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transforming high desert soil for gardening / farming

 
Posts: 5
Location: Sedona AZ
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I just looked at a 25-acre parcel for sale in Northern New Mexico at 7300 feet.  I'm interested in permaculture farming or gardening, and rainwater harvesting across the the entire property. However, like most open country out here, the land was covered with sagebrush and rocks, and it was treeless besides, except for one very healthy pinyon tree.  The land sloped nicely downward from the back side.  Lots of pinyons growing on a hill to the south a mile or so away, which is public land I think. There are some hills in the east that are a little closer, but the prevailing winds blow straight in from the southwest unchecked.  I saw what I thought was a water channel running from front to back on the land, but then realized it looked more like an old road grown over.  Did not see any other channels or tracks of downslope flow of rainwater. So I really can't tell whether it's possible to work with this situation or not.  It would take a long time, I imagine, to get a decent windbreak, although with the one pinyon tree growing so well, I suppose I could get more of those going in the interim, as well as plant hedge rows or trellises to deal with the wind.  Incidentally, the next door neighbor said there are lots of rocks under the surface that made it impossible to drill a well, so the developer built a communal well about 1/4 mile away.   She did rainwater catchment from her roof that served her needs, but didn't do any gardening.  My initial conclusion was that this would not work for farming, but don't know enough about permaculture ways and means to say definitively.  I'm also not liking the high altitude, but land is so much cheaper and precipitation more reliable.  Don't mind growing under cover to extend the season, but getting good soil in the first place seems like a big project in itself.  Would appreciate any suggestions or advice.
 
pollinator
Posts: 2225
Location: Bendigo , Australia
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Land is priced to suit the markets capacity to pay!

Low priced land is not popular for the reasons you have listed- difficult to do anything with.

You may find a 3 acre block with very good soil somewhere is affordable to you.
Even with a small mortgage, you may be able to produce enough to pay it back.
BUT DO YOUR HOMEWORK
 
pollinator
Posts: 4694
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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Howdy Rosemary, first off have you looked in Arizona or did you just want to try New Mexico? Seems like there are lots of good deals in Arizona and lots of folks practicing permaculture there.
How much rain does the New Mexico land get per year? Is there anybody else in the area that is farming?
I spent years in Wyoming , using the soil from under the sagebrush in my gardens. Great stuff, just needed water and a return of organic growth to the soil.
Any pictures of the area would be helpful too.
 
pollinator
Posts: 2654
Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
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Geoff Lawton has a high dry and arid video for permies. They use the sagebrush as a nursery plant.
 
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Hey Rosemary!
I do not have any advice for you but I am thinking about moving to NM 30 min away from Taos because we have land already in the family. We will be trying to farm and are complete amateurs but we want to try. I just thought I’d connect with you if you choose to move there and want to meet fellow farmers/homesteaders.
Mcboyle16@gmail.com

Best,
Monica
 
pollinator
Posts: 139
Location: Southern Utah
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Based on my experience with high desert (5300') in Utah the soil is generally lacking of most nutrients, and slightly alkaline.  After a few years of efforts to get things to grow I finally had success this year after top dressing every area I wanted to plant or grow something with plenty of wood chips and composted manure.  The wood chips hold moisture and will slowly break down to add organic matter into the soil, and the composted manure will add nitrogen and other benefits to the soil.
An affordable and simple home soil test kit will tell you quickly what your soil needs, or what it is lacking.  Your best option for wood chips will be to contact tree trimming services, but if you are far from their normal work area they may not want to deliver.  You could invest in a good quality wood chipper and when if you venture out into the hills to cut firewood you could also bring back the small branches and chip them yourself, firewood and wood chips in one adventure.  Check with local ranchers or horse owners or a stock yard if one is nearby and ask about the manure.
There are many videos on how to supplement your soil but I found good information from this Back To Eden Gardening video.  I don't do everything exactly as they do in the video but for getting started it is very informational.


Finally, if you move and if you have a reliable water source plan out where you would like some trees and bushes and run a drip irrigation system, or two or three, and get the big stuff planted as soon as possible.  Just make sure your water irrigation timers are reliable because a week or so without water will kill them.  I found that out the hard way when someone turned off the hydrant and it was over a week before I noticed nothing was getting watered.  
 
Rosemary Miller
Posts: 5
Location: Sedona AZ
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Thanks for your message.  It all sounds like a plan, but there are bigger issues to contend with first.  I backed out on this parcel, despite its low cost, because it was just too unsheltered there on the Taos Plateau.  Having the wind and sun beating down on you all day as you do the hard work to transform that depleted soil was just too tall an order for me.  There was no water to drill for underground, either, and the CCR's put in place by the developer were over the top.  Perhaps patience is the first skill a permaculturist must learn, along with perserverance to pursue the primary objective.
 
Rosemary Miller
Posts: 5
Location: Sedona AZ
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Thanks for your suggestion.  However, a mortgage is becoming harder to come by for those who aren't already comfortably well off.  
 
