Alibi V.26 No.12 • March 23-29, 2017 


Captain Caveman’s Garden Guide

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Caveman Gardener
Valerie Serna
This brief overview of household gardening in the Albuquerque area wasn’t really written by a caveman or a cartoon depiction of a caveman from days of yore. It’s not the story of someone who was saved by other cartoon depictions—modeled after an all-woman detective team popular on the teevee of that faraway age—from a cold, ice-bound life which one supposes lacked a garden as well.

In fact, I was just trying to rouse you from hibernation by using funny language; planting time approaches and we here at Weekly Alibi hope that you are awake and alert as spring begins to flutter about. The guide that follows has nothing to do with Captain Caveman. That’s a good thing because the dude always went descalzo, something you don’t want to do when gardening. In fact, later on in this guide, I was going to suggest you get a hardy pair of boots in which to engage your own version of suburban farming.

I know that seems counterintuitive and I know one of the reasons you wanna do this is just to feel that good old earth pressing against the soles of los pies, but there’ll be plenty of time for that. So, I’ll go ahead and get that out of the way. If you want to start a garden, get some decent boots, first.

Next, as long before planting time as is convenient, begin observing and analyzing the weather, both in the daytime and at night. Keep a log of the high temperatures and the lows, record all precipitation, note when the sun rises and sets, how the wind proceeds and from what direction. At night, check out the procession of the moon, the movements of the planets and the glittery winking of the stars. Try to keep all the resulting data organized; begin looking for patterns. Sharpening you powers of observation with regard to the natural world and its cyclic processes will become an important skill as the season progresses and your garden grows.

Then, before the last freeze, begin investigating the ground. Based on your previous observations, select a plot of land that meets the following coincidental parameters: Sunny, level, demonstrating good drainage, at least 100 square feet in size for beginning tillers of the soil, accessible to water sources.

The soil is notoriously sandy, clay-bound and rocky in this high desert part of Mother Earth, so you will next need to consider and implement a plan for enriching the soil in the plot of land you have chosen to make your garden in.

If you’ve done this before, you probably have a compost station to accomplish the nutritional supplementation goals of your little farm. If not, then you have other options, but this step is an essential part of having a successful garden in Albuquerque.

Making compost requires a durable container, a pitchfork, a compost thermometer and the ability to repeatedly turn and churn a collection of moisture, green waste (eg. fresh leaves and plant/tree matter, coffee grounds, food waste—but no meat, fish or dairy because that attracts dogs, raccoons, et cetera) and brown waste (shredded newspaper made with soy ink, like Weekly Alibi, wood chips, dry leaves and dead plant/tree products) daily, until the whole lot decomposes into a dark, dry soil that is full of nutrients.

That is a naturally occurring process that uses aeration, oxidation and the bio-mechanical energy generated by your arms and aforementioned pitchfork to do its job. This breaking down of materials usually takes a few months, so that's why it's important to have the process in place well before planting time. Without compost you're going to have to move ahead with other options.

Next, as long before planting time as is convenient, begin observing and analyzing the weather, both in the daytime and at night. Keep a log of the high temperatures and the lows, record all precipitation, note when the sun rises and sets, how the wind proceeds and from what direction. At night, check out the procession of the moon, the movements of the planets and the glittery winking of the stars. Try to keep all the resulting data organized; begin looking for patterns.

The dense, nutrient-poor soil here in Burque can be fortified by adding good dirt to your lot. You can't just pour it over what you've been left with however. It all has to be mixed together. First, use a sturdy shovel to plow up or turn all the soil in your soon-to-be garden. This means digging down about 12 inches with the shovel and turning the the soil out, shovel-full by shovel-full until the whole area is done. Be prepared: This is moderately hard work so take your time and avoid straining your back muscles. You can soak the soil the night before to make the task easier if you wish. There’s also this thing I heard tell of, it’s called the rototiller. Works wonders if you are so inclined.

