Letter Re: If Life Gives You Tomatoes, Make Salsa!

Dear James,
Thank you to S.M. for the great article about gardening in the desert southwest (If Life Gives You Tomatoes, Make Salsa!). I’ve spent most of my years in the desert southwest near the metros of Tucson, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque and have grown gardens in these regions for the past decade. In 2010 a similar article was published in SurvivalBlog titled Starting Your Desert Backyard Garden. I was one of several readers that submitted some helpful comments and tips on that article.

This is my fourth season growing in the high desert of Northern New Mexico. I’m at around 5,000 feet elevation and the growing season is rather short, as compared to my experience in the Southern Arizona area. Last frost is usually mid-May and first frost early-October. I now start a number of plants indoors in trays beginning in late February for later transplanting. As S.M. mentioned, I too was growing year-round in the Tucson area, without cold frames or any frost protection even though there are some cold winter nights it’s usually not enough to kill hardy plants like broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc. I never grew indoor starts because it wasn’t necessary.

The growing season of 2013 is a first for me because it’s the first time ever I have attempted row crops rather than raised beds. The results have been disappointing so far. Last fall I relocated to a more agricultural area that is about 1 mile from the Rio Grande River and has historically been farmed for hundreds of years. I live on a property with horses (lots of manure!) and I can hear cows and pheasants not far away. All around me are fields of crops, mostly alfalfa for livestock, but also smaller family farms. Driving or walking by neighboring properties and you will see many have at least a small garden of some kind. This area is very Hispanic, if that has any bearing on anything. My new home has enough yard space that raised beds seemed impractical for our goals and would make watering more difficult, so we prepared the space for row crops and flood irrigation from the river ditch bank.

[JWR Adds: I recommend using cow manure rather than horse manure, for garden fertilizing, eve if that means hauling it. Because cows completely digest grass and hay, any contained seeds are not viable by the time that the Schumer hits the ground. Not so for horses, which have more rudimentary digestion, and that means lots of weeds!]

Over the winter we removed what we could of the weed growth (bindweed), hauled in a bunch of dry manure, and tilled it all in with a tractor plow. Covered some areas with black plastic (this had no effect on the bindweed whatsoever). A few weeks before last frost we mapped out the growing areas and formed rows & furrows by hand. Our main space is about 1,200 sq. ft. and we have some satellite garden beds elsewhere on the property.

As spring approached, so did the weeds. The surrounding cottonwood trees dumped their fluff everywhere, it looked like snow and little seedlings popped up along with the awful Chinese elm which has infested this region. We tried out a test garden in early March by plotting out a small section of the yard and sowed some cool weather plants: snow peas, spring onion, chard, spinach. Things sprouted and grew, to a degree, but overall was disappointing…I think we got maybe 10 snow peas and a few spinach leaves out of the whole deal.

Moving on to late May, most of our indoor starts were transplanted along with random plants from local nurseries (who have the capability to start early under controlled greenhouse conditions). We also started sowing seeds into the ground at this time. About a week after we did this there was a frost warning so we frantically covered the “best” plants with our limited collection of 5 gallon buckets, but everything seemed to survive despite the frost. I even covered my one raised bed of potatoes with a sheet and everything survived. We’ve sowed or transplanted a variety of edibles: chile, tomato, potato, swiss chard, several types of onion, peanuts, carrots, herbs, cucumber, squash, beans, corn.

Fast forward to today, end of July. We are pretty disappointed with current yields. Despite weekly floodings and massive rainfall we got about two weeks ago (the one and only heavy rain we’ve gotten all season), growth is slow. Water is always a huge issue in the desert southwest and growers in this area depend on the Rio or well water. That will not always be the case as the Rio has nearly run dry over the past few weeks. All the upstream reservoirs were depleted and irrigation ditches were empty. The rain saved us along with thousands of other growers along the river…for now. A few tomatoes here and there, a few handfuls of chiles, corn is growing but is small, squash has no growth at all, onions are wispy and stunted, etc. Half of my potato plants have died – too hot. At this time last year we were already overloaded with tomatoes & cucumbers (in raised beds). Now, this is just my experience because I frequent the local growers’ markets and I see impressive yields of onions, chiles, squash, and garlic…from growers who are all in my immediate area. I’m just sharing our personal experience on a patch of land that hasn’t been farmed for several years. We are considering having the soil tested as we suspect it’s an issue. It seems to be semi-sandy and semi-clayey and packs pretty hard in the furrows where we walk. I have dealt with clay and caliche in the past which is why I’ve always used raised beds. Plants just won’t grow if there’s too much clay and hard material.

