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Thoughts on nitrogen fixing trees for the desert  RSS feed

 
pollinator
Posts: 596
Location: Southern Arizona. Zone 8b
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I'm trying to figure out what the best course of action for nitrogen fixing in my budding food forest.  I've tried clover, but that doesn't survive here without supplemental watering which I'm trying to avoid as much as possible.  I've recently been looking into nitrogen fixing trees/bushes.  I know a lot of folks recommend using local nitrogen fixers, however the only local tree here is Mesquite, which doesn't play well with other plants.  I'd considered Black Locust and/or Russian Olive, but I see that a lot of people have had bad experiences with them being invasive/spreading.

Currently I'm thinking of Acacia trees, specifically Acacia seyal (excellent nitrogen fixer) and Acacia senegal which can produce gum arabic.  Seyal also produces something similar to gum arabic which can be used for inks, paints, etc.  Both can also produce fodder for livestock and to some extent people.  However, they might not survive the occasional sub-freezing temps here.

Any thoughts, or suggested alternatives?

FWIW Where I live we get about 16 inches of rain per year, with most of that falling between July and September. Temperatures here are mild (for Arizona), rarely getting over 100 degrees F and rarely falling below 20F during the winter.  Average highs during the summer are around 90F, and during the winter the average lows are just above freezing, typically warming up into the 50s during the day.
 
Posts: 122
Location: Denton, TX United States Zone 8a
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Howdy Peter! A quick USDA PLANTS database search for trees in the family Fabaceae that grow in Arizona returned this list:
                   
Albizia julibrissin
Caesalpinia gilliesii
Caesalpinia mexicana
Caesalpinia pulcherrima
Ceratonia siliqua
Cercis orbiculata
Erythrina flabelliformis
Eysenhardtia orthocarpa
Gleditsia triacanthos
Leucaena leucocephala
Leucaena leucocephala ssp. glabrata
Lysiloma watsonii
Mimosa aculeaticarpa
Mimosa aculeaticarpa var. biuncifera
Olneya tesota
Paraserianthes lophantha
Parkinsonia aculeata
Parkinsonia florida
Parkinsonia microphylla
Prosopis farcta
Prosopis glandulosa
Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana
Prosopis pubescens
Prosopis velutina
Psorothamnus spinosus
Robinia neomexicana
Robinia neomexicana var. neomexicana
Robinia neomexicana var. rusbyi
Robinia pseudoacacia
Senna hirsuta
Senna pendula
Senna pendula var. glabrata

Not sure about everything on the list, but the Leucaenas, Mimosas, Mesquites and Locusts should all definitely fix nitrogen, particularly if they're inoculated.
 
Posts: 17
Location: Colorado Frontrange
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Here's a paper on trees for New Mexico that might be helpful:
http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H426.pdf
 
Posts: 69
Location: Zone 4B, Maine, USA
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Peter VanDerWal wrote:I'm trying to figure out what the best course of action for nitrogen fixing in my budding food forest.  I've tried clover, but that doesn't survive here without supplemental watering which I'm trying to avoid as much as possible.  I've recently been looking into nitrogen fixing trees/bushes.  I know a lot of folks recommend using local nitrogen fixers, however the only local tree here is Mesquite, which doesn't play well with other plants.  I'd considered Black Locust and/or Russian Olive, but I see that a lot of people have had bad experiences with them being invasive/spreading.

Currently I'm thinking of Acacia trees, specifically Acacia seyal (excellent nitrogen fixer) and Acacia senegal which can produce gum arabic.  Seyal also produces something similar to gum arabic which can be used for inks, paints, etc.  Both can also produce fodder for livestock and to some extent people.  However, they might not survive the occasional sub-freezing temps here.

Any thoughts, or suggested alternatives?

FWIW Where I live we get about 16 inches of rain per year, with most of that falling between July and September. Temperatures here are mild (for Arizona), rarely getting over 100 degrees F and rarely falling below 20F during the winter.  Average highs during the summer are around 90F, and during the winter the average lows are just above freezing, typically warming up into the 50s during the day.



