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Western Colorado Desert (where to start?)

 
Posts: 4
Location: Grand Junction, CO. Zone 6b
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Hello-

Just checking in to see where to start here. New to growing... everything. I have about three tomato plants under my belt!

Building a house on some acreage near Grand Junction/Colorado National Monument. 10in of yearly rainfall and will be on a well. I realize it will take years of learning to really know what I'm doing here, but I am interested in seeing if there is anything we should be focused on as we are planning the build site/house. Greywater harvesting, rainwater harvesting, establishing trees, etc. Not even sure what our goals are yet because I don't know enough to really be able to set any. This will not be a full time homestead project- we have day jobs. Just want to help contribute to "greening the desert".

Nothing big there now. Lots of Cryptobiotic soil and shrubs. A big wash at the back. I'm not exactly sure what the water rights for the region are yet.

This site seems very active but is a bit hard to sift through. I just ordered Brad Lancaster's books.
 
pioneer
Posts: 90
Location: New Mexico
16
foraging greening the desert homestead
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We are 4 years into the process you describe, in NW New Mexico. We bought the land 4+ years ago, and moved here from Wisconsin 2 years later, 2 years ago last July, immediately after retiring.

I spent every free moment of my last 2 years of working researching and planning.  

We looked at all sorts of building styles/methods (Earthship, SIPs, containers, modular homes, earthbag, rammed earth, adobe, tire bales). If we were 30 years younger we'd probably make an earthbag house. We ended up building a tire bale house because it is vastly faster getting the basic walls up, and we have a landfill 7 miles away that gave us the tire bales. In those pre-retirement years we also did a lot of the groundwork for building, researching the permitting process for alternative materials, the tire recycling permitting process, etc. (We are building the first fully permitted tire bale home in New Mexico.) Our best resource for thae building methods is naturalbuildingblog.com and its sister sites. Tons of resources and info.

We looked at all sorts of info on growing in this environment (greening the desert, food forest, capturing water, greywater, etc). Brad Lancaster is great. Gary Nabhan is also an excellent resource and writes about many different aspects of foodways and conservation in the SW. Art Ludwig's Greywater Oasis books are also must-haves if you want to do greywater.

We learned a ton, but there are so many things you can't really do until you are on site. The most important is to find community. We connected with the farmers' market organizations in the state and in our area, and the farmers at our little local (30 miles away) market have been super supportive and encouraging. We connected with the local county extension and they put us in touch with other farmers with surplus sheep manure. We found local folks with earth moving equipment who could help us prep our site through word of mouth. We found our local landfill for tire bales. We found a local sawmill where we could get sawdust. We connected with food sovereignty organizations and initiatives in the Navajo Nation where we could volunteer. Everyone has been just super.

Of course covid happened 7 months after we got here which shut down that community building, so we are glad we got an early start in that area. As a silver lining, there were many virtual opportunities that we couldn't have taken advantage of if we had to travel to do them in person. I took master gardener training, we attended farm safety training and got certified to sell produce through the New Mexico Grown program that gives grants to schools, senior centers, and early childhood centers. We got food handler certification so we can participate in New Mexico's new homemade food act. We took a soil regeneration international course, attended a beekeepers conference, farmers' market conferences, and continued work with a Diné food sovereignty policy initiative. Now that things have let up somewhat we were able to volunteer on a restoration project making adobe bricks through the Cornerstones organization. That was basically a one-day workshop on working with earth (for adobe, earth plaster, earth floors, etc) that others charge hundreds of dollars for.

Meanwhile, through covid lumber prices soared and all aspects of building slowed a bit (but not catastrophically). Everything in construction takes vastly longer than you think, whether you are hiring the work or doing it yourself, even when you try to be realistic and build in padding in the schedule. We are facing our third winter in our little popup  tent camper with an outdoor kitchen under an EZ-up. We do have a greenhouse and chicken coop, an almost-finished house shell (meaning maybe 1/4 or 1/5 of our house is "done"), and 35 chickens.

The vast majority of what we have planted has failed (and we are experienced gardeners, at least in WI). This year we decided to put growing mostly on hold so we can focus on getting that house built. We spread ourselves too thin. Our local farmer and extension friends say it takes about three years to build up your soil. We are still making some progress on that front. We do have year-round cherry tomatoes in the greenhouse and have had some luck with squash, peppers, and kiwano melons. We are hopeful for this year's tree collards, potatoes, and ginger. But I would say at least 90% of our seedlings have failed, so we stopped trying to replant until our house is further along. We do also have citrus and banana trees started in the greenhouse and a couple have started to minimally produce.

