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Desert Corn Growing Techniques

 
Posts: 59
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Shauna have you had any experience with mulching or compost? I mean applying it on the surface of exposed soil?

I know it works well for folks living in temperate climates, but I wonder if it has any benefits for those of us living in more arid environments.
 
pollinator
Posts: 104
Location: Sonoran Desert, USA
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Usually, I hear it recommended even more than usual in arid environments.

However, I've been wondering about it myself, exactly what it may do, and how it may work, and possible pros and cons. From bits and pieces I've picked up along the way...

All rock mulch (as in, ONLY rock mulch that covers the ground a few inches thick) will interfere with any nutrients reaching the soil through organic matter, and can raise the temperature of the surrounding area by maybe 10 degrees F, at least.
But too much organic mulch can interfere with water absorption of the soil.
Plant matter tends to desiccate in the desert much more quickly and rot happens much less frequently. I believe in my own desert, the Sonoran, termites are more frequently how wood breaks down, as opposed to fungi and other causes.

Rock mulch doesn't absorb water, so water will go right through it and into the ground beneath, and rock mulch releases no water from itself into the atmosphere, pretty much.
But organic mulch absorbs water, and it also releases water itself into the atmosphere, so the question is: in a desert, how much water does the mulch absorb and then release back into the air, preventing it from reaching the soil?
(the study on the absorption of water by the mulch itself: http://ucanr.edu/sites/UrbanHort/files/80238.pdf)

And I just read a little something (just an abstract) that plants in a semi-arid region were tested for nutrient levels (the plants, not the soil) in mulched and non-mulched plots for a study, and there was no difference in nutrient levels between the two. Researchers commented that nutrient accumulation due to mulch breaking down may not be as effective in semi-arid regions, which might mean it's even less effective in arid regions. Makes me wonder if legumes are the best bet for nitrogen in the soil, and how bio-accumulators could best help the soil.

I also, when I was much younger, was present for a small study being done in a local national park on water conservation methods that they speculated were used by the Anasazi. The garden plots were made on a canyon floor, in partial shade, and large river stones covered the plot, with small spaces in between for the plants to come up. I recall that the experiment worked and there was very little water used and the soil stayed damp under the rocks, but I was too young to learn too many details. However, in my area, outside of the shade, rock in sun is just so hot it fries anything non-native, and even some of the native plants, until such a time as there is at least partial shade covering them.

But all that said - I've seen some things on how things are supposed to work in deserts, but I haven't seen a whole bunch on my particular desert, and I have a feeling that the temperature, rainfall, and rates of evaporation really can make a huge difference in what works best, you know?

At this point, I have been looking at growing native large legumes and other plants to make shade (got this started in much of the yard), keeping some rock cover(not sure if I should keep small rocks, or look at possibly placing larger rocks) but allowing some spaces between for plant matter to fall from the trees and grasses naturally, and working on things from there.

I'm still really, really new at this, just looking around and reading what I can and trying to observe what happens in my yard and how things are growing, you know? So there are tons of people, I'm sure, who know much more than I do. I'm just really curious about it all.
 
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In my non-desert environment, mulching is recommended to be avoided if the plant is frost-sensitive, as it prevents the ground temperature from aiding the plant. So mulched plants get more frost damage, and recover less well.

Is that a concern in a desert environment?
 
Peter Paulson
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I stumbled across an interesting desert corn growing page the other day, which seemed right for this thread. It's a 1914 article from some journal, which compares different corn types and how they behave when buried at different depths. It'd be interesting to see later research on this topic. But in the article, if the corn kernel has one single root as most Indian varieties referred to did, then it grew better planted deeper. Multi-rooting corn kernels not so much.
 
Posts: 53
Location: Colombia
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Hi Jeff and Shauna,

I'm wondering if you could make a short video about your planting techniques. I'm really interested to try deep planting in a dry region of Central America that relies on maize and beans. This year we experienced the worst drought since 1980, and many farmers lost their crops, even though it rained 150 mm in June. Imagine what they could do with proper planting techniques!

greg
 
Posts: 8
Location: Bull Head City, Arizona
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I'm going to give some of this a try around a residence. I just moved to Bullhead City / Laughlin.

Seeds arrive on the 5th! Corn (which I'm hoping will help me branch out from shaded to unshaded areas as sun cover until I can get some shade cloth), melons, peas and broad (lima) beans, some amaranth, a desert hardy wild cherry tomato, and I'll hopefully have sprouted dates and a chayote soon.

One of the trees down the street is dropping seeds and I need to collect some as well. Wish my digital camera worked and I could photo and ID it.
 
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Hi Jeff, I am in Tucson and would like to talk about your corn in trench technique. Steve Safken
 
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Hello Steve,

I am happy to talk about this with you. It should work with any crop by the way. I proved it with sunflowers and pumpkins too.

You can email me at techjeff@hotmail.com and I can then forward the grant study I did for the Arizona Grain Research Council. And of course you are welcome to ask me anything you like.

