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Desert Corn Growing Techniques

 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Before being uprooted from the deserts of Arizona, I had finished my first proof of concept desert corn growing project.

I submitted it to the Arizona Grain Council, a farming group dedicated to (obviously) growing grains in Arizona. There was some real interests, but before I could really move on it I lost my job and only found it in North Dakota.

Be that as it may, I developed an entire corn growing method that traps natural water sources and locks them into the soil for use by corn plants later. I wrote the whole thing up in proposal explaining the method, the science and the simplicity of the system.

In short, it uses methods adapted from how the Indians of the Southwest grew corn. It all started when a local Permie told me it was impossible to grow corn in the desert. Well that chaffed me a bit, because the Indians that lived there did it, with zero automation and without breaking their backs.

Started looking into the ancient methods and suddenly realized what they were doing was tapping into the very nature of Western soils! Well that led me to a man perceived as a crazy Mormon Professor, from the late 1800’s, who said farming in the West would one day be common. A forgotten genius, I discovered his theories were right!

So if anybody wants a copy of my research, I am happy to share! The method works with any vegetable and was all based around my Troy Bilt tiller. I was in process of developing a no till method when “disaster” struck in the form of economic chaos. Regardless, this is a simple to implement method that uses the tendencies of the desert- rather than working against them.

Just let me know if you are interested and I will send a copy of the proposal. It is written in Word DOC format. I look forward to seeing the area green up and lowering the temperature of our brutal southwestern deserts for more comfort, less energy use!

Sincerely,

YLE
Filename: Project Deep Roots.pdf
Description: Project "Deep Roots" - growing corn in the desert
File size: 355 Kbytes
[Download Project Deep Roots.pdf] Download Attachment
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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Hey Jeff - I'd be interested in seeing that! I've had spotty luck with corn so far.

You can attach a file to your posts here. Check out this thread to see how (2nd post): http://www.permies.com/t/31696/tnk/posts-simple
 
ernie ernies
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I would truly be interested!
 
Walter McQuie
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Location: Northern New Mexico
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Thanks for sharing this Jeff. I'm very interested in absorbing your research and experience.

I work with a group of Navajo growers. A professor at a local university is doing some research into how deeply you can plant corn seeds. The locally saved varieties are usually planted about 6-8 inches deep to take advantage of the limited soil moisture. He found these varieties could emerge from up to 12 inches of soil, but commercially available seed were much weaker at this specialized skill. I'm looking forward to learning other techniques used around the southwest.
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Hi Walter!

I found exactly the same thing with "corporate" seed. Anything more than four inches and the germination rate drops off fast. So I developed this method to compensate for the lack of ability to tolerate deep planting and still get the benefits of a deep planting.

The Indians of the Southwest use to plant up to eighteen inches deep! They however planted a local seed variety and they planted more than one seed. What you end up with is a "corn bush" rather than a single plant.

I highly suspect that only a few seeds actually germinate using the Indians deep plant method. The rest are tapped into by the "leaders" and their stored energy is used to push the shoots up through the distance to daylight. I created an experiment to prove this and was working on modern sweet corn seed adaptations to a deep plant method when my financial bottom fell out. It left both projects high and dry.

I was adapting the methods of both the Navajo, the Apache and the local Indian tribes around Kingman Arizona. I pretty much had a perfected method that was producing really promising results when I had to stop.

The method combines the deep plant techniques of the Navajo with the "waffle" plant system of the Apache and lends itself readily to automation. It might be exactly what your Navajo friends can use to tap into this lucrative corn market and become truly self sufficient farmers.

The method was close to being realized with a tooling grant from the Arizona Research Council on grains. I developed a conceptual tool that can be drug behind a tractor. (In my case a Troy Bilt rototiller.) I was close to having this built when the aforementioned disaster occurred.

The method is great because it lends itself to no till agriculture. It also has significant advantages in contaminated soils, such as might be found after a nuclear event. The deep plant method goes right under the contaminated soil and is much better than the scraping process recommended by the government. That was my third experiment, finding was to adapt the process to contaminated environments...

You are welcome to the research proposal, but I can't seem to get it to post here! I have tried DOC, RTF and TXT formats and they fail with the warning that the file is not allowed.

For the time being, just PM or email me your emails and I will send you a text version, complete with drawing of the method and pictures. I will look into why I can't post this here in the meantime.

YLE (Jeff) 1ylekiot@gmail.com


 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Jeff Rash wrote:
You are welcome to the research proposal, but I can't seem to get it to post here! I have tried DOC, RTF and TXT formats and they fail with the warning that the file is not allowed.


Did you try the instructions here: http://www.permies.com/t/31696/tnk/posts-simple I know I've seen people post .doc, .pdf, .xls and more here...
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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I did and I can't figure it out. But it was late last night right before bed- that might have had something to do with it. Going to review here soon and see if I can resolve it.

YLE
 
A.J. Gentry
pollinator
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Jeff,

I think I had to convert my .doc to a PDF to get it to upload to my post. I think PDFs have less 'virus-type' thingys in them. (My very technical, official term).

Can you convert from .doc to PDF and then try attaching to a post?

A.J.



 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Okie dokie artichokies! The PDF from Jeff is now attached to the first post in this thread - so scroll up to the top!

I uploaded the document as a pdf so hopefully no one should have problems downloading and reading it. Let me know.

And Jeff - thanks for this!

Jen
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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A.J. Gentry wrote:Jeff,

I think I had to convert my .doc to a PDF to get it to upload to my post. I think PDFs have less 'virus-type' thingys in them. (My very technical, official term).

