Your land looks beautiful, James. I know we all can't choose every aspect of where we end up, and as Bill Coperthwaite says, "If one disagrees with the nomadism and violence of our society, then one is under an obligation to take up some permanent dwelling place and cultivate the possibility of peace and harmlessness in it" (A Handmade Life, p. xix; and Gary Paul Nabhan talks about how species loss slows where humans are settled more long-term in Cultures of Habitat). Since our place is also not ideal (and what place doesn't have its challenges?), we try to practice adaptability, experimentation, and trial-and-error. We find small scale potential solutions to be essential to this approach. It seems to me you're working in the same way.
I think your building swales where you can and observing the results, planting new trees around your nurse mesquites, etc. sounds just right. It's very similar to things we've done. Luckily we haven't observed caliche on our land (although I think there may be some at our other property -- we need to do more observation there), but that and things like a thin layer of topsoil, lots of gravel, etc. seem to me like challenges that remind us to observe nature's preexisting potential solutions to these things. What's already growing (well? poorly?)? What grows when it gets a little water, as you note? What have previous inhabitants eaten and used from this land?
Granted, we may need to acknowledge that some places just can't support human habitation, or not by many people and not for very long. Phoenix may well be an example of that, but I believe I'm quite biased against Phoenix. ;)
Wayne notes salty water. One great solution to that issue is to not pump and drain groundwater! Collecting rainwater, passively and actively, especially for plantings, works very well even in arid areas like ours where rain is scarce. It always surprises me how well the desert provides, even during drought. Our area (ours and Wayne's) is certainly in the midst of a nice little spot of moisture! Whatever we can collect and store now will bring us through dry spots ahead. I hope it helps refill our aquifers so the creeks run more often in the coming year.
Imprinting/zai pits/bunds/dugout basins to soak in water and let time help you out sounds like a smart and easy-enough start to me. Any organic matter you end up with, tuck that stuff in wherever you can.
Kim, if you or anyone else comes across that video of Geoff Lawton interviewing an Arizona farmer, please post it! That sounds potentially very helpful, although of course we'd do it without a tractor. We've been considering buying some native grass seed from a place like Native Seeds/SEARCH, but in the last season we've observed native grasses seeding themselves in larger areas around us as we slow down the water movement and increase organic matter content (and yes, there are lots of rabbit pellets around here, too! ha ha), much like James notes, so I think we'll keep observing for a bit.
As you say, Kim, ants take away a lot of seed here when we introduce it. What I can't quite figure out yet is why they don't seem to do the same (or to the same degree) when nature reseeds itself wildly, so for now, that's one of the things we're observing. (I've been trying to minimize disturbed soil when I seed and cover it up with mulch from surrounding plants to decrease the clues present for ants, rodents, etc. It can be hard to tell just how well it's working -- or not -- especially since seeds often take so long to achieve all the conditions they need to sprout around here.)
You're so lucky to work with old oaks, Wayne! I'm jealous. With the one Emory oak we've transplanted so far, we inoculated like you describe and are hoping it helps. We've also observed mushrooms in our mulch throughout our plantings all summer despite the late monsoon start, etc.
Let's see, what are we growing? We have a bunch of beds of different kinds of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia; we eat pads and fruit), mostly clustered near mesquites (we eat pods and use wood and leaf litter). We encourage preexisting and have also transplanted in Yucca (we eat blossoms if elata or schottii, and fruit if bacata or schottii). We encourage and sometimes plant cuttings of cholla (Opuntia; we eat buds and fruit). We've started collecting and seeding desert willow (Chilopsis; we use leaves and flowers in tea). We've transplanted that one Emory oak and intend to seed more next summer -- we haven't gotten the timing right yet (we eat acorns). We encourage, transplant, and seed wolfberries/goji/Lyceum and hackberry (we eat berries, as do lots of birds, and all kinds of pollinators love these tiny flowers). We collect and eat Amaranth leaves and seeds (don't need to do anything to encourage that, ha ha). We've transplanted Mexican elder, mulberry, jujube, chiltepines, sometimes tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos, and a selection of traditional (mostly Mediterranean, some Mexican) herbs. We seed LOTS of tepary beans, cowpeas, one variety of common bean, lots of mixed squash, lots of mustards and arugula, 60-day corn in some years (not this last season, monsoon too late), tomatillos and ground cherries, cucumbers, watermelons (great before, but not this year), ... Lots more I'm currently forgetting, but those are the major things, at least that we eat and use. It's not that we're averse to planting trees and plants we don't eat or use; it's just that we prioritize those and it helps motivate us (I think Kostas has talked quite a bit about this). We've found that the closer we hew to what we find already growing around us and/or what we know has been grown here or hereabouts by previous inhabitants, and the more we focus on planting around monsoon and winter rains, the better things go.
Oh! We transplanted a grape this last season that is a hybrid of cultivated and wild, after several unsuccessful attempts at rooting cuttings of wild grapes. We'll see how this one does. We diverted a little buried/mulched line of graywater to help it out, so it's not solely reliant on direct rainwater or directed floodwater. A couple of the Italian stone pine seeds I bought online have sprouted inside and I'm going to try to nurse them through to transplant. And I've finally managed to seed a wildflower bed to help extend things for the pollinators we're already attracting.
What is everyone else in this string growing?