Southwestern Sustainable Farmscaping: Planting for Home Livestock


The right plants can provide needed cover for livestock, repel insects, and serve as forage.

Everywhere across the American Southwest, folks are raising chickens, milking goats, horses, and grazing their own cattle. The rural way of life is evolving towards animal care and organic gardening. Dependence on livestock is creeping into the suburbs, too, where clean, efficient animal keeping is bumping up against the traditional backyard. This requires livestock areas to look good from the house, require minimal care, and efficiently benefit our homes and lifestyles. These requirements are achieved with good choices.

Small Farm Animal Needs

It starts with animal needs. Choose plants that are beneficial to livestock such as insect repelling and animal-friendly natives and exotics. These should be able to take the dust of the dry season caused by winds picking up particles loosened by animal movement on hard soil. The plants should also be able to take the reflected heat of afternoons. Hot spots occur in the uncovered ground, paving, dark shed roofs, and heat-absorbing metal animal enclosures.

Here are four strategies for sustainably supporting home livestock through smart planting practices.

Strategy 1 – Provide Good Cover

Grapevines are ideal for shading outdoor animal enclosures from the direct summer sun and protecting poultry from raptors. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Plant deciduous vines to cover chicken coops that lack sufficient summer shade. When the leaves fall, the warming winter sun can come through. Good options are table or wine grapes or vigorous trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).  Covering open coops with summer vines also halts overhead predation by blocking the view from above.  If birds of prey can’t see your hens, they won’t swoop down to take them.

Strategy 2 – Plant for Protection

Establish insect-repelling plants around your barn to repel flies and provide repellent cuttings for feeding areas. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Plant attractive insect-repelling herbs around the outside of your animal pens to help them blend in visually with other useful plants. Herbs with pungent oils are potent and most animals don’t graze on these plants. A pungent native option is white sage (Salvia apiana) used by Native Americans to keep pests out of homes. A mint called pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is also known as fleabane because it is abhorrent to fleas and other pests. Put fresh cuttings into nest boxes and blend into the bedding as a pest preventative. Other repellent candidates include fennel, lavender, rosemary, and tansy (golden tansy (Tanacetum vulgare ‘Isla Gold’) is prettiest), all of which make fine landscaping that prevents other pests and flies around pens.

Clip your herb plants to release oils into the ambient area to drive away flies. As the oils release their aroma, they also cover up unpleasant animal odors in the heat and humidity of summer.

Strategy 3 – Plant a Tree

The blue 25-gallon water trough is dumped onto the yellow flowering palo verde tree whenever it is cleaned. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Plant a good tree or large shrub beside every water trough and faucet. This is because water troughs must be cleaned often, and the dirty recycled wastewater is actually beneficial to plants. Make it easy to pour or siphon out your troughs for an alternative irrigation strategy when it doesn’t rain enough for a rain barrel irrigation system. These trees will also provide more comfortable trough filling for the suburban farmer and trough drinking for the animals.

(Editor’s Note: Trees can do even more. Planting working trees for livestock, also termed silvopasture, is a planting practice where the right beneficial trees for the right regions are planted in ways that allow them to become living barns, windbreaks, and even forage for your animals. (Click this USDA document to learn more.))

Strategy 4 – Avoid Dangerous Plants

Barbed or spiny plants can be harmful to livestock, even if they taste good.

Finally, avoid plants that may pose physical of chemical dangers to animals. These include poisonous plants and those with dangerous thorns and spines.

There are many plants that pose physical dangers. Be careful of spiny cacti and succulents. Just keep them well away from animal areas. Roses, barberries, and sharp yuccas are also problematic. Removing spiny weeds, like star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), sharp foxtail grasses, and ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus), is also important.

Beware of toxic plants such as oleander, Chinaberry tree fruit, and many others, such as Euphorbias, that contain poisonous sap adapted to discourage herbivory in the wild. Some large trees, such as black cherry (Prunus serotina) are very toxic to ruminates, like cattle, sheep, and goats. (Click here to learn more about the most poisonous garden and landscape plants to avoid and, click here for a list of poisonous pasture weeds in the American West.)

Planting your livestock-inhabited yard, small farm, or ranch property properly will make animal care easier, less resource-intensive, and above all good planting can result in fewer chores. Don’t let your farmscape look like a desert wasteland or a junkyard. Every farm is a garden, every ranch a zoo. When they blend together into a holistic organic environment for humans and beasts alike, you have the ultimate family home and garden.

