Desert Gardening Techniques: Waffle GardensOkay, here goes my unpopular opinion: I don't like raised garden beds out here in the desert.
Yes, desert soil is a pain in the BUTT to dig. If you hit caliche, it's worse. You're digging in cement, essentially, and it's horrible and hard and sometimes, literally impossible to dig through. And as I have been reminded, raised garden beds are one of the few ways to make gardening handicap accessible, too. I can completely understand why people use raised garden beds.
However, I am relatively mobile, my caliche has not been more than a couple feet thick (crossing fingers here that this remains the case throughout the yard), and so here's my thought process when I was first starting to garden here: how did the people who have lived deserts like this, for thousands of years, garden? Because they didn't have pre-made soil amendments, and neither do I. They probably wanted to use as little water as possible, or with as little effort as possible getting it, and so do I. And they had a loooong time to figure this out, so why don't I check out what they did?
The answer is: the opposite of a raised garden bed. One well known desert gardening method, which I'm obviously talking about today, is a waffle garden, a type of recessed or sunken gardening. I know that in many areas of the country, a sunken garden bed equals a boggy, soggy mess that is only good for growing swampy plants. Out here in the desert, however, that's not an issue. I have yet to meet someone gardening in the desert who needed a raised garden bed because the ground was too wet. Just not going to happen.
Most of the desert gardeners I know of already use recessed gardening when it comes to their trees, with a shallow basin around the tree to collect the water and keep it where we want it: with the tree.
The same thing applies to veggie and flower gardens. Here in the Sonoran Desert, we get monsoons, where a lot of rain comes all at once. Having a recessed garden bed means that you get to collect all that water for your plants rather than having a good portion of it run off and over into the rest of the yard.
A recessed garden bed evaporates less quickly, because the wind tends to hit the berms and blow with less severity over the soil where your garden is, which means there is less evaporation due to wind.
Recessed garden beds are also free, as you don't need any special containers or supplies to keep extra dirt in. And you end up with extra dirt that you can use to fill in other areas, or add to the compost pile.
The one thing recessed beds do require, though, is time and sweat. You have to dig these out and make the berms. While in some soils that's no big deal, here in the desert it can be a lot of work. I still remember a talk I had with a friend who had recently moved to the desert. She said, with this wistful note in her voice, "I miss having dirt where you pushed your shovel into it and it actually went in."
I was so struck by that because all of my gardening has been in the desert. I've never gardened, in my life, with dirt where I could just stick a shovel into the the ground and it sank in. I've had to fight the soil tooth and nail, and claw some usable dirt out of it with sheer stubborn determination. So I really do understand why making a recessed garden is not everyone's cup of tea.
But the reason I like it is that once it's done, it is less work, and less water, and I like that a lot more than I dislike the initial work.
So, if you, too, would like to make a recessed garden bed, here's one idea that has been used for at least a thousand years.
Here's some resources if you wish to try this yourself:
An article on a project to continue the tradition of waffle gardens in with Zuni youth. A nice photograph is there to illustrate what they might look like in a larger garden.
Another article featuring a waffle garden at the A:Shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico.
One version of a Zuni waffle garden, with instructions on how to make it.
Another version, with a quick and easy method to get nice, even squares for your 'waffle.'
This site talks about not only waffle gardens but another way to save water and keep the garden hydrated, which is called 'buried clay pot irrigation.'
Another site discussing various water saving methods, plus an unusual career: a paleohydrologist, who looks at water usage techniques of ancient peoples.
For anyone homeschooling or interested in using waffle gardens in the classroom, I found this information to be very useful. It comes from an interview with an elderly Zuni woman who has been gardening like this for most of her life. There are details on what she used for fertilizer, how she former her recessed beds, and some small details that you just don't see in other places. I used this small article the most when making my own waffle garden.
My own waffle gardening experience