Off-Grid Living

The Desert Challenge

When I was growing up in Idaho I was told that we lived in a high desert. I didn’t think that it looked much like a desert. I didn’t really understand how someplace with rivers, lakes, grassy yards and thousands of green trees could be a desert. In 2011 we moved to the mountains in Arizona. After 2 years we bought 36 acres in what was definitely a high desert. In fact we get monsoon rains here a few times a year and almost immediately after the rains fall there is very little evidence that it rained at all. The water either quickly runs right off the hard clay soil or is quickly absorbed into the dry desert sands.

Very little seems to want to grow here and what does grow is unattractive and uninviting. What grasses do grow are in clumps and are quickly consumed by the cows which are everywhere because much of the rural land (including our land) is open range. We have to put up fences to protect anything that we attempt to grown here on our homestead. In order to be effective we have not only fenced off a small portion of our land where our house it, but we have also fenced off our gardens so that if a cow makes it through the first fence they will be challenged with a second set of fences protecting our tress and gardens.

However setting the cattle problem aside, growing food in hard clay soil with very little rain fall can be a daunting task. To address this problem we have looked at methods that are currently being employed around the world. The most popular technique is to add fertility to the soil with compost. This does 2 things. First it adds nutrients to the soil. Second, it adds a cover to the ground protecting it from drying out. In this way any moisture that enters the ground is able to stay there longer and do more good.

Our challenge here then is 2 fold.
1. We want to increase fertility and functionality in our soil.
2. We want to find plants that do well in the desert. This means looking at plants that could be beneficial that might even be considered a weed. We need things that will thrive under neglect in the hot desert. This is because there may be instances when there is no water for long periods of time. During these times we want our plants to continue to be sustainable.
One such plant is the Asian Elm. This tree is hated by a lot of land owners here and is considered a weed. I look at it and think, “Wow, this tree thrives in the desert under neglect. This would make an amazing shade tree.”

In fact, this summer one of our Asian Elms went over a month without water and there was no visible stress to the tree.

Another thing to consider is that plants that say they like full sun can still suffer greatly here because full sun is about 8 hours of sun a day. However we get closer to 15 hours of sun a day during the summer. The plants that do well here say they like full sun and are planted in partial shade where they get half a day of sun. This means that the plants in my garden struggle without at least some shade. To this end we have tried to come up with some solutions that will provide partial shade in our gardens.
In one garden we have put lots of trees up. However since the trees are still small, they provide very little shade at this time. We are considering putting up shade cloth next year to see if this improves the health of our plants. We do know that our plants have done well on the side of our house that is shaded for half a day. Unfortunately our dogs won’t leave these areas alone and dig up the plants I put there. For this reason our garden fenced not only keep the cows out, but they also keep our dogs away from our gardens.