We’re Desert Rats. We love to joke about how walking out in an Arizona summer is akin to opening up the oven to get your cookies out and having your face burnt off. We love our air conditioning and our pools and curse the sun all summer long. We’ve convinced ourselves that we live in a brown, barren wasteland, and that nothing good could ever possibly come out of the cracked, crusty soil beneath our feet.
But what if I told you that the Sonoran deserts of the United States are actually one of the BEST places to garden, especially for those of us who live in the no-snow area?
Right now, it’s February in Arizona, and while most of our friends up north are shoveling snow or peering out of their windows to see a field of gray, naked trees, our garden is blooming. Our sunflowers are drooping, heavy with seeds, the nasturtium is climbing the trellis, and we’re just days away from harvesting our first peas of the season.
All of this bounty has to do with our HARDINESS ZONE , which determines what you can grow in your given area, and when you should grow it. If you live in “the Valley” (the Phoenix area, including Mesa, Gilbert, Apache Junction, Chandler, Scottsdale, just to name a few), you are BLESSED to be in Hardiness Zone 9, which means that you really only have to watch out for frost from December to February, and can pretty much garden to your heart’s content during the rest of the year. In fact, there are only two zones with longer growing seasons than ours! This is a blessing we take for granted, especially when it comes to growing our own food.
With just a little bit of desire, planning and basic gardening knowledge, I believe that every Arizonan could have a happy little garden.
Okay, but what about the HEAT?
I’ll willingly admit that during the sweltering summers, the LAST thing I want to do is spend time weeding, pruning, shoveling, and harvesting. So, if the prospect of garden work during 110+ degree weather is too daunting or repulsive to you, I understand, and I have a solution for you. Take the summer off!
The past two years, I’ve harvested my spring fruit/veg by the end of May, enjoyed my summer vacation from the garden, and started my fall/winter plants around the end of August. The three month break has been really beneficial for me, because it makes me miss gardening, and helps me get excited for all of the bounty that cooler weather brings…that way, when the hard work starts, I’m well rested and ready to dig in (literally).
If you want to attempt a summer garden in Arizona, I ALSO have some helpful tips and solutions for you. To protect your plants from the harsh sun and heat, you want to think about two main things: Moisture retention and Shade.
Believe it or not, overwatering kills more plants in summer than underwatering does. This happens because plants adjusting to warmer climates will often droop as they close the stomata (pores) on the underside of their leaves in order to conserve moisture.
This drooping mimics the way plants look when they’re in desperate need of water, which often causes gardeners to rush over with the hose and waterlog the poor little guys. To combat this, I suggest checking your plant’s leaves in the morning, before the heat causes drooping. If your plants leaves are drooping and the soil looks dry before the sun really starts to beat down on them, chances are, they need a good watering.
Once you’ve watered, it’s important to take measures to protect your garden soil from drying out in the heat of the day. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of organic material that you can use to trap moisture in your soil. We like to scatter a thick layer of wood chips or dried leaves over the top of our garden beds regularly throughout the summer months. These materials absorb moisture and help lock it in, which keeps your soil moist and cool.
This mulching takes care of moisture control, however, the sun’s rays cans till wreak havoc on plant leaves and fruit if you’re not careful, which is why proper shade is ALSO important.
In all reality, plants aren’t much different than humans when it comes to adapting to heat. They need what we need-hydration and protection from the sun’s rays. Shading can go a LONG way to ensure a safe harvest for your summer plants. Believe me, the last thing you want to do is slave over a beautiful melon only to have it split because of the heat before you ever get to enjoy the *literal* fruits of your labors.
Kellogg Organics actually has a REALLY helpful article on shading techniques, and because they’re a company rooted in the southwest, they are spot on when it comes to tips for desert gardening. I’ll link their article here so you can check it out.
In a nutshell, you want to shade plants with a material that will still let a little bit of light through, such as a shade cloth or thick mesh netting. With some proper planning, you can also grow plants with broad leaves on a trellis, and use the space underneath to plant any crops that need some extra shade.
My final thoughts on desert gardening
I’ve spent quite enough time wishing that I lived somewhere cooler…somewhere where poppies and berries grow wild on the side of the road, and strawberries were harvested by the bucketful all summer long. However, for our little family, Arizona is and always will be home, and the searing summer heat will always be a part of my gardening experience.
I want to be okay with that. I want to make peace with that. I want to bloom where I’m planted, and make the most out of what we’ve been given. The funny thing is, though, I’m starting to realize that we have been given SO MUCH more than we thought we have, especially when it comes to gardening possibilities. In fact, with the right tools and knowledge, I would even say that possibilities are endless.