Well-placed trees can be fed and irrigated by trough water and provide cover, windbreaks, and even forage for livestock.

Seven Mediterranean Food Plants for the Dry Edible Garden

Pomegranates are common fruits for southern California.

The dry edible garden is rooted in classical civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians shared their ancient local food crops throughout the western world. Some of the best are grapes, pomegranates, date palms, rosemary, artichokes, cardoons, and figs. All are still vital to contemporary agriculture in deserts and dry places around the world and make great choices for arid-zone gardens.

Growing Mediterranean Edibles

Because most of these Mediterranean edibles are not very cold hardy, you need to know their tolerances before trying to grow any outdoors. Further north, grow dwarf varieties in containers that can be brought indoors for the winter. Water-holding, Black Gold Moisture Supreme potting soil is an ideal mix for contained arid food plants.

One potential problem is that some of these plants, such as date palms, need long-term high heat for their fruit to ripen properly. Though fruits might appear in cooler temps, they aren’t nearly as sweet or just won’t fully ripen.

If you live where they are hardy, grapes, pomegranates, date palms, rosemary, artichokes, cardoons, and figs make outstanding landscape plants that thrive despite limited water and high heat. Keep in mind that sufficient irrigation is required, particularly in porous, fast draining soils, if they are to produce quality fruit. Here are additional tips for growing each.

1. 2. Artichokes and Cardoons

Artichokes have naturalized in arid coastal California, proving their adaptability. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Out in the garden, the easiest arid vegetables to start with are artichokes and their close relative, cardoon. Both act as ornamental and edible perennials. The artichoke we eat is the flower bud, which should be harvested when buds are full-sized with tight bracts. For a big floral show, leave the buds to mature into huge, purple thistle-like blooms. This plant also bears fabulous lobed grayish foliage that’s exceptional for gray gardens. [Click here to learn more about growing artichokes.]

Cardoons have flavorful stems that can be blanched and eaten. The bold silvery leaves also look great when planted in arid flower gardens, and are followed by large, purplish, thistle-like flowers.

3. Date Palms

Fresh dates on a date palm tree.

Mediterranean date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) reach up to 100-feet and like heat and drought. They are hardy to USDA Zones 8b11, so they can only be grown in the hot and dry American landscapes of Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Florida. Full sun and well-drained dry soil are required for good growth. Male and female flowers exist on separate plants, so at least one male and female plant are needed for cross-pollination and fruit set.

(Editor’s Note: If space is limited, try growing the Southeast Asian pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii), which reaches 8-10 feet, can be container grown, and is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11. Its dark purplish fruits are thin-skinned but edible.)

4. Figs

Many figs grow well in large containers.

Dwarf forms of fig (Ficus carica) are specially bred for small-space areas. They grow well in containers that are fit for small city gardens or high-density neighborhoods in hot climates. Hardiness depends on the variety. Some are hardy to USDA Zone 6, as is the case with ‘Chicago Hardy’, while most others are hardy to USDA Zones 8-11. Here too, learn if their fruit cycle works locally by checking with your local garden center. You want the plant to thrive in a large patio container during summer, then plan for winter protection strategies. You may need wheels or a good dolly to bring pots indoors.

5. Grapes

The green hose marks the single watering point for this grapevine in the high desert. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Common grapes (Vitis vinifera) are amazing vines that provide both extensive shade and an annual crop of fruit grown for fresh eating or winemaking. Grapevine covered ramadas were landscape fixtures in early California and served as the first true “outdoor rooms” in the region.

The beauty of grapes is that they have one stem per plant, making irrigation of single plants easy. Drip irrigation helps sustain vines that survive an average of 30-40 years and become enormous over time, even with pruning. Grapes offer more than fruit; the young leaves are easily canned for homemade stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) from scratch.

6. Pomegranates

Grapes have been cultivated in the Mediterranean since ancient times.

Today’s pomegranate (Punica granatum) trees come in a huge range of sizes, with smaller trees for city yards or larger trees for orchards or spacious landscape plantings.  So long as the local climate is within the cold tolerance range (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11) and summers are not humid and rainy, pomegranates should thrive.

They grow well in poor, dry, rocky soils, but benefit from soils fortified with organic matter. (Commercial growers know that to achieve the largest juiciest fruits regular moisture and nutrition are needed.)  If the soil drains well, a pomegranate will appreciate added soil amendment.  The best choice is to blend Black Gold Garden Compost into the soil at planting time.  This helps young potted trees transition from potting soil to native soil. [Click here to learn more about growing pomegranates.]

