A garden in progress

I’m gradually altering my yard to become a permaculture garden. The woman who lived here before me grew purely ornamental plants, especially bulbs. The garden beds had been neglected for years.

I just discovered “waste” rock left over from the beds and main pathway buried around a large pine tree in the northwest corner of my yard. I have used much of it to build up the pictured raised bed and north garden walkway. I now need to fill the garden bed with soil that I will collect from burying the pathway rocks and bed edging rocks.

I plan to plant summer and winter squash and pickling and lemon cucumbers in this bed. It gets early morning sun and stays sunny until mid-afternoon.

I’m very much into repurposing things. Staying at home because of Covid-19 makes repurposing absolutely necessary. I will never be bored!

We’ve started a new garden plot at the neighborhood community garden

LynnAnnRose and I have a plot at our neighborhood community garden. After removing the drip irrigation tubing and raking back last year’s straw mulch, we prepared the soil and planted some pre-sprouted sugar snap peas and radishes so far. The soil is sandy, in contrast to the compacted, silty soil in Flagstaff; it required very little loosening. We had to buy some compost to spread on top since we don’t have our own compost bin yet. Compost works to improve all types of soil. We added plenty of new straw mulch on top to prevent soil water evaporation. The tomato cages on top are preventing the mulch from blowing away.

We bought the pea and radish seeds and other heirloom seeds from Native Seed/SEARCH, including one of LynnAnnRose’s favorite foods, Chimayo chiles. Chimayo is a small village not far from Santa Fe. The chiles have been grown for centuries by Hispanic farmers in the region. We also have some purchased seedlings of vegetables and herbs that will be planted mostly in out back and front yards. We plan to save the seeds from the open-pollinated varieties.

Native Seed/SEARCH is a regional seed bank for Native American and Southwest Hispanic seed varieties. Limited quantities of these seeds are available for purchase.

Mid-fall gardening

Mulch is happening. My leafy greens bed has been doing quite well with cold-tolerant species like self-seeded arugula, dandelions, and orach, a perennial related to spinach. The cold season herbs are still leafy, too. The Chinese garlic chives are self-seeding around the apple trees. The weather is supposed to turn colder this week. And we are supposed to have our first hard freeze tonight in Flagstaff, Arizona. I expect the perennial greens and herbs will go dormant.


Fall compost applications to my garden beds

Dan sifted 18 gallons of compost at Juniper Street community garden. We deposit all of our food scraps at this community composting site. Dan has done a lot of work to maintain and improve the compost bins and turn the compost over the years. See what this dark, rich compost with composting worms looked like back in June before the monsoon rains sped up decomposition.

I spread the compost on my two apple tree beds, container gardening beds around the outside of the house, and the container beds on our balconies. I first raked back existing mulch, spread the compost, then replaced the mulch. When the apple trees’ leaves fall in a month or so, they will create a natural mulch topping for the two miniature forest gardens.

Topsoil builds slowly, more slowly in semi-arid climates than in humid temperate climates (I’m talking decades and centuries). Stable humus-rich topsoil lasts for centuries if cared for properly. The soil microbiome needs plenty of freshly-deposited organic matter on the surface for food and to create a spongy mulch layer. Fertilize from the top down, as happens in wild ecosystems. Plant trees and other perennials to create stable microclimates that protect soil.

Focus your soil-improvement labor, time and money on beds for intensive annual vegetable and herb growing and on tree planting sites if your yard is not very large. Apply compost in the fall at a minimum of a half-inch thick layer. Add two to three inches if you have enough to go around. The compost can be half-finished. Add more, optionally, in the spring; spring compost must be fully finished. If you are using the cool compost method, you can build a frame with a wire-mesh bottom (quarter-inch holes) for sifting out un-composted material. Hardware stores sell mesh with quarter-inch or half-inch spacing, depending on how fine you like your finished soil.

Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains 4th Edition Book Cover Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A Guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens


How the Ancestral Puebloans in northern Arizona benefited from volcanic cinder mulch

Dan’s father, and his father’s wife, came to visit. We took them on a tour of Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments, which are right next to one another northeast of Flagstaff.

We stopped at Wukoki Ruin, my favorite pueblo in Wupatki National Monument. You can see a light dusting of volcanic cinders around the ruin from Sunset Crater. The cinders used to be deeper in this area but have eroded away over the last 1000 years.

