edge of transformation

Climate change is rearranging our seasons here in the high desert.

Maybe our autumns are lasting longer. Spring and summer are merging into a short spring and a longer summer. I can’t say that summer is hotter, but it’s longer and, due to the California drought, drier. Maybe more of the summer nights are cooler than they used to be.

There’s been less snow in the winter. And the rainfall all year is erratic. I’m curious to see what will happen with this winter’s El Niño.

I’ve lived in this area for almost 35 years. Thirty-five years of the desert and mountains. It’s not long in terms of climate change, but it’s long enough to notice changes that affect contemporary humans in the desert, particularly gardening humans.

What have I learned? What am I changing? Hard to say…all I can say for sure is that it’s all very experimental right now.

Twenty years ago I had a routine that worked and it doesn’t work so well now.

I’ve kept gardening journals on and off. About a year and a half ago I got more serious about it. What I’ve learned is that so many of the things I used to grow I can’t grow in this drought. We don’t have a lawn, but we do have fruit trees to water.

I used to work hard to make sure that water was distributed in a way that allowed all the varieties to survive and bear fruit. It’s so much harder to do that now. We’ve cut back on our water use by one-third, maybe a little more. I’ve been heard saying, “We’re a living experiment in desert sustainability here, I’ll keep using the small amount of water that I’ve been using until the county tells me it’s too much.” That’s kind of arrogant isn’t it? Naturally my kids who live here call me out on it. So we’ve cut back and I’m adjusting my thinking yet again.

I’ve lost some plants. Some trees aren’t going to make it and vegetable gardening is going to be very different. Even my herb gardens are in flux.

A few plants have surprised me by thriving more than I expected.

This is transformation.

We are on the edge of transformation.

My garden, my life.

Both are insecure in so many ways. Past behaviors and patterns don’t work anymore. They don’t help thriving to occur.

What emerges that’s beneficial comes from a place that faces insecurity.

And. Results may not be what we expect on the edge of transformation.

Curiosity and experimentation are always essential.

Courage is necessary to avoid moving backward into command and control mode.

If I’m operating out of out of fear and fear of change, I’m going to end up resisting change the hardest. Gardening and living.

joshua tree clouds in sky

Some people who read here prefer the gardening stuff to the personal stuff. To me it’s all part of the real package, but I wanted to list a few of my garden observations in this season of drought. I’d say drought is the new normal, but it’s not. Drought is The Normal for California. Search this site for “drought” or look for tags like “sustainable agriculture,” “climate change,” and even “wildfire,” for all the reasons many of us say California’s old normal has always been drought. I suppose our new normal is simply facing up to that.

Anyway, I know that I can currently grow my friend Bonnie’s high desert adapted cherry tomatoes. With some shade and windbreak we can grow some squash, especially zucchinis and their relatives. Eggplants are okay. Asparagus beans and snow peas grow and bear as long as I plant the latter very early and rather late. They just will not grow in the heat of summer. Tepary beans of all kinds seem happy here. I used to grow beautiful scarlet runner beans for their incredible red blossoms and passable dried beans I could throw in a stew but they don’t seem to grow as well in the drought as the tepary beans.

Next year I’m giving over the vegetable gardens to herbs, tepary beans, Bonnies’ tomatoes (and my own experiments with desert-adapting small tomatoes using her principles), and sunflowers. I’ll include a few other things; I just haven’t decided what else quite yet. And any household vegetables (water users) will be put into five-gallon pots and brought to the patio area. That serves two purposes: they will be farther away from hungry, raiding desert critters like rabbits and ground squirrels and I will be reminded that growing them is a drain on our water supply.

Herbs. Most herbs can be grown in the desert with just a small surplus of irrigation water. Some (like oregano, yarrow, and mint) will thrive in microclimates where irrigation water may linger (More clay in the soil? Runoff from the trees? More shade and slower evaporation?) I take serious advantage of microclimates here. Yarrow tries to grow wild, so does mint, oregano, chives, rosemary…Rosemary, like the mints, will grow opportunistically given a little bit of a water source. Lavender grows rather easily here although it can require a bit more water to bloom well than herbs with less impressive blooms. Echinacea has grown well at Rainshadow Farm, although not so well this year. Lemon balm thrives and Tulsi (holy basil) does as well. I’m partial to both plants, using them in teas and making tinctures from them. Lemon balm will overwinter here, but Tulsi has to be grown indoors (or brought indoors) in the cold weather. I have heard of a growing technique (basically allowing several large plants to self-sow and mulching the Tulsi patch until spring) that I want to try this winter. The person who grows it this way, helping it to overwinter, lives in Marin County which is definitely not the high desert, but I’m going to try it, allowing a blast of irrigation in warmer weeks and covering with even more mulch during the colder weeks.

