Growing your Own: Dan’s EPIC Garden

An important part of the original vision for the Earthships is that they be able to grow all the fruits and vegetables needed to support the family that lives in them. That ideal has not proven to work out so well for most people, so we wanted to get to the bottom of what could be done better so readers could be more successful at growing their own food.
Dan's EPIC Garden (1)
Our friend Dan Jones is a renowned gardener and horticulturist in Taos. He works professionally helping people to cultivate and maintain their own gardens, trees, and landscapes. He built his own home a couple of years ago, and his personal garden has been such a resounding success that a few months ago he started a CSA to share his bounty with friends. I sat down with him over coffee one morning and interviewed him to discover how he did it.

His site is a little over an acre, and on that are his home, extensive vegetable gardens, a detached garage, a driveway, an irrigation ditch, and beautiful floral gardens crossed by walking paths and dotted with places of repose. He even has a little running stream powered by his rainwater catchment system in a cascading landscape he created at his front entry. He uses a combination of raised beds, ground beds, cold frames, and a greenhouse to grow enough food to feed at least ten people.

The success of his gardens is partially attributable to Dan’s careful attention to detail as he was choosing the land where he would locate his home, and is partially due to his cultivating the plants in the way the plants want to be treated – an advantage a horticulturist may have over some of us. He assures me that this is nothing some studying, hands-on experience, and/or coaching with a professional cannot overcome.

Dan, being from the northeast, knew that without water, he would not feel at home. So he chose a piece of land along a traditional Hispanic-period irrigation ditch called an acequia that had been cultivated for decades and maybe as much as a century. The acequia watered his fields, which were originally grazed and used to grow hay. When he first walked the land, Dan noted that the land was liberally dotted with nitrogen-fixing clover and alfalfa, which told him that the soil would likely be nutritionally sound. The land also had a high water table and acted much like a wild meadow. It was filled with wild flowers in the summertime. It features an outrageously good 360° view of the Taos rift valley, punctuated by the beautiful and sacred Taos Mountain to the east.

Dan remarked that, in hindsight, he did not think to dig a hole before he bought the land to determine what the soil really looked like beneath, but he knew that he had found a place that he could work with, it would just mean some work. When he started really working the land, he discovered that while the soil was, in fact, fairly good, the topsoil was somewhat shallow and full of cobbles. Preparing the soil for cultivation started with working with a neighbor, who brought in 2 truckloads of compost and topsoil which they spread throughout what would become the roughly 1/4 of an acre of vegetable garden, and then they plowed and disked. He then planted a cover crop of winter rye on it for the winter, and the following spring he cultivated the rye into the earth, fortifying the soil with natural rich nutrients. He created paths, pulling the loose dirt out of them and putting it in the garden, which gave him slightly raised beds to enhance drainage in times of high water. By doing this, he turned his paths into micro swales, where in a good rain, they would collect the water and slowly allow it to distribute through the garden. The garden is planted with love and careful attention to the requirements of each plant – how much light they want, how well they want to be drained, how much water they want. The perimeter is planted with perennial crops including rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, red and black raspberries, elderberry, aronia, currants, serviceberry and honeyberries.

Dan also has an orchard along the acequia with “every type of fruit that can possibly be grown in Taos.” Dan’s many fruit trees are planted into raised mounds 12-15 inches high, which allows the stone fruits especially, who do not like to be too wet, to be up and out of the high water table. He is successfully growing multiple varieties of cherries, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and plums.
Dan's EPIC Garden (2)
The vegetable garden in the center of the property produces, in season: potatoes, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, peas, beans (string and drying), chard, kale, ground cherries, corn, parsnips, peppers, lettuce and many herbs.

Dan cycles his garden regularly, giving each area planted, especially those with tomatoes or potatoes, a three year rest to reduce disease transmission. In the parts of the land he allows to go fallow, Dan plants legumes for nitrogen fixation. This year, he is abandoning the idea of planting winter cover crops in his garden, because tilling them back into the soil in spring is too cumbersome to do by hand, and using a rototiller is just too much for his body any more. He offers that in many schools of thought now, rototilling is considered harmful to the soil structure. So this season, he has just added composted manures, some used potting soils, and composted wood chips to hold the soil down. Trying to find ways of working the land well, and in a less maintenance heavy way, is part of his strategy for long-term gardening.
Building a 3 foot tall raised planting bed was also an important part of his strategy, allowing him to grow root crops which would otherwise be stunted by the hard ground and cobbles beneath his topsoil. That bed had 18 inches of junk fill dirt beneath for height and drainage, and was topped by another 18 inches of a superb mix of composted topsoil. D an also built a 25 foot long and 2-1/2 foot wide cold frame against the greenhouse. This serves the double duty of insulating the outside greenhouse wall.

