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Using my climate in my favor, instead of the opposite.  RSS feed

 
Gilbert Fritz
Posts: 1319
Location: Denver, CO
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Hello, I'm looking for advice as to how the scenario sounds, especially from folks in the Denver Metro. For those who do not live here, we have a dry climate, with most of the rain falling in March, April, and May, and with the Fall and Late winter being the driest times of year. March and April are so wet that sometimes they delay planting. We are running an acre of community farm vegetable garden/ orchard.

I'm trying to rethink how we run the farm around what our climate has to offer. For instance, compost piles don't do so well here. (Too dry) Neither do fall planted cover crops. (Cover crops can't be economically transplanted, and their broadcast seeds need lots of spray watering to keep them wet. ) I'm thinking that we will combine these two problems and come up with a solution. Instead of hauling plant debris out of the field, I think next year we will chop them down and chop them up in place, and then leave them on the surface over the winter as a mulch layer to keep the soil from eroding and keep microbes happy. The stuff would weather down over the winter, and then, toward the end of February, we would either till (though I hope to mostly eliminate tillage eventually) and plant cover crops, or plant them right through the mulch layer. That way we would benefit from the dry weather (January and February are the driest months of the year) to get the work done, but the rains and snows of March, April, and May would water the cover. (We might have to use row cover or black plastic to temporarily heat the soil in February to get the seeds in; put the plastic on, take it off and plant the seeds. In a long term sustainable future, we could char the surface trash to blacken and heat the surface. This could be done by firing the field, or by using a propane flame weeding torch. Most years the soil does not freeze hard.) Then the cover could be slashed down or shaded back and left in place as a mulch as we planted main crops in May and April. The cover crop would then stop using water as the main crop took over and the rains stopped in July and August. Of course, this all depends on finding cover crops to fit the bill. I think field peas, which fix nitrogen, oil seed radish, which loosens the subsoil, and agricultural mustard, which suppresses weeds and provides a good mulch, are all possibilities, as are a few others.

Of course, I could just haul in wood chips or straw, and I have done that to start things off. However, I don't want to be dependent on outside inputs in the long term, and also as we get larger, hauling that much mulch will become prohibitive. And it is a lot less work to plant seeds instead of hauling and spreading mulch. Not to mention the fact that chipping equipment needs oil and straw has to be bought, and that off farm inputs come with a risk of contamination. I will be using off site inputs for years to come yet, but want to minimize them.
 
Dave Dahlsrud
Posts: 507
Location: North-Central Idaho, 4100 ft elev., 24 in precip
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I think it sounds like a good idea! Mulching and composting in place with the leftover debris from the previous season just makes good sense. You could even tuck the previous year's growth underneath the mulch you have in place to kind of keep things looking neat and tidy ( a plus in an urban environment with lots of lookey-loos, etc). Minimal effort/expense, maximum return in soil fertility!
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9741
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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I don't have to deal with as much cold as you do, but it is quite dry here with high evaporation.

I think sheet composting with the debris is a good idea. Then if anything is left by spring it can be raked up and made into low heaps or even trench composted for summer crops such as squash and melons. I never make real compost heaps, I just sheet compost everything or use weeds and trimmings as mulch.

Look into the possibility of creating some buried wood beds (below ground "hugelkultur") - these have saved my garden completely. I used to not be able to keep the garden growing through the hot summer, no matter how much I watered. But now, with the garden in a more sheltered position and with buried wood beds, I can garden year-round.

Also, look into the possibility of planting nitrogen-fixing support plants around the perimeter of the garden for windbreak and for mulch materials, native leguminous shrubs such as False Indigo Bush http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=amfr

http://www.plantsofthesouthwest.com/
 
Gilbert Fritz
Posts: 1319
Location: Denver, CO
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Hello Tyler,

Good idea on the leguminous support plants. Russian Olive grows like a weed here. Of course, some people would not be happy if I planted that! There is a more mild mannered relative, Goumi, with a plus of edible fruit, that I might try. And I will look into False Indigo.

I tried to build shallow hugelkulture, and did get one 100' by 6' swath done that way with a bobcat loader, but the soil was so hard that it almost stopped the bobcat. I may very slowly put in more by hand.

Dave;

Yes, aesthetics matter here! Both the scrappy mulch and the "weedy" cover plants may be a problem that way. One thing I am doing is laying out nice tidy paths through it all and log boarders.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9741
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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If you do the buried wood beds, try to make them, if possible, good and deep (mine vary from about 18" to 24" deep) and don't build them above the surface of the surrounding soil, they should be level or slightly depressed - no raised beds! They have a tendency to sink down anyway, and then you can just add more compost or soil on top.

 
AmberLynn Gairden
Posts: 10
Location: San Luis Valley, CO zone 4, alpine desert, elevation 7500, average precip. 7.5"
greening the desert hugelkultur trees
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I know this is an old thread, but on the off chance you are still watching... Don't give up on the idea of composting in the Denver area! I used to live in Northglenn in the metro area. Our soil there was hardpack clay. It took us 5 years but we finally got decent soil, just in time to move.  We had a lovely compost pile! Because of the lack of humidity it had to stay under a tarp and was watered 3-4 times a week. It was also quite large (10'x10') for a back yard garden of 2000 square feet. I believe the size and the tarp helped it to retain the moisture level for the pile to "work". We also had great luck with using winter rye as a fall planted cover crop and buckwheat as our spring planted cover crop. We planted in 3'x6' beds (not raised) and had comfrey and red clover planted in permanent places at the end of each bed for a quick chop and drop type mulching opportunity. I hope your project is going well!
 
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