Can you convert from .doc to PDF and then try attaching to a post?

A.J.





Thanks AJ, that was my next attempt. Tried DOC, RTF, then TXT and was about to try PDF right now but Jennifer beat me to it!

Remember that this was a tooling proposal for a research grant from the Arizona Council on Grain Research. As such, its roots reflect a permaculture background adapted to modern farming methods.

There may be questions on how you adopt this to a home garden or small scale, so feel free to ask away.

And to Walter working with the Navajo, this technique owes its beginnings to the Navajo! Glad to see the knowledge return to them. Please reference the Department of Agriculture's 1918 report on the corn growing in the desert Southwest and Widstoe's treatise on Western soils and farming for more info on the science behind this method!

YLE (Jeff)
 
Walter McQuie
Posts: 49
Location: Northern New Mexico
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Thanks again Jeff. I've read Widstoe's Dry Farming at Soil and Health's online library. I hope to find the 1918 report; sounds interesting.
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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That's excellent Walter. I suspect Mr. Widstoe was perceived as a kook at the time and his recommendations. Further, plowing to allow moisture into the soil does not sit well with desert environments, but his observations about the sandy soils out west hold true. Each tiny grain is a a whole world full of water, full of it's own rivers, lakes and oceans. One taps into those oceans using the laws of hydrodynamics, specifically that water loves to stick to stuff. I simply brought together the waffle technique of the Apache and the deep planting techniques of the Navajo. Throw in Widstoe and you have Project deep roots. Truly there is nothing new under the sun!

As mentioned, the technique uses the deep planting method by getting even weak commercial seed to deep root, while still allowing for rain collection and if needed, irrigation. One could also fertilize with a nutrient laden water, allowed to seep down the trenches. This puts the fertilizer only where it can be used by the crop, discourages weeds because the corn is the only thing in the trench and obviously the trench wants to hold the fertilizer in place.

You can see too, how it lends itself to a modern agricultural approach, in that tooling can be made to adapt this to a tractor.

I am not against modern agriculture, but certainly cutting down on the wasteful approaches we use now would benefit everyone.

I know that's going to be tough and so far there is a lot of weight from giants in the industry who make fortunes supporting the way things are done now, but I hope to someday approach them with this method and allow them to co-op it as their own. Already I have had some interests from organizations like the Arizona Grain Research Council and John Deere. This will be how the method makes it into modern agriculture. Giants making fortunes from selling agri-chemicals must be pitted against giants making fortunes selling agri-equipment. In the end the local farmer wins and uses far less chemicals- better for us all. You see anytime there is a shift in process, there is money to be made. No one seems to much care if they take that money from the pockets of another agri-giant.

I cringe when I see the fields out here frosted a sickly white. Not with natures cold, but with the coating of nitrates, phosphorus and other things that were once found in the soil. These are needed to make another generation of corn come up from ground that needs a rest. I see huge billboards along the freeway here in North Dakota, "Be more prosperous with your phosphorus." The people selling that phosphorus are going to do everything they can to stop the widespread adoption a method like this. But again, if there is money to be made, someone finds a way to make it. It is my hope that all of the Permies found here will take the method and adapt it to thier local environment, so that a larger base of experience can be created. That's a very good step towards changing how things are done today. I further hope you will all keep in contact, so that I can draw upon your experiences when the time comes to show this to giants like John Deere, etc.

Gentle as a dove, crafty as a serpent.

YLE





 
james nitz
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I am realy interested.
 
Terri Matthews
Posts: 468
Location: Eastern Kansas
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Very nice!

By the way, some years back I saw a decades- old film of some desert dwellers planting and raising their corn. It was fascinating.

To start with, they dropped 5-7 kernels into each hole, and it appeared that perhaps half of them emerged. They were using a traditional variety of corn, as the part of the corn stalk directly above the kernel would grow much longer than most varieties of corn, and they needed that because each hole was 12 inches or so deep. The seeds would be tipped in, an inch or two of soil would go on top, and they moved on. The holes would be filled in as the corn plant grew, unless the wind did it for them.'At the end of the rainy season the corn roots would be well placed to follow the moisture down as the top of the ground dried out.

They also said that some areas were better for raising corn than others.
 
james nitz
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Cool. So what type of soil should I be looking for. And I think that the trench idea was a really good idea.
 
Troy Groves
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Location: Desert Hills, AZ
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Good stuff. Thank you for sharing the information. I look forward to implementing some of the techniques and seeing what results I get in my soil.
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Hi Terri. This technique is one third Hopi Indian deep planting, one third Apache Indian waffle block and one third Widstoe's understanding of Western soils.

The Hopi use to plant up to 18 inches deep. They made a special planting stick and would simply poke a hole to a certain depth dependent in the soil. Then they would place up to a dozen corn seeds into the hole. I suspect, though have yet to prove, that some of those seeds did not germinate and gave up their energy to the others so that they could push through the distance to the sunlight. Regardless, what one ends up with is a very deeply planted "corn bush" that was composed of several different shoots. This works fine in the deserts of New Mexico, at the base of a wash downhill from a mountain, that ends up being wet down by thunderstorms. Their key was a loose sandy soil of a wash with a gravel base. This trapped water much like a sponge.