Growing herbs at Rainshadow Farm does not look like traditional “herb gardens” from regions with moderate rainfall. The herbs here tend to be grown in patches where they can take advantage of roof, storm, or orchard and vegetable crop runoff.


Trees. Trees are my gardening passion, along with my favorite herbs. Trees can reduce evaporation and erosion of soil, improve soil quality by their root action, and help to regulate the temperature of the soil.

Growing fruit trees with a sense of well informed “abandonment” as described by Fukuoka can increase disease and pest resistance, enhance soil, and produce a yield, over time, equal to an agricultural system that uses chemicals and conventional placement of food crops. It’s not true abandonment – rather a minimization of human intervention while carefully observing the natural processes at work in the agroecosystem. You observe closely enough to develop a sense of how much intervention is too much.

Stone fruit (apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums) are supposed to do well in the high desert, as they don’t use as much water as many other fruit trees. In my experience, in this drought, apricots give a decent yield and nectarines need too much water to produce good fruit with less water. Surprising to me, one of our peach trees shows signs of bearing successfully. The other is too small to tell. I only have two peach trees because they were an unknown to me for high desert growing. Plums have not produced well here but I haven’t given up on them yet. I would like to graft a commercial plum onto a wild California plum. In fact, I’d like to simply grow a wild California plum and a desert wild peach, if only I could find a reliable source for those trees.

Our mulberry tree is doing very well and I would ideally like to add more.

Figs remain a possibility here. All things considered, our figs are doing better as shrubs than trees.

And pomegranates are a new addition.

Shrubs in the orchard include two species of Lycium (wolfberries) which produce a fruit that looks like a tiny, elongated cherry tomato. Both species are doing fairly well and neither is a local species, which is something I’m trying to find and establish.

Lycium fruit

Lycium fruit

I like a polyculture orchard. We have over 30 trees at any given time, doubles and triples of most varieties. In the high desert I wouldn’t want to risk everything on only one kind of tree. Naturally, if I were a commercial orchardist, I’d modify that stand. I’d grow a lot of jujubes and a few other fruit trees for household use.

So, yeah, jujubes. They thrive in drylands in Asia and they do well here. There’s a glut of them though. Within five miles of me, shall I number how many small orchards are jujube orchards? I have two jujube trees in this orchard and think I’ll want to cap it off at four. I enjoy them; no one else who lives here does. I may experiment with drying them, cutting them up, and using them in place of raisins. They do flourish in a dry land.

Asian pears do quite well, but the young trees are susceptible to wind damage. By wind damage I mean that without a windbreak the high winds will blow the young fruit off before it ripens.

Apples have been only passable. It may be that our trees are young. It may be the drought. I grew apples in abundance on another small high desert farm 20 years ago.

Honey mesquite yields is a great food crop if you can borrow a hammermill or buy a Vitamix. I have heard from reliable sources that a Vitamix will grind the pod and seed/bean into a fine flour.

We have the beginning of a mesquite orchard here. I’ll post later about the wonders of mesquite.

mesquite 2015

I have a small lemon tree that gets re-potted yearly and brought in through the cold months. It gives us a few (honestly, less than a handful) of lemons a year but it is worth the care we give it.

And finally grapes. Desert wild grape. It rules. Roger’s Red. Lovely with beautiful red foliage in the fall. It’s a hybrid between California wild grape (Vitis californica) and our everyday grape of commerce (Vitis vinifera). The grapes are small, seeded, and tasty. I purchased a small California Wild Grape plant at Rancho Santa Ana last weekend just to see if we can grow it here. If it flourishes I may be able to hybridize it with what’s left of my own commercial grapes. They have not fared so well as the native varieties through the drought.

rogers red

rogers red sept2015

What needful changes? Finishing off the mini-greenhouse for the winter, building a serious windbreak on the south side of the backyard, installing more garden spaces with strategically placed shaded zones. And none of this addresses the plans for native plants in the works: revegetation, alternative revegetation plans, and use of local native plants for food and medicine. Later on that.

I’ve been trying to set a windbreak of trees in place for five years. It’s not adequate. I need a wall. Adobe? Or maybe all of those used tires that everyone and his brother leave in piles in the desert? I may harvest all of those tires for a monster windbreak.

About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
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