I started out in 2001 with the intention of keeping a detailed account of every aspect of my gardening efforts but have since come to the conclusion that it is just not possible to keep up with. The obvious problem come from the fact that summer, when most of the action in the garden occurs, is our busiest time in the dairy. It is also when I want to spend as much time as possible working outside, not sitting at a computer talking about working outside. Sooooo.... While I have some pretty in-depth reports for the early years, as we were building the orchard and gardens, in 2003 I began making only brief and periodic reports of progress, problems or major happenings.
This page also has a lot of background information about our horticultural efforts here at Black Mesa Ranch and goes into some detail about our climate, our soil and how we got started in the gardening here.
Please use the links below to jump to a particular Garden Report.
Advice from the "Pros"
If we had listened to our County Extension Agent (based in Holbrook AZ, the County seat, about 25 miles North of here) this page would remain as blank and barren as he suggested our lands should be. Seriously, can you imagine calling the chief agricultural officer for your area and having him basically tell you "It's not worth the time and effort to try to grow anything there"? OK, maybe he didn't actually come out and say that, but every time I've jotted him off a note with questions or asking for suggestions his answers are completely discouraging. Typical responses from him so far have been "It's too windy for that.", or "The season's too short for that.", or "Nobody does that around here.", or "The soil's too bad to do much with." or "People have tried and failed at that.". The most positive thing he told us was that Black Walnuts grow well here, though he did go on to say that there was absolutely no market for them if we did grow them successfully.
Now maybe we'll find out that he's absolutely right (in which case I'll eat my words instead of my vegetables and post a retraction and apology here) but I have to believe, looking around at all these lovely old trees, and native grasses, and indigenous shrubs, that with a little patience, some decent irrigation and a commitment to making it work - we should be able to grow a decent vegetable plot, some culinary herbs and a small orchard of fruit and nut trees. Don't you think?
So having decided to completely ignore the advice of our single regional expert, let me tell you a bit about our climate, our land and our plans...
Our Growing Zone(s)
What's our Growing Zone? Well, depending on what source you look to Black Mesa Ranch lies within the USDA Hardiness Zone 5, 5b or 6.
Most serious gardeners seem to feel that these USDA designated Hardiness Zones are pretty much worthless for this part of the country due to the guideline's failure to fully consider the effects of altitude and precipitation. For example, the weather and appropriate plants for low elevation, coastal Seattle WA are much different than for high elevation, inland Tucson, AZ, even though they lie in the same USDA Zone 8. Another designation for our area is that, according to the National Gardening Zone Map we are at the extreme lower edge of the Rocky Mountains and High Plains Region, an area which includes Edmonton Canada, the Dakotas, most of Colorado and some of New Mexico. Our section of this region is called the High Desert Area. Another way of designating growing zones is the AHS (American Horticultural Society) Plant Heat-Zone Map a 12-zone isotherm map that indicates the average number of days each year when given regions experience temperatures of 86F or higher. According to the AHS information based on our zip code we are in their zones 5,6,7 and 8. What ever that means. The Sunset National Garden Map, yet another identifier commonly used for the western USA puts us in their Zone 2 suggesting a growing season from early May through September.
But what's our climate really like? The truth of the matter is that none of these zones really told us what the climate or growing potential of our site is.
Fortunately The Western Regional Climate Center has some good historical information for the area that might help us. From them we learned a ton of facts about the climate for Snowflake AZ with records going all the way back to 1897! Here's a link to that info if you're interested... Snowflake AZ Climate Summary. Among the most pertinent information we gleaned is that we can expect just over 12" of precipitation per year, an average winter will yield 18" of snow but the average depth on the ground at any given time is 0". We learned that the hottest month is July with an average daily high temp of 89.9 degrees F. (cooling off to 55.5 at night) and the coldest month is January with an average daily low of 17.1 degrees F. (but the good news is that the average daily high in Jan is nearly 48 degrees F.).
With this information and the fact that the climate experts tell us to expect a 110-day growing season we have a place to start planning our gardens and orchard.