7. Rosemary

A rosemary shrub in flower.

The herb rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a large evergreen shrub that grows well in arid regions and tolerates intense sun.  It has many uses. Enjoy it as a culinary herb, cut flower, and or essential oil scent. The fresh stems also make great flavored kebob sticks and/or barbecue brushes. Plant potted rosemary in Black Gold potting soil and place on a sunny, west-facing patio or deck.

Quality potting soils with high water-holding capacity are the best choice for growing edible plants with fewer irrigation demands. Good mixes rich in organics hold more water for longer than low-grade potting mixes. That means you can grow more with less water, and harvest fruit and veggies at a fraction of the price of shipped fruit from grocery stores.

Hip, Sustainable Rugosa Roses

Wild rugosa roses typically have showy, single, pink flowers that stand bright against disease resistant, rugose foliage.

If you’re yearning for sustainable, self-sufficient or fast ways to get slow food, add a hip-producing rose or two to your landscape. Don’t choose modern, easy-care types that are too highly bred to be useful. Instead start with the Asian Rosa rugosa, which is more cold hardy and drought resistant than most others along with being a great fruit producer. It’s also nearly pest and disease free, making it the perfect first fruit-producing rose of choice.

Edible Hips

I have always cultivated rugosas for their enormous fruits, called “hips”, that follow the pollinated flower. The tart rugosa fruits are some of the largest of all roses and mature to dark red in the fall. If left on the upright canes, their color pops after early snowfall.

rose rugosa hip
The large round hips of Rosa rugosa are tart, flavorful and packed with nutrients.

Rugosa hips range in diameter from the size of a nickel to as large as a quarter. The soft, astringent flesh inside is chock full of vitamins. When dried, they make an amazing medicinal tea for cold and flu. Their medicinal value was discovered by the British during World War II when citrus importation was limited. Finding a local source of vitamin C was essential to staving off scurvy in the children, and rose hips from English gardens saved the day. Since then, rose hips became coveted for jams and jellies, concentrated syrups or as vitamin rich additives to medicinal teas. Adding fresh rose hips to a quick bread or cookies also lends unique flavor and adds nutritional value.

Rugosa Growth

Rugosa roses have a more brambly growth habit in that they spread via underground rhizomes and can eventually form thickets–particularly if planted in sandy, friable soils. The roots send up canes all along the way to eventually create a large dense plant. This has made rugosas the most popular rose for creating carefree hedges that don’t need to be pampered or sprayed. Rather than planting a hedge of boxwood or some other strictly ornamental shrub, use rugosas instead. There are many cultivated varieties of this rose that bloom red, white or the common pink, you get food and flowers.

Rugosa hips continue to look pretty into winter until they are consumed by wildlife.
Unused hips continue to look pretty into winter until they are consumed by wildlife. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Plant non-grafted rugosas bareroot in spring or from container plants any time from spring to fall. It’s advisable to start with well-rooted 1- or 5-gallon plants spaced apart at between 3 to 5 feet; good spacing allows plenty of room for each to spread out to fill the gaps quickly.

This rose is native to the coastal hillsides, sandy sea shores of China, but it has become established in many temperate, sandy locations worldwide, it grows best in sandy soils. Still it is adaptable and will grow well in all but poorly drained soils.

Planting Rugosa Roses

The easiest planting method for rugosas is to dig a trench, and amend the soil to encourage more adventurous rooting. (Trenching discourages root travel beyond the strict edges of the trench for a more precise linear hedge.) Amend the excavated soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to lighten clay or increase water holding capacity of sandy soils. Enrich it further with alfalfa meal, a favorite natural fertilizer of rose aficionados everywhere. The fertility of poor soils can also be boosted with alfalfa meal for even more nutrition at planting time.

These wild rugosa roses have formed brambly thickets along a sandy beach.
These wild rugosa roses have formed brambly thickets along a sandy beach. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Planting just one rugosa rose in your yard is the genesis for a more extensive fruit and flower harvest in the future. Simply allow plants to become established, then either create new ones by layering the stems, or dig out more adventurous rhizomes, sever and replant elsewhere.

No other rose is as well suited to the sustainable garden, urban agriculture and the hobby farm due to its ease of cultivation, pest and disease resistance and many uses in the kitchen. So plant easy care rugosa roses for hedges and as a fruit crop that bears heartily during the hard times, and ‘tween times, when there’s little else going in your garden.

Plant Your Organic Garden

Once your soil is fed with natural & organic fertilizers and amendments and tilled, will you grow your veggies from seed or seedlings? The answer depends on the kinds of plants you choose to grow.