The Apache had a different technique. What they planted was a "waffle garden." They would build little square "waffles" and plant all types of seeds in them. Then they would go to a nearby water source and simply pour water into the waffle's squares in the morning. This water would sit in the square and water the plant in even the most brutal heat of the day. Corn is supposed to wilt in the heat, but I can attest that the most brutal heat in the US is found in the Mohave deserts of California and Arizona. I grew corn there and it would not even blink at the heat- so long as adequate water was available. More sun and long sunny days made the corn grow even faster.

What I found is that the trench lets you use modern seeds that don't tolerate deep planting like Indian corn can. Yet nearly all of the roots are still deep in the side s of the trench. With the trench, you get the deep planting of Indian corn seeds, without forcing the seed to travel through 18 inches of topsoil. Second, the trench lets you water just like the Apache did- except you can lay the hose at the head of the trench and let it trickle. (Or you can use above ground PVC pipe just wedged together. That way you can quickly soak the trench and let it sit all day like the Apache did.)

The last third of the triad is an understanding of Western soils from Widstoe. In a nutshell, he explained that the fine soils of the West are miniature worlds of moisture. Soak them and they will lock that moisture away like a vault, to be drawn upon later.

My real contribution was to combine the two methods of the Indians (deep planting and waffle method) along with an understanding that there is a moisture barrier in the desert. Planting below that barrier maximizes the amount of nutrients and water available to corn and really ANY other plant.

So the trench method wraps up nicely the deep planting technique of the Hopi, the waffle garden technique of the Apache, my understanding that their is a "moisture barrier" in the desert that acts as a vault for water and it makes it possible to produce a lot of corn with little effort. It even lends itself nicely to "modern" automation. Further, it really helps a farmer that needs to fertilize, because he only need run fertilizer in the trench. This maximizes the effect, while containing the fertilizer so it won't get into rivers and local water supplies. Less fertilizer used more effectively.

I developed this as a solution for a desert farmer, but this would work great here in North Dakota too! Any dry farming method, (really any farming method!) can benefit. It lends itself to no till too.

And any plant seed can be used. All seeds benefit from deep plantings. Tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, all respond well to the trench method. One gets the benefits of the deep plant, without putting multiple seeds in the same hole. I really sort of just stumbled across the methods as a result of being told that "You can't grow corn in Arizona." Again, that bent me out of shape, because I knew the Indians did it!

And to answer James, any soil will work, so long as it has the necessary nutrients. Desert soils turned out to be incredibly fertile and corn grew with zero added fertilizer. I did have to rototill, but that's because the bottom fell out before I could build the tooling to scrape the trench from hard ground. Microscopic Western soils work best, but with the larger Eastern soils, once gets more rain. So things should even out.

Another thing that bothered me about growing corn in the desert: how did the sage brush do so well? Those suckers have like 3 foot long tap roots! I know, because I pulled one out with a tractor. Talk about a fight! It was like pulling a Redwood out! That was my very first clue to plant deep. Amazing what you think of on the back of a tractor while working your property...

YLE (Jeff)

 
Abe Connally
Posts: 1502
Location: Chihuahua Desert
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this is very interesting and similar to the concept of wicking beds (watering from below, keeping a deep reservoir of water under the plants).

I assume for trees,one could make giant funnels, instead of trenches, and achieve a similar result.

Combine with some deep watering irrigation methods, this could have a lot of potential.
 
Jeff Rash
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Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Abe,

I have yet to work with trees much. My research was geared towards a grant from the Arizona Grain Research Council and therefore looked at water wise ways to grow grains.

However I think funnels area a great idea, especially if you can get some cisterns to feed them.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

YLE
 
Abe Connally
Posts: 1502
Location: Chihuahua Desert
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Jeff Rash wrote:Abe,

I have yet to work with trees much. My research was geared towards a grant from the Arizona Grain Research Council and therefore looked at water wise ways to grow grains.

However I think funnels area a great idea, especially if you can get some cisterns to feed them.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

YLE


The general idea seems valid and should apply to other plants/methods of growing. I'm growing a set of fruit/nut trees this year as the basis of a new forest garden, so I'll definitely give the funnel idea a try. They are already being planted in a swale, so funnels in the swale should be good for routing water when it comes. We don't get spring rains, only summer monsoon, so establishing things requires some supplemental water. But, we have some of that this year, so we'll give it a go!

We also have a lot of wicking beds, and I think planting deeper, down in the moist soil should be a good way to get things established in those, too.
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Its certainly an area that needs researching! The problem with all things desert is that not everything one might do in say Oregon, applies to the desert and must be adapted. Instead of pits that become ponds, I will be using cisterns to make underground ponds. But the mentality still applies applies.

When I tell the farmers out here in ND that I grew standard seed corn from four inches deep with 100% germination, they look like I said I grew corn with its roots firmly planted six feet in the air. The concept simply does not register! And forget trench planting. That boggles their minds even more. But this year in ND we had a lousy corn harvest. Most did not even have a harvest, just plowed it under. They simply did not get the normal Spring and Summer rains- especially from the normal thunderstorms. They REALLY need to practice some of the techniques that others and I have researched. I have made some headway.

Some have turned up the pressure on their air seeders and will test a small plot this year with deeper seed. We will see. They won't be down four inches, but since average seed depth is one inch, anything beyond that is awesome.

It does pay to be skeptical when you are a farmer and I understand. Change takes a long time to be realized when you are talking three or four months before you get a result. That and there are so many uncontrolled variables!

I think that's why deserts are IDEAL testing locations. No rain, no pollen from other sources, you control how much water things get, how much fertilizer, everything. Easy to do a test case with a control group.

