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For The Garden

Soil Secrets

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: January, 2010, Page 63


Raised vegetable beds packed with salad greens and chard are protected from grazing desert creatures by a mesh enclosure.
He transplants agave offshoots in May or June, erecting a cage of wire-mesh hardware cloth around each plant. He then drapes a dried palm frond on top of the wire cage for shade, fastening it with twist ties or topping it with a rock to prevent it from blowing off. “If you don’t want to purchase wire for cages, try propping a frond against a rock to create a little A-frame over the plant,” Pew suggests.
In October or November, when the desert sun is less fierce, Pew removes the fronds. By the time summer rolls around, most agaves have acclimated to direct sun. “If I notice that a plant is starting to sunburn in June, I replace its shade awning,” he says.

Pew is a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Pima County Master Gardener and enjoys sharing his experiences with newcomers to the desert. “The biggest pitfall for many new gardeners seems to be dealing with disappointment when plants die, but even experienced gardeners lose plants,” he observes.

Tucson artist Keith Jellum created this 10-foot-wide hand-forged agave gate.
“Just keep trying, because it’s a useful learning experience. Writer Lawrence Durrell said that verdant landscapes invite you to study what they have to show, whereas desert landscapes invite you to study yourself. To me, that’s the essence of the desert,” Pew concludes.

Hints for Healthy Soil

Tom Pew suggests that gardeners who have relied on chemical fertilizers and pesticides can transform their soil into a self-sustaining soil food web by eliminating use of chemicals and regularly adding organic matter in the form of compost or compost tea.
Pew also buries kitchen scraps directly into his vegetable beds. “My soil is now full of earthworms and microbial activity that break down scraps within a couple of weeks.”
In addition to the book Teaming With Microbes, he recommends the following Web sites to learn more about the soil food web: and

Hybrid salvias bloom beside a golden barrel cactus.

Intrigued by his garden observations in his garden, Tom Pew attended a workshop on the soil food web taught by Dr. Elaine Ingham, a noted researcher in the field. He came away with an appreciation of how soil microbes influence water use and nutrient availability in the garden.
“I learned that bacteria produce bio-slime that allows them to attach to soil particles so they aren’t washed away with rain or irrigation,” he explains. “A secondary result of bacterial slime is that it binds soil particles together.” This important action creates soil structure with billions of pore spaces that allow penetration of air, water, nutrients and roots. “Better soil structure and improved water penetration explain why I use less water in my garden while still achieving good harvests.”

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