Now more specifically to your question on where to start. In hindsight, here's what I would do "next time."

If I knew where I wanted my gardens I would start early on with berm & basin  / contour swales for those areas to start slowing water for building up those areas. (If you aren't sure yet what your planned layout will be don't do that -- I wouldn't mess with the land until you know what you want where). Our land (140 acres) is almost all hilly (face of a mesa and part of the top but the top is very hard to access by road).

Find a manure source and apply manure to your planting areas. Go get mulch from a landfill for free and cover your (now flatter) plantng areas with a thick layer of mulch. This is all with an eye toward starting to build some life into the soil rather than struggling to grow food on depleted soil when you are really to busy to do it well (in our case).

I would also start a Johnson-Su bioreactor immediately (easy to google). It is a one-year composting process that you fill in one day, water daily, and harvest in a year to add microbiology to depleted soil. We started ours this spring so hope to apply it to our soils next spring, when hopefully we will have the bandwidth to give more attention to our soils. We filled ours with course sawdust (really they are small wood chips), sheep manure, and coffee grounds that we got for free from sources glad to be rid of them.

Start a worm bin or soldier fly larva composting, bokashi composting, or whatever works best for you for your general organic waste needs, to start creating quality compost for future use.

Think hard about whether you really need a well. You might be able to catch all of your water instead of getting a well. We also have ~10" of rain per year, but now that our roof is on and guttered to the tanks we can catch 3000 gallons of water in a one-inch rainfall. (in our current camping lifestyle that is about 20 week's worth of water - of course we will hopefully shower more often once we have a house!) You do need big enough tanks... Do your one-page place assessment and use Lancaster's tools to calculate needed collection area and required tank size. If you are serious about greywater and catchment (directly in the gardens and on the landscape as well as via the roof), maybe you can get by without a well.

We have designed dual plumbing for our house to separate greywater and black water. We are trying to get permitted to process our blackwater with a vermicomposting septic that produces irrigation water for landscape plants in place of a traditional drainfield. We have not yet guttered the chicken coop or greenhouse so we have a lot of harvesting potential there too.

Some of our info is on our blog, brownkawa.com
Good luck to you!
 
Posts: 87
Location: Sedona Az Zone 8b
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Hi Johnathan,
A really good place to start would be to type.... HIGH DESERT COUNTRY into the search box. This will narrow your search down and give you a million great ideas. Oh, and welcome to the high desert! Grand Junction is a really nice place.
Debbie
 
Posts: 25
Location: Southern Colorado, 6300', zone 6a, 16" precipitation
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I too am in high desert country in Trinidad CO. So here's my list of advice.
Essential steps.
1. Swale... swale for your life. This is the one place you should drop money to pay an excavator or CAT operator to put these in. If you can't then try to commit to a couple hours of digging per weekend. Start at the top of your property in the widest open area possible. Then space them every 20-30 feet. This should be at the top of your priorities as nothing else happens without soil moisture.
2. Get mulch anyway you can. If you drive around the suburbs of Grand Junction you should be able to fill your car with bars of mowed grass and leaves from those unfortunates who don't understand how decomposition works. Spread the mulch inside and on top of the wall of the swale like Geoff did in Jordan. Otherwise contact trimming and tree services to get their stuff.
3. Rock check dam the wash. Make sure you dig into the sides and bottom first to make a groove for the rocks to seat or the water will wash them away. Put in alternating rows of three rocks in one dam, only one or two rocks high. You can build them higher later when and if you have time. For right now, you need something to catch and slow the next summer monsoon flood. Spacing is up to you, but I put them in every 10 feet. Ehh it's easier than digging swales.
4. Cover crop the swales and rock check dams. If your budget is hurting, then just buy 50 lb sunflower seeds or budget bird seed at walmart. Spread the seed right before a rain and the eroded silt will bury the seed for you.
5. Second place to drop your money. In November order trees from the Colorado Forestry Seedling program https://csfs.colostate.edu/seedling-tree-nursery/. Over order as this will be the cheapest place to get trees. Get one nitrogen fixer for every productive tree. If you are willing to drive, then Utah and New Mexico Forestry Departments have much better selection of desert trees and shrubs.
6. Plant trees inside the swales for the first year. Place the nitrogen fixers right southwest of your productive tree. Put them close, they need to share foliage and roots. If the nitrogen fixer gets out of control then you can cut it later. However, your productive tree will need that shade, nitrogen and wind protection. I know it sounds crazy, but it's Toby Hemenway's technique. Remember one is easily broken. Two, not so easily.
7. Take any brush on the property and construct 3-4 high windbreak walls. They should be perpendicular to southern winds. They will also catch snow in winter. Try to make as many as possible and place them every 40-50 feet in sequence so the windbreak starts to multiply.

