Ask any Texan living in the far out western part of the state, and they will tell you; “this place is not for everyone.” But what if it could be? Is it possible to change the environment of a hot landscape? Just like plants change their surroundings, we too can adopt strategies that improve the places we live.
If you live in far west Texas already, or you’re considering homesteading in that part of the world, this article will show you how you can:
- grow a garden more easily and with less water
- build soil out of sandy desert dirt
- create shade quickly
- cool down the area around your home, shop, or guest house
- attract beneficial wildlife and precious pollinators
- attract and increase moisture
- grow food year-round
As a permaculture designer for over 17 years, I’m excited to share that this ecological design discipline has succeeded in transforming areas of the Sahara Desert into orchards! Geoff Lawton, a long-time permaculture designer out of Australia, applied permaculture principles to revitalize dessicated sand dunes. Here, I’ll show you what you can do to effect the same changes in your dryland landscape.
But first, I’d like to mention something important that seems to be almost intentionally left out of the mainstream discussion and thought around the land. It’s this: desertification isn’t just an unavoidable process of Nature, it’s often man-made; better yet, it’s reversible. If we change our thinking about how the land under our feet might look in its optimal state, we quickly notice degradation all around us. The good news is that with the techniques below any landscape, no matter how dry, barren, compacted, or otherwise degraded, can be recovered!
Here’s what to do:
- If you have slope of any kind on your property, that is a good thing. Either consult a topographic map or eyeball the direction of the downward slope. Facing downslope, create swales on-contour, that is perpendicular to the direction of the slope. To do this, take a shovel and instead of digging into the ground with your foot on the blade and holding it vertically, tilt the handle down toward the ground until it is about a foot up from it. Now, shave into the dirt to create a swale or shallow linear depression, about 18″ wide and 4″ deep at the bottom, with the sides gently sloping up to grade. If you have a flat site, you don’t have to worry about contours; swales will still help your land infiltrate water sub-surface. This is our first step in rehydration.
- Install native and drought-tolerant plants and trees, including edibles, into and downslope or near your swales. The technique I use for turning a swale into a bioswale (a swale that is planted) is to dig the swale first and then dig the planting holes into the swale as if I were digging a normal planting hole at grade. This preserves the shape of the swale and assures you don’t inadvertently fill it in with dirt when planting. Gently loosen some of the roots from their pot shape to help them break free and spread into the native soil of your site. I like to add a teaspoon of mycchorizae-containing starter fertilizer at the bottom of each hole. This helps to jump-starts the soil life and assist trees in reaching nutrients deep in the ground. Tamp down the soil around each plant in order to remove air pockets that could dry plant roots.
- Lay your rain-fed drip or other irrigation over the top of the soil around your installed plants.
- Apply a very thick (6″-1′) layer of shredded bark mulch, straw (not hay, which has seeds), or other woody organic debris like leaves or cuttings over the soil all around your plants. Leave a 1″-2″ gap around the bark or your tree trunks to protect them from rotting. When mulching around ground covers or small starts, mound up from the base of the plants. Don’t skimp on mulching. Apply generously as indicated; otherwise, you will not see the benefits to your soil!
- Water in deeply. Mulch is essentially a natural sponge, so keep in mind that it may look like you’ve watered enough when all the water is in the mulch, leaving the ground – and your plants’ precious root systems – bone dry!
If you re-think how your land works and work with it instead of against it, like most of us have been mis-taught to do all our lives, it will jump forth to collaborate with you. If you follow these simple yet profoundly powerful techniques on your West Texas or other dry land, it will surprise you with how quickly it starts on the road to recovery.
As things become established in the first year to three, you’ll notice changes in microclimate around your house. It will feel cooler, and you’ll find it more pleasant to be outside more of the time. Depending on what species you chose, as your plants and trees mature, you’ll be able to harvest food and make use of the miriad other ecosystem services provided by your growing food forest in the desert.