In an attempt to determine what type of soil we are working with here, we did a rather rough test. We took a couple of quart canning jars and filled them about 2/3 of the way with soil from various locations around the property. We then filled the jars to within about 1/2" of the top, put on the cap and shook it like mad for a while. When left to settle for several days, the distinct layers gave us a clue about composition of out soil. Our soil had settled into 2 major layers of almost equal proportions: clay on top and sand on the bottom. There was a minute quantity of organic matter on the top and also a fine clay (silt) layer as well, but to say that it was 50-50 clay and sand was close enough.
A question about how best to amend this type of soil in a note to our doom-and-gloom county extension agent elicited little more than sighed lament about the regions soils being more truly just sub-soils rather than real top soils. He said this was due primarily to the lack of decomposed organics because of the climate here, though he did note that "the only place with decent soil in the whole area was the Hay Hollow Valley", the very valley where BMR is located. He went on to correct our observed proportions of components, telling us that it was more likely we had closer to 30% clay and 70% sand.
The agent never did really address soil amendment recommendations but further research led us to the conclusion that, while there was no "magic bullet", the single best all around amendment we could possibly apply was organics. Organics would both improve the "tilth" or feel of the soil - countering some of the negatively sticky characteristics of the clay component, and improve the air and water retention qualities that the sand inhibited or diminished. Organics was something we could work with, purchasing truck-load quantities of composted mulch at first and then utilizing the bedding and waste from our various animals and our own vegetative composts. This heavy organic amendment program became, and remains, the primary tool in our quest for improved soil growing conditions and has markedly improved the growing conditions since its implementation.
Beginning in Late February I began starting some seeds in the greenhouse. Seed starting in the greenhouse continued periodically all the way through May.
Beginning in April I started getting the garden beds ready with another healthy layering of nicely decomposed compost (Thanks goaties!). Using the tractor I distributed an average of about 6” over the whole garden (minus the perennial herb and asparagus beds that got some hand-shoveled compost, but less).
By the end of May I had most of the irrigation set-up and ready to go and a lots of plants in the greenhouse waiting for their chance in the great outdoors but this was a tough spring. Right about the time I would have begun “risk cropping” (setting out some of the more hardy plants in the garden even though it was technically within our frost danger time in the hope of getting them off to a better/earlier start), we got a series of wicked wind storms. The seedlings and small plants I did put out were no match for the elements. The few I was able to keep dug out from the blow-sand drifts got shredded by the winds. Our asparagus bed was hit hard by the sand and we got very little harvested this season.
Summer hit hard and fast in early June. Theoretically, our “last frost date” here is May 30th. We had our first 100F degree day this year on June 3rd. Very little had been moved out yet because of the winds we’d been having and the over-flowing greenhouse got so hot, so fast, that a number of the plant starts just keeled over and died. Fortunately the super-hot weather was short lived and by a couple of weeks into June almost all the remaining plants (quite a lot of them made it) were in the garden.
Amazingly, some of the plants that survived the super-heated greenhouse were the full-sized tomato plants we’d planted in there last winter and from which we’d been harvesting wonderful red ripe fruits from the late winter and continuing all spring. They absolutely exploded in new growth and set tons of new fruit and kept it up all summer. I never have had greenhouse tomatoes live through a full year but it looks like this year’s are going to do just that and in style and productivity!
July and August brought lots of thunderstorms to the ranch and much to our thrill and the garden’s benefit, they actually drooped a decent amount of monsoon rain on us for the first time in about 9 years. I probably only watered the garden half a dozen times in 2 months and the plants all really appreciated “God’s Watering” way more than they ever did mine. Of course the weeds also appreciated it too but Kathryn was a HUGE force in keeping them under control and in most cases completely beat back. In addition to the weeds we fought several waves of various pest infestations including beetles on the tomatoes and eggplants, horn worms on the tomatoes and peppers, and the ubiquitous squash bugs (vine borers). Daily and sometimes twice-daily sessions for weeks with lots of hand-picking off and smooshing the pesky critters eventually got them significantly knocked down to manageable proportions (i.e. we could share the garden produce, getting plenty for ourselves with them without feeling we were gardening for THEM.