As to your trees, anytime you can trap water in the soil you should. Western soils will actually hold quite a bit, because they are far sandier than many Midwestern and Southern soils. That's really amazing that exactly the kind of soils needed to retain scarce water are exactly the kind found in the desert... Almost like somebody planned it that way.

You can't really "flood" a plant that's been deep rooted either. When I spoke to farmers about the trench methods, they all told me that one rainy day will kill their crops if the corn sits in a trench full of water. I tried to explain that with deep roots, the soil will only hold what its maximum hydrostatic tension will allow. The roots are never drowned because they are four or more inches down. Once the soil down there reaches maximum hydrostatic tension, the soil resist more water passing through. It's actually stronger than gravity!

That's why we get flash floods out west. The soil stops wicking once it reaches 100% hydrostatic capacity. The water has nowhere to go, so it runs off into the washes. You therefore by design can't drown the crop- even though it appears to be sitting in a pool of water!

Now if the plant is shallow rooted, yes. Your roots and the topsoil will be inundated and turn to mud, leaving your roots swamped. But if your roots are down in a four inch deep trench and then the seed was four inches deeper in the trench, 90% of them are in reality eight inches deep! Standing water in the trench is just not an issue at that point. It might take a few days to seep in and evaporate, but that's a good thing! You know the soil's water vault was fully charged.

I don't see why the same mentality can't apply to trees. Catch the rain when you get it and use it to charge the soil to 100% of its water carrying capacity. Anything excess won't swamp deep roots. It can only charge to 100% of capacity- then it will actually repel more water.

Good luck with that Abe and if you would document your methods with photos, that will be highly appreciated! I want to plant trees too someday.

YLE
 
Brett Andrzejewski
gardener
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Thanks for putting a good deal of research into this method. I noticed that the pictures in your document were from New Mexico, my home state. If I can get some free time I may try your method or spread the word. I had a friend give me some corn seeds that were grown in this area for a long time. They grew pretty well despite the D4 drought condition and me hardly watering them (I did use 8 inches of straw sheet mulch). Now that I have lots of seeds I can try some experiments.
 
Jeff Rash
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Oh that's awesome! I have been trying to get some of that seed! Mind if I mark you as a friend and buy some of that seed from in a few years? (I am working in ND right now to recover from the terrible economic upheaval in AZ.)

You are 100% correct, the Hopi and the Navajo used this deep planting method. The Indians of New Mexico were documented using this method as 100% dry farming by the department of agriculture in 1918. DoA did a great job- thank god they did! I doubt if many of the natives remember it now. (Cheap and easy food from the government eliminated the reason for the knowledge in the first place- sad testament to giving a fish rather than teaching to fish. In this case the Indians of the past are teaching us to fish again!)

My whole process was geared towards automation and time saving. There is nothing wrong with that by the way, but as we all know, the way we do things now is not tenable for the long term. Food is going to get ridiculously expensive if we keep this up. Even though I geared towards automation, it works awesome with small scale horse drawn equipment or with a John Deere tractor the size of a house!

I should mention the Apache "waffle block" planting style as another source of inspiration from natives. That lets farmers distribute targeted water and fertilizers by pouring water into the trench. It goes nearly all to the plant, reducing weeds and there is very little nitrate runoff into local water supplies. I suspect it would greatly reduce costs- all for just a tooling change. Initial tooling costs might run into the thousands for the farmer, (though I think any fool with a torch and a grinder could make a usable trencher for a tractor from steel pipe) but the farmer would see that back right away in reduced costs for fertilizer alone!

(Ever see the way the farmers spray the fertilizer on the WHOLE field in modern farming? Then all these weeds grow up and they spray the field again to kill the weeds. Gee, why not just put the fertilizer in the trench at the time of planting? You only make one pass and cut your fuel use in half. The fertilizer only goes to the crop, and gives it a major competitive advantage. I know my corn field choked out weeds all by itself! No extra fuel, no extra chemicals, no extra time. I never did anything but trench, plant and harvest.)

If you think about "row planting" in "high tech modern" agriculture, you can see how opposite the thought is. Row planting makes it easy to mechanically harvest- if you have tons of free water to pour into the rows. But still, its kind of dumb when you think about it. The plants are not in the row, they are to either side! Therefore 90% of the water goes straight down! It actually encourages sideways root growth which then leaves the plant roots shallow. That makes it easy for a drought to stress the heart of the plant. (Think of leaves as the skin, the roots as internal organs. Which deals better with hot sun? You can't kill corn in the desert no matter how hot it gets- as long as the roots have enough moisture.) Even in no till, modern dry farm methods like here in ND, the seed is no more than an inch deep. That's pretty thin protection! And of course no till does nothing to collect water, just lets it runoff and evaporate- and carry the nitrates where they are useless or even do harm. I really hope to work with some large scale farmers and test out the design here in ND! I think last years crop would have benefited from the method- we had very little summer rains.

Now remember that the deep plant method relied upon up to a dozen corn seeds. I suspect that some seeds are used for their stored energy and don't germinate before the other corn seeds tap into them. So be aware of that. If you use more than one seed, you will not get a corn plant, but a corn bush, like in the 1918 photos.

If you use the deep plant methods with one seed, I was able to get 100% germination at four inches of depth in the trench from a single seed. That's in addition to the depth of the trench by the way. But from the seeds perspective, it was four inches of soil to climb through. I bet your regional seed could climb through that four inches like a hot knife through butter! I would recommend using the same method I did of testing the corns climbing ability initially.