Sunset Crater, today a 1000-foot-high cinder cone, probably erupted in the 1080s. We walked up to the Bonito Lava Flow, which erupted from the base of the cinder cone. I told them to smell the ponderosa pine bark, which smells like butterscotch, and Dan’s father decided to become a tree hugger.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

A thick layer of ash and cinders piled up for miles around Sunset Crater. The Ancestral Puebloans, which here included the ancestors of some Hopi clans, called the Sinagua by archeologists, noticed that native plants grew bigger and faster in areas with roughly one to four inches of cinders (deeper cinder deposits inhibit plant growth). Farmers planted in the cinder mulch. Warm season crops like corn, beans and squash benefited from the heat-retaining cinders and extra soil moisture.

The Sinagua had previously lived in small clusters of pit houses. After the eruptions began, they built pueblos from rocks and mud plaster. At its peak, the biggest pueblo in the area, Wupatki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument, had 100 rooms and was three stories high. It housed as many as 100 or more people. The pueblo was inhabited for 150 years, until the Great Drought of the late 1200s.


Keeping plants watered in a dry climate

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

These two photos are a study in contrasts:

The first photo is my home rhubarb bed. It is a self-watering bed that I also water from the top. Rhubarb is a Siberian native that prefers cool air and soil temperatures and needs some shading in very sunny or arid climates. At my 7,000 foot elevation the sunlight is especially strong, with more  ultraviolet wavelengths reaching the ground than in lower elevation and humid climates. The poplar trees shade the bed for much of the day in the western-facing site that would otherwise be very hot, sunny and dry at this time of year (spring is a dry season in the arid and semi-arid Southwest USA).

The second photo is my old rhubarb bed at Juniper Street Community Garden, now gardened by someone else. As you can see, the plants are going to seed. When rhubarb plants have reached five to eight years old, they need to be divided or they will go to seed. In this case, a strong contributing factor is that the plants look seriously underwatered; the leaves are small and tough-looking, rather than large and tender like the ones in my home rhubarb bed. Because rhubarb is a cool season plant, warm weather and not enough water will force the plants into setting seed because they think they might die.

My advice to this unknown gardener is to divide the crowns, cut off the flowering stalks, and keep the plants well-watered. The community garden needs more shade and wind protection as well (one of the reasons I no longer garden there; the church that owns the land is not open to permaculture site modification for better growing conditions).

Vegetables need the equivalent of one inch of water across the garden bed each week. This quantity doesn’t include water wasted through evaporation and transpiration from leaves. The amount of water needed varies according to the characteristics of the soil, use of mulch (if you live in an arid or semi-arid climate, use it liberally), shade, wind breaks, and the garden’s aspect—the direction it faces (north, south, east, west), as well as a few other factors. For example, soil high in organic matter holds much more moisture than poorer soil.

Raised beds versus sunken beds

These are my two self-watering raised beds on the western side of my house. They are partially shaded in summer by the poplar trees that help cool the house. I use these beds to grow cool season crops (leafy greens, rhubarb, etc.) that wither in too much Arizona heat and sunlight. I live in a neighborhood with a Homeowners’ Association. The HOA board had to approve of my beds, which are in the common area owned by everyone in the townhome complex, so I chose these beds made of recycled plastic to blend into the color scheme. The hoses distribute both greywater and roofwater to the poplar trees. The beds are surrounded by barberry shrubs (Oregon grape).

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

Raised beds are a traditional annual gardening method. Permaculture rainwater harvesting enthusiasts prefer sunken rain gardens with their surfaces below the ground surface. Swales have both a raised berm and a sunken water catchment area. Neither raised nor sunken beds are “better” than the other. The choice depends on what you want to grow, where, and when, as well as other concerns like physical ability. The two types of beds create different microclimates. In temperate climates the following points hold true:

Raised beds & berm tops       Sunken beds, swales, waffle gardens
Warm up faster in spring       Warm up slower in spring
Hotter during the summer     Cooler during the summer
Warm season crops                  Cool season crops during the summer
Stay warmer into the fall        Cool down faster in the fall
Raise plants above cold air     Cool air flows into sunken beds at night
Less frost exposure                  Plants are more susceptible to frost
More evapotranspiration        Conserve moisture in soil and leaves
Soil drains faster                       Soil drains more slowly
Require extra irrigation           Collect rainwater runoff passively

Raised beds also:

  • make it easier for handicapped people to garden.
  • can be built easily atop bedrock or hardpan soils or existing lawns.