Fast growing plants that have large seeds planted deeper down are usually sown directly into garden soil. These include corn, squash, cucumbers, melons, sunflowers, beans or peas. When you buy your seed, know that every packet is marked with its year just like a food expiration date. Make sure yours is labeled for the current year so the seed is sure to sprout quickly.

Slower to germinate plants with smaller seeds such as peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and greens are more easily started indoors ahead of time. These can also be purchased as seedlings at the garden center. Bonnie Plants offers a wide range of organically grown varieties in sizes from seedling four-pack to gallon pot plants already on the way toward flower and fruit. The price dictates which you choose. They are grown in peat pots that can be planted directly into the soil for minimal root disturbance. If you can’t find organically grown seedlings, buy a standard nursery-grown seedling and raise it organically for the same result.

Continue reading “Plant Your Organic Garden”

Build Organic Garden Soil with Black Gold

Building organic garden soil is the same as working the soil for any other kind of garden except for one thing: you must feed the soil with OMRI Listed products for organic gardening. The ground below your feet is not just dirt but a whole living breathing universe unto itself. Within those soil mineral particles are populations of microscopic bacteria, fungi, yeasts, protozoa and algae. They are collectively known as microbes, which feed on the remnants of dead plants, also known as organic matter. Organic gardens depend on high microbe populations to make plants grow strong naturally, resist pests and diseases, and produce a bumper crop of food or flowers.

Continue reading “Build Organic Garden Soil with Black Gold”

Turning, Tilling, and Amending Your Organic Garden

Gardens can be turned by hand or mechanically tilled. The results and investments of time and energy are very different. Sometimes they can be done in conjunction, other times one or the other is more appropriate.

If you don’t have a spading fork, now is the time to buy one. This unique tool looks like a pitch fork, but the tines are straight and much thicker. For anyone serious about mixing an organic garden by hand, this is your most important purchase. Do not scrimp on quality because a good fork will last for decades. The spading fork turns soil more easily because the tines break up clods automatically, unlike a shovel which actually helps to cement heavy soil together.

A rototiller an essential workhorse used for larger in-ground gardens, tilling thoroughly and deeply with minimal effort.Tillers are too heavy for raised beds and won’t turn tightly enough to be of good use. Lightweight Mantis tillers are the exception, but they are still no replacement for the fork.

At this stage of garden preparation, three mistakes are common. Gardeners often fail to get enough amendment, they don’t till or turn the soil deep enough, and they work the amendments into just the top few inches of soil. Roots need deep, fertile soil for best root development, so the deeper your soil is worked and amended, the better.

Getting Started

BG-GRDNCMPST-BLND_1cu-FRONTThe first step is rough-turning by hand or rough tilling. It eliminates compaction that built up over winter from rain and snow. Some gardeners let the ground sit open for a week after rough-tilling before going to the next step. This allows time to fully aerate the soil and exposes underground pests so they die or can be easily removed.
To get the most of the rototiller, go slow to allow it to dig down and open that lower layer of soil. When tilling by hand, till at least as deep as the length of the spading fork tines. The result will be a rough, irregular surface that allows amendments to settle deep into the nooks and crannies.

The next step is to spread your Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and other amendments evenly over the entire surface. For in-ground gardens, this is the a-ha moment when you realize you haven’t got nearly enough to cover it all at least three inches deep. Raised bed gardeners may discover they’ve overfilled the beds with soil, and there’s with no free board left on the edges to contain the additional organic matter. Be sure to resolve these issues before proceeding, and use this formula to determine the amount of amendment to add over a given area.

Amendment Application Formula

([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

Till the amendments in as deeply as you can, then do it again in the opposite direction. This is to catch any undisturbed strips or pockets missed between previous passes. When using a spading fork, strive for even tillage, working backwards across the soil, so you aren’t standing on newly turned ground.

After tilling the last time, use your heavy garden rake to level the soil, removing the remnants of last year’s plants. If you are planting from seed, go over it again with a fine leaf rake to get the surface ready to be sown.

Because organic gardening is about feeding the soil, consider yourself the chef. Tilling in amendments is the process of serving a healthy meal. When this all comes together in a gourmet creation, the miracle of life in your organic garden begins.








Raised Garden Beds In Dry Country

BG-WATERHOLD_1cu-FRONTMy desert garden is the worst case scenario, and I like it that way. When I test plants and products for gardens, they go through the wringer…literally. I want to know how far I can push things before they fail.


