By September 25, 2016

Fear-Free Fall Vegetable Gardening in the Desert

vegetable gardening

10 Tips for Growing Your Own Herbs and Veggies

By Robert Roy BrittGrowing your own vegetables and herbs in the desert is not as hard as you might think. With good soil and diligent watering, even a small raised bed or a couple large pots can offer a rewarding bounty through winter and into spring. “Fall is really the easiest time for most people to plant,” said Chad Borseth, an avid gardener and manager of the retail store at the non-profit Native Seeds in Tucson. Among the plusses, Borseth told In&Out: fewer pests and less watering. Here’s what you need to know:

raised bed

A simple self-standing structure of ½-inch PVC pipe makes a framework on which to affix shade cloth in summer or a frost-thwarting tarp in winter. This North Valley garden, planted last fall, is seen Feb. 20 packed with peas, carrots, spinach, arugula, kale, cilantro, basil and sage. In&Out Staff Photo

1) Get Going There are two primary planting seasons here: fall and spring. Barring a heavy freeze, many herbs and vegetables that thrive in fall will do well all winter. Seeds like warm fall temps, so plant anytime during the next few weeks.

2) Pick a Spot “Most vegetables, especially fruiting types, do best with six to eight hours of full sun exposure,” according to the Maricopa County Master Gardeners program, a cooperative extension of the University of Arizona.

But many herbs, leafy greens and root veggies can grow in a spot “that gets only dappled sunlight,” or an hour so of direct or reflected sunlight, says California gardener and author Steve Albert, who runs the website Harvest to Table. Basil, spinach and arugula thrive in sun or dappled shade. Mint does great in under the full shade of a tree.

If you’re unsure where to put a raised bed, experiment first with pots, which take up little space and can be moved in and out of sunny spots—and pulled under the porch during a frost. You could just dig an area out and fill it with planting soil, but if your ground is hard, which is common in the Valley, a simple raised bed may be easier. Make it at least 6 inches deep; most gardeners prefer 12 inches.

3) Invest in Soil Whether in pots or a raised bed, don’t rely on the hard-packed dirt your yard came with. You’ll need to buy or make soil, or both.

“Soil is the most important investment in gardening, whether you’re investing money or time,” Borseth said. Composting is a great way to reduce garbage and amend soil. But unless you have a lot of it, you’ll need to buy some soil, too, at least at the outset. Seek soil produced locally, Borseth advises, because it’ll contain native microbes necessary for ongoing breakdown, which produces nutrients. “Big box soil will have many dead microbes,” he said.

And avoid soil with fertilizer in it. Such brands are well-marketed and popular, but typically the fertilizers kill the “good” microbes, Borseth said, setting the soil (and you) up for an addictive relationship to fertilizer.

Composting your own kitchen waste [Luminate, November 2014] helps the good soil microbes thrive, and can allow you to avoid fertilizers. You can also reboot or assist microbe activity once or twice a year by adding molasses diluted in water, Borseth said (the sugar acts as a catalyst).

Native Seed packets4) Try Seeds There’s no shame in running to a local big box store to buy veggies and herbs ready to plunk in the ground. It’s a great way to jumpstart a garden. Just know that some of the plants aren’t adapted to our area and may not do well. Transplant them in the evening and shade them for the first few days.

But you’ll typically pay more for one plant than an entire packet of seeds.

Native Seeds is dedicated to preserving and distributing seed that have grown in the Southwest for a century or more and have adapted well to our climate. “They are traditional seeds of the area,” Borseth said. “They are used to our climate cycles.”

5) Pick Easy Plants Here are fall crops that don’t require a green thumb:

  • Basil (it gives and gives for months)
  • Arugula, spinach and various lettuces
  • Kale (you can’t kill this stuff! Pick from the bottom up)
  • Swiss chard
  • Broccoli and cauliflower
  • Peas (some varieties require a trellis; flavor is amazing)
  • Carrots (though they prefer loose, sandy soil)
  • Beets, parsnips, radishes
  • Onions and garlic
  • Mustard
  • Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (really)
  • Cilantro (“one of the best and easiest” to grow in winter, Borseth says)
  • Mint (best confined to a pot; it spreads)

If you’re a little more ambitious and have the room, try tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or zucchini, but start them from bedding plants, and soon, advise local gardeners [and In&Out columnists] Dick and Linda Buscher, because you’ll need to harvest these before first frost. The Buschers suggest also planting flowers to attract insects needed for pollinating these plants.

6) Grow What You Like Obvious, but it’s important. While mustard is easy to grow, there’s no point wasting the space, water and effort if you rarely use mustard. If you want a daily supply of fresh spinach or kale, you can have it with very little cost or effort. Consider taste, too. While carrots can be a bit of a challenge, the flavorful reward is substantial compared to store-bought carrots. Garlic and onions are easy to grow, but tie up garden space, and the store-bought varieties taste just fine. Fresh peas are divine.

7) Stagger Plantings If you have enough space to plant rows and rows from seed, stagger plantings every two weeks to extend your harvest. This is particularly useful with crops like lettuce or carrots that are done when cut or pulled. On the other hand, one pot of mint will supply you all winter, and four or five basil plants will have you pushing pesto on the neighbors. Pick kale from the bottom up and a few plants will serve you from now to April.

8) Water Wisely Whether you set up a drip system or water by hand, here’s what the county Master Gardener program advises: “Water enough to keep the soil moist (not wet) in the root zone of the plant throughout the growing season. Excessive fluctuations of soil moisture adversely affect plant growth and quality.” Pots may require daily watering while temperatures stay high. A raised bed might need watering just once or twice a week mid-winter. Water in the morning; watering at night encourages disease growth. Use mulch to reduce evaporation.

tobacco horn worm9) Watch for Bugs Your odds of success go way up if you check on your plants daily to ensure they’re properly watered and to pest-free. Some gardeners swear by plants that naturally repel bugs, including thyme and a flower called tansy. Spray plants (including undersides of leaves) with soapy water; the soap dissolves the shells of many insects, according to Rodale’s Organic Life.

10) Just Have Fun The most important tip: Don’t be afraid to just do this. Plant early, plant often, plant a variety of things. Keep notes, and make adjustments next fall. Still hesitant? Start with one pot and some basil or mint. You’ll have to try to kill them.

More Information and Tips for Southwest Gardening

Still have a question? Try the Maricopa County Master Gardener Program Plant Help Hotline: 602-827-8201.

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