I was working on oats and wheat too, but then the bottom of my life fell out. My eventual goal was a modern day version of the local Indians "Three Sisters" crop. They grew corn, beans and squash all together. Corn first in the spring, then as soon as it shot up a bit, beans. (Affixed nitrogen lost to the corn and grew on the corn itself.) Then pumpkins or squash later on. Pumpkins cover the area with broad leaves and wow, what a difference in water retention! My goal with the Three Sisters was to build a combine that both harvested the corn and the beans together. Separation is relatively easy due to size and density differences- I don't see why it can't be done fairly easily. In my manual experiments, the two crops lend themselves quite well to sifting methods.

I was working on tooling to make the trenches with a tractor at the end as well and will be happy to discuss with you. (It's actually quite simple and inexpensive to make.) The tooling is truly the breakthrough once the method is established of deep planting. If the deserts of the world are to bloom, automation must be employed at all three phases. (Trenching, Planting and Harvest.)

If you are interested in this only from the small farm approach, where much of the work is manual or done with small machinery, I have that part down. The techniques I developed were based around a Troy-Bilt tiller, without actually tilling the ground. Trenching is much less invasive and only disturbs the soil you are actually using. That's as compared to a full tilling method as employed by modern agriculture where an entire field is tilled fence to fence.

If anyone else wants details or to discuss, you can reply here or email me at techjeff@hotmail.com

Jeff

 
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Graham Elliott wrote:I'm going to give some of this a try around a residence. I just moved to Bullhead City / Laughlin.

Seeds arrive on the 5th! Corn (which I'm hoping will help me branch out from shaded to unshaded areas as sun cover until I can get some shade cloth), melons, peas and broad (lima) beans, some amaranth, a desert hardy wild cherry tomato, and I'll hopefully have sprouted dates and a chayote soon.

One of the trees down the street is dropping seeds and I need to collect some as well. Wish my digital camera worked and I could photo and ID it.



Graham,

How did this work for you? I know Bullhead City is BRUTAL in the summer. It makes Kingman look like a tropical paradise! Still, with the right cover crops I don't think you will need the shade cloth. All the locals told me you can't grow corn in the desert. Or if you can, it has to be constantly tended to in a green house or shade environment with constant and copious amounts of water. I bristled at that- the Indians grew it with none of that stuff in very large acreage. With adequate trenching and occasional water, I proved beyond doubt that one could grow "water hungry corn" on a large scale in the desert. I more or less just updated what the Indians already did to something that lends itself to automation. I used no shade cloth, no greenhouses and not much water. I am fairly sure that in a normal to wet year, one may have to employ no water at all. (As mentioned in previous posts, I was on my way to proving this when the economic bottom fell out of my life.)

So I am interested to hear what results you had? The biggest problem you might find is pest management, in that any green thing, if planted outside the local moisture cycle, becomes a source of water for the Kangaroo Rats and Rabbits. Work with the natural moisture cycle and you can avoid pests altogether.

Jeff
 
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Jeff Rash wrote: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


Hi there. I have just registered with you because I was researching growing corn in dry / desert environments. Is you research still available ? I would love a copy. I want to try American Indian Techniques in Australia. Cheers Robin

 
pollinator
Posts: 135
Location: Zone 7a, AZ
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Jeff, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your work.  I grew up in the lush green of coastal South Carolina, but ended up much of my life in the AZ desert.  I went from water-water everywhere to nary a drop.  I have had successful gardens in AZ (thanks to irrigation) but I've always had a 'fear' of the lack of water - until today.  

A year ago, we bought property in Paulden (we're almost neighbors).  We've been taking our time to figure out what to do with the property.  Just this morning, I was pondering the recent drought in CA, and the midwest dustbowl (of the 1940s?).  I concluded (just my random theory) that the cause of both was the farming practices that removed more moisture from the land than they retained.  Then I found your post.  It all came together (theoretically).  I can't wait to try your method.  I am SO excited.

About the three sisters plantings, I'm wondering about depth of planting as well as timing.  Were the squash and beans planted at the same depth as the corn?  Depending on the depth of planting, would it disturb the corn roots if the other two were planted later?  I'm also curious about the other plants you mentioned.  Did you plant different seeds at different depths? (e.g. corn at 12", beans at 8").  Did you use any mulch?  Also, does planting so deep change the planting date for particular plants?

Also, I picked up some dried corn on the cobs at an estate sale a couple weeks ago.  The man it had belonged to seemed to have collected it from old corn varieties.  It's not your usual yellow stuff - dark reds, light blues, and everything in between.  The cobs look different too.  They are all much smaller than yellow sweet or dent corn.  I'm hoping I have some 'old' varieties.  I'll check on the Native Seeds site and see if I can identify them.  

If you are back in Kingman by now and resuming your research, I hope you will continue to share with us here.  Thank you for this awesome work and your willingness to share.