We did have a few fights this year. The beetles tried attacking the eggplants, tomatoes, and basil. The squash bugs tried taking over the zucchini, and the hard to spot horn worms noshed on a few tomato plants. Can you see the horn worm hiding in the tomato plant (lower left hand picture)?
In early July we found that all of the plants growing over a large section through the center of the garden were really struggling while identical plants at the end of rows were thriving. Investigation turned up a serious problem with the subsoil in that area which was very high in clay and had gotten very heavily compacted, anaerobic and dead. The problem began about 8” down and went for over 36” deep. Water was being trapped and the ground there was actually getting “sewery smelling”. I still had some very nice compost left from this spring and was able to dig out one section (about 1/4th of the offending area) down almost 4 feet deep and replace the nasty soil with lovely fresh and highly organic fill. I re-planted that section with the remaining potted peppers, chiles and eggplants I hadn’t had room to put anywhere and they TOOK OFF! Can’t wait until I have another batch of compost ready this fall so I can renovate the rest of the problem area.
The produce came in, in a steady stream all summer and we ate lots and lots of fresh squash and tomatoes. Got a good number of jars of pickles of various types put up and froze a lot of broccoli etc. The herb garden was spectacular this year right from the beginning but none of the beans/peas survived the spring to produce a single pod. The salad greens got off to a very late start but by August we had as much as we could eat and then some.
We had a big open house here at the Ranch in August with over 160 people in attendance. The garden looked pretty good and was included on the tours. The sunflowers had just opened fully and were spectacular. The peppers and chiles were really getting heavy with great-looking fruits and those amazing tomatoes were just about taking over the greenhouse. The day before the open house K and I did a last-minute tidy-up of the garden and ended up picking a really nice basket of a wide variety of produce including a monster heirloom tomato and a couple HUGE 6” yellow, red and orange bell peppers. I washed it all off and left them in the basket on display of a table for the open house. People were very impressed although I had to slap more than a couple of fingers poking at the vegetables. “Sorry, we thought they were plastic”, one lady told me. I suppose I should have taken it as a compliment.
More 2010 Garden Pictures
Broccoli, and Basil (right)
Jalapenos (left) and Tarragon (right)
Patty Pan Squash
8/2/09 David's garden is in full swing, growing well, and already supplying us with great produce for our table. His garden is a 50' by 50' area fill with eggplant, squash, peas, asparagus, cornichons, broccoli, herbs, sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers, beets, and much more.
David's Garden - Getting ready for a big harvest!
The weather was fair much of this winter so I got to do some early garden prep-work done including distributing 20 tractor loads of compost, fence repairs and general cleaning
More fence line cleaning and blow-sand removal from around the perimeter. Got pea & pepper bed ready and trellis up. Harvested first asparagus. Planted Red-Gold and Banana potatoes, Red onions and scallion sets. Set out 30 spinach seedlings. Transplanted some tomato and marigolds to bigger pots. Planted sugar snap peas.
Planted 5 new horseradish, 3 new Rhubarb and 25 Purple Passion Asparagus and 25 Jersey Knight asparagus. Transplanted out a flat of asst greens and a dozen or so basil. Got the rest of broccoli and marigolds out.
Prepped the tomato bed, set out 34 tomato plants and 20 more pepper/chile plants, did some weeding, ferted the melons and tomatoes. Seeded out zucchini, 2 types of patty pan squash, the rest of the broccoli seeds, pumpkins, more melons, more onions sets for scallions, & more carrots and beets. Transplanted out lots of various lettuce starts. Early brocolis are looking good and we've got lots greens & scallions ready now. New asparagus are coming up pretty well. Horse Sandy has discovered that she likes the cotoneaster wind break around the garden and she can reach way too many of them so some fence augmentation is in order.
Moved out the last of the greenhouse plants coming to the garden several tomatoes still producing in there and they will stay until they are done. Row covered the broccoli to keep something from nibbling the florettes - hopefully,
Harvested first red potatoes (fingerlings are not even close), planted more lettuces, carrots, beets (harvested the 2 from the last planting!), and basils. Greenhouse tomatoes are still going strong - getting 8-10 nice-ripe (if smallish) ones every week.
