanted biomass that I can bring for mulch.

Autumn leaves. Even here where some people feed autumn leaves to their half-starved cows over the winter, other people actually pile and burn their leaves, so I have bought some large sacks and ask neighbors to stuff their leaves in them for me instead of burning them. I put these in layers in my compost, use them as surface mulch in the garden in some places, and mix them into soil for biomass, though they are unwieldy for that.

Sawdust and wood shavings from carpenters or wood shops (lumberyards). I've avoided using these directly for mulch, but I use them as cover material in the compost toilet, and have tried a couple of beds where I buried a deep layer of them under 8 to 12 inches of soil, hoping they'll do a hugel thingy. Not sure if the hugel thing is working well, though. I won't empty the first compost toilet chamber for another year or at soonest a half year, but from previous experience, I think the sawdust will have broken down well and made compost in there.

Dead stems in late winter from certain abundant wild plants. For example, around here Lepidium latifolium (perennial pepperweed) is very abundant along the riverside in some areas. Some winters I've gone and collected a sack or two of its dried white stems to use as mulch. It makes a pretty mulch, if I manage to cut and clip and break it into short lengths, and by season's end it's black and heading on the way to decomposing. I get a very few seedlings from it, and they have been easy to pull so far. Anyway, weed seeds are not much of a problem if the mulch is deep enough.
 
Trish Doherty
Posts: 16
Location: Southwestern NM
forest garden chicken greening the desert
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Rich Wilcox wrote:Your post caught my eye, and as it sounds we are working in similar areas.  I enjoyed the thread very much, thank you for creating!

Thoughts:

Sheet mulching sounded difficult to me in the desert. I would imagine at minimum the areas would need protection from wind to work. It will take a lot of water to keep it from drying out. Maybe sunken beds?

Alfalfa hay is supposed to be the best mulch money can buy in desert areas. I would spend all my extra cash on it.

What cholla are you referring to? Cane (Tree) Cholla? Regardless just cut it back and take those cuttings to the same place the prickly pears are planned.

I also am curious what kind of juniper? I would be careful to get rid of shade producing trees on your small property, even if they are junipers. Something will grow with them and you could find them useful for wind block etc. I wouldn't worry about them stealing water unless the other trees are up close.

You mentioned a foot down in your soil is hard rock? Hopefully not bedrock? Our soils can be very shallow, especially on slopes 2 degree or greater. It's called listic contact with bedrock or something similar. Where I am you hit volcanic rock. I say all this because you may have to use raised beds for vegetable beds to work well, which is also difficult in the desert without proper protection from wind and afternoon sun.





Yes, the wind is crazy and will be of huge concern.  I'm wanting to do the sheet mulching on an area that is tucked between a cinderblock wall and the side of the house.  I'll also be putting in a privacy fence on a third side, mostly for shade (the western sun is killer, so I can't plant this area without shade from that side).  Hopefully the three sides will be enough to slow things down.  As of now, there is a lot of turbulence that swirls through there.  Our lot is cut into the side of a steep slope (on the back), so the wind comes from the other side of the house and swirls through.  I'll be building the fence from pallets and leaving gaps so that what's left of the wind can dissipate, rather than swirl around more.

Alfalfa-- good to know!  I will look for some!  Luckily I've already ordered some seed for cover crops as well.

Our cholla is mostly staghorn cholla.  https://www.americansouthwest.net/plants/cacti/cylindropuntia-versicolor.html#:~:text=The%20latin%20name%20for%20staghorn,yellow%2C%20purple%20or%20intermediate%20shades.   The flower buds are really good, and can be dried and stored.  They're a bit like asparagus, maybe a bit more lemony.  So pretty to cut in half in a salad as well!  The only hard part is making sure you get all the spines off.