Take ten seeds, plant them at one inch. Then ten more at two. Then another ten at four, six, eight and twelve. Twelve was the death point for standard garden variety sweet corn seeds. I had a 100% germination failure at 12 inches. By planting just one in each hole, you will also establish how many you might need to increase the odds of germination.

Four inches still gave me 100% yield and meant that the seeds were in effect ten inches deep! (Trench was 6 inches deep.) That gave them remarkable access to stored water, minerals and nutrients as well as total resilience to sun. In essence, they "grew like weeds." And it was the BEST tasting corn. Very sweet.

I will be in contact with you in years to come Brett. Do keep me informed as to what you find and I will add it to my research. Plus I want to buy some seeds from you when get back to Arizona.

Most Sincerely!

YLE (Jeff)




 
Juanita Colucci
Posts: 8
Location: Mohave Desert, AZ
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Jeff Rash wrote:I found exactly the same thing with "corporate" seed. Anything more than four inches and the germination rate drops off fast. So I developed this method to compensate for the lack of ability to tolerate deep planting and still get the benefits of a deep planting.

The Indians of the Southwest use to plant up to eighteen inches deep! They however planted a local seed variety and they planted more than one seed. What you end up with is a "corn bush" rather than a single plant.


I recently found a source of native desert seeds, Native Seeds/SEARCH, out of Tucson. I wonder if these can be planted deeper to start? Has anyone tried the native varieties that are commercially available through seed banks like this?

I think I will try the 3 sisters method of planting at 4", 8", and 12" using all desert native corn, bean, and squash seeds.

Thanks for the refresher! Awesome idea!
 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Hello Juanita,

The Three Sisters was another area I was planning on experimenting in. I intended to work these into the the trench planting method, in order to study the ability of the trench system to support a non traditional poly-crop. My first iteration was intended to secure a grant to study the mono-crop of corn for the Arizona Grain Research Council. I then was going to "spread the wealth" so to speak, out to a more permanent minded approach.

That being the case, I can tell you that each crop had its own purpose and contribution to the Indian's field and to their diet. Beans affixed nitrogen to the soil for the corn and were important protein\mineral\vitamin sources. Corn gave the beans something to climb on and gave the Indian his energy in the form of carbohydrates. Squash provided much needed ground cover to prevent evaporation. It also gave the Indians a source of vitamin C not found in their beans or corn.

That said, it is the perfect poly crop, with each crop performing a function for the other and adding to the diet of the grower.

I have yet to find if the Indians planted these at different intervals or altogether. For instance, planting the beans before the corn has some height might not give the bean anything to climb on. And if the squash takes off before the corn, it may shade the ground so much that the corn and\or beans wither.

I suspect that these crops are planted in cycle with the corn seed first, the bean seed second and the squash last. But I have only an educated guess to give you for that suspicion. It may well be they were all planted at the same time. My research says little about it, except that the Indians planted corn with their planting stick. One would think that the chronicler would have mentioned if there were other seed involved... But I have learned never to make that assumption.

Good luck Juanita and DO let us know what happens!

Jeff

Oh! Thank you for the seed source! I will look that up.

Where are you at in the Mohave? I am just North of Kingman, not far off Route 66.

I am returning there in early April to do some much needed maintenance. If you are not too far, maybe you can pop by and I can show you the method? Though my presentation does a pretty good job, there is nothing like watching it done.

 
Abe Connally
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how wide were your trenches? In my area, there is sometimes red clay that cracks open in the winter/spring dry season. I wonder if I could plant some of the deep corns and beans in these cracks before the rain season. I have no idea how deep they are, but at least 4-6 inches. They look to be about 1/2" wide.
 
Jeff Rash
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Hi Abe,

The primary point of the trenches is to collect water when it rains. The water is then held there allowing it to soak deeply into the soil where it is stored and then used by the plants. Width of my trenches is 4 inches minimum. Depth of my trenches varied, but 6 inches was sufficient for corn, pumpkins, sunflowers, cucumbers, carrots, beans and peas. Length depends on the need.

I think you will find that the red clay cracks, while they will certainly channel water and give you the depth you want, will quickly disappear once the rains start.

It would be interesting though to see if anything will grow from those cracks. It can't hurt to try!

Life is fascinating, especially plant life. Seeds are amazing and are the basis of all life. Its fascinating to see that a dried up, dead part of the earth actually opens up so it can receive the moisture it needs. The designs of life are amazing and fit perfectly in their roles. We simply discover how best to use the traits of the plant and we can do amazing things. Think about all the amazing adaptations in a seed! You just throw it into the ground and it scraps its way through to the surface! Even though we think it is less than ideal conditions, it does well. It just needs the earth.

I think you should throw some seeds in those cracks and see what happens. Who knows what you might discover?

YLE
 
Abe Connally
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yeah, I would think that the cracks would close up when enough rain came, as well, but it is certainly something to try.
 
Juanita Colucci
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Location: Mohave Desert, AZ
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Hi Jeff
Jeff Rash wrote:I suspect that these crops are planted in cycle with the corn seed first, the bean seed second and the squash last. But I have only an educated guess to give you for that suspicion. It may well be they were all planted at the same time. My research says little about it, except that the Indians planted corn with their planting stick. One would think that the chronicler would have mentioned if there were other seed involved... But I have learned never to make that assumption.

I have been researching as well, but apparently hard enough because I cannot find that data either. I plan to plant the corn first. I plan to plant the beans when the corn reaches 6" tall, followed by the squash once the beans break ground.
Jeff Rash wrote:Oh! Thank you for the seed source! I will look that up.