When you have time and energy
1. Rock swales where the ground can't be dug. Basically a line of mounded rocks. Better than nothing and the rocks will also harvest dew on the few occasions where Colorado gets humidity.
2. Kinda expensive, but Paul Wheaton recommends "stealth ponds" where you dig it out and then cover it with gravel. You get water from a pipe that goes through the bottom of the dam. That will escape notice of the Colorado bureaucrats.
3. Russian olives are your best bet for a nitrogen fixer. Yes they are illegal, but we are saving the world here dammit! Just go for a hike near a stream and get as many seeds as you can. Put them in the ground during October (now) and hope for the best. Second best, is honey locust seen growing at every wash next to the highway. If all else fails, mountain mahogany or apache plume.
4. Order tree seeds and plant them in fall to supplement your tree planting. This is also a much cheaper though less guaranteed method.
5. Use brush to build "cages" around your trees and bushes to protect from deer, sun and wind. Otherwise, buy tree sleeves.
6. Buy a lot of selfwatering spikes to get your trees through the dry period. If not, you can use the sheer total and utter neglect to weed out the weak trees, but be prepared for 80-90% mortality.

My plant list:
Nitrogen Fixers: Russian Olive, Honey locust, Mountain/desert/or curl leaf mahogany, Apache plume, New Mexico Locust, Black locust, Siberian pea shrub, buffalo berry, sliver berry, goumi berry.
Fruit bushes and trees: Golden or wax currants, gooseberry, goji berry, desert hackberry, skunkbush sumac, wolf berry, New Mexico Privet, wild American plum, canyon grape, chokecherry, russian mulberry, sand cherry, and elderberry. With water, black hawthorn, southern black cherry and serviceberry.
Nut trees: Pinyon, gambel oak, burr oak, Texas oak, California hazelnut, pistachio (try the Uzbek or Tajik varieties), yellowhorn, russian almond.
Trees and bushes when you are at your wit's end and need something that will survive: Rocky mountain juniper, fourwing salt bush, rabbitbrush, siberian elm, tamarisk (for your driest, saltiest and most wasted area).
Good luck and I hope to hear about your updates in the future.
 
Debbie Ann
Posts: 87
Location: Sedona Az Zone 8b
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Wow!!! Skyler and Kimi were awesome. Totally follow their advice! Then... look for lots of great suggestions in "High Desert Country"!!!
 
pollinator
Posts: 3420
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7 AHS:4 GDD:3000 Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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forest garden solar
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Water
Use the land that your dont own above you as a catchment area and then funnel and store all of the rain event water onto your land, using swales. You mention a wash, if only you can get it to flood your entire land vs just a small section. Better for it to flood say your entire 2acres vs just 1/10th of an acre. Having 2ft of water slowly soak in over a week will do wonders for your plants vs having all of that rainfall just flow off your land 10minutes after the rain ends, taking with it any little top soil you have built.

Reduce evaporation/Mulch
Mulch the entire area, in no time you can quickly have 18inches of partially decomposed mulch.

Soil-Life
Mushroom Slurries, Aerated Compost Tea, Foliar Spray.  

Cover Crop
I like using tillage radish to plow/aerate the soil, and legumes to add fertility/nitrogen to the soil

Species/Cultivar Selection/Rootsock
Plant low-water gooseberry over bog-loving cranberry. Figs over apples. Use rootstock/seedlings that do well in your soiltype and climate.


 
master steward
Posts: 7233
Location: USDA Zone 8a
2177
dog hunting food preservation cooking bee greening the desert
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Jonathan Rogers wrote:  I am interested in seeing if there is anything we should be focused on as we are planning the build site/house. Greywater harvesting, rainwater harvesting, establishing trees, etc. Not even sure what our goals are yet because I don't know enough to really be able to set any. This will not be a full time homestead project- we have day jobs. Just want to help contribute to "greening the desert".



Jonathan, Welcome to the forums!

Sounds like you are working with a blank slate.  Plan, plan, and then plan some more.

You have gotten some really great advice! While you are planning your home, visit the property during and after a rainstorm to see how the land reacts to the rainfall.