Lots of produce to harvest and process for the freezer, especially summer squash.
Worked on shutting down a few beds for the season. Goats and pigs really liked the remnant plants I threw them.
10/18: Got garden and greenhouse prepped for hard frost predicted ofr tonight, covered tomatoes but everything else is on its own. Supposed to get to 26F.
Supposed to be around freezing again tonight but didn't cover the garden. Several days of low 20's coming up so I think we'll just let it go now. May be able to get a few more tomatoes off tomorrow but that will be about it.
We got our new Davis Weather Station vantage Pro2 assembled and mounted in the garden. The official BMR weather station went online at approx 5:30 PM 1/24/2005. Installed the WeatherLink software on my computer this evening and look forward to the tracking and (eventual) forecasting features of the unit. Daily weather data will be sent each evening to the Weather Underground web site and can be viewed at this page.
My long-time dream of having a greenhouse for seed-starting and extended-season growing came to fruition this spring with the construction of a site-built, 12x20', polycarbonate-glazed structure we built between march and May of this year. Click here for lots of pictures of it's construction.
The greenhouse is primarily passive solar but does have a small auxiliary LPG heater for back-up and has both in-ground planting spaces and lots of room for pots and flats, as well as some storage space for gardening tools.
Well, greenhouse growing has proved to be a difficult nut to crack first time out. My seed starts did not do well at all suffering from either over-or under-watering on various tries, damp-off, rodent damage, or the infestation of mealy bugs that tore through everything when I was not looking <sigh>.
Now that our last-frost date has past, I'm going to direct-seed everything this year and hope for better luck next spring.
Getting a few zucchini out of the garden every morning now along with a few sugar snap peas and maybe a chile pepper or two. Carrots, lettuces, herbs, scallions and beets are going great. Tomatoes and potatoes look like they're taking off. Pumpkins and melons don't look so good. Green beans and broccoli are marginal and the jury is still out on the patty pan squashes.
Had our first muskmelons of the season - VERY good. The garden has another infestation of Tomato Horn Worms on the peppers and tomatoes. We're plucking 8 or 10 off every other day.
10/30: Forecast is for 28*F tonight and 25* tomorrow night so transferred several chile plants ot the greenhouse and set it up for frost. Harvested a bunch of chiles and peppers, assuming that this will probably be the last couple of days for the plants this year.
11/2: The frosts have done-in the garden now and it was a longer growing season by several weeks than we have gotten in the past. We picked the garden clean of remaining peppers and tomatoes. Got about 3 over-full bus-tubs of peppers to process now and 3, 1/2 sheet pans of green tomatoes we hope will eventually ripen.
The greenhouse has redeemed itself (yes, I'm blaming all my spring problems on IT, not me) by being a very good host to a few tomato plants I direct-seeded into one of the beds. We have enjoyed fresh, home-grown tomatoes this winter and thoroughly enjoyed them. Still having trouble with mealy bugs but the tomatoes are surviving OK. I look forward to testing various different varieties for the best indoor type for my set-up here.
The Vegetable Garden 7/9/04
Well, mid-summer is upon us and my plans for the garden projects have evolved (as they are inclined to do).
We did get a new fence up around the vegetable garden, enlarging the space in the process to about 70' x 70'. Instead of re-using the old buck fencing (for which we'll find another use, no doubt) we purchased a number of 16' long by 52" high cattle panels for the fence. Securely fastened to "T"-posts they are a sturdy barrier against the goats getting in. With the addition of 2' high x 1/2" hardware cloth around the base it also keeps out most rodents, rabbits and other small critters. I never did get the drive-through gates finished. Instead, I just added another panel section, held in place with a few bungee cords. It may not be exactly elegant, but it works.
Going back a bit to get caught up on the season... I started a number of herbs, tomatoes, peppers and chiles, and even a few lettuces inside beginning in March.