Here is a link to their seeds. I was not quite sure of the link-posting regulations in this forum, I am new here. They are a "non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and nurturing the traditional agricultural heritage of the Greater Southwest." Native Seeds/SEARCH
Jeff Rash wrote:Where are you at in the Mohave? I am just North of Kingman, not far off Route 66.

LOL... practically neighbors! I am in Bullhead City. Sounds good, I would like that.
 
Jeff Rash
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Hello Juanita,

Growing in Bullhead City! If ever there were a more desert like place in the USA, I know not of it! If you can get food to grow in Bullhead, than I think your next stop is Mars.

The environment of Bullhead is truly brutal and my hats off to you. Trench method could really help you out. As long as there is moisture in the ground and the plants can access it, your plants will survive even the brutality of a Bullhead summer.

Plants are amazing in their ability to change even the most brutal places. They transpire water and cool the environment around themselves with ease. Even the incredible temperatures of Bullhead City can be overcome by a plant with access to adequate water. Their miserly too! Once the trench fills, you can sit back and watch for signs of light stress. At that point, you add water to your trench and watch again for stress.

As to meeting up, I will be in Kingman first weekend in April. That's the traditional planting time for Indians of that region, so that's when I plant as well.

I will let you know when I am closer to that date and maybe we can learn a little bit from each other.

See if you can get a copy of the 1918 report on Indian plantings. That's where the answer will be on the order of planting.

Thanks for your link to the seeds!

Jeff
 
Dayna Williams
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Hi, Jeff,
I was just wondering if the moisture barrier is exclusively found in desert sand, or if that is how water behaves in soil everywhere. More specifically, could the deep planting with trench technique be used during the dry summers in somewhere like western Oregon that gets a lot of rain the rest of the year? Or does the moisture barrier effect only occur in the desert? I would love to grow the three sisters here in the summer, but it would be even better if I didn't have to irrigate. We have no rain from early June to early October, so it seems like a desert during those months.
 
Jeff Rash
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Hi Dana,

ANY soil will develop a moisture barrier if exposed to enough heat and evaporation. However, desert soils seem to be even better at forming this barrier than soils that see more rain. (Almost like somebody knew to put that kind of soil in a desert because it would need it...) Sandy soils are literally like little worlds that hydrostatic tension keeps water clinging to. Neither gravity pulling the water down, nor evaporation pulling the water from above will stop these soils from retaining quite a bit of moisture- moisture any plant can tap in to.

From my limited experiments her in North Dakota, I would say that soils seem to fit the weather in the region they are from. That is to say that even though your soil will not have the moisture retaining ability of a sandy desert, It will most certainly still retain enough moisture to make it worth the while.

Even if you had to water, using the trench method means the water will go directly to the plants. Little will be lost to evaporation, weeds, and ground where nothing is growing. The great thing about the trench method too, is that it will slow the surrounding growth of weeds until your plants take over and simply choke out the weeds. Awesome to watch by the way. It lets you grow totally organic vegetables that out compete the weeds!

If you think about it, the trench method is a lot like hugelkultur- especially when you grow a poly crop like corn, beans and squashes. Squash (or pumpkins etc) provide the ground cover that prevents the ground from drying out. Dew will form on the underside of those broad leaves as well! With your trenches in place, dew water funnels right down into the trench where only your plants get at it. And of course beans will affix new nitrogen to the soil for your corn. The similarities between hugelkultur and what the Indians did with their methods is striking.

So yes, I think the deep planting trench method would be effective even in areas where more rain falls annually. Always remember, you can't really drown the plants because once 100% of water storage capacity is reached, the water only has two choices. One, pool up and wait for the water below to seep deeper or two, runoff. Well in the deserts of the Southwest, we have a little thing called flash flooding, which makes my point about not drowning your plants with what appears to be "standing water." It's only in the trench, which is a very limited surface area for the plant. Water can sit in a trench indefinitely and show no signs of drowning the plant because the ground can only carry a certain amount. After that, the water is actually repelled from the soil! The roots are deep beneath the immediate surface and are therefore too deep to be waterlogged. (If this were a regular, one inch planting method, the plant would drown.) Its really a neat concept and all I did was realize what's going on with the soil- and take advantage of it.


One last piece of advice. I would mono crop each seed in its own trench on a small scale my first year. Learn what these crops need first as individuals before you try the three sisters. The issue is that there is no planting data on the three sisters I have been able to find. We know that the Indians planted the three sisters in the same filed, but not their timing! How far apart were they? Was it corn, beans, squash? Squash, corn beans? How many days between crops or all at the same time? There are a lot of variables, so learning to trench plant a small patch of each separate crop before you bring them together is advised. This will teach you the peculiarities of each crop, how much drought it can take and if you must water, when and how much. It took me three years to get the trench method perfected for my area with just mono-crops. I wanted to try the three sisters next, but the economic bottom fell out. With my data, it should take you considerably less time.

Do report back your results! I REALLY want to know how this works outside of total deserts like AZ! I am thinking of looking into some grants and I would prefer this method to the till and spray I see here in ND. It might help these farmers here in drier years.

Just follow what I recommend in my proposal to the Arizona Grain Research Commission and you should be just fine. (Attached to the first post.) Desert or no, there are huge advantages to deep root systems- and no drawbacks I can find.

Jeff
 
Nolan Robert
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So let me see if I have this right,

I live in SoCal, our soil is sand. When we water it, it runs off and doesn't soak in at all. This happens because the water holding capability of the soil is already at maximum capacity?

