New Garden in the High Desert

Reader Contribution by Aaron Miller
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My wife and I took some risks moving down to Klamath Falls, Oregon, from Olympia, Washington, but no change comes with absolute certainty and thus every decision means some degree of risk. We wanted to be near the 20 acres of land we bought for our homestead last year. The first tangible piece of our dream. We came here to be away from the traffic, the noise and pollution, to get back to nature and to be together with our brother and sister-in-law to create the “it takes a village to raise a child” scene we wanted around when we begin our own family. First things first though and we needed to start somewhere, what better way than in the garden.

Planning the New Garden

In moving into my brother-in-law’s house in Klamath Falls until our home is constructed, our big dreams of big gardens needed to get reined in a bit. Not only is there lots of landscaping to do first being that most of the lot is overgrown juniper bushes, but it is a totally different climate. We went from one of the rainiest parts of the country to one in a level 3 drought. We went from sea level to 4,000 feet in elevation.

Lots of different approaches will need to be tried (and most likely failed) before we get it right. And one way to do it is to start is small. They say you can yield more from a smaller and properly managed garden than a big one that is overwhelming and mostly neglected. You can always add more growing space as time goes on.

I decided on a bed that was five feet by about eighteen feet. Big enough to grow some crops but small

enough to incorporate a hoop tunnel. In deciding whether to do raised beds or dig into the dirt, I thought about the pros and cons of both. The raised bed is good for drainage which worked great in a rainy climate, but now I’m in a drier one. On top of that the more exposed the soil is to the elements (i.e. the sides of the raised bed) the more susceptible it is to temperature changes. In high desert Klamath Falls you can go from mid-70s to below zero and back again daily. With these thoughts in mind I decided to dig into the dirt for my bed.

The Deep Bed Method

The depth of the bed is important in many ways. The closer the roots are near the surface, the more exposed to the elements they are. If you have intense heat and a dry climate, even for short periods, the top few inches of soil can be a devastatingly harsh place to live. Constantly getting dried out and over-heated followed by heavy watering can be stressful on roots. And what’s bad for the roots is bad for the plants health. Mediterranean plants are more drought tolerant after established not necessarily just because they need less water, but because their roots had had time to delve deep into the soil where water is found.

The other benefit of a ‘deep bed’, according to John Seymour in his book The Self-SufficientGardener, is that you can plant crops closer together given that the roots have more room to search for nutrients deeper in the soil rather than spreading out horizontally. The Chinese and French also learned that deep beds enabled you to grow more crops in little space which was what was needed when trying to sustain their growing population back in the nineteenth century. John Seymour had heard claims that this method consistently yielded four times the amount compared to conventional gardening and spent five weeks searching every example of it in California. He found the figure to be pretty accurate.

I didn’t follow his method exactly but I took it as inspiration. The soil I am working in is extremely hard compacted clay. I dug out 12 inches and loosened the subsoil even further. This would allow better drainage and pockets of air for soil respiration, and tunnels for soil life to crawl around in. The 12 inches I had dug out would be filled not with the big clay dirt clods, but by another practice called ‘sheet mulching’.

Building Soil on a Budget

I first heard about sheet mulching from Permaculture. This is a fast soil building method that is very forgiving and very effective though to be honest, it’s basically just composting in place. You layer soil amendments, manure or some other high nitrogen material, and bulk mulch material. Each layer you add on you soak thoroughly since decomposition needs water as well as air to get the job done. 

I wanted to incorporate a mini-hugelkultur method as well. This technique uses wood branches or brush mounded under compostable materials and finally topped off with dirt. As the wood decomposes it soaks up water like a sponge, raises soil temperature to boost plant growth and slowly releases nutrients. This practice doesn’t need much fertilizer or irrigation compared to conventional beds. I thought since I had some branches and twigs lying around the yard anyway, I’d toss them in. Never waste anything.

Given that the branches and straw I added in the bottom of the bed needed a good nitrogen layer, I added the manure down first, mixed in with some soil and bone meal for phosphorus.

I wetted this layer down sufficiently before adding about three-to-five inches of straw and wet this as well. I then added the rest of the manure and more soil followed by wetting. Next went on the last layer of straw and wetted this thoroughly. You would be surprised at how much water this method can soak up but it’s important to wet after every layer.

The soil I had dug out I used to add a top layer above the straw. Since it is mostly clay it is also rich in minerals I didn’t want to deprive my bed of. To get it down into the bed I wet it down and the minerals ‘melted’ down into the straw and manure.

By the time early spring comes around I should have plenty of compost made to add to the bed and plant my first crops.

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