There’s a secret to growing vegetables in Arizona – know your seasons.
One of the biggest mistakes people new to gardening in the Valley of the Sun make is timing. Spring in Wisconsin, for example, is much like autumn in Arizona.
“People plant the wrong thing at the wrong time,” says master gardener Jim Dennis.
As is happening throughout the nation, more Arizonans are grabbing hoes, trowels and gardening gloves to grow their version of a victory garden.
But raising vegetables in the desert can be daunting to people who forget gardening here follows a different planting cycle, says Dennis.
In Phoenix, planting tomatoes in May can lead to heartache in July. The Midwest’s planting cycle is turned on its head in the desert.
Caroline Van Slyke thought her Midwest gardening experience would serve her well in Arizona when a year ago she dedicated some of her Arcadia backyard to a vegetable garden.
“There was the whole economy thing to get back to the earth and rethink our lives and eat healthy,” she says. “I also wanted my children to know where food comes from. I had an idea what to do with flowers, but I’d never planted lettuce.”
Van Slyke planted chard and other lettuces in whiskey barrels. She expanded to tomatoes, peppers, beans, artichokes, basil, corn, eggplant, garlic, onions and zucchini. She recently added three chickens so her family could have their own eggs. And she hasn’t purchased lettuce since Christmas.
She took classes from Dennis at Church of the Beatitudes in Phoenix and hounded her neighborhood nursery for advice. The information and early success gave her more confidence.
This spring, Van Slyke is planting her first warm-weather garden, using a 15- by 5-foot raised bed, learning that what worked in the Midwest won’t work here.
“You have to get a new internal calendar,” she says.
The planting season may seem topsy-turvy to human transplants, but it doesn’t have to prevent answering the call to plant a garden now or start planning your fall garden. It takes some research, asking questions and resetting your planting clock.
Here are 10 tips from Arizona garden experts to help ensure that your garden grows.
#1 – Timing
The desert has two growing seasons – spring and fall. And both have the vegetables that grow best in colder or warmer temperatures.
Those from the East or Midwest should think of Valley summers as a gardening winter: not a time to sow seeds. Summer is our harshest season. But unlike December in Indiana, vegetables can grow in July here if you plant in early spring and chose warm-weather vegetable varieties, Dennis says. Go to ag.ari zona.edu/pubs/garden/mg /vegetable/guide.html for what and when to plant.
#2 – Location
As with real estate, location matters. Take time to look at where and when shadows are cast in your yard and place the garden accordingly.
#3 – Sunlight
Vegetable plants like sunlight, at least six to eight hours a day, according to Kristen Wagner, master gardener and program coordinator for the University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension’s master gardener program.
It’s easier to mitigate too much sunlight than too much shade. Shade cloth is an easy, inexpensive fix, but placing the garden in the shade can rob plants of the sunlight they need.
#4 – Size
Start modestly. Even veteran gardeners can be frustrated trying to raise vegetables here until they become accustomed to the rhythms and demands of this climate.
Dennis recommends a 4- by 4-foot raised bed. Many local nurseries and home-improvement stores sell ready-made gardening beds. Or construct one from untreated wood. Dennis recommends that they are a foot high. Gregory Ware, owner of Los Arbolitos and author of a monthly gardening newsletter, “Gregory’s Gardening Guide,” prefers digging a garden bed. It takes advantage of the mineral-rich soil and can more easily avoid the salt build-up in raised beds.
#5 – Soil
Valley soil is rich in minerals but lacks organic matter, Dennis says. For raised beds, he recommends a 50-50 planting mixture of native soil and compost. Local nurseries, as well as Home Depot and Lowe’s, sell compost mixtures. Dennis also recommends Singh Farms compost on the Salt River Reservation. If you choose to dig a garden, water the plot to soften soil and gradually add compost material.
#6 – Water
Vegetables need to be watered 1 foot deep, Wagner says. Use a screwdriver to check the watering depth. The urge may be to overwater, but it’s as dangerous to your plants as underwatering, Wagner says. Plants need oxygen and too much water can drown plants. Overwatering can also cause disease.
#7 – Hotline
Memorize this number: 602-827-8200, ext. 301. This is the master-gardener hotline. It’s operated by volunteer master gardeners, so it may take 48 hours to get a response if no one is on duty when you call.
#8 – Plant selection
Pay attention not only to planting the appropriate vegetables for the growing season, but also to choosing the variety of the plant. For instance, don’t plant a tomato in late March that’s going to take 90 days to bear fruit. That would mean harvesting a tomato when temperatures are in the triple-digits. Read the labels and select varieties that are 45 to 60 days to harvest, Wagner says.
#9 – Pacing
Thanks to our two growing seasons, you can pace harvest time.
Although it’s getting too late in the season to plant lettuce, in August when you sow the arugula seeds, you will want to plant every two weeks to ensure a continual harvest through spring.
#10 – Appetite
Pay attention to yield and scale.
Unless your family loves watermelon, consider planting produce that doesn’t consume a lot of space, especially if you are starting a smaller plot. Before you dedicate a row to zucchini, make sure your family and neighbors like this highly prolific squash. Consider planting varieties of squash at different times to ensure a continual harvest.
Source: The Arizona Republic, 2010; www.azcentral.com