After you've accurately calculated the area of the land you just dug up, take a trip to any number of home improvement stores, Walmart or your neighborhood nursery to buy the requisite amount of nutrient-rich earth. Sphagnum peat moss works great, but it's relatively expensive. It should be mixed with an aggregate to help preserve moisture; that stuff is called vermiculite or perlite. For heavy clay soil, the standard recommendation is to use one part soil with three parts sphagnum peat moss with two parts coarse aggregate such as perlite or vermiculite. For medium textured soil (silt loam or sandy clay loam), use two parts soil with three parts sphagnum peat with two parts coarse aggregate.

Top soil and cow manure are also products that consumers can buy by the bagful to make their gardening experiences more fruitful. Take your good dirt home and lovingly and thoroughly mix it into the ground you have recently dug, in a 1-1 ratio, then soak the plot again and wait a day or two.

When you’ve got the dirt at your beck and call, before planting time, install a reliable irrigation system. Water’s at a premium here in the desert, so besides picking desert-friendly, traditionally sown crops, find an irrigation system that is economical and water-wise. Drip irrigation systems help keep the soil soaked and fertile, but if all you have is a 50 foot length of hose, make sure you use it dilligently, filling the furrows twice a day via that hose pipe, if necessary.

Use the time you've got now to consider the crops you might grow. Here in the Land of Enchantment, I've generally stuck to fruits and vegetables that have demonstrably (historically) done well on this part of the globe and that I've had some success with too. They include: chile peppers, squash, beans, tomatoes, corn and melons. You may also want to consider eggplants (related to tomatoes) or potatoes too.

If you choose peppers, tomatoes or eggplants, these should be started indoors using small planting cups. Seeds should be planted indoors about six weeks before the last frost (the Old Farmer’s Almanac says this day will be probably be no later than April 16 in Albuquerque, and planting time for peppers, tomatoes and eggplants is in late April through the middle of May).

During the two weeks between last frost and planting time, harden off your seedlings; that is prepare them for outdoor life by making a gradual transition to the moment the transplant takes place. Acclimatize the seedlings so that they thrive—reduce indoor time and light, expose them to the outdoor weather during the day, until they are basically living outside, albeit in their pots—but also remember that rooting hormone works wonders in making the transition’s outcome positive.

Seeds left outside to germinate (corn, beans, melons, squash) should be planted in loose, aerated, rich soil with good drainage, a reasonable pH, plenty of light and a pre-established irrigation system (drip is best, most cost efficient).

The Farmers’ Almanac has maintained for centuries that the moon is important to planting, whether indoor or outdoor. Specifically the book instructs to plant seeds for root vegetables as well as flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers while the moon is waning; seeds for annuals and plants that bear fruit above ground must be planted while the moon waxes in order to achieve their full potential.

Now, if you’ve followed this guide to its end you may now be standing on or nearby a plot of land at the very beginning of spring in Albuquerque in the year 2017, figuring out what you gotta do to get to that point beyond the text where stuff starts to grow, insects become pesky, chile pods become plentiful and your hardwork pays off gloriously, lushly. Well this is it:

Go inside and turn off the cartoons; heck disconnect the whole damn teevee, you won’t be needing it for the next six months. Get yourself a good shovel, a pitchfork, a sturdy pair of overalls and gloves, boots that are comfortable and waterproof, a bound notebook and all the gardening implements you can find or afford. You probably don’t want to bring your smart phone or tablet along because they will likely and inevitably get clogged up with mud and dirt. Then pick up a copy of the Farmers’ Almanac and become familiar with the practices described therein while also perusing as many seed catalogs and local nurseries as you can, searching for what you will grow. Then, get your land ready before it gets too late.

We’ll update readers with growing techniques and anecdotal data on the web as planting time approaches at the end of next month.

And remember, in this business, time is of the essence but a good old homegrown platter of calbacitas backed up with a root cellar filled with produce at harvest time is even better, sabes?

R.E.M.: “Gardening at Night”