I live in USDA Zone 4B so acacia (specifically Australian black wattle is what I wanted) is not an option for me. I settled on black locust as the nursery tree in my "natural orchard." The do spread by basal shoots (root suckers), so you do have to watch out for that and keep them mowed. The seed pods might need to be raked up each year, too, unless you want just mow seedlings every spring. Also all parts of black locust are toxic to chickens, so I'll be eliminating suckers and seed pods prior to anytime I let my chickens run around in there.

Black locust do NOT like shade and I'm surrounded by forest. So in planting them in the middle of my cleared land I can mange the root suckers/seedlings in that cleared area. If they spread into the forest, they'll never get established there. The upsides of black locust (N-fixing, very fast growing, likes full sun, drought tolerant, casts only light shade, great lumber, great firewood) far outweigh the drawbacks - but that's just my opinion. I am planning on harvesting the trees for lumber and firewood, BTW. Oh yes! Ask your extension office about the locust borer. Where I'm at woodpeckers are the only predator for the borer, so my trees will be vulnerable to that. One more thing to look out for...  

I also settled on silverberry and Siberia peashrub as N-fixing shrubs in the orchard. Delicious, nutritious food, super fast growing, etc. They are good in sun and shade... they do well in heat, in cold and in drought. Ask me in 3-5 years how well they worked out

Good luck and have fun!  
 
Posts: 466
Location: Northern Maine, USA (zone 3b-4a)
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i have northern buffalo berry and goumi and seaberry. all are drought tolerant nitrogen fixers. the buffalo berry is native to the west and has a variety that grows down your way. i was down to Yuma last week and there isn't much growing away from the colorado.
 
Posts: 139
Location: Sunizona Az., USA @ 4,500' Zone 8a
4
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I have Caesalpinia Gilliesii, Autumn Olive, and just ordered Lead Plant seeds. Lead Plant looks like a fascinating option for me in 8A.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1793
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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I can't be sure about Russian olive, but my autumn Olive haven't spread at all. I wish they would.  The only plant I have that spreads to the point it could be a problem is seaberry.
 
Wayne Mackenzie
Posts: 139
Location: Sunizona Az., USA @ 4,500' Zone 8a
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I forgot about my thornless Honey Locusts. I’m confused about their status as far as N. Fixers, but what the heck.
 
steve bossie
Posts: 466
Location: Northern Maine, USA (zone 3b-4a)
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Todd Parr wrote:I can't be sure about Russian olive, but my autumn Olive haven't spread at all. I wish they would.  The only plant I have that spreads to the point it could be a problem is seaberry.

seaberry is shade intolerant so not a issue with invasiveness. its been studied thoroghly.
 
gardener
Posts: 208
Location: Morongo Valley
75
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This is a very interesting PDF talking about nitrogen fixers, by the Sustainable Ag Research and Education organization.  

It contains a really nice chart that shows secondary uses of nitrogen fixers.  Includes organic matter, fodder, food, timber, live fence, fuel wood, shade, ornament, windbreak, salt tolerant, dry/drought tolerant, poor drainage, acid, alkaline, and height.

Nitrogen Fixers Guide including use chart

 
pollinator
Posts: 250
Location: Ashhurst New Zealand
44
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Peter, I'm originally from that area and in my experience mesquites are a good thing to have around. However, my situation was urban (central Tucson) and what I had growing in close proximity to my three big velvet mesquites were mostly cacti, fruit trees including citrus and figs, and various food plants in containers like chiles, eggplants, tomatoes, lemon grass and some other herbs. Oh, and chickens (one tree was the shade giver for the poultry run). What I found was that container plants that got heat or water stressed in full sun in the summer would do much better under the dappled shade of the mesquites. The leaf litter would get blown or washed into the low spots in my yard, which were the tree basins for the citrus and other fruit trees. This gave them a nitrogen boost. The beans would drop in the first part of the monsoon season and I'd toss them in the chicken pen as free high-quality feed.

I'm guessing you're up a bit higher and farther from the city, so you probably can't grow Prosopis velutina successfully...P. juliflora is likely to be your only hardy species and I don't think it gets as big, but should fill a niche if you're willing to manage it a bit with pruning. Don't get one of the Chilean or Argentine varieties, as those really did seem to show lots of allelopathy and cast too much shade to allow a healthy understory.  Silk tree (Albizzia) might work for you, and honey locust is tough enough to make it in places like Patagonia and Bisbee with maybe some water in May-June while it's getting established. Redbud is native to the lower elevations of the Grand Canyon and I had a small one growing as an ornamental.

What about Siberian peashrub? How well does that handle semidesert conditions? I see a couple others have mentioned seaberry, and that is tough as an old boot. You could also look into lupines, vetches (locoweed is a great one) and sennas. The native catclaws are pretty awesome and all over the middle elevations of the borderlands, but those thorns would be a deal breaker in close quarters. That could be an issue with locust as well.
 
pollinator
Posts: 516
Location: 6a
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I lived in Phoenix and this is what worked for me.   Acacias are a  no-brainer. I have read that they aren't great nitrogen fixers but they are fantastic shade trees, create biomass and are a great way to create shade zones for the more tender nitrogen fixers.  

Mesquite is supposed to be a good nitrogen fixer and they do well in the climate.

Another, slow growing, tree you could use is Olive.

I planted six Spanish Arbequena olive trees in direct sunlight, watered them in the first year and then did nothing.  They grew well and produced fruit, they are semi evergreen and just a beautiful tree.    I also planted some Italian varieties of Olive but I don't remember the names.  I imagine that some of the olives grown in the southern parts of Italy, Sicily and Greece would do well.  Bird of paradise,
 
Todd Parr
pollinator
Posts: 1793
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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steve bossie wrote:

Todd Parr wrote:I can't be sure about Russian olive, but my autumn Olive haven't spread at all. I wish they would.  The only plant I have that spreads to the point it could be a problem is seaberry.

seaberry is shade intolerant so not a issue with invasiveness. its been studied thoroghly.



When you have some extra time, please explain that to my seaberry plants. It seems they haven't read the studies.
 
Posts: 89
Location: Sonoran Desert, USA
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From what I understand, you're in Arizona, yes? There's actually a huge number of local nitrogen fixing plants that could be of use, hopefully. While some of the trees, like mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde, fix nitrogen, as you noted, they sometimes don't play well with others.

However, there are some great perennial small bushes and even some annuals that are quite nice.
from the Fabaceae family (legume family)
1. the Caesalpinia sub-family - while palo verde is here, so is the Mexican Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), and the little cassias (cassia covesii).  The latter is listed as a mild medicinal in herbal literature.
2. the Mimosa sub family - this one has the mesquite and acacia, but it also has fairy dusters, which are pretty little bushes with pink fluffy flowers that'll fix a little nitrogen for you.
3. the Papilionoideae (pea) sub family - while this is the subfamily ironwood is under, there are also quite a variety of native lupines that are here, as well (seeds are for sale in many desert nurseries)  They tend to reseed fairly easily, and have lovely purple/blue flowers. Dalea make small bushes with lovely purple flowers. There are also some local clovers here that might do well, if you can collect some seed or find a local nursery that sells them. There is Desert Rockpea, and a couple Deervetch as well, although I haven't found the latter two for sale anywhere (this link lists some of them - http://www.arizonensis.org/sonoran/fieldguide/plantae/papilionoideae_p2.html )

 
Phil Stevens
pollinator
Posts: 250
Location: Ashhurst New Zealand
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@Shauna - the Dalea tip is a great one...I had almost forgotten about those. Much nicer than Mimosa. (Whoever named it fairy duster had a twisted mind. Ankle slasher, sock shredder, pant ripper, bloodthirsty demon hell spawn are a few names that come to mind. Since it grows in association with shindagger I have a hard time deciding which one is worse. Probably shindagger, since those tips can break off under your skin.) :-(

Lysiloma is another really nice leguminous subtree from that region, but I think it's less frost hardy and might be difficult to establish. It is listed on a couple of plant sites as being tolerant down to 20F, but that may only be mature trees.

Sophora is great genus of legumes and the mescal bean (S. secundiflora) is hardy down to 0F. They grow reasonably fast and have a nice compact form.
 
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