I lived in a co-op, for about two years, in the Taos area of NM back in the early 1970’s. It was very rustic. We had to draw our water from the well and boil it for consumption. We did collect rain water and the like for irrigation, bathing and washing dishes or clothes. We had a common “long house” for cooking, bathing, meeting and teaching, etc. There were two “bunk houses”, one for men and one for women and just under a dozen “cabins” for family units with children. These were one room things with sleeping lofts and did not have bath rooms or kitchens. Some were adobe, some straw bale and one or two were log cabin styled. The entire compound was a little over 10 acres.
We grew most of our own food. Fruits, nuts and vegetables, some goats, sheep and steer, along with chickens, a few ducks and grains, horses, a dog and cat or two. Many were artists that did “handyman” work and sold their textiles, herbs, etc around the area to contribute to group funds as well as their personal finances.
It was a very interesting time in my life, many lessons and skills learned and a time I will always cherish and never forget.
It was here that I was introduced to Waffle Gardening or Dry Desert Companion Gardening. Unlike other regions of the United States, New Mexico and the southwest have very little rain fall. In New Mexico we tend to be higher in altitude as well – our famous high desert plateaus. Couple this with almost consistent morning and evening winds blowing off or onto the plateaus and this area requires a different “think” to gardening than other regions. I still practice this type of gardening in my urban home today (with some minor modifications of course).
Basically instead of planting in rows, you plant in 2 foot squares with raised sides. Think “sunken bed” gardening with side by side squares that are in rows instead of the plants in rows. This layout protects the plants from winds and decreases the speed of evaporation. So over all the plants need less water because each square retains the rainfall for much longer periods of time and this allows the water to sink into the ground and nourish the roots of the plants.
Just about everyone in the southwest or near Native American settlements, knows of the “Three Sister” planting method – Corn, Beans, Squash. But this can be expanded to all your fruits, vegetables and herbs as well. This type of gardening lets the various plants in each square ward off insects, plant diseases and replenishes the nutrient needs for each other (no fertilizer is needed, but always mulch), along with the taller plants shading the lower growing plants in the Three Sisters groupings.
Another big plus to waffle/companion gardening, for me, was that in gardening in this way, very little time and effort needs to be done to the garden to get a bountiful harvest - Very little to no weeding, not much watering, no fertilizing and very few pests - other than squirrels and chipmunks now or deer back in the day. So I guess you could also call this type of garden “the lazy garden”. My type of garden!
The best book for knowing what can be planted with what is:
- “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte.
Another thing I learned during this time is about the “Medicine Wheel”, which in this case was a garden for medicinal herbs and plants utilizing Native American practices of the curing properties of not only for illnesses and injuries, but for the mind, spirit and soul as well.
This was a very important time in my life, as I have been an “alternative” medicine person ever since and have done quite well without modern over the counter drugs and prescriptions. Although, now in my later years, I do rely on Aleve quite a bit; since I don’t have any Aspen or Boggy Willow to get aspirin from the bark of those trees.
There are three great books on this – one for the “how-to” of preparation of the plants for treatment, along with how the treatment may interact with modern medicine treatments; one for the medicinal properties and companion layout, along with container garden options and the other is on the spiritual and companion layout of the garden. I highly recommend all three of these.
- The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines by Charles W. Fetrow and Juan R. Avila
- Herbal Remedy Gardens by Dorie Byers
- The Medicine Wheel Garden by E. Barrie Kavasch
We gardened this way on about an acre of land. The waffles themselves are in rows with un-planted paths between them. This way we could space the plants out that were of the same variety but different types, without worrying about cross-pollination. We also alternated each year. By this I mean if the “row” was waffle planted this year, next year it was the path; If the row was corn, squash and beans this year, next year it was carrots, tomatoes and dill.
Our medicine wheel was about a quarter acre in size as some of the residents were herbal healers with degrees in the field and marketed the remedies in the area. It was planted and marked in the traditional medicine wheel format with benches in places along the spoke paths. We even had a Taos Pueblo Medicine Man perform a blessing.
Then there was just under 2 acres for wheat, rye and barley. These crops were also rotated each year so the same space was never planted with the same plant in successive years.
We had another 4 acres for the large livestock and horses, which were also rotated between pastures. One pasture was always left at “rest” on an alternating year basis with alfalfa and hay as the cover crops. The grain area was an additional part of the grazing area. So the two combined were almost 6 acres.
I don’t have any surviving pictures of any of my gardens, but I do have some pictures of a waffle garden from the Nature Center here in Albuquerque, where each summer they run a living exhibit. Once I figure out how to upload these I will.
I modified the waffle garden in my “no water” backyard here in the city by building a very cheap and extremely functional rolling garden. Each of my “gardens” holds about two squares worth of plants for waffle gardening. Mine are on wheels as I learned the hard way that melons can and do explode in the direct sun and heat of a New Mexico summer. So by having my gardens on wheels I can move them around the yard to give them shade or sun as they need it.
To make my cart you need some straw bales which generally run between 18”X34” to 18”X22”. You will need 2-3 high depending on what you are going to grow; one bale for each short side and 2-3 bales for each long side form the base structure. For height stack more bales. Straw bales are a relatively cheap building medium.
