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We are in a position to move onto a large city lot of about 0.75 acre. I like the idea of having a large lot for economic and quality of life reasons but I see an opportunity to set up a sizable garden that can yield fresh food (further enhancing QOL?). We live on a tiny lot now and have a small garden that has had limited success despite being in the shadow of a wall and trees during the winter months. We have coaxed cherry tomatos and a few jalapenos out of the garden but hardly enough (or of high enough quality) to call ourselves competent gardners.

We are in the southwest US where temperatures range from just barely sub-freezing on extremely cold winter nights to 120°f/49°c at the peak of summer (elev ~1500ft/450m). The soil supports traditional desert plants but I don't know what, if anything, should be done to prepare soil for non-native plants.

I grew up in this environment and have seen non-native trees (pine, orange, sissoo, pomegranate, etc) grow without problems but I've never had much luck with plants.

What should be done, at a very high level, to lay the groundwork for a productive garden and avoid a time consuming, frustrating, and expensive excercise in futility?

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    What sort of soil is it? Sandy, loam or clay? Is it compacted? Is there an extension near by that you can send samples to have tested? Are organic mulches readily available? – Graham Chiu Jan 9 '17 at 18:49
  • It has high clay content with very low organic material content and tends to have high pH. It is compacted and I'd need some kind of mechanical tiller rather than a hand tool to break up the soil. Heavy downpours saturate the soil quickly so sustained storms, while rare, can lead to serious flash flooding. I have not sent any soil in for testing. – acpilot Jan 9 '17 at 19:08
  • And do you have access to any organic mulches? Eg. wood chips, tree mulch, hay bales etc? – Graham Chiu Jan 9 '17 at 20:11
  • Yes. We live in a very large city and can acquire organic mulches easily. If we became serious we would likely begin composting. – acpilot Jan 9 '17 at 20:15
  • Can you add a picture of the plot as it is now? – Graham Chiu Jan 9 '17 at 20:50
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I would recommend embracing the clay, especially if it gets super hot and arid there. I would be more concerned about the pH. Nevertheless, organic matter is important, but changing your clay into something else is a lot of work and expense (and can take years, which you might not have if you're moving).

Here's what I recommend:

  • Mix peat moss into your soil before you plant. It has a pH of about 4.0 (acidic) and it's bulky with organic matter. There's also some kind of acidic bark you can get that some people like. I'd recommend either of those over adding sulfur to acidify. The organic matter won't last forever, but it works for at least a year.
  • Add some composted manure or such. You may or may not need to add potassium with it, depending.
  • Add some sand, if you have some handy. Some people don't like sand in clay, but I personally do. The type of clay probably matters (not all clays seem to be the same). So, test it out before you add too much sand, and see what you think. Greensand and gypsum are supposed to help loosen the soil, I believe (but that may be expensive, and may or may not work as you expect).
  • Grow some peppers in moving totes. Jalapenos and many other peppers seem to love it, if they have the right kind of soil. Large bell peppers might do better in the ground, though. Many people will tell you to use a certain kind of soil for containers. My advice is to use what works in your garden. Try what people suggest, and if that doesn't turn out well, try other stuff, too. Some of what people tend to suggest hasn't proven efficacious in my garden (but some stuff they advise against is great; I think what they suggest probably works for most people, though).
  • Mulching might help (to help lock in moisture, attract worms, and block the sun from the roots more). Many mulches will raise soil pH, though (probably for the reason wood ash raises pH). Find one that is either neutral or that lowers it, making it more acidic, if you mulch. Some mulches (such as hay) may introduce weed seeds (same for some manures). Hay may add such as extra nitrogen and calcium, though.
  • Don't grow apples (they're not the easiest things to grow for fruit in the desert, even if they're popular), especially if spider mites are in your area. You might try apricots, plums, peaches, almonds, figs, dates and stuff like that. If you want to grow apples, get a good variety for the desert, water it enough, mulch it, don't get spider mites, prevent worms, and don't let fallen fruit rot (especially if you have spider mites).
  • Know when to garden. The hottest part of the year isn't necessarily the best, especially in the south and southwest. (It's a great time to garden in my area, though, even when the daily highs are constantly between 90° to 116°.)
  • For perennials, choose those with low chilling requirements. I mean, if it needs a longer winter to fruit well in the summer, you might want something else. Similarly, get plants that like the day length you have. Southern areas usually have fewer daylight hours than northern areas, and that matters for some plants (like onions and Shark Fin Melon).