We started harvesting asparagus in April. This was its 3rd year and we can harvest with abandon until they peter out. We're still getting 10 or so spears a day from the 30' long by 2 ' wide bed but don't expect to get much more for the year.
Despite our last frost date being around the 1st of June I gambled and started 2/3 of my potatoes outside in early May. By mid May I'd brought out the inside lettuces and spinaches, started new lettuce and spinach seeds outside, and also set out a dozen Cornichon cucumbers, 18 tomatoes and a couple dozen chiles, all in wall-o-waters. The weather held and most of the plants survived. To my surprise, the newly planted outdoor seeds quickly surpassed the indoor starts I'd been babying for a month or more. Next year I think I'll start more things outside earlier. The peppers and chiles did not take well to going out early and, while they survived, they are taking a long time to actually look vigorous. We are planning on building me a greenhouse by this fall where I'll be able to do a better job with some of the starts (especially peppers)
I definitely was late in getting some of the seeds in the ground (notably beans, corn and melons) while I waited to get the hardware cloth part of the fence finished. They're quite a bit behind where they should be, but coming along
The Vegetable Garden 7/9/04
As of this date the garden is humming along at a great pace. Other goodies we have been harvesting and eating frequently include: beets, carrots, spinach, red Batavian leaf lettuce, Red Cos lettuce, Simpson leaf lettuce, rhubarb, herbs, broccoli, zucchini, scallions, red onions, Red-Gold new potatoes and Purple-White new potatoes. I have started harvesting the tiny cornichons gherkins and pickling them a little at a time. They are wonderful, but I'm hoping they begin to kick in and produce more than a few at a time soon.
Some of the earliest planted lettuces we haven't gotten to are beginning to bolt and the spinach has had it until fall, but the goats, rabbits, ducks and chickens are enjoying the change of diet. The new lettuces are coming in fine and we'll not be without salad this summer, that's for sure.
The herb garden is doing great - so great, in fact, that I have begun selling to some of our restaurant chef-customers who buy our cheese, and have sold some through a little local natural foods store as well. Using no pesticides at all is a real plus to these buyers and we are happy to supply them with quality herbs they can't get elsewhere, at a great value.
I'm worried about the tomatoes. They started our great-guns and grew fast and furiously, putting on lots of vegetation. A month ago they began to set small fruit but after a week or so they stopped. There are hundreds of blossoms, but not very many fruits at all. A few of the plants also seem to be withering and I'm afraid its a wilt disease taking hold. Wilts wiped out our whole tomato patch last year before we got to eat a single tomato. I will be very disappointed if that scenario repeats itself again this year.
The trees in the orchard are doing pretty well this year but we're not going to be getting harvest off any of them. Even the raspberries (of which we have about 10 little surviving plants left) who tried to fruit couldn't handle the wicked winds we had during fruit-set time. According to most of the folks around here who have fruit trees, a harvest every 5 years is about average. We just get too much weird weather (wind, snap freezes etc) in the spring to expect the trees to set fruit well on a regular basis. Oh well, it's still nice having the trees, I guess. The grapes, on the other hand - both the Concords and Himrods are absolutely spectacular with tons of fruit. I never did get the sunflowers planted again this year. Where did this spring/early summer go?
Garden planning for 2004 began in early December 2003 with the arrival of MANY gardening, seed, and plant catalogues. One seed order was placed 12/23/03 and another, bigger one is almost ready to go too.
I'm very happy with the current garden lay-out and irrigation system so at least the infrastructure is in place for this coming season... almost. We do plan on replacing the old, thrice-used, and very dilapidated perimeter fencing for the 50'x50' plot and finally finishing and installing the new wide-access gates I've had three quarters built for several months now. Our idea is to steal the newer fencing we previously erected around the buck's pen after we replacethat fencing with a sturdier cattle-panel one. The cattle panels (yet to be purchased) will be available after we finish the new goat-barn project (slated for Jan/Feb 2004) where they will get first use as construction fencing.