1. Once you know what size rolling planter you want, you get a half inch thick piece of plywood for the size you are making.
2. You will need some kind of plastic, waterproof liner for the bottom and lower sides of the planter. I got a used pond liner from my neighbor when he replaced his. This does not need to be 100% water tight as you will need some drainage holes to allow excess water to escape.
3. You will need some 2X4’s to build the frame – two rectangles consisting of 2 long lengths and 2 short lengths each and then 4 lengths to connect the top and bottom rectangles together. These are the supports for the straw bale.
4. You need some wire for bale staples. I made mine by cutting and bending the lengths I needed. This was not as easy as it sounds. But money was tight for me and when I figured 6 clips per bale, I found it cheaper to buy a roll of wire and cut it myself. Plus I can and have used the remaining wire for other projects and or repairs. These bale clips are like bobby pins for straw bales and they are used to connect two bales together. Since this project is not a house or load bearing wall, only 3 are needed per bale for stacking and then 3 per bale to secure the chicken wire.
5. Last but not least you will need 4 heavy duty casters, screws, nuts and bolts of choice, nails, chicken wire or plaster wire to cover the inside and outside of the straw bales – and plaster to plaster the inside and outside of the bales. I also made some rope handles to pull the planter around the yard. Each of the two handles is about a foot wide with about 6-8” of clearance for holding it. Good strong rope is needed for the structure is heavy once built and filled with dirt and plants. But you decide how you want to do this.
6. As an option, but not necessary for this planter: I wrapped each bale in a large plastic trash bag before stacking. This was extra waterproofing. Again because this is not a home or load bearing construction project, this is an option and not a requirement. Nor are the more expensive water barrier materials needed.
7. Bolt the lower 2X4 rectangle frame to the plywood and add your castors to the 4 corners apx 6 inches in from the corner. The lower frame is the very bottom or underside of the planter.
8. Attach the 4 upright 2X4 supports to the four corners of the plywood frame base. Then attach the upper rectangle. I used bolts for this but my neighbor used nails and joint plates.
9. Option: Wrap each bale in a plastic trash bag and tape snug. I used the miracle all purpose duct tape for this.
10. Stack and clip the bales from the bottom up. Three per bale.
11. Place the plastic liner in the bottom of the structure and be sure it comes 8-12” up the side from the bottom. Again I used duct tape to hold this in place until I wired and clipped before plastering.
12. Wrap the baled structure inside and out with chicken wire and use the remaining bale clips – 3 per bale to secure the chicken wire and upper edges of the bottom liner.
13. Drill some ½” to 1” holes in the bottom of the structure for water to drain.
14. Option: If putting handles on your structure I used a small narrow saw to cut a hole thru the straw bales on either end of the rectangle up near the 2X4 top frame. I lined this with strips of the pond liner and plastered, then immediately pushed a paper towel tube into the hole. Once the plaster was dry I trimmed the tube, put the rope thru and double knotted on the inside.
15. Plaster the inside and outside of the structure. But Do Not Plaster the Bottom. On one of the four planters I made, I had broken up some old wine and beer bottles and made some designs with the glass on the outside and set them in the outside plaster. They make pretty reflections when the sun hits them. I painted the rest with a stencil of southwestern design.
16. Once this is dry you can fill the planter to about 8” from the top. I filled the very bottom with about 1” of loose river gravel, then 1” of leftover sandbox sand and then my planting soil.
Two of my planters are three bales high and the other two are two bales high. My deep rooted plants go in the two taller planters and the shallow root plants go in the shorter planters.
My four planters are going on 6 years old now and show no signs of rotting or falling apart as yet. So these will last a long time.
You can go really cheap and easy by putting a straw bale in a large trash bag. Then cutting the plastic off the top and cutting the baling wire. Just throw some seeds on top, sprinkle some mulch and or dirt and place where you want it. You can grow corn, tomatoes, cucumber, squash, peppers and even potatoes, onion and radish in these bales.
Living in an urban environment for the last 30 years, I also container garden on my enclosed back porch. I have dwarf fruit trees so that I can get fruit almost year round. I even get strawberries, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash and radish from my porch during the winter; along with the usual bell pepper, lettuce, carrots and cucumber. The porch is also where I grow most of my medicinal plants and I utilized the container arrangements that are in the book: “Herbal Remedy Gardens” by Dorie Byers. Yes companion planting works for container planting too and is just as easy to maintain.
When it comes to gardening for self-reliance and preppers in particular, it is always wise to choose self-seeding plants and learning how to harvest and keep your own seeds for next season. An excellent book on how to save your seeds is:
- Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole B. Turner
A good general desert gardening book is:
- Desert Gardening, Fruits and Vegetables, The Complete Guide by George Brookbank
I also have quite a few friends who have been homesteading for the last 4-6 years and they recommend heirloom plants and animals that are either native to the area or adaptable to the areas climate. These plants and animals may not have the “picture perfect” looks of the hybrids or have the “best of the best” eggs, but they are self-sufficient breeds or hardy self-seeding plants that need very little assistance from us humans to survive and prosper.
Until next time and remember: History Teaches
Criss, the 50 something, soon to be rural homesteader ;-}