Why permaculture? Once upon a time I worked in plant pathology research and learned about things like male sterile corn and the mayhem that monoculture can cause, the damage from overuse of chemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilizer, damage to soil tilth caused by too much plowing--we pay a big price for our factory farms, too big. With my background in ecology and biology, I am a big believer that Mother Nature has done a pretty good job of working out the details of what constitutes a healthy environment and that we would do well to learn as much from her as we can. Permaculture uses methods that are closer to nature and that is why I’ve chosen that route--I believe it is healthier for my environment and for my family.
As defined on Wikipedia (my favorite encyclopedia), permaculture is "a branch of ecological design and ecological engineering which develops sustainable human settlements and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems". It embodies the principles of caring for the earth as well as the people and setting limits as needed to sustain both. We have a finite amount of planet to work with here folks and it is getting pushed beyond its point of being able to sustain us. We need to start paying attention.
I heard a recent discussion between some of our city moguls here, that by 2050 at our current rate of growth, we would have to start shipping water in to keep the community growing. I see all kinds of problems with that, especially given that fresh water is going to be one of the limiting factors for the world in the near future (Learn more at the Stockholm International Water Institute). Perhaps we should be looking at controlled growth and living within our means rather than uncontrolled growth and scrambling for resources that might not be available. We need to have everyone living on this planet more responsibly, not just a few of us.
Title: Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains, 3rd ed
Author: Lisa Rayner
Illustrator: Zackery Zdinak
Paperback: 113 plus appendices, 128 pages total
Price: approximately $12.95
As a newbie to permaculture and mountain gardening, this book has become my go-to source in my quest to turn our rocky mountain in southern New Mexico into a small homestead. We have 5 acres, most of it tilted, with dense clay soil and an acre of gravel right around the house. Good for a fire break,which we need, but ugly and pretty sterile. I have a big collection of books for gardening in the south, but they just don’t work here. However, when I found this little book, Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains, I started in an entirely new direction with gardening.
The author, Lisa Rayner, gardens in Flagstaff, which is a climate very similar to ours. That is what prompted me to buy the book in the first place-it was for a niche that I could certainly identify with. The book is written specifically for gardening above 6,500 feet in Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Colorado, and Southern Utah, using permaculture techniques. This region is challenging for a variety of reasons--soils low in organic matter, semi-arid dry land with 25 inches or less of rainfall, strong sunlight, large day-night temperature changes, frequent high winds, and a collection of garden devouring varmints like you would not believe. I think they must be ravenous for succulent greens because it is so dry, with humidity often less than 10%. We had deer and rabbits in Texas, but they never descended on my garden like these four-legged swarms of locusts. We also have a real monsoon season, which you have to make the best of because the rest of the year can be pretty dry and water is precious.
I think Lisa does a good job of addressing specific issues like high altitude sunlight, planting time tables, cold climate gardening, water conservation, building healthy soil and sheltering from wind. The appendices includes a glossary of lesser known food crops and a comprehensive list of resources for southwestern gardeners and for permaculture. Other permaculture books give much more detail about homestead permaculture methods, but do not address the specific challenges of gardening above 6,500 feet. I like this book because it addresses my particular niche very specifically. Well worth the money if you live in the mountains of the southwest, in my humble opinion.
I have no connection to the editor or the publisher and was not paid in any way for this review. It is my personal opinion, good, bad or indifferent.
When I moved to New Mexico three years ago, the first thing I did was attempt to garden like I did on the Texas coast. I quickly learned that what worked wonderfully in Texas just wouldn’t work for the high and dry Sacramento Mountains. Compost doesn’t compost--it mummifies. Wild critters will eat darn near anything that is succulent and green, and if they don’t eat it, they pull it out of the ground and stomp on it. Even up on my deck, something was eating things down to a nub.
But being a gardener, I just had to grow something. I filled up every available window with house plants and even grew cherry tomatoes in a south facing window. That was in the guest room, however, and it took up all the space normally devoted to guest luggage, though my guests did enjoy the fresh tomatoes.
Last year I tried hanging baskets and found that even though the critters didn’t get them, they dried out really fast in regular old potting soil and wire baskets lined with fiber mats. We often have humidity less than 10% here, a big change from the almost 100% we frequently had in Texas. My deck got really warm in the day time because of heat reflecting up from the surface, but down in the 50’s (F) at night, so I had to find plants that like heat in the day, with cool temperatures at night. So I started doing some reading on dry climate or high altitude gardening and came up with a different approach for this summer. I found a good book for gardening above 6500 feet, Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains, and it has become a go to for me when I have questions about what to do.
I’m starting with petunias because they like heat, are pretty tough, do well with minimal care and seem to be fine with the cool nights. An added plus is that you can buy them just about anywhere, in a variety of colors, and we have limited options in this little rural town. I’m using the same baskets, but this time I am looking for a planting mix that will have maximum water holding capacity, but be light enough that I can lift the basket up or down without having to spend quality time on Mr. Bowflex. With a little searching, I found a good article on Peat-Lite mixes from Cornell University Extension and decided to use one of their recommended mixes for potted plants.
