Unique Soil Delivers Bountiful Gardens In The Desert Heat

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February 16, 2019

This article originally appeared in Garden Culture Magazine UK25.


While most gardens around the world thrive in the beautiful summer months of July and August, yields at Faultline Farm slow dramatically as crops naturally look for ways to conserve energy. They have no choice; nestled on a 70-acre property near the Mojave desert in California, the gardens consistently battle daytime temperatures of up to 115°F (46°C) in the summer. It’s a world of extremes at the farm; while there is always enough sun for the plants to photosynthesize, it can also lead to their very demise. It’s just one of the many challenges of gardening in North America’s driest desert.

Yet, Faultline Farm makes it work.

The organic garden belongs to the 29 Palms Inn, a resort beside the Joshua Tree National Park. Despite slowing yields in the extreme heat, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, and tomatoes grow all summer long. In the cooler months, the gardens produce a steady stream of salad greens (up to 40 pounds a week!), beets, kohlrabi, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and fennel, among other vegetables. The farm’s orchard provides delicious fruits through the seasons; peaches, plums, and apricots grow every spring, followed by figs and grapes in the summer. Pears and pomegranates finally come in the fall. All of the food grown on the farm is used in the kitchen at the inn’s restaurant. Guests have the opportunity to sample food grown organically and in the rarest of conditions; and they have an incredibly unique soil to thank for their meals.

Special Soil

The two-acre farm actually sits on an ancient lakebed on the Oasis of Mara that dates back more than 9,000 years. According to research conducted by the inn, shifting plates formed a sag pond, and over a very long period of time, fine, mineral-rich particles settled to the bottom. In fact, the garden grows on about three feet of decomposed organic matter, creating a lush, fertile environment in what is a dry, mostly barren desert.

“What that translates to for us, is a silty yet clay-like soil,” says Giavanna Accurso, horticulturist at Faultline Farm. “There are higher [contents] of iron and salt than other soils I have worked with, but it hasn’t prohibited growth or created too many obstacles in growing for us. Fertility is great because of it!”

Once Upon A Time

This isn’t a recent discovery; the rich history behind Faultline Farm is one of the many things that attracted Accurso to the job last year. And quite a change it has been for her; she has spent much of her career working on intensive cropping systems for chefs and restaurants in Los Angeles and Chicago. Talk about a world of extremes.

Historically, the Oasis and the surrounding area was believed to be inhabited by the Serrano Indians, who used the land to grow food for themselves. The first recorded existence of a garden on the Oasis dates back to the Washington Expedition in the 1850s. Cattle ranchers and miners migrated heavily into the area after that, and the Native Americans still living in the Oasis fled to the Coachella Valley in 1938. Soon after, Claire and Robert (‘Doc’) Van Lahr took over the property that became the home of the 29 Palms Inn. The couple was the first of five generations so far to run the resort, and during World War ll, Doc reportedly grew victory gardens on site to help feed his family and neighbors throughout the dark times and resulting labor shortage. After that, the gardens ceased to exist until Jane Grunt-Smith took them and the inn over in 1977. They’ve been producing beautiful fruits and vegetables ever since.

Weather and Water

The Mojave desert receives less than six inches of rain a year, and yet, Faultline Farm can still rely on nature for its watering needs. The aquifer that originally fed the Oasis still provides water in abundance to the property’s well. The farm uses a drip irrigation system on the beds, and deep drippers are currently being installed in the orchard. In the summer months, when temperatures reach their peak, Accurso supplements with spot watering, and she’s always researching new, innovative ways to quench the garden’s thirst.

“I am looking at some new systems in our beds where we bury hay down the center to hold moisture,” she explains. “It is based on that permaculture technique called hugelkultur, but it’s on a smaller and finer scale than that.”

Plant Choice Is Everything

No garden is perfect, and that holds especially true for Faultline Farm where growing conditions are extreme. The plants grown on site are generally tough and chosen because they have been adapted to handle environmental stressors. The farm uses seeds from companies like the Native Seed Search, which is based out of Tucson, Arizona, and specializes in drought-tolerant crops. Accurso says she’s had great success with many of their seeds, such as the Magdalena squash. Still, when temperatures hit the triple digits, the leaves on the tomatoes drop and stop converting simple sugars to complex, making them sour in taste. The eggplant stops flowering, and the squash develops only male flowers so as not to waste energy bearing fruit.

Pack of seeds on table with nasturtiums
Faultline Farm experiments with drought tolerant seeds.

“Hardening off has been one of the things that I have had to learn to adapt to out here,” says Accurso. “It is a more extensive and gradual process than any other climate I have grown in. The seedlings need to go through a couple of different microclimates in the greenhouse before even beginning their final hardening off phase outside.”

In the high desert, temperatures drop dramatically in the winter, dipping below freezing at night with highs in the 60’s during the day. When the cold comes, tender salad greens are protected with row covers, while produce like brassicas are hardier and can handle the chill just fine.

Pest Problems

In the hot temperatures, though, the plants also become weaker and more prone to pests and disease. Accurso admits she’s experienced more crop loss at the farm than she’s used to because of it. Squash bugs, whitefly, and beetles nibble away at the produce; an incredibly difficult situation to control in organic growing systems where chemicals and synthetic fertilizers are never used. Instead, the farm allows nature to run its course.

“With the challenges, it is also important to remember that this is the fertile ground needed to find solutions,” explains Accurso. “It’s a time to pay special attention to what nature is trying to tell us. We always attempt to look at whatever resources we have available to us to find solutions.”

Innovative Methods

Accurso keeps the soil cool by mulching with palm fronds, and may even use them in full form next summer to shade the crops from the summer heat. She’s also exploring the idea of taking used shade cloth from a nearby military base to drape over the beds.

Melons growing vertically

Bio-diversity is strongly encouraged at the farm; Accurso often lets crops go to flower to make sure the pollinators, such as native bees, keep coming. She’s also noticed that planting marigolds beside her tomato plants help with the whitefly.  

Feeding Time

The kitchen at the 29 Palms Inn gives the farm its food scraps so it can generate compost with the brown materials pruned and weeded around the property. Otherwise, fish emulsion and an all-purpose organic fertilizer from Dr. Earth are used to help the fruits and vegetables flourish. Critters are also controlled in a strictly organic manner, which is quite an impressive feat.

“Everything is hungry in the desert,” Accurso jokes. “We plant crops of squash around the edges of the perimeter and will do minimal spraying of neem oil and insecticidal soap when necessary. The trap crops help with ground squirrels and lizards, while the neem oil helps with whitefly.”

Accurso says her favorite solution to the hungry coyote and bobcat populations is weaving dried palm fronds into the chain link fence surrounding the gardens. The resulting ‘fan’ around the edges of the fence keep the animals from jumping over and into the coveted buffet awaiting them.

Palm frond coyote barriers
Palm frond coyote barriers.

A Piece Of Paradise

It has been one year since Accurso joined the team at Faultline Farm. She describes the garden and the 29 Palms Inn itself as a gorgeous property all around, and as a peaceful, healing, and creative space to be in. The farm’s history is just as rich as its soil, and it would appear there’s never a dull moment. With dramatic temperature changes and constant research into new, organic ways to successfully grow nutritious foods, how could there be? Gardening in the desert is fascinating.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Many thanks to Giavanna Accurso, horticulturist extraordinaire. Without her contributions to both Faultline Farm and Garden Culture Magazine, this article would not have been possible.

Catherine Sherriffs
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Catherine Sherriffs

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her two young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.
Catherine Sherriffs
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