Monday, August 18, 2014

Starting with the Soil

desert garden, soil preparation, desert soil preparation

This is the first post about creating the actual garden.  I hope that readers from long-gardened areas will be able to tolerate my very haphazard approach.  This site is more or less virgin desert.  It has on it the detritus of construction, ranging from nails to broken lightbulbs, as well as plenty of leftovers from a more primitive time, e.g. cartridges and broken beer bottles!  But to the best of my knowledge, no one has attempted a garden here yet.

And after all, one must begin with the soil. An attempt to dig a hole several weeks ago was very discouraging.  The ground was tough and dry.  As I am my own gardener, I was concerned about the amount of labor involved in digging an entire garden - no matter how small - out of desert hardpan.

But a few days ago, I finally set to work with a more intelligent approach.  I snaked a hose up beside the house and, turning it as low as possible, soaked a small area thoroughly.  Then I began digging.  And I am happy to say that the soil came up easily - nice, coarse, crumbly, brown, gritty stuff.  

Of course, I do not want it to revert to its former tough, impermeable condition as soon as it dries out.  This soil definitely needs improvement in order to grow a garden.  Happily, some material is to hand.  I took fresh manure from the horse pen and mixed it with the backfill as I refilled the hole.  I have no plants to put in yet because it is still high summer here, so I intend to work the soil around gradually.  I trust that the manure can age in the ground while at the same time conditioning the soil it is in.  

All was well, therefore, till today.  Today I decided to try digging on the east side of the garden area.  This is the side furthest from the house and closest to the horses.  I did not run the hose because we had a strong downpour last night - a good deal more water than I would apply from the hose!  I simply began digging.  Very difficult.  Not impenetrable, but difficult.  Perhaps six inches in, I filled the hole with water and let it drain.  Then I started digging again.  Better, but not as good as up by the house.

I began to wonder if I was dealing with topsoil by the house versus the regular stuff of the desert down on the east side.  That would not be good because there would be more of the latter than the former in my chosen area.  At the same time, it seemed equally likely that I was only having trouble because of compacting from the heavy machinery used to build the horse pens last winter.

I dug my hole.  It actually grew easier as I dug lower.  One count for the heavy machinery theory.  When I was finished digging, mixing in the manure, and backfilling, I went up to a point where the machinery had not trespassed.  It was just far enough from the house that it seemed fair to guess that I wouldn't strike added topsoil either.

Here I began just a little test hole, once again with no additional water.  And the soil came out easily.  So it looks like I am only going to be fighting compaction in the area adjacent to the horse pens.  That was encouraging!

So I am working on the soil a little bit each day, trying to get it loosened and add a little nutrition for the plants.  Perhaps they do things differently in the older parts of Phoenix, but it does seem that I am rather on my own here.  I cannot find that bulk soil amendments, such as peat or topsoil, are commonly sold in this area.  Maybe I am looking at the wrong sorts of suppliers.  At any rate, a reasonable amount of manure and some good digging ought to provide a starting point for my plants.  I'll be relying mainly on fairly sturdy, drought-tolerant types in any case.  

But I have to be able to dig holes to plant them in!

Here are some photos from today's digging - not very interesting to look at, but there are a few things to point out.  First, how quickly the soil dries.  The light-colored surface soil is shown less than twelve hours after a thunderstorm so heavy as to produce flash flooding.  Second, the soil is actually of a somewhat loose consistency when damp.  It is not a pure clay soil, nor is it sand.  So I have hopes that it will serve as a good garden component if properly handled.  The one thing that cannot be seen is the alkalinity.  I have not tested pH, but I have no doubts that, like any desert soil, the salt content is high.  This is another reason why supplemental material will be vital for healthy plants.

Below is the backfilled hole and adjacent soil partially smoothed.  Again, the difference between damp and dry soil is quite visible.

desert garden, desert soil

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