Work on building your soil especially the area where you will be putting the garden.

You might enjoy reading Dr Bryant Redhawk's soil series to get some ideas:

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil

Again, Welcome!
 
Posts: 28
Location: Western Colorado, Zone 5b-ish
5
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You've gotten a lot of good suggestions. We are about an hour south of Grand Junction. We recently bought a place on land that has been under irrigation for many decades and now has incredibly rich, high organic matter soils. So, probably quite different from your situation of settling on desert land. For part of our land we are looking at a similar list of plants to what has been suggested to you. Also, we are pretty good field botanists and my partner is a soil scientist/geologist -- we might be able to help you understand native plants and soils in your area if you're interested. :-)
 
Jonathan Rogers
Posts: 4
Location: Grand Junction, CO. Zone 6b
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I honestly don't even know how to reply to all of this! Such a big welcome and so much time dedicated to pointing me where to start.

I've ordered the Greywater Oasis book and marked RedHawk's series for reading.

Skyler- I will have to read through this a few times. Not even sure what Nitrogen Fixers are yet... but don't tell me, I can figure it out ;). The Colorado forestry seeing program looks great.

Kimi- Great ideas here! Many of these are on the long term list for us- we are building a traditional house, and aren't really on the homestead radar. But cheers to a fellow Midwesterner giving it a go in the desert! Ok, that's a bit of a lie- I actually come from the SW but currently am living in Illinois.

Again, this is all greatly appreciated. I won't have much to contribute/add until we get on site and start observing rainfalls, etc. But it gives me a lot to learn in the meantime.



 
Posts: 27
Location: Aurora, Colorado zone 5
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Before investing in large tanks to collect water or divert water from the wash both would probably get you in trouble in Colorado so do your homework on those first.
 
Jonathan Rogers
Posts: 4
Location: Grand Junction, CO. Zone 6b
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Gregory Campbell wrote:Before investing in large tanks to collect water or divert water from the wash both would probably get you in trouble in Colorado so do your homework on those first.



Yes I may be getting ahead of what is possible. We do have a well permit for 1 acre of garden/lawn, which by extension allows us to collect unlimited rainwater from the roof of our dwelling unit (more than the 110 gal allotment for those on municipal water). And it appears that greywater is fine to use for irrigation purposes.

What I am suspecting is that water diversion won't be allowed. This will take a bit more to dig into. Luckily, it's county land so we're not restricted to city regulations.
 
Posts: 4
Location: Hotchkiss, Colorado
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Skyler Weber wrote:
My plant list:
Nitrogen Fixers: Russian Olive, Honey locust, Mountain/desert/or curl leaf mahogany, Apache plume, New Mexico Locust, Black locust, Siberian pea shrub, buffalo berry, sliver berry, goumi berry.
Fruit bushes and trees: Golden or wax currants, gooseberry, goji berry, desert hackberry, skunkbush sumac, wolf berry, New Mexico Privet, wild American plum, canyon grape, chokecherry, russian mulberry, sand cherry, and elderberry. With water, black hawthorn, southern black cherry and serviceberry.
Nut trees: Pinyon, gambel oak, burr oak, Texas oak, California hazelnut, pistachio (try the Uzbek or Tajik varieties), yellowhorn, russian almond.
Trees and bushes when you are at your wit's end and need something that will survive: Rocky mountain juniper, fourwing salt bush, rabbitbrush, siberian elm, tamarisk (for your driest, saltiest and most wasted area).
Good luck and I hope to hear about your updates in the future.



Thanks for this great list! Just FYI, tamarisk is now considered invasive in Colorado. It’s taking over our riparian areas here in the North Fork Valley (Delta County), quickly outcompeting the beautiful cottonwoods and willows.
https://ag.colorado.gov/conservation/biocontrol/tamarisk
I’m not trying to start a debate about invasives/ non natives. There are many great discussions elsewhere on the forum about that. Our property came with many Russian Olive trees and they are probably staying until/if we decide to replace them with something we want more. Just sharing information, as I previously thought tamarisk would be a great addition to our place and have now reconsidered because of our proximity to riparian areas. I don’t think tamarisk would be much of a problem for us but sure don’t want to encourage it’s spread in the beautiful rivers nearby.
 
pollinator
Posts: 2701
Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
458
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They have a lot of water restrictions so I'd check into that before you plan anything. You may not be allowed to harvest any water or do earth works or anything else. So check into it.

I've been growing in Wyoming and it's a STRUGGLE! So lower your expectations imo.
 
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