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Hi, I’m new to your group.


Started to plant a food forest in my yard and quickly realized I don’t know what I’m doing. Looking for help on best practices in the Phoenix desert for growing food year around. Currently have 4 apples trees, 2 apricots, black mission fig starting their second roasting summer. Also have a 27 year old dwarf navel orange tree on the side yard. Three garden beds and a small grove of banana plants along with a small forest of papaya tree and two grape vines that produced the first year after planting. I also have many trees and plants in pots ranging from 12oz to 35 gallon size. The yard is a total mess with my wife politely looking on. The first step is a plan is needed so going to do a yard map this week-end. Second some day labors are needed! The yard has a nice layer of clay 1-2 feet deep and then a 2-6 inches of caliche then river rock, sand and clay. At about four feet down the sand is bone dry in places and a very light in color it appears that no water gets that deep. I also need the best irrigation system for water conservation. I also have a 600 gallon pond that can be used for rain water holding.

1) Need help with where and how to plant everything and what to plant.

2) How to water and with what system.

3) Supplies (wood chips and bio-char and ???)

I'm north by the loop 101 and I17.


Looking forward to meeting you all.


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Sounds like a huge fun project Bruce!  The VPA has a great class on designing and building drip-irrigation systems. I'm not sure what your level of familiarity with watering systems is, but if, like me, you are starting from zero, the class may be very helpful.  I put in two large-systems, one for my 5 raised-bed veggie gardens, and one for 9 fruit trees with soaker-hoses, and the class gave me all the info I needed, as well as the confidence to plot it out and make the $ investment in the gear.

The Fruit Tree Class and Vegetable Gardening Class were also invaluable 2 years ago when I was first starting out.

Best of Luck!

Thank Charles for the info. Has you system been in for awhile and is it holding up? Is it modifiable if you want to move stuff around? Are you using rain water?

I hope this doesn't sound too snarky, but if I were using only rainwater all of my plants would be dead! I installed the system last spring, and it's held up great – except for when the dogs decided to rip the whole thing out, which has happened a couple of times. It's very modifiable, it's kind of like an erector set where you can build it large, build it small, take it apart and put different parts on heading in different directions.
There was a point last year where I was going to build a rainwater catchment system and set it up for watering my plants, I don't know if you've been paying attention to the rainfall over the past year but it's been next to nothing, so until this hundred-year-drought ends, I'm holding off on the rainwater system.

Hi Bruce and welcome!

As both a Permaculture Design Course instructor and a Certified Water Harvesting Practitioner, I would highly encourage you to look at your water resources first (rainfall, greywater reuse) before you decide what to plant where.  We have a saying in deserts - "plant the water BEFORE the plants".

If you've had a PDC, you probably know how to make base maps with your sectors and zones.  I also have my students do a water budget and identify where their water opportunities are, how much water comes from each resource and what plant life that can support because water is hands-down our most limited resource here in the desert. 

If you're interested, Ryan Wood of Watershed Management Group is one of the most talented dryland permaculture designers I know and can help you with working out what your water budget is.  You can contact him here at 602-618-6650  or 

Thank you Jennifer, been thinking about water and how to use it for gardening. Without thousands of gallons holding tanks how can one garden vegetables in the valley? I have killed off my grass yard over the last two years so that's been a nice saving on the water bill.  When reading on dry farming one place said to have the water soak into the soil 10 feet deep. Most of my yard is bone dry at the 4 foot level. I'll check into Ryan Wood info.

Hey Bruce - I think I was too brief in my answer. 

Here's the deal - you probably won't meet all your water needs with RAINFALL alone, especially if you grow a lot of annual vegetables which are the highest water users.  However, there are ways to design your landscape to be water harvesting instead of water shedding.  This should be a main goal of anyone who practices permaculture in a dryland.

A well-design water harvesting landscape can not only harvest the rain that DOES fall and put it to beneficial use, but it can also take into consideration the location of your potential indoor and outdoor greywater sources and enable your system to be expanded if you should want to harvest that greywater.  Harvesting and reusing greywater can grow you a fantastic urban orchard. (greywater is not appropriate for veggies). 

I understand people scoffing at rainfall as a source of water here.  It occurs as if we don't get any (or hardly any) and so people dismiss it.  And our entire community suffers for it.  Why?  Because instead of capturing and making the most of what rain we DO get, we let it rush across our landscapes, out into our streets and into our sewer systems or our waterways.  All along this path, it picks up pollutants, causes erosion, and generally is a nuisance rather than a resource and that costs us money in terms of cleaning it and repairing damage caused. 

If we, as individuals, designed each of our homes to be water harvesting - we could stop that water from rushing off the surface of our land and do some fabulously productive things with it - like grow native trees and support plants that would cut down on the urban heat island effect and save us money on electricity to cool our homes.  Native plants also bring in native pollinators and predators.  Water would be slowed so it was less damaging/erosive and pollutants could be cleaned from our water by passing it through this vegetation.  Trees also clean our polluted urban air and soils.  Because water harvesting landscapes use concave shapes, like basins, over convex shapes like mounds or raised beds, organic matter tends to collect there and this both mulches the plants and builds our soils.