Bonnie
 
Bonnie Kuhlman
pollinator
Posts: 135
Location: Zone 7a, AZ
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I have several ears of different varieties of corn bought from the home of the son of General George Crook.  General Crook (civil war) was well known for his explorations in AZ and his good relationships with the Native Americans; he was highly regarded by them.  I believe this corn was probably given to Gen. Crook by Native Americans and is very old.

I've tried to reach Jeff (OP) by purple moosages with no success.  If anyone here knows how to reach him, please let him know I'd like to get in touch with him.

Bonnie
 
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Just read through this topic with interest. Amazing material, thanks all, esp Jeff!


@BonnieKuhlman Jeff posted his email addy earlier in the thread --> techjeff@hotmail.com

Also found this interesting diagram and comments about three sisters method --> http://www.southwestgardenguide.com/2012/05/how-to-grow-corn.html

 
pollinator
Posts: 200
Location: Southeast Arizona, Latitude 31, Zone 8A, Cold Semi-Arid, USGS Ecoregion 79a
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Here I am, coming to this six years later, but it's great. Thank you, Jeff and others!

Coincidentally, we arrived at the same conclusions Jeff did, but separately! In 2017 I began growing the three sisters in waffle beds near Prescott (Paulden, actually, like Bonnie). It did surprisingly well, although a surprise hard frost in June killed most of the fledgling bean plants. I wanted to expand that out, but hand-digging the waffles was time and labor intensive, so my plan was to adapt that into field-length trenches just as Jeff did.

Instead, I moved to southeast Arizona, where at first it seemed even more challenging to get good yields of staple crops for self-sufficiency. We get on average about 13 inches of rain a year, mostly during monsoon with some in the winter, and have Mallet-Hooks complex soils (brown sandy loam, some of which has a low to moderate available water capacity and some of which has a very high available water capacity) in a rain shadow near the mountains. But luckily my partner is innovative, brilliant, and hard-working, not to mention stubborn and determined. He had tried for years with different methods to grow staple crops like tepary beans and amaranth here, without much to show for it, but wasn't willing to give up.

Between the two of us, then, we started digging what we've been calling sunken rows and beds (edited to add: and mulched them deeply with chop-and-drop and mesquite wood). For two years now, we've had good yields of tepary and other beans as well as squash and smaller quantities of other vegetables and herbs without a well. We use a planting stick and plant the beans deep in the side walls of the trench and the squash closer to the top. (This is to reduce damage from desert night chills settling in the bottoms of the trenches, a lesson I learned from those initial bean losses.) Our primary irrigation is monsoon floodwater that would otherwise rush down our driveway and footpaths right to our front door, surrounding our house with a rather inconvenient and destructive moat, directed instead into those planting trenches via channels and berms. One garden area also receives supplemental filtered greywater through mulch-buried dripline.

So, in other words, we've basically been using what I now discover is Jeff's combination method of Hopi deep-planting and Apache or Zuni waffling or trenching, but we've also added in earthwork-directed floodwaters in imitation of the O'odham farmers.

But! We've had bad luck with corn. Two years ago we got some to grow along with the beans and squash, but not much eared up. Yields were poor. I think we didn't plant enough in a tight enough block. Then last year, the monsoons started quite late, and we didn't think there would end up being a long enough season for the corn, so decided to save our limited seed for a more promising season. Hopefully this monsoon season will be it!

I'd love to hear from others whether our theories about block planting and a long enough growing season between monsoon start and first frost seem right because we're really hoping our lovingly-accumulated Tohono O'odham 60-Day Corn and Akimel O'odham 60-Day Corn seed yields some good nixtamalization-fodder this year! Thanks, all!

Edited to add: We'd love to add back in other grain-type crops like amaranth, quinoa, maybe millet, etc. Jeff mentioned plans to grow oats and wheat this way, I think. Have others tried growing smaller grains in trenches like this, and if so, how has it worked, both in terms of production and harvestability? (It can be a bit physically challenging to harvest all our tepary beans from our trenches, I'll say, but so far we've managed.)
 
Sy Moen
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@BethWilder thanks... very cool additional perspective!

The way I found this thread was by searching how to grow grains in the high desert. I realize that most of the anecdotes in this thread are not high desert, but it is still the best info I have seen... not to mention that Zuni, Hopi and Apache all lived in high desert. Also my soil is very much clay. heh.

I am digging a series of trenches right now to test this. I have seed for wheat in some and corn in others. I also have some spelt and will try to get some barley. I intend to plant those alone in their respective trenches, but will drop 3 to 5 seeds in each hole. In multi-seeding (eg: Gabe Brown and others), the theory is that plants with different root systems cooperate to balance water supply access from above and from below. I assume that multi-seeding all the same seed (as opposed to a variety in the same hole), will still give some of the root-system advantage as regular multi-seeding(?).

Then I am going to try another with corn, peas and pumpkins. Hopefully not too much of a bastardization of the Three Sisters idea. Time will tell.

I am indebted to the other posters in this thread. I hope I am able to repay
 
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