We have a lot to be thankful for this year! Hacking an existence out of the desert is no easy task, so it makes us appreciate all the more the little wins along the way that add up to something significant. I want to highlight some of the simple things that are paying dividends.
Not many plants want to grow in baked desert soil. And it's not like you can just till it up, sow some seeds, and watch them spring up. Tilling would actually finish killing whatever beneficial life may be in the soil. In order to grow healthy, nutritious plants, you need healthy living soil.
Imagine a forest floor covered with organic matter and filled with microscopic life vs. lifeless desert dirt. If you plant seeds in both, which do you think would do better? In order to build organic matter the first thing we planted in the spring was cover crops. We utilize "chop 'n drop" - a self-explanatory system that rapidly builds organic matter and transforms the soil. The system improves over time as organic matter increases in the soil.
When sowing seeds we cover them with compost filled with microscopic life. Plants growing in healthy living soil are able to produce phytochemicals on demand to ward off pests and disease and cope with various environmental stressors, and we benefit by eating them. Whereas plants grown in tilled, chemical-laden soil are dependent on chemicals for protection and are nutrient deficient.
Our chickens help us prepare the soil by scratching it up and spreading organic mulch and they also help us make compost by scratching it up and adding nitrogen packets out their back end. When making compost it speeds the process if it's turned frequently and this is what the chickens do.
One of the main ingredients we use to make compost is organic material (ie. weeds) we harvest from the ranch. This incorporates and multiplies native microbes that can tolerate the highs and lows of the harsh, high-desert environment.
Native Edibles & Medicinals
I've talked to different people about edibles and medicinals and had more than one say they thought I was talking about marijuana. I think that's a sad indication of a culture that has lost its way.
People have grown much of their own food and medicine for thousands of years in every part of the world. Sadly, industrialized Big Ag and Big Pharma teamed up with Big Government and Big Media and convinced people that their high-dollar, highly-processed, synthetic-fortified (and often taxpayer-subsidized) products are superior to the stuff God made for us. The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of a small fraction of the foods that are available.
Edible native plants typically have much higher nutrition than even certified organic stuff you buy at the store. Plus, many plants have medicinal qualities. Look into foraging if you want to learn more. There are numerous books and websites to learn from and most parts of the country have resources specific to that area or local groups of enthusiasts you can learn from. Even the desert southwest naturally grows lots of edibles and medicinals.
A few natives we've harvested on the ranch are banana yucca, saltbush, and mesquite. Banana yucca flower petals are a delicious addition to salads and cooked dishes. Last year we only had about three banana yuccas flower. This year we had probably three times that many.
Saltbush leaves aren't anything your taste buds would get excited about, but they are a source of local greens with beneficial phytochemicals and a unique nutrient profile. Every part of mesquite trees are edible and/or medicinal. We made a lot of mesquite sun tea this summer and it seemed to help all of us tolerate the heat better. Some mesquites are sweeter than others, resulting in subtly sweetened sun tea - even better when fresh mint is added.
Herbs, Flowers & Volunteers
We had good success this year with mint, lemon balm, basil, sunflowers, and cosmos. These are all easy to grow plants that help build soil. And we got to enjoy eating them. Cosmos produces vibrant-orange, edible flowers that we enjoyed eating daily for weeks because they were so prolific.
We had an amazing volunteer squash come up in one of the rotational chicken paddocks after the chickens had been moved. They love squash seeds so it's amazing that any escaped their notice. It grew two to three times its size in the picture below (the picture at the top shows a hand next to it so you can see the size of each leaf) before the javelina discovered it. They also got into our garden before we were able to get a strong enough fence up. We did enjoy some other items before they started eating or destroying it all.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 118:1)
Dedicated Christian, patriot, family man, founder of Sabbatical Ranch