And if I want to try this trench method, I would get a hoe or shovel, dig out a strip/trench, dig out a hole for the seeds and than cover it up?

It sounds a lot like Zai: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x28NpUZjmN8
 
shauna carr
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Nolan - one easy way to tell - dig underneath and see if it's damp, I would think. I know that where I live (AZ), one reason water may run off can be that the ground is so hard underneath that water can't soak in without great difficulty. I have seen some information on soil in...I believe it was India, but possible somewhere in Africa...where the problem was that water on the top of the soil would react with the soil in such a way that it made a barrier so that water would just start to run off of it rather than penetrate, instead. I believe that was a soil with more clay silt on top of it rather than sand, though, so I wouldn't think it's that.


And I TOTALLY missed this and I'm so excited to hear about it now. I am really looking forward to trying deep planting! I've always used pits and trenches and such (I grew up in the desert; didn't even know that there WAS such a thing as planting on a hill, LOL), but not deep planting.

Re: when to plant the various three sisters in relation to the other. I've tried a waffle garden two years in a row. Once with corn, squash, and beans and one with sunflowers, squash, onions, and radishes. I used mostly seeds grown in this area for a looong time, from Native Seed Search. I've planted them all at the same time both times, excepting the onions.

This was my experience:
1. The squash, beans, and corn/sunflowers did well here (Sonoran Desert in AZ) in summer monsoons, but trying to plant in the late winter/early spring (when we have our second monsoon) did poorly. The long days, heat, and rains seemed to be better for the native seeds.

2. I'm still figuring out WHEN to plant each type of seed. The squash and beans grew slowly the last time I tried them, but that was winter rains, so this year I'll be trying the summer garden and try a few different plots to check on timing. However, having something to shade the ground early on was a HUGE deal for the waffle gardening when I did the summer monsoons. Without that, especially with a little added sand (see below), the reflected heat was so much that it was negatively affecting the corn and beans. The sun intensity also seemed a bit much for the early bean sprouts. It makes me wonder, if there is one plant that should be planted first rather than all at the same time, whether squash might be it, at least here where the sun intensity is so high. I know this can be a problem in other climates with less sun, but I suspect corn and beans may grow right up through the squash leaves, if I can get the timing right. This year, I'll experiment a little.

3. Waffle gardening and intense monsoons didn't mix well. I had what I thought was a very sturdy waffle garden - the walls felt like rocks when they were pressed on. I went on vacation for three weeks with a friend watching over them, and the monsoons completely flattened it all. The walls melted away into the pits. I'm not sure if that's the intensity of the monsoon or poor workmanship on my part. Guess I'll find out when I try it again.



I do have a link I thought might be of interest on this topic - It's a blog post that contains an interview with an older Zuni woman who grew up using waffle gardens in NM and there are some details about what she does and how, that she grew up learning, which I haven't seen elsewhere, including what is done with sheep manure to fertilize the waffle garden.
http://urwafflegarden.blogspot.com


One thing of interest, I thought, was that after the waffle garden was made, sand was added and pressed down. It both evened out any rough spots and I would bet it helped make that barrier to keep moisture locked in below.



 
Nolan Robert
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shauna carr wrote:Nolan - one easy way to tell - dig underneath and see if it's damp, I would think. I know that where I live (AZ), one reason water may run off can be that the ground is so hard underneath that water can't soak in without great difficulty. I have seen some information on soil in...I believe it was India, but possible somewhere in Africa...where the problem was that water on the top of the soil would react with the soil in such a way that it made a barrier so that water would just start to run off of it rather than penetrate, instead. I believe that was a soil with more clay silt on top of it rather than sand, though, so I wouldn't think it's that.


And I TOTALLY missed this and I'm so excited to hear about it now. I am really looking forward to trying deep planting! I've always used pits and trenches and such (I grew up in the desert; didn't even know that there WAS such a thing as planting on a hill, LOL), but not deep planting.

Re: when to plant the various three sisters in relation to the other. I've tried a waffle garden two years in a row. Once with corn, squash, and beans and one with sunflowers, squash, onions, and radishes. I used mostly seeds grown in this area for a looong time, from Native Seed Search. I've planted them all at the same time both times, excepting the onions.

This was my experience:
1. The squash, beans, and corn/sunflowers did well here (Sonoran Desert in AZ) in summer monsoons, but trying to plant in the late winter/early spring (when we have our second monsoon) did poorly. The long days, heat, and rains seemed to be better for the native seeds.

2. I'm still figuring out WHEN to plant each type of seed. The squash and beans grew slowly the last time I tried them, but that was winter rains, so this year I'll be trying the summer garden and try a few different plots to check on timing. However, having something to shade the ground early on was a HUGE deal for the waffle gardening when I did the summer monsoons. Without that, especially with a little added sand (see below), the reflected heat was so much that it was negatively affecting the corn and beans. The sun intensity also seemed a bit much for the early bean sprouts. It makes me wonder, if there is one plant that should be planted first rather than all at the same time, whether squash might be it, at least here where the sun intensity is so high. I know this can be a problem in other climates with less sun, but I suspect corn and beans may grow right up through the squash leaves, if I can get the timing right. This year, I'll experiment a little.

3. Waffle gardening and intense monsoons didn't mix well. I had what I thought was a very sturdy waffle garden - the walls felt like rocks when they were pressed on. I went on vacation for three weeks with a friend watching over them, and the monsoons completely flattened it all. The walls melted away into the pits. I'm not sure if that's the intensity of the monsoon or poor workmanship on my part. Guess I'll find out when I try it again.