I also recommend finding plant varieties suited to both clay soil and your area. Nativeseeds.org may be a nice place to visit, especially for the southwest. They have a list of varieties suited for heat and drought. Here are some varieties you may enjoy:

  • Dark Star zucchini (zucchini generally is good for growing in clay soil, but this is a particularly nice variety; I grew it this year and it did well; you might try squash generally, too; it can usually handle clay; watch out for squash bugs; maybe try Zucchino Rampicante and Cushaw White for something squash bugs don't like—but I haven't tried either, yet)
  • California Wonder peppers (I hear they can handle clay better than most peppers; I would grow these in the ground rather than containers, though)
  • Mulberry trees (you might like the weeping mulberries, since they're smaller; I hear mulberries grow well even in caliche)
  • Cantaloupe and muskmelons generally can do decently (not sure about in the southwest, but they're usually more adapted to dry heat, cool nights, and clay than watermelon)
  • Red-seeded Citron watermelon (this is an exception among watermelons and is well-adapted to the desert and at least clay loam soil; it doesn't taste like the watermelon you're used to, though; I recommend using it as a replacement for water chestnuts in stir fry, if that gives you an idea of its taste and texture)
  • Amaranth loves clay and heat
  • Thessaloniki tomato (heat-tolerant, decent-sized and productive, especially for the size)
  • Camp Joy tomato (one of the most heat-tolerant tomatoes, I've read).
  • Amana Orange tomato (I'm not sure if it likes arid heat, as it was a late tomato that I started too late, but it grows astonishingly fast and big in clay soil, in my experience—not just clay loam)
  • Yellow/Red Pear tomato
  • Aswad eggplant (If any eggplant will work in your area, Aswad is a likely contender. I grew it and it did well for an eggplant. I saved lots of seeds if you want some: just go to my website and contact me from there if you want some. I have lots of other seeds, too.)
  • You might try such as Crimson Forest bunching onions. They seem to germinate and grow well in clay in my experience (I'm not sure how they handle strong sun and drought, since mine were shaded and well-watered).
  • Cacti (there are lots of fruiting varieties; you can eat the pads of many cacti, too; look for productive kinds that taste good); cacti probably aren't the best choice for clay, but I'm not sure how much that matters in the southwest.
  • You might try smaller or narrower, productive, peppers (e.g. Ring of Fire, Corbaci, Tabasco, and Aji Omnicolor); they may do better than most peppers for you.
  • For cucumbers, you might try Beit Alpha or Armenian cucumbers (Armenian cucumbers are really muskmelons, and muskmelons may prove easier to grow in the desert, depending if cucumbers like your soil)

Another thing I recommend is saving your seeds to grow again, every year (unless you're growing hybrids and want the same hybrids next year). Saving seeds should help your plants to become more acclimatized to the growing conditions (air, soil, heat, sun, etc.), especially if you didn't get your seeds from someone who grew them in similar conditions. Saving seeds is especially important with stuff that didn't do well the first year. I've noticed that this seemed to help quite a bit with my Ledmon watermelons and Morelle De Balbis (which didn't do that well the first year, and did much better the next from saved seeds). You may even notice changes in taste between the years (I did), as well as heat-tolerance, number of seeds, days to maturity and such.

If your tomatoes are acidic, you might add extra potassium. This should help with fruit size, water uptake, and heat-tolerance, too. If they don't grow fast enough, they may need extra organic matter, nitrogen and water. You may or may not need extra phosphorus, too (it helps with lots of stuff, like flowers, fruit, growth, seeds, and plant maturity).

I've found that showering plants with a shower nozzel or sprinkler helps them grow faster and keeps pests (aphids and spider mites--and perhaps whiteflies--in particular) at bay (but I only suggest that for semi-arid to arid areas where your water isn't hard or corrosive to plants' leaves; showering plants might contribute to fungal disease in temperate and more humid areas, or during cool, wet periods).

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Sounds as if you've the making of a true gardener! Please check out your city's water treatment, sewer treatment facilities. Ask if they decompose human shit with added sawdust via federal guidelines. THIS IS THE BEST BEST BEST mulch to use on your very sandy yet clayey soils! Don't have to manually mix DECOMPOSED ORGANIC MATTER into your soil just put it on top of your beds/soil. The organisms will do the mixing for you. The KEY is decomposed. When non decomposed organic matter is added, the soil organisms necessary for proper plant growth go dormant, allowing the decomposers to do their job decomposing newly dead organic matter. Once decomposed the other soil organisms come alive to eat this newly edible DECOMPOSED organic matter and dive back into the soil profile, poop it out mixing decomposed/pooped out organic matter into your soil for you.

