Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Planting my spring garden in my desert food forest

There are numerous humorous memes about gardeners' addiction to buying too many plants. I get it. I did some of my own shopping at the recent Organic Gardeners Spring Plant Sale. I got some Jerusalem artichoke, cherry tomato, oregano, peppermint and mint starts and a free succulent clipping. 

My first task was figuring out a place to plant them that would give them the best chance to thrive. The woman who sold me the Jerusalem artichokes suggested that they could go in the same spot where I had previously planted sunflowers - on the south side of the house. There was still some compost left in the ground so I just added rainwater and a little potting soil that Dan had left over from an experiment. I sprinkled some used tea leaves on top as mulch. I went ahead and planted one of the tomato plants next to them to take advantage of the sun on the south facing wall.  

I was a little worried about critters getting to them. This little guy was watching me the whole time.

I remembered how the squirrels had dug up the sweet potatoes I planted in the garden. And Jerusalem artichoke roots are yummy, too. So I put protective cages over them. Good thing too. The next day I caught a squirrel pouncing on it. I think the squirrel and lizard were in cahoots because the squirrel loosened the dirt built up around the bottom of the cage allowing the lizard to get in. So I fortified the bottom of the cage with gravel.

Jerusalem artichoke plants after 8 days 
I found some purslane (my favorite edible weed) along the street and planted it just outside the cage to take advantage of any water run off.  In just two days it grew tiny yellow flowers.  I'm hoping it will spread its seeds. 

I hand-watered with rainwater from our cisterns every few hours to keep the soil moist. I suppose it would have been easier to have a string of ollas or a soaker hose. But this method gives me a chance to stretch my legs, get some fresh air and enjoy watching my plants grow. I like to use a watering can because the light stream prevents erosion of the soil I lovingly built. And hand-watering really teaches you that every drop counts.   

Next, I searched for a place for the other tomato plants. I found a spot with a dead milkweed by a boulder in the front yard.  I pulled it out by the roots. The soil was rich where the roots had been, so I just had to add water. An organic gardener suggested that I pull off the bottom leaves and plant them up to their top leaves to stimulate more root growth for a stronger plant. 

I had a little experiment in mind for the third tomato plant. I wanted to see how it would do as part of a mesquite guild - hoping it would benefit from the nitrogen in the ground. 

I planted the last tomato start in the backyard garden to see how it does in the shade of a palo verde in a thin blanket of compost.

I decided to plant some basil seeds next to it as complimentary plants. They share the water too. This time, I put the cage down first as a guide to see where the seeds should go. 

I secured the sides of the cage by patting down mud around the edges of the cage and placing rocks in the corners. Good thing too!  A squirrel ran right into it twice trying to escape from me.

I also planted some chard and kale seeds in other rows that I had already enriched with compost. Luckily one of our cisterns is near the garden. But it was running out of water! I'm afraid I hadn't thought through how much more water all this would take. 

And I still had to plant the oregano and mint! At least I had an olla to save water on two of the peppermint plants. The water seeps through the terra cotta pots and plants wrap their roots around the pot only taking the water they need. 

But there were still my other plants to water as well.  Our curry, which had grown so full after the monsoon rain, was now struggling.  First, it lost some leaves during the cold snap. Some of the remaining leaves are now browning. I think it was because I was only watering the surface.  

So I decided to deep water it (less often) with a slow drip from two little holes in the 5 gallon bucket.

It's important to learn how much water your plants need in the different seasons - so you don't overwater them. If the plant dies prematurely all the water that went into it is wasted. I recently found out that herbs don't need to be watered very often. I may have lost some herbs from over-watering. 

Luckily it recently rained filling up our big cistern, medium cistern and two smaller water barrels. I just wish we had another cistern (or two) to get us through the dry spells this spring. Because we have already emptied the two smaller blue water barrels and most of the medium cistern. We try not to use too much city water since Arizona is suffering from a 27+ year drought and Lake Mead (where we store our CAP water) is drying up. Conserving water in our landscaping can really make a difference since the largest use of potable water in Arizona is landscaping and as much as 70 percent of residential water use is outdoors. 

Dan and I are fortunate to a have greywater system so we can reuse our washing machine water to help irrigate our drought tolerant fig and pomegranate trees. We carry out sink rinse water to our Mexican Honeysuckle. We pour the water from steaming our veggies and cooking spaghetti around our trees to nourish the soil. (I leave the salt out of the water.) 

I think the lesson for me is to factor in how much water we can get in our cisterns, water barrels and greywater systems (with some supplemental city water) and grow the amount of plants that fit that budget. No matter how fun my little experiments are...

Here is Watershed Management Group's water budget calculator - if you want to check out how much rainwater and greywater you can get in your home. Have fun!