If you’re new to growing vegetables in the Southwest, here are some guidelines and tips to help you get started right. There are four basic elements a garden needs – the secrets to it’s success – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
This should be your first consideration for your desert vegetable garden.
Choose a spot for your garden in full sun — that means at least 6 hours of direct sun in the middle of the day. This is especially important for “fruiting” crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash. The cool season leafy crops, like lettuce and spinach, will grow with just 3 or 4 hours of direct sun.
But (there is always a “but” in desert gardening) – remember that summer is coming. Afternoon shade can be helpful in the summer for Low Desert gardens (like Phoenix) and Middle Desert Gardens (Las Vegas, Tucson). You may need a shade cloth cover in summer if your garden is in full summer sun.
Next to sunshine, the most important factor in growing vegetables is healthy soil. Be sure the soil drains well (water doesn’t puddle after a rain). Most Southwest soils benefit from the addition of organic matter (OM in garden geek shorthand), especially compost. Organic matter improves drainage as well as water-holding capacity and provides some nutrients, too.
Raised Beds (Earth II)
Raised beds allow you to focus your soil-improvement efforts on just the soil in the beds. A raised bed also means less soil compaction, since you don’t walk in the beds. Drawbacks – they warm up faster and dry out sooner.
You can purchase raised beds, build your own from wood, stone, or simply stack some cinder blocks.
Containers (Earth III)
Most vegetables and herbs adapt well to growing in containers and many are attractive, too. Pot size and depth depends on what you plant in it. Rule of thumb, the pot should be as deep as the plant will be tall. Shallow pots, around a foot and a half deep are fine for most leafy vegetables, like lettuce, spinach, and chard. Go two feet for broccoli, beans, and Brussels sprouts. Tomatoes and peppers do best in pots two and a half feet deep, or greater. Likewise for squash and other pumpkin family members.
You need a water supply that is close to the garden. Make sure it is easy to use. Planting on the far side of the driveway and having to coil the hose every day becomes tedious.
Soaker hoses and irrigation systems are nice but add to the cost of set up. Start simple.
Air movement is important for plant health. Plants grow stronger is they can sway in a gentle breeze. Wind is another matter. If you live in a windy area (Vail, Albuquerque) then you want to find a more protected site for your garden.
Combine All Four Elements for your Vegetables
Location, Location, Location
Choose a spot that’s as convenient as possible. You’ll want to visit your garden daily to check progress, water, harvest crops, and pull a weed or two. A site close to the kitchen door is great.
Where to Plant II
If you live in a neighborhood where javelina and bunnies frolic, plan your garden for behind a wall or fence. You may discover ground squirrels also, not to mention I now have a raccoon that visits twice a week. Yes – in Tucson. He is getting quite fat and I am getting quite annoyed. Oh horrors – maybe its a she raccoon and the stout form is because there are babies on the way!
It’s tempting to want to plant some of everything, but remember that a garden requires maintenance. It’s best to start small — say, a 4′ x 12′ raised bed. You can always add some containers or make the bed bigger.
Learn More about Southwest Vegetable Gardening
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More vegetable gardening in this book Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press)
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