One of the cornerstones of Dan’s amazing garden is his “L”-shaped 25 foot long and 8 foot wide production greenhouse, which sits on the south and wraps to the west of his home for another 15 feet. Depending on the season, he can grow just about any vegetable. His only limitation is temperature fluctuations, which are typical of these types of simple greenhouses because of minimal automation to the heating and cooling systems. The greenhouse is a production-type, separated from the home by a thermal mass wall and exterior rated doors, with an automated ventilation system where chemical pistons open the upper vent windows once the temperature inside reaches 70 degrees. Dan hand-opens manual windows for ventilation at the base of the walls, which are raised above the external ground a couple of feet to accommodate the cold frame below. This does double-duty, ventilating as well as keeping his low windows up off the ground and operable even in the case of big snow. His greenhouse is heated from below by radiant tubes connected to his main house solar hot water radiant heating system, located 18” below the soil and in the concrete walkway.

Dan's EPIC Garden (3)

Were there to be no heating, Dan’s greenhouse would fail to produce in the winter. The radiant heat allows him to throw a frost blanket over the plants, creating a microclimate favorable enough for growing salad greens and cold-hardy plants during the coldest months of the year.

Dan uses a peat and perlite mix of soil in his greenhouse, because traditional soils do not really work in enclosed conditions, being susceptible to diseases and being too dense. He noted that these soils have to be amended constantly so they are fully capable of supporting all the plants, and that next year he is going to start using a coconut fiber-based soil in his greenhouse and potted plants, because coconut fibers are renewable resources and allow the roots to get good aeration.

Another critical component of Dan’s successful greenhouse system is hose bibs at each end of the space, as well as a utility sink plumbed with hot and cold water. A floor drain and a misting system are the only items on his wish list. A swamp cooler would be an expensive addition, but another option for cooling and humidification, which is helpful in Taos’ arid environment. Dan uses a shade cloth along the top and side of the west face of the greenhouse to prevent overheating from May through September. He does not need a shade cloth for the south because his home has a 5 foot overhang on the roof to prevent summer overheating of that thermal wall.

Because the acequia is on the downslope below Dan’s garden, he cannot use the water in it without a pump, so uses well water for irrigation and supplements that with rainwater catchment. His recirculating rainwater catchment system is genius. He keeps captured water clean and constantly flowing by using a small pump to bring it to a high point near the front entrance of his home where there is a barrel with a running spigot for filling buckets for hand-watering. The water then flows through a manmade stream to the bottom part of his landscape. It is beautiful and functional. He decorates the front entrance of his home with annual water-thirsty flowering plants, which he hand-waters from the barrel nearby.

Dan made a special note that using solar hot water in a greenhouse (or for any other means, for that matter) is contingent on there being sunlight. Even yesterday, when there had been no sun during the day and the nighttime temperatures got down to well below freezing, there was a 60 degree difference in the water temperature he fed into the greenhouse from what he had available to use in summer. In worse weather, this detail can be critically important for the plants to survive. Dan’s home’s hot water system has the somewhat unique feature of a woodstove which is plumbed to heat hot water as a backup, so in cloudy weather he can still have ample hot water while the stove also sheds approximately 50% of its BTUs as heat for the house.

Dan notes that production greenhouses and tropical solarium style greenhouses like the ones used in the Earthships have different purposes and treatments. In a solarium greenhouse, or a conservatory in the old parlance, you can grow tropical plants and fruits year-round because you retain most of the heat.

One of the highlights of Dan’s garden is an outdoor heated tub, which can be filled with solar hot water from a hose out of the greenhouse. It is simply an old cast iron claw foot tub set in a brick foundation, which is left hollow beneath the bottom of the tub. At the foot of the tub, there is a small fireplace, and at the head, a 4 foot chimney to draw the heated air under the tub and out the stack. This allows him to enjoy a heated bath even in freezing temperatures. He sets the fire about an hour before he wants to enjoy it, puts down a wooden board to sit on so his bum does not get burned, and he enjoys a good long soak. Dan noted that learning the nuances of how the fire bath works takes a bit of time and experimentation, but now he can soak for up to three hours with minimal disruption for stoking the fire. Like the greenhouse, learning the nature of the tub’s inner workings is a bit of an art, and not for those who want instant satisfaction and no maintenance.

Dan says a successful garden is all about how much love, hard work, and dedication you put into it. He suggests starting with a small plot, finding out what you can manage easily and what grows, and then expanding a little more every year.

One of the best aspects of Dan’s garden and now his CSA is that he is now making money on something he was doing anyway. The money he makes bringing his veggies to market will allow him to quickly pay off the investments he made in making his home more sustainable. His investment in his home and the investment of his time in the gardens are truly paying off for him, financially and spiritually. He is more comfortable, enjoying his garden more, and worrying less.

Another fabulous aspect of Dan’s garden is that by creating so many microclimates and accommodating hot, arid/dry, warm, temperate, cool, and humid plants and planting areas… he has improved biodiversity on his land. That means better soil, and more diverse insects and birds for pollination, which means more diverse mammal visitors, the possibility of raising bees, and even a great opportunity to grow medicinal herbs as well as food. These are great ways to achieve both healthier ecosystems as well as true sustainability.

Check out Dan’s professional work and get loads of inspiration at his website http://www.beyondwildflowers.com