Homesteading in the desert can be pretty unforgiving. That said, it can also be incredibly rewarding to overcome the challenge. Keep in mind, results will vary based on your exact climate, soil content, and levels of frost, but many of these tips can still work for you.
To help you master your environment, here are 10 tips for homesteading in the desert.
1. Know your plants
Knowing your plants has never been more important than when you’re living in the desert. Compared to other climates, there are fewer ways you can adjust the environment around you, so you need to use what you have.
The best place to start is to identify which native plants have been growing in your region over the past couple hundred years. Look into the growing conditions that were used before and try to replicate them.
However, if you’re looking at growing more of a variety, here are a few fruits and vegetables that can grow well in the desert:
- Root vegetables like carrots or potatoes
While some plants may have a hard time adjusting to the soil, you’ll find others do quite well. Keep experimenting and double down on the plants that work for you.
2. Use grey water
Obviously, water is scarce in the desert. So, getting inventive about how you irrigate is vital.
Grey water is one of the best irrigation opportunities for homesteads in the desert. It includes water from:
- Washing machines
Instead of sending that grey water down the drain and into the sewer, why not use that cleanish water for your garden? (no “brown water” please!)
A simple way to do this is to undo the pipes under the sink and place a bucket to catch it. With all of the hand-washing, cooking, and dishes, you’ll have plenty of extra water to use. And if you’d really like to get creative, you can have the sink drain via a hose into your garden (just make sure you aren’t dumping any chemicals!).
3. Learn about companion planting
Companion planting is all about using plants that can benefit from one another. This can include providing trellises, shade, or even repelling pests across plants.
A well known example of companion planting are the Three Sisters. The famous trio of corn, beans, and squash all benefit one another and grow better than if you grew them individually. The corn provide a living trellis for the beans, the beans add nitrogen into the soil, and the squash provide a living ground cover which shades the soil and keeps the water in.
The Three Sisters were commonly grown by Native Americans and have been proven to create a fairly heat and drought tolerant garden. This makes them a good choice for easy food production on your desert homestead.
4. Plant early in the year
Planting earlier in the year is a good idea when you live in the desert as you can give the plants a chance to grow and provide shade before the hot summer arrives.
The best times to plant in the desert are February or early March. While the heat is more tolerable in these months, keep an eye out for frost as it can quickly kill off your plants.
To help with the timing of planting your garden, remember to get creative with your resources. The heat reflected off of walls may be unwanted in the summer, but could keep the garden warmer in the winter.
5. Use tons of mulch
Mulch has proven to be an amazing addition to gardening in California, Australia, and other hot climates, and it can do the same for most other desert regions.
Not only does mulch keep more water in the soil, but it also shades the soil from the hot sun. This protects the plants roots from overheating and drying.
So, use tons of mulch if you’re planting in the desert. Straw, wood chips, or leaves all work well and can make a big difference for a little effort.
6. Protect your plants and livestock from the wind
The sun isn’t the only challenge while homesteading in the desert. High winds are a common occurrence and unfortunately, this means your plants can dry out even faster.
Protect your garden and livestock from the wind by putting up barriers (natural or manmade), or covering what you can.
Trees are a great way to block the wind while providing extra shade. Spare bedding sheets also work well and can block a lot of the drying effect from the wind.
7. Collect rainwater
Collecting rainwater can be one of the best investments for homesteads in the desert. Rain is scarce, so when it does come around, taking full advantage of it will ease the difficulty of growing your garden.
Another benefit of rainwater is that above tap and purified water, plants seem to thrive on rainwater the most.
There are a number of ways to collect rainwater, but many choose to divert the rainfall from their roof gutters into barrels. Before doing so, make sure to check with your local laws as some areas are prohibited from harvesting rainwater.
8. Create lots of shade
Shading is extremely important in the desert. Not only does it provide shelter from the hot sun, but it also can promote more plant growth on the homestead. And you can create shade from just about anything. Especially from other plants.
For example, spruce trees can grow well in some deserts. By providing relief and partial shade to the more heat sensitive plants like tomatoes and most vegetables, you’ll have a better chance of a successful harvest. You’ll also need to water less often.
Shade cloth is also a valuable tool to use in the desert. It’s cheap, easy to setup, and is durable enough to last many seasons.
Even if it’s just a few hours of a break from the hot afternoon sun, shade can have a cascade of positive effects on your homestead.
9. Add compost consistently
When you’re working with the soil in the desert, you’re likely either going to have to work with sand or dry clay. And there’s quite a bit of a difference.
While sandy soils are more acidic, clay soils are more alkaline, meaning some of your plants might not like the native soil. But one of the best ways to amend each type of soil is to add compost, and lots of it.
Compost will bring a healthy addition of fresh and broken down nutrients, perfect for just about any plant. Mix in alternating layers of compost into the native soil, and you have a recipe that your garden will love.
For best results, add compost consistently, and if you’re not yet composting on your homestead, now’s the time to start!
10. Try changing your microclimate
Even though it’s rarely talked about, changing your microclimate is possible and can bring many benefits to your desert homestead.
We might think we have little influence over the sun, heat, wind, or evaporation, but there’s quite a bit we can do.
For starters, you can start by making a heat map of your property and identifying areas that can be improved. For example, deciding to plant on the north side of your house will have very different effects than if you planted on the south side. Depending on the direction, your house can either provide shade, or redirect a lot of heat from the sun.
For a closer look at microclimates, check out this video by Gardener Scott.
Hopefully these 10 tips gave you some ideas on what you can do for your desert homestead. If you’re looking for extra resources, here are a few I found while researching this topic: