Trish Doherty wrote:I'm in the early stages of a permaculture project in the high desert of NM (small, urban). Yes, it's doable, but just know that the land you choose will have unique challenges. One of the things I find is that you can't get stuff that other people get... like I can't just order a load of wood chips unless I want to pay a fortune to have them brought in. You have to be creative with your resources. You also need to think about the climate you choose and let it dictate what your permaculture site is going to look like. Bill Mollison said in one of his videos that a desert-based system has the potential to be the most fruitful of all systems.... But you might need to adjust your expectations of what it is you're going to grow. For example, where I live, cactus could be a great food crop. Prickly pears already grow everywhere, but not many people actually eat them. That doesn't mean you can't work to create a food forest (I am), but I'm also leaving a space for what's native and already wants to be here, and maximizing that to its fullest potential. If I make all my soil too rich, my cactus will die.
Where my mom lives, her biggest problem is voles (at least that's what we think they are). She lives in a place that is basically sand dunes and scrub, and these critters tunnel under anything she plants. Even after having fruit trees established there for over ten years, everything started dying off because the voles tunnel under everything and disrupt the roots. My mom battled them for years and has mostly given up. My theory is that they want the coolness and moisture of the soil near the plants, but so far we haven't found a way to redirect them. When you try to water a plant, the soil will just start collapsing to reveal new tunnels, and the water gets sucked down and away, and I'm not sure that it ever gets to the plant.
Another thing is that the sun is killer here. So when people tell you that a plant is "sun-loving", that doesn't mean it will thrive. Almost everything needs shade, especially from the western sun. You may find yourself in need of shade structures just to get going, unless you put in some incredibly tough pioneer plants and give them time to develop and create shade before trying to plant anything less tough.
Also, think really hard about the water situation. Anything short of a cactus will likely need to be watered the first year to establish. Swales, etc, help a lot, but with the LONG, hot periods between precipitation, you need access to a water source. You could probably manage without access to irrigation, but it would be a much longer process, I think. So when you are looking for property, you want something with a well that has plenty of water in it. Drilling your own well is dicier. You don't know how far you're going to need to drill to get to water. Another option could be water catchment, but you would need a very large storage tank (or tanks) because we tend to get all our rain in a short time.
All that said, I've lived in different places across the country, and maybe I'm biased, but nothing else has the rugged beauty of the Southwest. I highly recommend finding a place near some mountains; if you've never lived near the mountains, you've been missing out. We definitely need more folks restoring this land, so if you're up for a challenge, then I say go for it. Whatever location you choose, just make sure you do thorough research before buying your land. Talk to the locals and find out what kinds of problems they have before you commit. I wouldn't want to face off against those voles, for example. :)
Amy Gardener wrote:A helpful bit of research when looking at the accomplishments of experts in desert transformations is to look at the history of the land that they transformed. What was the land like before it became a desert? Some places are deserts because humans have degraded once fertile land and destroyed watersheds and topsoil. Those can be rehabilitated to their original splendor. Other places are deserts because of long-time temperature extremes and longstanding arid climates. You will find that high desert daytime highs and nighttime lows are drastic and unchangeable. These are places where humans cannot impose their will upon the land and grow crops suited to other conditions.
I find it helpful, when choosing what to plant here in New Mexico's high desert, to look around the globe at places with similar altitude and latitude. For me, the places most similar to my land are in the high deserts of China and Afghanistan. These remote and unfamiliar regions grow plants that also thrive where I live: garlic, chiles, and Afghan pine. Do you like the plants that grow at the ~9000'+ and ~5000'+ high desert altitudes that you noted in your original post? These are harsh climates and you may not feel at home with the plants and animals that thrive in the places where land is inexpensive.
On the other hand, you may fall in love with the harsh terrain and become notorious with your novel approach to making a life in the wild Southwest. There is a saying in New Mexico that if you come here and try to impose your will upon the land, it will chew you up and spit you out in two years. If you fall in love, this land will take you in and you can never leave.
Maybe it is time for you to take a road trip to the National Parks of the American Southwest and learn the remarkable history of how people found their way in this rugged landscape. You will be amazed.