I do have a link I thought might be of interest on this topic - It's a blog post that contains an interview with an older Zuni woman who grew up using waffle gardens in NM and there are some details about what she does and how, that she grew up learning, which I haven't seen elsewhere, including what is done with sheep manure to fertilize the waffle garden.
http://urwafflegarden.blogspot.com


One thing of interest, I thought, was that after the waffle garden was made, sand was added and pressed down. It both evened out any rough spots and I would bet it helped make that barrier to keep moisture locked in below.






That link was very helpful!

So for a waffle garden you are just piling up the soil in a square formation? You don't dig down?

I made a trench and put some seeds in it, some soy beans and spinach, and then covered the seeds with compost. I guess I'll see how it goes. I don't see how this could be done no till. You have to dig in to get the trench made, correct?

I've been thinking about just forking up an area as well, because when I do that it leaves little trenches in the ground, and if I don't smooth them over, the soil will stay wet for a long time, because the drainage effect of the mini trenches.


I'm trying to find out how to do these things without disturbing the soil and vegetation too much.
 
shauna carr
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Nolan -
I dug down for the waffle garden, and then built up the walls a little bit higher than I dug, so a little of both. However, everything just collapsed in the rains and washed any dirt that was higher into the lower areas so they ended up completely flattened. I think having something smaller and deeper might be helpful, as was suggested a bit here, so I'm going to see if I can manage that this summer.

As far as I can tell, you have to disturb the soil, yes, at least for the trench. Although IMHO, no till doesn't work as well in some desert soils (depends on the make-up, really). I was discussing this issue with some fellow gardeners in my area, some of whom really like no-till, and they said what they had to do, in the end, was dig WAY down and add improvements to the soil (some did additives like sulfur, some were more like myself and added compost or more 'natural' carbon and such). And after that, they did the no-till and noticed improvement after a few years. But the dirt was simply so bad and hard that you didn't get that effect of nutrients breaking down and working their way down into the soil, because nothing worked down into the soil, at first, if that makes sense? Some of them sound like they'd tried for a few years and there was simply not much change at all.

I don't know much about the forking, but that seems like it's be pretty much like mini-swales, maybe.

 
Roger Taylor
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I'd just like to note, I grew three sisters this past year. I do not live in a desert environment, and suffered from not enough sunshine and pooled water in the beds around the edges with all the rain. Many of the beans rotted, and similar for the squash even though the fruit were raised out of the water on pieces of wood. The corn grew okay, I guessed.

The squash vines escaped from the beds and trailed out from under the corn, up to 10 feet out. No squash amongst the corn grew, any that did were at the edges. Note that squash was planted and germinated and grew long before the corn shaded them out. Beans perhaps grew up 2 feet at most, although some were dwarf varieties. Two varieties were native american (one of which was gila indian), and one was dwarf cannelini.. but no difference in height.

The corn and the squash and beans were planted on raised mounds, within the bed they were planted in. Unfortunately, the vines and fruit trailed down off these into the wetter areas, in the case of squash. The corn didn't seem to mind the wetness.

In deserts, where sunlight is in abundance, 3 sisters would be a completely different experience. For me, I'll be planting beans, squash and corn completely separately and won't be interplanting. I'm not sure there's any gain to me, for trenching the corn, although I'm tempted to try it for the sake of it.
 
shauna carr
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Oh that IS very interesting, Roger. That's a totally different experience, yes. Although it's good to get that reminder from time to time. I keep thinking of keyhole gardening, which I keep hearing is done in Africa, is great for deserts and arid climates. And then I finally started to track down the weather where it was done and it's in areas that got more rain than I did, with lower temperatures and higher humidity, and sometimes that can make a huge difference, obviously.

As long as I've broken up the hard dirt here so that there is somewhere for the water to drain, there was never pooled water for more than a 10 minutes, I don't think. Maybe 20 on the outside. I've read about being careful for plants in soil that gets too wet, but in the last 5 years of gardening, that has literally never happened to me. I use a lot of local dirt and add carbon and such to it, and it's just so dry it's not an issue. I think I'd have to really change my way of thinking about gardening to garden in areas where too much water is actually a problem!

And it's fascinating to think of something being shaded out in my garden, LOL. I'm sure I could manage it, but I would really have to work at it, I think. One year gardening here, I had plants that would only come up in these odd straight lines that I couldn't figure out until I realized that they were ONLY growing where they were getting shade from the corn or sunflowers. Perfect little lines following the shadows from the stalks. It's amazing what difference the solar abundance can make.
 
Nolan Robert
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Shauna how do you add carbon?

I've never had a problem with there being too MUCH water! I'm always trying to hold what little I can!
 
shauna carr
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Nolan,
whoops, I should have said carbon material as opposed to carbon. >_< So just plant matter, veggie leavings, dead plants, that sort of thing. I'm in a desert and there are some huge cactus that I have to cut back, so I'm also experimenting with despising and crushing up cactus to put in the ground as extra carbon material, as well. Currently, I pick some spots, dig a hole, mix all the plant and veggie material with the dirt, and fill it back up. I just got some native legume wildflowers to plant on top, as well, to help make it ready for when something eventually goes there.

But the dirt is so hard here, and I'm not terribly strong, so it's slow going, so far.

I know what you mean about the water. Standing water? What is that, I've never heard of it. ^_~
 
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