I undertook the major task of rebuilding all of the garden beds this spring and installing all new drip irrigation throughout. I'm please with the changes and expect it to have a lasting positive effect on our gardening for years to come. I also built 16 new tomato cages, a pea fence, a cucumber fence all out of a roll of 6" re-mesh. Last week I extended the fencing 2' higher on the North and east sides of the garden to prevent attempted goat incursions.
We were actually able to get a bit of an early jump on planting this year, thanks to the mild late spring. Some Celebrity and Roma tomatoes and assorted chiles/peppers went out mid-May - a full 2 weeks ahead of our official "last frost date" and all did just fine. Surprisingly the rest of them, that we waited to set out until the first of this month, seem now to have fully caught up in size and vigor so apparently not much has been gained with the risk of the early planting.
As of mid-month 2 of our 4 plantings of sweet corn are in with the first set nearly a foot tall. The early planted melon look great and are already flowering though the earliest pumpkins and zucchini seem behind expectations.
We have already found squash bugs on the 6" plants and have begun pyrethen/rotenone treatment much earlier then we have had to in the past. There was a pretty fierce attack by some small green caterpillars, primarily on the peppers and chiles but a couple of treatments with BT seems to have it under control now. We also fought a small army of field mice that were intent on digging up seeds and nibbling off just-sprouted seedlings, but a couple of weeks of intensive trapping pretty much took care of them for now.
We have had a great harvest of asparagus that is just now tapering off and the leaf lettuce and scallions have been early garden staples though we only got one small spinach harvest before it all died - probably due to the quickly warming weather.
Other annual crops currently in the works: bush beans, shell peas, Italian beans, sugar snap peas, broccoli, cornichons (small gherkin cucumbers), red new potatoes, carrots, and beets. Our perennial rhubarb is doing pretty well, though still kind-of small, the strawberries are ahead of last year, most of the herbs are doing very well despite my having moved each and every one of them when I rebuilt their beds this spring. As an experiment this year we are trying to grow horseradish (not doing too well as of this writing) and comfrey (doing great).
The orchard is looking fine this year so far with all the remaining trees healthy and strong. The grapes got too early a start and were nipped back but seem to have recovered, the currants look very good and the few surviving cane fruits (mostly raspberries) from last year have been joined by 50 new plants we put in early this month. After setting up 15 new rows in the orchard with drip irrigation for sunflowers I've only gotten about 1/2 planted so far: they have to be row-covered for the first few weeks to prevent excessive predation of the seeds or seedlings.
We installed and populated 2 hives of honey bees in the orchard this spring and they are both growing faster than we had hoped.
One current garden project is making nice new pair of welded steel gates for the West side (replacing the make-shift ones we erected 2 years ago when we put the garden in).
We're still getting snow flurries occasionally and overnight temperatures are below freezing but it's definitely time to begin garden work. I finalized this year's garden plan around the first of the year and all my seed and plant orders were in by the middle of January. Nearly all the seeds were delivered by mid-February. Some of the onion plants arrived 2/24 and it will be a task keeping them alive until the ground is ready for them.
The winter was pretty mild with only a week or two of really cold (low teens) temperatures. So far late winter/early spring has been wet with cloudy weather bringing some precipitation nearly every week for the last couple of months. Late February was beautiful with several days in the mid 70's. It is so hard on days like that to remember that our last-frost date here is May 30th.
Our rhubarb plants are poking through their winter straw mat. Chives, parsley and tarragon are all coming to life and looking good. The cotoneasters are beginning to bud and leaf out a little. No sign of asparagus yet.
3/10: Started broccoli, basil, purple ruffle basil, chervil, marjoram and summer savory seeds indoors.
3/21: Started jalapeno, fooled you jalapeno, anaheim, cubanelle, fresno, fresno grande and suave red habanero chiles; red, yellow, purple, orange and mixed bell peppers indoors. Worked in garden prepping beds and working in the winter's animal bedding straw - got maybe 1/2 done, not counting rototilling. Took a few cotoneaster cuttings to try and propagate.
3/30: Started 18 each Celebrity (slicing) and Roma (sauce) tomatoes indoors.