I did a couple of test baskets by mixing two parts sphagnum moss (by volume) with one part perlite. I also lined the baskets with 6 mm plastic and put a three pencil size holes in the very bottom to keep from having soggy plant feet. I planted the two baskets, hung them on the deck and checked them daily to see how the moisture levels were holding up. Then something unexpected happened. We were evacuated for the Little Bear Fire.
My mom had given me some herbs potted in regular potting soil in plastic pots and I had put them on the front porch, where they were shaded except for late afternoon, and watered them well on that Friday (June 8). I also watered my hanging baskets on the back deck, where they were in sun a good bit of the day on the east side of the house. Saturday morning we were evacuated and we did not get home until Wednesday night. The first thing I did was check my outside plants. The peat moss/perlite baskets were happy and healthy with no wilting and there was moisture in the basket when I did the finger test (stick finger in soil about one inch). The herbs in potting soil were all severely wilted, I feared past the permanent wilting point, but I watered them anyway and they did come back, but with a few damaged stems. Those will have to be pruned. While this is not a very scientific test, I’m convinced it is a worthwhile exercise in low humidity gardening and will be testing it again with a little more control.
My husband, Jim, came home Friday night and made a comment about all the smoke...what was going on? I thought it was from the fire in the Gila, but he said no, it is here. That was the start of our fire ordeal.
As we watched, we could see the flames cresting the hilltops and wondered exactly how far away it was. As it got darker, you could see what appeared to be explosions--trees popping, we guessed. We wondered why we weren't getting a call on the county emergency system. Finally, about 7:00 pm, we decided we better pack up just in case. My sister and mother, who had arrived just that day from Texas for a little vacation, helped us throw valuables into a box trailer as we nervously watched the smoke and flames get nearer.
We kept assuring my mom and sister that we would have plenty of time, the fire was still miles away. But it was nerve wracking watching the flames and wondering just how far away they were.
At 5:00 am the next morning, we got the call from the emergency system to prepare for possible evacuation. My mom and sister left with Mom's truck and my car. We had an extra vehicle due to my mother-in-law being hospitalized, so we needed an extra driver. They went to Capitan to a restaurant there while we continued to pack the trailer and gather up enough supplies to take care of us and our 5 dogs for a few days if needed. At 7:00 am, a sheriff's deputy drove up and told us it was time to leave-mandatory evacuation.
We sat by the road in Capitan under big shade trees all day. No phone service, no information, wondering if there was any way to get back into town, hearing all kinds of rumors. Finally, my husband attempted to get to town by going through Lincoln on highway 380 to highway 70 and it was open all the way to town. He could not call us, but came back and got us and we all headed back to town. My sister left my car at the museum where I work and one of my coworkers mentioned that a local church, the J Bar J Country Church, was taking in people with their pets. My mom and sister then headed back to Texas--out on Friday, back on Saturday, eight hours one way. But we all thought it would be better that they not stay.
There were about a dozen people, and way more animals, at the shelter in the fellowship hall of J Bar J. At last count, Charles Clary, the pastor, said they had 13 people and 44 animals, including livestock in the pasture behind the church. Most people began looking for other places to go, but we waited to see what would happen to our house before we decided whether or not to find a place to rent, go to a motel, or other options. We didn't want to leave our dogs if we could help it, in particular the 17 year old Weimeraner, Babe.
We sat up housekeeping in one corner with our cots and dog crates and waited for news. The shelter 'Mom', Waynette, took good care of everyone and cheered us all up as best she could.
The fire has become much more of a monster than anyone expected when it started with a lightning strike on Monday. We are now the only evacuees left at the shelter and are just biding our time, waiting for news. My husband goes to meetings every day for updates and we know many people have lost homes. So far, ours is intact, which we are grateful for, but still we wait to see when it will be safe to go home. It is now Tuesday evening, and we have been here since Saturday evening, with no real idea of when we can leave. But we have a house to go back to and many people don't, so we are really thankful for what we do have.
So far, we've had only one casualty from this fire and that was one of my parakeets, Harvey Wallbanger. I had him and the other parakeet, Fionan, in a small cage sitting on the dog crate when a gust of wind blew the cage over. They both escaped, but I managed to catch Fionan. Harvey took off into the wild blue yonder and hopefully, will be found by someone who will take good care of him. That was how I got him 5 years ago...he strolled up to my sister's door in Dallas and she caught him and brought him to me. Goodbye, Harvey.
I just received the most recent incident update via Twitter (7:00 pm Tuesday) and it says 224 residential structures and 10 outbuildings were destroyed. As far as we know, no human lives were lost.
I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 1982 and have been gluten free ever since. I went dairy free two years ago. I share recipes, DIY projects and crafts, gardening tips, life philosophies and thoughts on this blog. This is just my story. In no way should it be taken as medical advice because every individual is different. There are also a few affiliate links for products I use and recommend. I make a tiny amount of money if you buy something and it in no way changes the price you pay.
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