I actually don't have much juniper in my yard right now.  Only a couple of volunteer saplings, but they're a long way from providing shade.  I'm not sure what kind of juniper it is.  We have A LOT of juniper around here, and I think there are various types.  I know alligator juniper is one of them.  By "weed trees", I mean things like siberian elm and all that (will coppice and chop-and-drop).  We also have some unidentified scrub that will help with the mulch pit, but that's going to take some time.  I'm not getting rid of any established trees anytime soon.  We're incredibly lucky to have an oak in our front yard... still trying to figure out which kind it is, but it's definitely one of the live oaks (due to shape of leaves).  It's still small for an oak, but it's significant, and because it's on the west side of the house, I think it's solely responsible for keeping our indoor summer temps remarkably cooler than usual.  I have used some of the leaf litter from beneath it to mulch last year's garden.  It's slow to break down, but the garden beds with the leaves performed a lot better than those without.  

So... digging the mulch pit... I ran into rock.  Solid rock.  I've slowly been chipping away with a pickaxe, but it's very slow.  I think because we're on the side of a mountain where the soil has been cut in, that's pretty much what we get... rock.  There are some undeveloped, exposed places (desert beside our house) where the wind has blown the soil away and there are exposed rock faces maybe 6-10 feet wide popping up here and there.  Some of the rock crumbles easily, but some is solid as can be.  There are pockets of "soil" and clay here and there between and around.  I figure that gardening on our site is going to be kind of like gardening on an old parking lot.  It can be done, but it will require A LOT of soil building.  Some things do grow here, so that's encouraging.  Raised beds... I tried them for a few years and the only thing I could ever really grow in them was rosemary, but that will grow anywhere here.  I even tried drip irrigating them, and nothing.




 
Trish Doherty
Posts: 16
Location: Southwestern NM
forest garden chicken greening the desert
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Rebecca Norman wrote:I'm in the high desert but a different continent! There is almost no biomass left unused here, and there are certainly nobody ever cutting down trees or shrubs and chipping them up as "waste." I've found only two or three forms of unwanted biomass that I can bring for mulch.

Autumn leaves. Even here where some people feed autumn leaves to their half-starved cows over the winter, other people actually pile and burn their leaves, so I have bought some large sacks and ask neighbors to stuff their leaves in them for me instead of burning them. I put these in layers in my compost, use them as surface mulch in the garden in some places, and mix them into soil for biomass, though they are unwieldy for that.

Sawdust and wood shavings from carpenters or wood shops (lumberyards). I've avoided using these directly for mulch, but I use them as cover material in the compost toilet, and have tried a couple of beds where I buried a deep layer of them under 8 to 12 inches of soil, hoping they'll do a hugel thingy. Not sure if the hugel thing is working well, though. I won't empty the first compost toilet chamber for another year or at soonest a half year, but from previous experience, I think the sawdust will have broken down well and made compost in there.

Dead stems in late winter from certain abundant wild plants. For example, around here Lepidium latifolium (perennial pepperweed) is very abundant along the riverside in some areas. Some winters I've gone and collected a sack or two of its dried white stems to use as mulch. It makes a pretty mulch, if I manage to cut and clip and break it into short lengths, and by season's end it's black and heading on the way to decomposing. I get a very few seedlings from it, and they have been easy to pull so far. Anyway, weed seeds are not much of a problem if the mulch is deep enough.



Hi, Rebecca.  I think the idea with the trees is to coppice them so they'll grow back, and use the biomass not as waste, but to increase the soil fertility.  The only thing I would be taking out are seedlings that are not yet established.

Sawdust is supposed to be great for compost toilets.  I would worry about it compacting and not allowing water in if I used it for mulch.  Maybe it would work if it was mixed with other materials.

Hugelkultur- I was watching a Geoff Lawton video, and in it he said that hugelkultur does not work well in the desert.  I think that some people modify the method and dig hugel pits, which would be more likely to hold onto moisture.  Still, I think there's an issue with the carbon (or was it nitrogen???) binding up in desert climates or something like that.  I think I read that it will work eventually, but that you may have some problems with it for the first few years until things start to break down more readily.  Whatever the issue is, it also affects the use of biochar in the desert, which was also on the no-no list.  I would love to start a thread of regular permaculture practices that are not viable for the desert.  I see a lot of desert dwellers mentioning using things that I've heard shouldn't be done in dry climates.  Of course, if it works, don't knock it!  But it's possible that some of these things are setting us back.