4/3: Nearly all of the pepper and chile varieties have germinated. Some have come up fine but many fairly poorly, some as low as 50%. I've recently been reading about the possible negative effects of the US Postal service's mail irradiation policies and practices on a variety of shipped goods (foods, medicines, electronics, etc.). Perhaps my seeds have been effected by this as well. The annuals section of the garden has been tilled and the beds made. A small start has been made on raising the strawberry beds. Rhubarb is growing well as are many of the herbs and the asparagus has begun to sprout up - enough for a side dish in the next couple of days. The past week has been very very windy.
4/6: Picked up 5, free, 300' rolls of used 25mm irrigation line, complete with emitters from the managers of a big green house complex in town and began work on a total overhaul of the watering system for the garden.
4/7: Tested a large section of irrigation system I have installed: dismal flop! The system will work but I'm going to have to re-think my distribution method and re-do everything I did so far. I am thrilled that the new emitter lines are just fine and it will be well worth the extra effort to get it all up and running. Planted first 10' of spinach plus 2 bunches of each Red Burgundy and Spanish onions today.
The year of Fire and Rain
This, our second summer here, was the first year we fully planted the garden. It did quite well, despite some impressive efforts by mother nature to thwart us.
The spring wind storms were particularly strong and sustained this year, lasting weeks at a time rather than the few days we had been expecting based on weather averages. Time and time again we had to remove inches of "blow sand" from the various garden beds in order to harvest (asparagus, herbs and rhubarb) or to try to plant. Despite all that, temperatures were fairly mild and we were able to get a good early start with some plants including some peppers and tomatoes transplanted outside by mid-May (predicted last frost date here is June 1).
By early summer things were looking really great, by and large, though my entire bean crop had failed to germinate and my peas all died when only an inch or two high.
Early Summer's Garden Outlook was Great
I also had some set-backs at the orchard. Of the 500+ sunflower seeds I planted out there, only about 2 dozen germinated before the vermin got to them - hundreds of neat little hole where I had labored to have plants. I gave up on them and will try another planting method next year. Also, my cane fruits did very poorly again with maybe 3 or 4 total out of the several dozen raspberry, blackberry and black raspberry pants making it past spring.
The summer progressed bone dry as evidenced by the series of devastating wild fires that made national news as they swept through the region in late June and early July. For weeks our skies were darkened by smoke and ash from the blazes.
The near-by Rodeo-Chedeski Wildfires darkened the skies here.
The fires drastically disturbed the grazing and travel patterns of deer and elk herds, driving them much further North (toward us) than they normally came. In a matter of just a couple of days, while we were occupied with evacuation plans and fire-fighting preparations they found our orchard and, having no problem with the 6' fences, damages most of the trees there. We responded by raising the fence to over 8' in height which stopped the incursions, but the damage was done, setting back the growth of the trees a year or more. Several of the trees were killed outright.
At the other end of the spectrum from fire, the first week of August brought us a huge but brief thunder storm and deluge, dropping over 2” of rain on top of our part of the mesa in less than 30 minutes. All that rain quickly funneled down to us in the valley creating flash floods everywhere. Unfortunately, the direct path of one of those instant rivers which brought tons of rocks, mud, and tree & cactus parts off the mesa ended at the garden. We took a full week after the storm and did little but dig and haul the 4-6" of sand, gravel and debris out. Amazingly, many of the plants somehow survived being completely buried for several days before getting dug out.
The herbs all survived, the zucchini, tomatoes, chilies, peppers, green & Spanish onions, broccoli and squash which didn’t get hit quite that badly all recovered quickly and continued to produce bountifully. The pumpkins took the stress as a sign that they’d better finish their work and shortly thereafter started giving us loads of early orange squash. The corn and potatoes didn’t fare so well. The potatoes began dying right away (we were able to harvest just a few gallons of red news) and the corn, while staying alive was stunted and the ears didn’t develop properly. The whole bed of red onions decided to call it quits (we got maybe a gallon of tiny 1 to 2 inch onions) and our entire crop of Brussels sprouts, which had been just coming up as seedlings, were completely destroyed.
