One of the first things many preppers begin with is starting a backyard garden. Those of us living in desert regions have additional challenges when beginning this task as water conservation and soil quality are serious issues in desert regions. It’s tempting and easy to become overly dependent on technology when reclaiming the landscape around you, but with patience, trial and error and a little bit of skill you can use low tech strategies to build good soil and have a productive, water friendly garden. The first two seasons of backyard gardening in the desert can be frustrating but are crucial.
Your first steps should be picking the location of your garden. If possible, have some areas in sun and other in at least partial shade. Even plants listed as preferring full sun may have trouble with the harsh glaring sun in the desert. If it isn’t possible to have partial shade, this is all right; strategic planting can help to create a partial shade environment in later seasons. You may also want to keep your garden in a part of your property where it isn’t immediately obvious. This will help with privacy and operational security (OPSEC), should your garden expand to a level that may attract attention. Our garden is between the house and the garage and only parts of it are visible from the sides where are neighbors are, but OPSEC is not our primary concern since having a garden is not unusual where we live.
Be open minded about what you will grow in your garden, particularly the first two seasons. As you improve your soil quality and modify the amount of shade available, you’ll be able to produce a wider variety food as time goes on.
Begin with raised beds. These are very easy to make, using logs or lumber, create a square or rectangle of the length you like. Frame height is a matter of preference, but from my experience, at least six inches is necessary. My frames are a foot high now, and I’m very pleased with that height. The raised bed will help to keep your precious topsoil in place and are a huge, inexpensive asset. Some people recommend lining the ground with plastic or cardboard to separate the soil you are adding from the sand beneath. From my experience, this is not necessary and, if you use plastic, may limit what you plant later on. For this reason, I simply put the frames where I want them without lining the ground beneath. It’s best to run the raised beds horizontally along any slope, rather than vertically, since this will prevent water from pooling at the base.
Once you’ve laid the frame, it’s time to look at soil. In desert environments, the soil is obviously sandy and lacks organic material. The obvious place to begin is with a compost bin or pile. Commercially available composts are often made to last, but homemade compost piles are also very easy to make. The critical issue with composting in general is that there is a mix of carbon and nitrate based material. In the desert, you may have to water your compost to keep it moist depending on your location and how you are composting. Regardless of this, home made compost will take time and most likely will not impact your soil quality the first season, but this is an excellent resource for future years and will be essential WTSHTF. I would recommend starting your compost immediately, but keep in mind that it will be a learning process.
Compost from the store is probably your best option for adding organics if you don’t want to wait for your compost to finish. Look for options that are inexpensive and organic heavy. Some commercial products contain a high amount of wood chips. In sandy soils wood chips do not break down as quickly as would happen in moister, organic rich environments, for this reason, the products that are heavy in wood chips may not be the best choice for your soil.
Once you have your compost or soil from the store, the temptation is to dump it in the raised bed with out mixing in some of the sand. Sand still does provide nutrition to plants and should be mixed in to the soil so that the soil your first season does contain these minerals. It is most practical to grow plants that have some tolerance to the region you live in and should you want to expand your garden after TEOTWAWKI you’ll need to be able to do so with minimal time spent waiting for composting to finish. This will impact the type of plants that are initially grown this first season and in new beds, but that’s fine. Many usable plants can be grown in this mixed soil.
Grow plants from seed, starting appropriate plants indoors. Growing from seed is important for practice, it is cheaper and allows you to ensure that the plants are appropriately hardened before you plant them in the garden. Plants started in the store are in a more artificial and protected environment than you will likely have in your garden and are less likely to survive.
Pick a variety of plants but focus on high quality foods and medicinal herbs. A few herbs for seasoning are nice, but you are going to spend your precious resource, water, on this garden so planting food that will nourish your family and keep your stomachs full should be the focus of your garden. Looking for plants that seem to grow well locally can be a good place to start. Tubers, tomatoes and peppers often grow well in the particular environment where my family lives, so I made sure to include these plants in my garden, but every year I try to introduce a new type of plant.
Being aware of water needs extends to the type of plants you select. To get a balanced variety of food, you’ll probably need to include plants with moderate water requirements, but plants that need constantly moist soil may not be the best choice.
A week or so before you move your plants outside to the garden, you should begin to harden the plants. In areas with harsh sun or high winds, hardening the plants will make them much more likely to survive. All that is entailed in hardening plants is leaving them outside for increasingly long amounts of time. This strengthens the stalk and leaves.
Once you’ve planted, it’s time to see what is working and what isn’t. At this point, many gardeners run soil tests to see what is needed to improve the quality of their soil. This is fine and commercial additives are available, but most likely will not be WTSHTF. For this reason, I don’t use commercial additives; I rotate what I am growing in different years, a microscopic version of traditional crop rotations. We’ve also gotten used to eating what grows well in our garden. My family believes that if we adapt to our environment now, this will pay off later.
A problem that we have is lack of shade. The first season is a great time to look at long-term strategies for shade. There are products you can buy or make to create shade, but my favorite method is to plant fruit trees or bushes to create future areas of shade in the garden. The leaves can also be used in the compost to help create better soil in the future. This way, we are getting as much benefit as possible. These trees may also help prevent topsoil loss, but in our backyard garden, the raised beds are far more effective. Once you have established areas of partial sun, the variety of plants that will grow well in your garden will be expanded.
When picking fruit trees, it’s important to look at whether or not the tree is self-germinating. In general apple and plum trees tend to require a germination partner. Look at the specific type you are planting though, because this is a general rule, not a hard and fast rule. This is not a problem, it’s just very important to ensure that you provide more than one plant if that is what you choose to use.
Water is a major issue in your garden. It might not seem like one now, but even if you have a well, it’s best to look at ways to conserve and utilize the water resources you have available. The easiest way to start is with a rainwater-collecting barrel. If you have gutters, it’s very easy to install a commercially available rain barrel or make your own. This is not a sufficient water supply for your family should there be a crunch and you can’t consider this water to be potable without filtration or treatment, but it is a good step for your first season. Eventually, especially if you have the space and are living at your retreat, you may want to look at creating a more expansive system.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to supplement with foods that grow outside your garden. We have a small acreage where cacti flourish. Prickly pear cacti actually produce quite a bit of usable food. The pads, called nopales, can be harvested and the spines stripped with a knife. Harvest the youngest pads, particularly in springtime or early summer and cut them up after stripping the spines. Boil the chunks (called nopalitos) for about ten minutes and drain the water. Grocery stores in parts of the southwest sell nopales, so you can try it already de-spined before you go through the effort of harvesting them yourself. Nopales are a great source of fiber, vitamin C and may help regulate blood sugar. Some people eat nopales raw, but I find the sticky texture very unappealing, which is why I recommend boiling them first. After boiling and draining the water, they taste a little bit like green beans. Though we aren’t from this region originally they’ve become a mainstay in my family’s diet. Prickly pear also produce an edible fruit that is high in vitamin C and tastes a little bit like kiwi. It’s always easiest to use what is readily available and requires no sweat equity or additional watering on your part.