I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not a native, I have spent most of my life moving from one place to another. At this point, I can count 30 places where I have lived long enough to change my mailing address. Can’t count how many places I have lived for shorter periods. For reasons I won’t go into, I have settled here for some years to come.
Since I am remaining here for some years, a few months ago, I decided it was better to buy a house than to keep renting.
Since Albuquerque is high desert and many people like it that way, many of the homes available have small yards filled with rocks. That was not attractive to me, as I want a yard where I can grow things and have space. The amusing thing is that it seemed the smaller the yard and the less you could do with it, the more it cost. So, I was drawn to an older part of town, which is largely rural. This is where I bought a rather large but older house with around 1/3 acre of land.. And no rocks intentionally placed in the yard.
Now, the yard was a mess when I moved in. There were holes, depressions, bricks, cinder blocks, branches and firewood all over the place. Not to mention something I called The Pile, which I wrote another entire article about. Over time, I have been and still am working on getting the yard in decent condition.
A short time after moving in and after leveling a slope in the yard where nothing grew, I decided to plant a vegetable garden. So, I tilled and hoed and planted. I weeded, I watered and I waited.. Nothing happened. I spread plant food and manure. I weeded, I watered, I waited.. Nothing happened.
Even the plants which I purchased already sprouted and growing died. I was getting a complex!
Now, I don’t have any formal education in gardening or farming. I grew up in a house that had a large yard but my family did not try to grow anything in that yard. They never used plant food, never tilled the soil or anything like that. I will admit the yard was not very attractive. With that background and living in apartments most of my life, I knew nothing about growing things. I kind of thought that you planted, you weeded, you watered and things grew! Now I know how naïve that whole concept was.
I started reading and found the advice about checking the soil properties and how to do so. The first thing I immediately found was that my yard was almost all sand and would retain no moisture at all. When I watered the garden, the soil was devoid of moisture within a couple of hours.
Then I went as far as getting a soil test kit. The results were that I found my soil had zero nitrogen. Yes, I mean zero, nada, zip, nothing! Plants require nitrogen for the process of developing chlorophyll for photosynthesis, which is how plants have the energy to survive and grow. No nitrogen? No plants.
All of this would explain why the area I planted in had nothing growing there to begin with. I had thought it was because the slope I leveled simply allowed all the water to run off.
Later, I learned from neighbors that previous residents also had a chicken coop where I was planting. Now, while chicken manure makes an excellent fertilizer, chickens tend to eat absolutely everything in the soil. If you ever see a chicken coop or chicken yard, you will find that nothing grows there.
So, I had sandy soil which would hold no moisture and no nitrogen at all. What to do about that? I did more reading. I had seen mention of compost and intended to begin composting at some point, though I did not really know what the benefits were. I just knew I had read it was good for plants. Now was when I found reference to how compost helps condition soil, adding organic material which helps sandy soil retain moisture. It also helps add nitrogen and other elements to the soil. So, I decided it was time to start composting right away.
How to go about it? I saw ads for all kinds of expensive composting bins and barrels. But considering the size of my yard, I figured I would need about four of the items I saw advertised! Then, by reading and learning how composting works, I decided a pit would work quite well and I could make it much larger than the bins, all at no cost. I dug a hole.
I was careful to check resources to know what to place in the compost pit and what to avoid. There was no problem with grass clippings, as part of the yard does have grass. Leaves were no problem, as I have several trees. I am glad I did my reading and did not place any meat products in the compost pit, which would attract rodents and cockroaches. Though healthy compost will have beetles, worms and possibly snails in it.
One impression I had was that compost would take months before it would be ready for use. It was quite a surprise to me when my first batch of compost was usable in under five weeks. However, much of that probably has to do with the heat of the desert, which helps the process along.
One of the drawbacks of a compost pit is that it takes a lot of work to turn the compost with a garden fork or shovel. Compost must be turned at least once a week to allow oxygen in the mixture. If you don’t do this, the smell can become terrible and your neighbors won’t like you very much. So, if you do not have a lot of upper body strength, I would advise getting a bin or barrel which you can turn. Compost should also be kept fairly moist, which increases the weight. Too dry and the composting process will continue but very slowly.
At this point, I have composted my garden twice. Things are beginning to grow and the soil is retaining some level of moisture. I even spread compost thinly over the grass to help feed it and am seeing the lawn get greener by the day. My garden will not produce much this year. It’s too late in the season to have much success. However, I will continue the composting process through the winter and keep conditioning the soil with it. I now have two compost pits and am considering a third, which can all be used in rotation. By next spring, the soil should be well conditioned and I can fill in one or two of the pits for use as garden space.