Figuring out when summer ends and fall begins is much less clear in the Sonoran Desert than in other parts of the country. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has defined fall as beginning when the monsoon ends, usually mid-September. Early in the season the daytime temperatures often rise again to near June levels, but the dry air results in comfortable mornings and evenings. In September the days are lengthening and the nighttime temperatures are dropping. While fighting our late-summer torpor may be a bit of a challenge, now is the time to get outside to plant cool season vegetables.
Start with a few basic questions.
What do you and your family like to eat? Make a list of your favorite vegetables, ranked in order of preference. This will make a useful guide for deciding how much to plant of each.
How much space is available? Plan your garden on paper first. Draw a map showing arrangement and spacing of crops. In your plan, place tall and trellised crops on the north side of the garden so they won’t shade the shorter vegetables. Vegetables grow best in a level area with loose, well-drained soil, and at least six hours of sun. It is important to locate your garden near a good and easily accessible supply of water so that taking care of your garden will be convenient.
The ideal soil is deep, well-drained and has a high organic matter content. Proper soil preparation provides the basis for good seed germination and subsequent growth of garden crops. Till the garden soil thoroughly, adding in amendments as needed. For tips on soil preparation for desert vegetable gardens, visit gardenoracle.com. After breaking up clumps and smoothing the surface, water the beds and let them rest for a week before adding seeds or seedlings.
There is no short-cut to good vegetable garden bed preparation. Excellent groundwork up front will give you delicious rewards until April or even May. You can maximize your garden’s yield with succession planting. Refer to your garden plan, which will tell you how many rows of each crop you want. For example, if you plan four rows of salad greens, then plant one row of seeds and wait two to three weeks to plant each successive row. With good planning, you can enjoy fresh salads from your garden until late spring.
It’s fun to trellis snow peas or sugar snap peas along the north end of your bed. Many types of greens do well here, including mesclun mixes, arugula, oak leaf, butter-crunch … really any loose-leafed lettuce. Other greens that are great for desert gardens are spinach, bok choy, Swiss chard and kale. You can grow greens from seed or buy pony-packs of seedlings at your favorite local nursery. These are preferable over chain store seedlings, which are often loaded with neonicotinoids (pesticides that are harmful to pollinators) and typically are poorly cared for during the crucial growth time from seed to seedling.
Fall is also time for brassicas. These include broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. They do better here if purchased as seedlings (as opposed to planting seeds).
If you are using raised beds, there is nothing quite as delicious as home-grown carrots. They are best grown from seed. My favorites are scarlet nantes and red cored chantenay from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson (nativeseeds.org). Since NS/S is based in the Sonoran Desert their seeds and gardening tips are geared to our unique climate. I buy all my vegetable seeds from them, since their varieties are all arid lands adapted.
Bunching onions are a great addition to your “salad” garden. Purchased as bulbs and harvested when green, try the fabulous I’itoi’s onion from NS/S. And don’t forget radishes and turnips!
After the initial planting, water the beds often enough to maintain surface moisture until the seeds have sprouted. Once germination has occurred and plants are growing, reduce your watering schedule to once every day or two. After a week, reduce it even further, watching for signs of drought stress. Your winter garden watering goal should be once every five or six days, but water needs vary, depending on temperature and rainfall.
Monthly fertilization guarantees that the plants have all the nutrients necessary to produce at their peak. And best of all, winter gardening has very few pests. There really is no greater pleasure than harvesting meals from your own backyard. Happy fall gardening!
Aviva Tirosh is a certified desert landscaper through the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Her award-winning xeriscape designs have been featured in the Tucson Botanical Gardens Home Garden Tour, Tucson Home Magazine and Tucson Lifestyle Home and Garden. She owns Dos Lobos Landscaping, providing consultation, design and installation of sustainable native gardens. Aviva can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo by Aviva Tirosh