I do not live in the desert. I have thought of perhaps heading out to New Mexico on many occasions. I have even camped out in Death Valley. But beyond that, I have little experience. I do, however, have gardening experience and host of networked friends – some of who do live in the desert – and since this special post is all about growing a veggie garden in “no man’s land” I figured I could speak up!
Prompted by my long time friend Mandy (who thinks she can’t grow a successful garden in her part of the sandy Americas) I want you to know that just because you live in a desert region doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a, well, fruitful veggie garden! In fact, desert gardening and desert vegetable gardening can be pretty successful if you plan and prepare appropriately.
It is pretty important to note that one of the immediate benefits of growing veggies in the desert is you can enjoy two growing seasons instead of the traditional single season that we see in other regions. You just have to take heed to timing and selection of your crops, as well as the proper location for your plants to grow.
I know this much to be true. Summer in the desert is brutally hot and dry. In fact, the weather is biblical (polite way of saying hot as hell). For anyone who has grown a tomato, you know already this weather is no really idea for veggie gardening. Begin your crops much earlier in the year than Easter weekend or even first of May. Allow your plants a fighting chance to really root. Be careful to wait for the last frost though. In fact, to find out a specific date you can contact your local ag extension office.
Keep in mind too that frost dates will vary from desert region to region. Once the danger of frost is past, you can begin planting your actual garden. Likewise, once the hottest part of summer is past, you can begin a second crop for the year, taking advantage of those crisper fall days and nights for your desert vegetable gardening.
Desert vegetable gardening, like gardening in other regions, requires that you choose your crops carefully to ensure that you grow varieties that will thrive in your conditions and climate. Again, the best source for this information is your local ag extension office or even a gardening club. Don’t rule out local gardeners in your neighborhood or even a book written specifically for your region. Remember, knowledge is power.
Experience has taught me that gardening is really about trial and error. Crops vary from one spot to the next, even in your own yard. And because you are in the desert you should keep in mind that no matter what you choose to plant in your desert vegetable gardening endeavor, your soil will probably need quite a bit of nutrition and treatment. Let’s face it, desert soil is rarely conducive to growing veggies.
As for actual plants, I would typically investigate tomato, zuchini, squash, cucumber, lettuce, and a few edible perennials. These are plants that can do well and produce a nice crop. If you are concerned about scorching sun you can always use a shade net or plant on areas of your home that receive good shade. In fact, place leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce in the shadier areas and keep taller varieties along the north side of the garden. If you live in a high desert climate, position vegetables that require a long growing season along a south-facing wall to radiate extra heat during cooler months.
Most vegetables should be planted approximately 18 inches apart and to a depth 4 times the diameter of the seed. Cover the seeds with soil and firm with a garden hoe. Place plastic garden markers to indicate plant locations and to assist when watering your garden. Water your vegetable garden lightly every 2 to 3 days. When your seedlings develop 2 or 3 leaves, allow the soil to dry out between heavy watering to encourage deep root growth. This will make your vegetable plants more resistant to the arid desert conditions. Water in the early morning or late evening to prevent water evaporation.
While most desert vegetable gardening should allow for full sun most of the day, there are some crops that will do well with partial shade conditions as well. For the most part, it is best to plant away from trees and shrubs that will not only shade the area but compete for water and nutrients as well.
The exception to this rule is to provide a wind barrier through the use of taller plants that can protect your garden during spring months when high winds can be a problem. Besides using plants as a wind barrier, you can try fences or walls as well.
If your soil is really dry, has clay-type sand, and shows no sign of natural moisture, you may want to utilize raised beds where you can control every element of the soil. Remember to use compost and fertilizer to assure healthy growth.
Growing a veggie garden in the desert may seem a daunting task but it can actually be quite manageable. It takes time and thought though. But with those two elements in place, you are sure to be enjoying a fresh cucumber sandwich in no time!