We have been plagued by pests, something I haven’t dealt with much in the past in warmer climates. The first blast were aphids, which destroyed our peach tree, followed by hornworms on the tomato & chile plants (easy to get rid of but so disgusting, we toss them over the fence to the chickens). About two weeks ago we discovered a new invasion: bagworm. They enclose themselves into a bag made of foliage, hence the name, so they blend in but they hang from and eat nearly every plant we have growing. You have to pluck them off and toss them over the fence for the chickens. It’s a daily battle to look overhead and see hundreds of them hanging from the trees around our garden, then look down and see a carpet of worm poop on the ground falling from above. Not much we can do other than a daily culling once they reach our plants. Grasshoppers are also doing some damage.

We do not want to introduce chemical pesticides into the garden and have tried natural killers like neem and diatomaceous earth, with mixed results. Last year I had an infestation of squash bugs and nothing resolved it until I finally slashed & burned the entire squash patch. This year I’m trying a squash patch far from the main garden, so far no squash bugs but also no squash.

Some things we want to try for next year’s growing season and some random tips:
• Introduce more soil amendments into the garden: compost, leaves, coconut coir. Till well with a gas-powered hand tiller, not tractor.
• Build some raised beds for comparison purposes. I build raised beds out of pallets. Hard to work with, but free for the taking. Raised beds don’t have to cost money.
• Try drip irrigation rather than flooding. Water is so precious here. We want to look into filling some 55 gallon barrels with water, then running drip lines along the rows. If we elevate the barrel a couple feet will there be enough pressure for drip flow?
• Try plastic row covers: one, to extend the growing season and two, to help block weed growth around plants. We spend too many hours every week just pulling weeds.
• We want to get or make a small greenhouse to start seedlings in and to grow some plants all winter (spinach, kale, etc). Two winters ago I built a mini-greenhouse on a raised bed surrounded by hay bales and was growing lettuce and bok choy in February, with snow on the ground.
• There’s a landscaping company here that collects food waste from a local market and composts it. Every spring they have a free compost giveaway, up to half a truckload allowed. I show up with a shovel and some buckets and load up, it’s good stuff! Last year I offered a donation and they refused. Some cities also give away free compost (I know Albuquerque and Las Cruces do) but I’ve never tried it. I’ve had some people tell me it’s full of cactus thorns and chunks of wood so I haven’t bothered with it. Las Cruces also composts human waste and gives it away: I spoke with a nursery owner who tried it and said they didn’t like it. That’s not something I really want to try, either.
• Make friends with and support your local growers’ markets. We signed up for one this year but now it’s nearly August and we still don’t have enough produce for ourselves, let alone to sell. Nevertheless, the market is a great place to see what other growers are doing, problems they encounter, and what works/what doesn’t. Most of the growers I’ve met love to talk about their gardens. Support your local growers by buying their stuff. You may pay a bit more than you would at a store, but you get what you pay for…
• Used plastic 5 gallon buckets make fine growing containers. We found a local restaurant chain that dumps dozens and dozens of these into the dumpster every day. This system is so wasteful. Punch some holes in the bottom, fill with good soil, and start growing. Chiles and small tomatoes do well in the buckets. We’ve also though about using them to help keep a greenhouse warm: spray paint black, fill with water, and stack them in the greenhouse.
• I read about growing plants in burlap sacks. I bought some (they are cheap) and haven’t had good luck so far. I have potatoes in two of the sacks but they just aren’t growing much. I think the sacks dry out too quickly here.
• S.M. is lucky to have gotten a free compost bin from her city. When I lived in the Tucson area I didn’t even have a bin, just a pile on the ground that I mixed up once a week. It’s so hot there that I was getting good compost within 2-3 weeks. Last year I made a compost bin out of pallets and chicken wire, it worked fine. I keep a couple of those big Folger’s coffee cans near my kitchen sink to dump food scraps in. You could also put a 3-5 gallon plastic bucket with lid under your sink, just dump it every few days because it can get kind of gross.
• Try to buy “good” organic seed. In Tucson there’s a place called Native Seed Search that specializes in heirloom, indigenous seed for plant species that do better in the desert. In Albuquerque I buy seed at Plants of the Southwest; they have a huge selection and are very generous with the seed packets. I just looked at their web site yesterday to see if they sell amaranth and they carry 3 varieties of it, 1000 seeds per packet for $2.75. I also save my own seeds every year. I have enough saved seeds that I really don’t need to buy any at all, but I have a bit of a ‘seed fetish’ and end up buying a bunch every spring just to try different things. It’s so dry here I don’t fuss much with seed storage: I store them in small envelopes in a plastic container. Most seeds don’t stay viable for more than a few years, but I had butternut squash seed saved from 2008 that sprouted this year so you never know unless you try.
• We want to get our own chickens. I read about a setup on Mother Earth News of enclosing the entire garden with a chicken run as it really helps with controlling pests. That would be an investment and would require several big rolls of chicken wire. Maybe next year.

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