Many of the projects we work on here at Sabbatical Ranch are experimental as a demonstration site for the benefit of everyone. We've been developing a variety of experimental gardens in the last month or so and I suppose it's about time I report on them. Here's the list so far:
Courtyard food forest
And there are more in the works!
Why so many gardens? We want to grow our own food - enough to feed ourselves, guests, and chickens a well-balanced diet and maybe have extra to share or contribute to the local food economy. We don't expect to become entirely self-sufficient. That doesn't seem practical or even prudent to attempt in an advanced economy. But the healthiest food is chemical-free, nutrient-dense, and forage-fed and that's what we're interested in.
This garden isn't an edible garden because it's right next to the road at the bottom of our parking lot. At the beginning of the project Ishared the "before" pictures and explained how the project would turn a weed patch and erosion hazard into a good-looking resource. The graphic at the top of the page is the final design. I look forward to this spring and summer when all the flowers we planted take turns blooming.
We removed a fair amount of wood debris and dirt from the rain garden and turned it into a hugelkultur bed in a nearby gully. Hugelkultur is traditionally a raised bed filled with wood. It's a nitrogen-hog the first year so you plant nitrogen fixers such as peas and legumes. After that the wood turns into a nutrient-supplying powerhouse and a water sponge that works so well you don't even have to irrigate the plants growing on it! Even on the desert? Maybe not. That's why we put it underground. This one is about 8' long and 4' deep.
We recently planted a bunch of beneficial trees. Even though they were all critter-resistant natives, I was concerned that desperate desert critters would destroy them - particularly the rabbits that we'd been seeing. One solution that people have had some success with is planting lots of clover, which rabbits love, so they eat it rather than your other plants. So I created a couple of critter gardens as decoys and planted a mixture of winter cover crops (peas, oats, and crimson clover) to also help develop the soil. It was December so I wasn't sure if it would work. All three crops germinated and started growing quite well until the rabbits found them and kept mowing them to the ground so frequently that most of them perished.
While performing soil drainage tests for the beneficial trees mentioned above we ran into a few patches of caliche that didn't have sufficient drainage. Caliche is a common problem in desert soils. It's kind of like clay hardpan but worse. Caliche is a whitish-gray or cream-colored natural cement of calcium carbonate that binds other materials such as gravel into nearly impenetrable layers - often just below the soil surface. People around here hate it because it can ruin your prospects of growing much. We turned the caliche spots into additional cover crop areas (let them do the hard work of preparing the soil). We also planted some reported caliche-busting trees and shrubs (one-seed juniper and cliffrose) to make up for the other ones that wouldn't make it in caliche.
Since we had cover crop seed left over we planted the rest of it in the next chicken paddock so they could enjoy some fresh greens when we rotate them in. Unfortunately, the other critters ate all the sprouts and didn't leave any for the chickens.
Since the cover crops were sprouting and growing the girls got adventurous and decided to plant some cool-weather food crops in the greenhouse (sweet peas, leafy greens, kale, radicchio, mustard greens, beets and beet microgreens). By adding another layer of plastic right on top of the soil where they were sown it's like creating a greenhouse inside a greenhouse and it provides a few degrees of extra protection. It gets over 100° in the greenhouse during the day if we don't open it up, but nights are a different story. We've had a few weeks of beautiful weather with daily highs in the 60°s and nightly lows around freezing. But a few days ago things turned colder (lows in the teens here) and some of the seedlings now have some frost damage. We're testing the limits of what's possible.
Courtyard Food Forest
This is our ultimate garden! We planted critter-repelling lavender all over the courtyard and numerous decorative and beneficial western redbud trees and bear grass. We've been preparing multiple spaces for the food forest and have already planted goji berry (native wolfberry), gooseberry, and serviceberry. A 7-layer food forest is designed to mimic a natural forest with mostly edibles:
1. Canopy layer: Large fruit and nut trees and long-term legume trees (eg. hackberry, pecan).
2. Under story: Smaller fruit and nut trees and legume support species (eg. serviceberry, pomegranate).
3. Shrub layer: Short, woody bushes like berries and nuts (eg. goji berry, gooseberry).
4. Herb layer: Short, non-woody plants including annuals (eg. lettuce, kale).
5. Ground cover: Grasses, creepers, and low-growing plants that protect the soil from erosion and drought (eg. strawberries, nasturtiums).
6. Vertical layer: Climbers like vines that grow up trunks and branches of trees (eg. perpetual spinach, peas).
7. Root layer: Plants that give a root yield like tubers and bulbs (eg. sweet potatoes, onions).
Did you know that chickens haven't always been domesticated? They are jungle birds and still live in the wild in places like Hawaii. At night they perch in tree branches that provide cover during the day as they forage for bugs, seeds, sprouts, and fruit. A large section of Sabbatical Ranch is dedicated to developing a food-forest jungle for the chickens. We've begun designing multiple paddocks with each one having plants that have similar ripening times so the chickens can be rotated around depending on what's in season. We've already planted mulberry, elderberry, hackberry, serviceberry, wolfberry, and gooseberry in their jungle.
This is another hugelkultur bed but much bigger. It's about 25' x 5' and will have a path down the center. Located right off the main garden area (we haven't even mentioned yet), it will remain well below the surrounding ground. Having all the earth around it will help modulate the temperature, making it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. We could also add a cover to it which would further expand the variety of unusual things we could grow in it (bananas anyone?).
Everything gets a name so we always know what we're talking about. We're enhancing this naturally shady place with swales and berms on contour (I'll explain more about that and other water harvesting techniques in the future). We expect to be able to grow greens here even in the summer.
That's a lot of gardens! And that's not all of them but it's enough for one post. You're probably thinking we need some protection from hungry desert critters or they're going to eat everything we grow. I agree. We're working on a plan. Feel free to share your ideas.
Dedicated Christian, patriot, family man, founder of Sabbatical Ranch