The sides of rocky mountains are not primo gardening material. A few species take hold and send their roots down cracks in the rocks, surviving harsh winds and creating little pockets of sandy soil. That is why lowlanders accustomed to thick, level soil think there is no garden potential here.
Not so, because some of the most beautiful gardens on this planet are on mountainsides. There are several ways to turn mountains of rock into a garden.
Mountains have dips and low areas that fill with sandy soil and water. Or ledges where soil is forming. These are co-opted by mountain people and turned into tiny fields and gardens. They add compost to enrich their small field and may drag containers of clay from stream beds for long distances.
Something like me in my sweats and my bright orange, water-filled Homer bucket with recycled sod melting its clay soil into the water. Yeah, I know you were visualizing picturesque peasant ladies with woven baskets on their heads!
Harder to get started are hand built stone terraces filled with the sandy soil available and improved with compost and clay. Schlepping rocks around is not for sissy girls like me, I don’t move them very fast. I do move them, though, if they aren’t too large.
We have blown up over 500 mountains in Appalachia for coal in one generation and left them toxic to wildlife and our people. Chinese folks spent centuries terracing entire mountains and feeding their families for unnumbered generations. Now China’s leaders are blowing mountains up, too. A good idea to at least look at photographs of these mountain gardens, the spirit and beauty is unbelievable. Before they get blown up.
China has had entire mountains collapse above the Three Gorges Dam, I have seen it on film. It’s massive size and the weight of the water in the reservoir actually slowed the rotation of the earth and flattened it too. Amazing what the Chinese get up to.
It is by all geological estimates doomed to failure and the 1.24 million that were dislocated from the reservoir area are probably the lucky ones. The dam itself is already cracked from water pressure and sits on a seismic fault, the whole mess upstream of a massive population that will be swept away when the dam breaks. Perhaps the 1.24 million farmers will go back home and terrace whatever mountains are left. It is easy to feel sad for the loss of mountains. The human tragedy would be so vast it is….
Who would think that mountains might be an endangered species? Lord have mercy. So what works for my not-yet-endangered Food Forest? I have taken advantage of ledges and dips to sneak in fruiting shrubs and wildflowers.
Because my rocks are forested, I have started terracing with stones in a small way for fruit trees and shrubs. How many generations does it take to terrace an entire mountain by hand?
Here is where raised beds come into their own and just in time for my achy old knees. Mountains tend to be cold and terraces and raised beds warm up earlier in the spring and stay warm longer in the fall. They add those few needed days to ensure a crop. Life or death for those living without a grocery store on the corner. Stones hold heat and are beautiful.
I also have concrete (faux stone) raised beds that function in a manner similar to my stone beds. They are 2 feet deep and a hugelkultur mixture of sandy loam and compost that works well for herbs and vegetables.
I will have a few raised beds over sandy gravel and plan to keep some ultra dwarf fruit trees that might root below the 2 foot deep loam/compost. Herbs and vegetables can grow around them.
How will I turn low nutrient sandy soil into beautiful gardens? Hugelkultur, which is perfect because I have deadwood everywhere.
All these evergreens do not produce the leaf volume I had in Texas and Washington, but they drop a constant supply of dead limbs. Around here, New Mexicans say to burn this dead wood. The government will come in and do a controlled burn for you. It does release a little nutrient value from wood ashes, but rain through wood ashes makes a lye solution that will burn your skin off. The land recovers eventually.
Growing up in the damp Pacific Northwest, I saw a different story. I saw limbs and entire trees fall in the forest and decompose. Very quickly they soak up water and grow various species of moss, mushrooms, blueberries (my favorite), and at least one small replacement tree.
Here I am with a wealth of dead tree limbs. So I have put dead tree limbs in every berm and terrace, and even in my concrete block beds. I add the compost material from friends in town and cover with my sandy soil. The terraces I made two years ago have good decomposition of the smaller limbs and debris already.
Hugelkultur is at least hundreds of years old and was developed in forests, of course. Whereas the Oregon and Washington forests are damp enough to subsume the trees relatively quickly, my dry pinyon-juniper forest is slower.
That’s where I get to play a part. By breaking up the branches and burying them, I create an environment that keeps the wood moist enough to speed up turning them into compost.
I am filling the terraces and raised beds with dead tree limbs and any compost material I can beg borrow or steal from trees in my friends’ gardens in town. That may end because I am sure they will all keep that valuable stuff eventually.
It is amazing how well this enriches my soil and increases water retention. I liked it so much, I brought home 33 expired Christmas trees last year that a local vendor gave me free. Apparently I saved him money too since the city charges him for disposal.
My wonderful pinyon-juniper Food Forest may end up being my most attractive garden yet. Surely within a decade or two.
I am a mountain woman now, lowlanders!