Making the best of the situation as we could, I took the flood as an opportunity to re-work some of the beds as I was planning on doing in the fall anyway: enlarging them, removing some of the pathways and upgrading the irrigation. We also did some major re-grading work to channel any future flash floods around and safely past the gardens.
Many plants recovered quickly from the flooding after being dug out of the muck
In September, as summer drew to a close the weather turned fantastically mild and lovely. We harvested bumper crops of jalapeno, Fresno, bell, Big Jim, and banana peppers, the tomatoes were still producing lovely, juicy, red fruits of extraordinary quality, and (of course) there were more zucchini than we knew what to do with.
Some of Autumn 2002's Bounty
2001 was our first spring/summer on the Ranch and we had not intended to do any real gardening. Our hopes were to get an area fenced, get some irrigation infrastructure laid in and possibly start some perennials including rhubarb, asparagus and a few herbs.
To our great joy we were able to get that plus much more done and reaped some fine and tasty benefits in the process. Here's a photo report of the year's highlights...
We got an area about 50' x 50' fenced with a combination of wire field fencing with chicken mesh buried 12" deep and up about 24". The yard hydrant (left pic.) and 2" irrigation line stub-up went well and we got great gravity flow from the water tank (right pic.)
We soon learned that some sort of wind screen was in order. We put up some temporary screening and then planted about 50 Cotoneasters which will, in a few years, grow into a nice windbreak hedge. We also planted a few Lilacs at the corners for esthetics.
After a false start, fooled into planting too early by a warm spell, and having to re-plant we still got a nice variety of veggies, herbs etc. producing well.
The asparagus, rhubarb and perennial herbs all got planted as planned and did great.
We planted about 100 Walla-Walla onions plants which took to our soil and climate very well. Here it's fall and they're pulled and drying for storage.
Preparations and Plantings
When we purchased this property in late 2000 it had the remains of a 1-acre orchard in an area near the Barn. The neat rows with dozens of dead and skeletized fruit and nut trees gave silent testimony of a previous resident's ambitions. While there was an elaborate 120-head irrigation system in place on half of the plot, the 10-plus-year absence of anyone to turn on the flow of water was more than the young (most pre-bearing age) trees could have been expected to endure in this arid climate.
Re-building the orchard was an early priority for us. A philosopher once said something like "The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The second best time is today". We were anxious to get new trees into the ground here as soon as possible and start them on their way to productivity. Fruit and nut trees cannot be expected to reach true production for 3 to 8 years from planting so this is an investment in the future for us.
Our plan was to greatly reduce the density of trees from the way it was originally laid out, planting 1 tree for every 4 irrigation heads. This spaces the trees about 24' apart with about the same space between the rows. This lay-out will give us room for 21 trees plus two 200 foot rows available for berries, cane fruits and fruit shrubs.
Our first project was to take the 200' by 125' irrigated section (25,000 sq ft), remove the dead trees with the tractor and till under the accumulated brush and undergrowth. Normally, tilling would be a job for the tractor and attachments but with the PVC irrigation heads every 15' (and the fact we don't have a disc for the tractor) we went ahead and did it with our 17" walk-behind roto-tiller. It took a few days but the results were good.
Next we took a day and worked on deciphering the dozens of valves, gauges, filters, etc for the irrigation system and actually got water running through all sections of the piping with only minor breaks to repair.
Then came preparing the soil. We were planning on planting only 13 trees this first season plus one row of bush fruits so we laid out their locations and using the tractor's backhoe dug 6' diameter holes 4' deep for each tree. We picked up 11,000 lbs. (15 cubic yards) of enriched mulch in town with our trailer (no mean feat) and divided most of it between the holes (reserving some for later use in the veggie garden), stirred it up well with the dirt and re-smoothed the whole thing out again. We then, again using the backhoe dug small planting holes in the enriched soil for the trees. You know the old saw about putting a $5 tree in a $10 hole? Well, our $20 trees each ended up in $100 holes.
The last steps were the actual planting of the trees and shrubs, fencing the whole area and then doing some final grading and raking work.
Here are some pictures of the work.
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