Here in the desert things are a little different. If you ask anyone who grows fruits and vegetables in our dramatic climate, you’ll learn that gardening here takes some specialized know-how. Most common gardening advice isn’t made with the desert in mind and little of it can be directly applied to desert growing. It takes some well-considered planning, as well as a fair amount of trial and error to discover the gardening rhythms that work for you.
That said, gardening in the desert can be incredibly rewarding. Our copious sun and mild winters give us the potential for an extra season of fruits and vegetables, and growing food for your friends and family is a gift that keeps on giving. If you are thinking about planting this season, here are a few tips to get you started.
Examine Your Soil
The arid earth of the desert isn’t known for its richness and fertility. The extremes of our climate mean that the organic matter in our soil is often washed or blown away leaving mostly sand, clay and minerals. To give your plants a head start, amend your soil with compost and fertilizer.
Desert soil tends toward the alkaline, so you may need to work towards a balanced and neutral pH to help your plants thrive. Stay away from mixing manure into your earth – it often contains soluble salts that will worsen the imbalance. If you don’t already keep a compost bin for food scraps and paper, consider starting one – it can turn your food garbage into a lovely amendment to your soil that adds nutrients to the plants you grow.
Plan With the (Desert) Seasons
While most of the rest of the country plants in the spring and harvests in the autumn, desert growing is a little different. Because our summers can get ferociously hot, our gardening calendar has to work around the summer season. Instead of one standard growing season, consider your desert garden to have two short seasons for vegetable gardening. The first one can begin at the tail end of winter and last until early summer and the second begins in late summer and goes through autumn until early winter. Ambitious desert growers can even sneak in an extra season through the winter with their hearty plants like cabbages and kale.
Desert temperatures can fluctuate dramatically, so if you are growing plants from seed it is often best to start your seedlings indoors. Begin seedlings several weeks before your garden will be plantable. Once seedlings are established, slowly acclimate them to outdoor conditions, moving them outdoors during the day and bringing them inside at night.
Growing a perfect tomato in the desert is a small miracle, but some specialty fruits like pomegranates and pistachio nuts are more than happy in our warm dry climate. The desert is perfectly suited for a remarkable variety of fruit bearing trees and shrubs, as well as a host of unusual plants like fruiting cacti. When planning your desert garden, incorporate perennial plants, trees and shrubs that deliver delicious rewards year after year. Growing fruit trees has the added benefit of adding shade to you space, a valuable commodity for vegetables and people in the desert!
Choose Adapted Seeds
With the right set up many plants flourish in the desert, but you can give your garden a head-start by choosing seeds that are adapted to our weather and sun. If you are growing to a two-season calendar, you’ll want to look for “short season” varieties of the veggies and fruit seeds you want to plant.
Short-season seeds are usually marketed to gardeners in northern latitudes who are growing with shorter, cooler summers. For the desert gardener however, short season seeds allow you to grow food for to shorter seasons that dodge the intense heat of our mid-summer.
Another thing to look for when choosing successful varieties are seeds that have been cultivated for desert agriculture. Vegetable varieties grown in other hot, dry areas of the world as well as varieties long cultivated in the Southwest will help your plants thrive in the demanding desert climate.
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