I think that what you're saying is very valuable-- use what you have available.  I do live next to some open scrubland, so I can harvest a lot of small branches and things from there to use as mulch... eventually.  It's just for the purpose of sheet mulching an annual garden area that I wanted to get some ready-made (without waiting for the long process of it breaking down in the dry climate).  I was hoping to jumpstart the soil for planting that area starting next month.  I'll also be putting in some fruit trees along with nitrogen-fixing trees, and am hoping to get material down on the ground around them to help them establish.
 
Michael Fundaro
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Location: Southern Utah
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Trish Doherty wrote:
So... digging the mulch pit... I ran into rock.  Solid rock.  I've slowly been chipping away with a pickaxe, but it's very slow.  I think because we're on the side of a mountain where the soil has been cut in, that's pretty much what we get... rock.  There are some undeveloped, exposed places (desert beside our house) where the wind has blown the soil away and there are exposed rock faces maybe 6-10 feet wide popping up here and there.  Some of the rock crumbles easily, but some is solid as can be.  There are pockets of "soil" and clay here and there between and around.  I figure that gardening on our site is going to be kind of like gardening on an old parking lot.  It can be done, but it will require A LOT of soil building.  Some things do grow here, so that's encouraging.  Raised beds... I tried them for a few years and the only thing I could ever really grow in them was rosemary, but that will grow anywhere here.  I even tried drip irrigating them, and nothing.



I know my place here on the side of a mountain in southern Utah is way different but when digging my septic I hit a rock layer that was similar to concrete.  The backhoe could barely scratch it, but when I soaked it with the hose, and let it soak about 15 minutes, the backhoe was able to dig through it with ease.  Sooooo, hopefully you can wet the ground where you are trying to dig and it will allow the shovel through the hard stuff.
 
Rebecca Norman
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Posts: 2064
Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
470
trees food preservation solar greening the desert
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Yeah, definitely some things that are popular elsewhere are not as suitable for the desert. Raised beds and mounded hugel beds are some of those, because they have more surface area up in the air to dry out faster. So If I do hugel beds at all they are sunken ones. my outdoor garden beds are sunken beds, anyway, so I can water them. I buried a layer of wood shavings and stuff under a couple of beds. But fine broken wood is considered a non in hugelkultur because as you noted, it can up the demand for nitrogen until it gets somewhat broken down. And indeed those beds didnt do spectular last year, their first year. I hope they do better this year. I dunno!
 
Michael Fundaro
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Rebecca Norman wrote:Yeah, definitely some things that are popular elsewhere are not as suitable for the desert. Raised beds and mounded hugel beds are some of those, because they have more surface area up in the air to dry out faster. So If I do hugel beds at all they are sunken ones. my outdoor garden beds are sunken beds, anyway, so I can water them. I buried a layer of wood shavings and stuff under a couple of beds. But fine broken wood is considered a non in hugelkultur because as you noted, it can up the demand for nitrogen until it gets somewhat broken down. And indeed those beds didnt do spectular last year, their first year. I hope they do better this year. I dunno!



A couple thoughts.   For raised beds in the hot, dry desert environment you could backfill dirt, sand, or mulch against the outside of the raised bed to help keep it cool.  Watering the mulch it will soak up the water and slowly release it as evaporation which will cool the soil and cool the raised bed.  We also previously talked about shade if the area allows that easily.  In areas where I backfilled lower areas with about 2 feet of wood chips I will be topping it with compost and composted horse and chicken manure in an effort to get a few things to grow there this year, but I will be supplementing the nitrogen with a fertilizer for the first couple years.
But, that's just my plan.
 
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