Before you use a tiller, it would be best if you took a cup of your soil, put it into a mason jar of water, shake it up, allow it to settle into layers. This will give you a better idea of composition. Too much clay make dang sure you do not rototill or manipulate while wet!! Even moist. Don't be shy getting a professional soil test. Your University Cooperative Extension service is free or inexpensive and worth the effort!

To be human and have the ability to see other life's needs, the part they play in our environment, to understand plants are vastly different than animals, to see soil as a living and critical entity to grow plants is a phenomenal skill of any human. Ummmm...how close do you to any arroyo? What is the drainage around your home? Do you have foundation drainage? A basement? Any soil is capable of becoming GREAT soil for growing food crops. Seriously. Keep asking questions!!

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  • We are only passively shopping for homes right now but the the large lots were built up in the '60/'70s. Presumably any drainage issues have been worked out during the subsequent landscaping/remodel most of these homes have undergone at some point along the line. I can virtually guarantee that we won't have a basement. They're rare out here. As far as terrain features go (like arroyos), most of them have been graded into oblivion. Any washes we have are are basically man-made and are really more of flood run-off zones disguised as golf courses. – acpilot Jan 10 '17 at 0:29
  • Is there an advantage to raised gardens or is is fine to just lay out the material on the ground and go from there? – acpilot Jan 10 '17 at 0:31
  • In my opinion raised beds is the ONLY way to prepare gardens for plants! Check out other answers concerning soils, 'no dig' conversations how to improve soils (raised planting beds and decomposed organic matter) for all soil types. One time only to double dig (or rototill depending on soil type and moisture) is all that is necessary. No sides, NO BOTTOM is necessary or good. Learn about soil tests and how NOT to overdo fertilizing (it is NOT FOOD or feeding for plants), check out watering when and why and how much. Raised beds are the ONLY way I'll prepare beds for any plants. – stormy Jan 10 '17 at 0:54
  • Pay attention to drainage. Do not assume the original contractor understood or cared. Make dang sure there is a 'foundation' drainage system that is not sitting on the footing. They must use drainage rock, landscape fabric around any perforated pipe, landscape fabric above the drainage rock and below the soil backfilled on it...ASPHALT PAINTED on the concrete outside on the foundation where it is below the soil line...that foundation drain has a continuous slope to take any water that gets near your foundation AWAY to city system or daylight... – stormy Jan 10 '17 at 1:02
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    If I were you from what I learned as a home builder/Landscape Architect and home owner, is to find a private home building inspector/engineer to use a professional eye to protect YOU. There is so much to know, so many details the average person couldn't think to look for that could make a home a nightmare. Those home inspectors working for you can save you from disasters worse than you can imagine. Even if you are pretty fluent with purchasing real estate, you've probably just been lucky. Your personal inspectors are incredibly affordable and pay for themselves immediately. – stormy Jan 10 '17 at 1:30
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It's not easy remediating soil, especially clay, and one way to do this has been answered before.

Without pictures, I'm guessing that you have highly degraded barren soil. The easiest way to remediate this is to immediately get it covered. The Ruth Stout method may be appropriate here. Mark out your paths and growing areas, and cover the growing areas with 8 inches of organic mulch. Ruth Stout used hay as that was readily available to her, but you can use any organic mulch. Bury some drip irrigation into the mulch. After a couple of weeks when it has compacted down to about 2 inches, you can part the mulch, dig a hole, fill it with some compost, plant your plant, and then replace the mulch around your new seedling. If weeds appear from the hay, just kill them with more mulch. As the mulch breaks down, it releases nutrients for the growing plants so that effectively you are growing in compost.

This method leads to in situ soil creation that improves year after year without any back breaking digging involved. As the soil profile improves, worms will move in and start to mix the newly created soil with the subsoil.

If you're laying down mainly carbonaceous material such as straw, you may have to initially provide some nitrogen which you can do using a nitrogenous fertiliser such as grass fertilisers. Or, if you have access to plenty of urine, you can use that (diluted) instead.

You can also plant potatoes, and other plants with deep roots to try and break up the clay as mentioned in the other answers. Eventually, you should be growing your own mulch as per the synergistic gardening method which was partially inspired by Ruth Stout, and Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008)

The beauty of this method is that you can try it now to see if it works before you purchase land and embark on large scale soil remediation.

PS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2H60ritjag at 1:23 Dr Elaine Ingham talks about transforming a clay based soil to a productive grassed field just by dumping compost over the fields and growing some grasses.

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