One of the most basic misconceptions people have about permaculture is that they confuse it with organic gardening, i.e. "growing food".  While growing food is an important part of permaculture, it is not all that permaculture is.  Permaculture is about designing in such a way that honors your climate and your resources.  One of the basic principles of permaculture is that you stack functions.  Each element serves many functions and each function is supported by many elements.  By designing a water retaining landscape you work with your climate to increase your personal abundance in terms of: shade canopy coverage, food production, soil-building and the creation of sparkling clean air, soils and water.  But it doesn't stop there.  Your entire community becomes the beneficiaries of your efforts.  And who knows?  They might want some of that action for themselves!

So, if we create a concave, water harvesting landscape, we can:

1.  Grow native species that thrive on our annual rainfall which help cut down on cooling costs, clean air/soil/water, attract pollinators and in some cases, provide food for us.  Our native trees help cool our urban environment - which is why the VPA's Native Tree Program is so critical to us. 

2.  If we vent our used sink, tub, shower and laundry water (greywater) to some of those same convex water harvesting basins we can provide enough additional water to grow many non-native fruit trees.  This gives us lots of tasty FOOD.

3.  We can then catch rainwater off our roofs in tanks to water our veggie gardens. 

These steps can be implemented over time  - but it all starts with good "bones" - a water harvesting landscape.  Sure, you might always use drip irrigation in some areas, like veggie gardens, but that is way better than irrigating a whole yard with water that's brought into Phoenix from hundreds of miles away.

Water harvesting guru, Tucson native Brad Lancaster (who has now taught these techniques in over a dozen countries worldwide) illustrates the power of a water harvesting landscape in a video from 2008.

Art Lipkis of LA, Founder of TreePeople, illustrating much the same thing.  Again - these systems are being emulated all over the world. This is a Vimeo video so I'm not sure the embed will work. Here's the link in case it doesn't:

Only the first 3 feet matter...that is where 90% of the roots are.  In your described case, that may be 2 feet as the roots are likely to hit a wall at the caliche. I will admit it is nice having a reservoir area in the 3-5 foot depth that would hold onto/slow some of the water so some of it would evaporate back up towards the surface as water wicks away due to evapotranspiration.  But it is not required.  Unfortunately in your case one potential problem that will need to be studied and if present addressed is if water pools on top of that caliche layer without draining.

Dry Farming is practiced in California and likely will be practiced by many more.   Dry Farming farmers can command prime prices for their crops--even though their fruit may not look so nice--because of the perception from gourmets that it improves the taste of the fruit to a great extent.

Hi Bruce! I am an urban farmer here in Phoenix and also have a company that installs edible gardens and consults on all of your above mentioned questions and have a landscape architect available for planning depending on the depth you want to go to in planning. Our company is Farmyard. We have been in business for 5 years and I have been personally growing in AZ my entire life. We give our clients as much or little help as they would like and can help with design and planning, drip irrigation, planting for the seasons here in Phoenix, starting seeds, and more. For more detailed info our website is Hope to hear from you!

Hi Rebecca, nice website and great gardening plots. I'm still in the thinking/researching phase but did get the yard map done over the week-end. I need to make a list of the goals for my desert food farm. I'm guessing that the big goal is having a permaculture design Ha!

Charles - you don't sound snarky.  Water harvesting concepts, although they've been around for awhile, have not really attracted the notice of homeowners yet.  Mostly there is a lack of demo sites and educational opportunities to illustrate how water harvesting is done effectively.  Watershed Management Group  is out to change that in Phoenix with it's demo sites, green infrastructure projects and homeowner projects done through it's Green Living Co-op.

Few people understand the myriad of water harvesting options available to us in drylands and how to take full advantage of them.  Water harvesting (rainwater, greywater, stormwater) is an exciting new way of visualizing what resources we have and using our ingenuity to make the most of them.  This explosion of creativity and developing a new aesthetic that works with our stunning and unique climate is one of the things I love the best about dryland permaculture. 

The fact that large urban environments (LA, Tucson, Austin, Portland) are coming onboard with city-wide water harvesting policy and green infrastructure implementation to mitigate some of our most pressing issues (Urban Heat Island (UHI), increasing pollution levels) illustrates how viable this technology is.  It really is the wave of the future and some cities are already embracing that future and reaping the rewards.

Hey Jennifer, I really do appreciate your reply - I actually meant to post my "I hope this doesn't sound snarky" comment directly underneath Bruce's question to me about whether I have a rainwater system, rather than in response to your post, and have moved it to the correct spot. 

I'm totally on board with with WMG (I'm a member and have something like 8 hours accumulated) and alt-water systems, but rainwater, sadly, seems to be lacking - I was hoping it would be part of my garden-system, but I'm not feeling too optimistic about rain at the moment.  :)  Thanks for your thoughtful reply though!


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