John C Daley
pollinator
Posts: 2225
Location: Bendigo , Australia
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Yo good debt makes things possible.u may be able to match a mortgage with you needs and capacity to pay.
 
Posts: 36
Location: Sedona Az Zone 8b
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Just wanted to address your main question..... How to begin to improve land that is nothing but bare dirt and rock in high desert country. I think wood chips would be the number 1 way to go. When I first bought my property here in Sedona a lot of it was bare dirt/rock besides lots of dead trees, dead cactus and scrub oak. I was about to contact local tree services when APS, our local power company came by and asked to cut down some invasive Siberian elms under their power lines on my property. So I asked them if I could have the wood chips once they were done cutting. He told me that I wouldn't want the chips because the trees were all dying because of bark beetles. When I contacted the local tree services they said they couldn't guarantee that their stuff didn't also contain lots of bark beetles and nasty chemicals. So much for that idea!

Lots of people suggested planting a winter cover crop and then chop and drop in place for spring planting. But that doesn't work if nothing will grow in the bare, rock hard dirt!

Since I was on a severe budget at the time I went with suggestion # 3. Just cover the soil slightly with anything you've got on hand. Anything to give it a little shade.  I had lots of half dead agave I was cutting out. The long leaves were hard, thin, brittle and would slice right through your skin if you weren't careful. But I had a lot of it. So I spread them out all over the ground on the back side of a hill and stayed clear of it that winter. It got no water whatsoever. And I'll be damned if that hill wasn't just covered in weeds the next spring!! Who knew! Not nearly as good as wood chips but a pretty good beginning and it was free. After 4 years I got tired of whacking the weeds and began planting some shrubs there. I still amend the soil first..... but at least, I can dig into it now! Best wishes on finding the property you have always wanted!
 
Rosemary Miller
Posts: 5
Location: Sedona AZ
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Interesting story.  I spent three years in Sedona, although I didn't look for land there very long.  So, what's your plan for the soil?  Are you planning to grow any perennials or annual vegetables?  If you've got a hill, that means you've got runoff when it rains and could try to slow, spread and sink that water down under. The hardiness zone in Yavapai County is 6A or B, as I recall.  Not sure what part of town you're in, but I always thought it was the perfect place for growing a wide variety of food.  Longer season, too, compared to Taos...
 
Debbie Ann
Posts: 36
Location: Sedona Az Zone 8b
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Hi Rosemary,
We are zone 8b. We've been in severe, extreme drought for the last 2 years but this summer the monsoons are back and my garden is overflowing. Sharing my heirloom, organic vegies with all my friends and neighbors. I have a post on Craigslist in Farm and Garden trying to make a deal for some eggs. They let people have chickens here now. Here's a picture of part of my garden and you can see more pictures on C.L. The url is....   https://flagstaff.craigslist.org/grd/d/sedona-trade-my-organic-vegies-for-your/7371432059.html . You can see what my Sedona garden looks like. Hope your summer is going well too.
DSC04774.JPG
A small part of my garden
A small part of my garden
 
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Debbie, I just wanted to say that I love your garden layout. Rather than one huge area you segmented off different areas with good walkways in between. Love it. As a fellow high desert person, I love blend of natural features with thriving life.
 
Debbie Ann
Posts: 36
Location: Sedona Az Zone 8b
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Well Tony, thank you so much! I was just following the contours of the land looking for water and shade.

You know, my favorite posts here are from people who have just acquired a piece of land and they say.... this is my zone and terrain and what I want to use it for.... so please give me your best suggestions to use it wisely. So smart!

When I bought my old place 10 years ago, I studied all the hills and gullies and the paths the water took down the big and little hills so I could catch and use every drop of it. But I did one more really important thing it turns out. I sat out there during the monsoons when the torrential rains came down in buckets and I watched what it did! I looked at every twist and turn the water took and learned so much! How it banked against this and picked up speed over there! I wanted to learn from Mother Nature and work with her instead of trying to force her to work with me. Like that was ever going to work!!

I began placing all my beds at the bottom of the hills, against the sides of the gullies while protecting them with rock and in the shade whenever possible. Shade is so important in the high desert! I knew I couldn't make the beds big enough to use and hold all that water without drowning my plants and watching them float away so I began terracing  pieces of it to use some of it and to slow down the water and divert it before it reached bottom.

But 2 years ago I realized that I had missed some spots, like.... lots of spots here and there. And I realized that a lot of that concrete hard clay on my hills was actually still moving and eroding pretty quickly! Looking at the rock formations that were now visible, I figured my biggest hill had lost 4-5” in just 10 years. That's pretty fast by Mother Nature's calendar. So I terraced it some more, planted more  and decided to divert it, divert it and divert it again before it reached bottom. My artichokes love it! Yes, you can grow artichokes in high desert county, in 100+* temperatures. Now, when I watch my hills in the rain they look like crazy-ass liquid pinball machines! Mother Nature is awesome!
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Divert, divert and divert it again
Divert, divert and divert it again
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Happy artichokes
Happy artichokes
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Isn't Mother Nature Wonderful!!
Isn't Mother Nature Wonderful!!
gift
 
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