When the dry wind blows up here in the high desert of southern California, it sucks every bit of moisture out of the soil surface. The real problem is called desiccation, which is the process of wind drawing moisture out of a living leaf. Under these conditions, there simply isn’t enough moisture in the root zone to replace what’s lost. Growth slows, leaf edges brown and plants fail to thrive.


I decided to try Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil to see if it would offer plants more immediate moisture availability. Because my soil is so porous, I simply dug a hole, filled it with Cocoblend and planted tomatoes directly into the potting soil. Nearby I mixed compost and organic fertilizer into my desert ground, which is more like decomposed granite than real soil, and planted more tomatoes there. The test plant groups were no more than four feet apart.


Then came an unusual with cold gale force winds from dawn to dusk. My test took the full brunt of it. The plants in Cocoblend stood the desiccation easily. The others lost their bright green coloring and took on temporary wilt. Frankly, it amazed me that differences were so immediately apparent. And this repeated itself over and over when temperatures soared or more moderate wind blew for days. I could not help but attribute the difference to the coir in the aptly named Waterhold Cocoblend.


densityCoir is a byproduct of coconut processing. It is the stringy brown fibers that composed the husk, and these are stripped off when coconuts are processed. When finely ground, this material is proving the most absorptive material available, and yet it won’t pack down over time to cause drainage problems. Best of all, it is recycled, not mined.
What this told me is that Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil is without question the best choice for raised beds in dry climates hot and cold. Somehow the absorbency of coir is so far beyond anything we’ve seen in the past that its revolutionizing the potting soil world. When used to fill raised beds, it is the best choice for sustainability because it is made from recycled material and helps to conserve water. Virtually every drop you apply to the garden will be absorbed and held ready for roots when they need it. Plus, it takes about twenty years for coir to decompose, so you can be sure it’s as viable today as it will be in the future.


The combination of coir and peat moss is biologically active because worm castings are part of the scientifically blended soil. Earth worms process natural soil into castings which are rich in slow release nutrients. They also contain a whole world of microbes which are introduced to this rich organic soil. Some microbes actually make plants more resistant to drought, promote more aggressive root development and improve disease resistance.


Whenever you create a vegetable garden in raised beds, you must fill it with soil. There are many choices available in a wide range of prices. But remember this: You get one chance to fill those beds, and selecting poor, low cost soil means you start off lacking in water holding potential, microbial activity and nutrient loads from day one. That’s a serious problem out west in our hot, rainless, dry environment. You’ll be always running to catch up. That’s no real savings.


Better Results All Season Long with Black Gold®

Black Gold All Purpose with Multicote Potting SoilWith the advent of Black Gold® All Purpose, you are now able to enjoy the benefits of a premium quality potting soil with a fertilizer that will feed your plants for up to six months. Sun Gro sells this same fertilizer product to professional growers. By incorporating Multicote® into your potting soil, your plants will have a consistent supply of nutrients throughout the entire season.

Multicote®, a controlled release fertilizer, has been coated with a polymer that slowly breaks down to release the nutrients over time. Unlike other controlled release fertilizers in the marketplace, Multicote® will not release excessive nutrients in higher temperatures, thus ensuring your plant will thrive no matter what the weather. This baseline of fertilizer allows your plants to grow all season long, not just when you remember to fertilize. Additional fertilizations with a liquid fertilizer, starting a couple weeks after planting, will ensure your plants get all the nutrients they need, particularly if your plants are heavy feeders.

Ideal for all types of plants, Black Gold® All Purpose with Multicote® is a great choice for house plants, patio containers and hanging baskets. Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss with earthworm castings, forest humus, compost and pumice combine to provide your plants with both moisture retention and good drainage. Since this potting soil has a higher amount of peat moss, it is ideal for gardeners looking to reduce their fertilizer and water usage.

Think of all the benefits – you start with a premium potting soil; add a controlled release fertilizer that will lessen the frequency of fertilizing; and you get improved plant performance by using Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Soil with Multicote®.

Compost the Black Gold® Way

One of the secret ingredients used by successful gardeners is Black Gold® Garden Compost Blend. What exactly is garden compost? Compost happens when microbes break down or decompose organic or living matter–such as leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable waste. The next time you take a walk in a forest look down at the forest floor, and you will see compost being made naturally from fallen leaves. The final product is a dark, rich, earthy smelling material that gardeners commonly refer to as “black gold” because of its high fertility. And whether bought by the bag or made at home, it does wonders for the garden.

Continue reading “Compost the Black Gold® Way”