Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

From the Inbox: Autumn Vegetable Gardening

From a Correspondent:

My friend wants to plant a small vegetable garden in Surprise, Arizona. She has kids she hopes will enjoy the experience. What can she plant right now that will produce produce (now that's funny!) before it gets too cold? She has no gardening experience so nothing too picky or exotic.

Generally when I get a note claiming a question is being offered on behalf of a "friend," I'm a little suspicious. But since living in Surprise and having children are both perfectly respectable activities, we'll have to take "Monica" at her word.

Good morning Monica,

"Picky" is on the plate of the beholder, especially when it comes to kids, but one of the great advantages of gardening with children is that they will almost always eat what they've grown themselves – even if it's something they wouldn't touch coming out of the grocery. In truth, some of us never grow out of that habit: I feel much the same way about eggplant.

The Desert Garden vegetable calendar has roughly two primary growing seasons: Autumn and Spring; each has a different list of crops. When in doubt, remember this: Autumn through Winter is the season for roots and leaves, and Spring into Summer is our season for fruits.

In practice what that means is this time of year we plant those vegetables whose edible parts are the roots and leaves: carrots, radishes, lettuce, and spinach, for example. The exception to that rule is peas; we eat their fruit but they're an Autumn and Winter crop.

Whatever the season, the key to vegetable gardening is the soil; a little extra effort up front will yield greatly improved results. First, find an area of yard that will get at least 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, clear it of weeds and any grass, then use a spading fork to turn the soil 8 to 12 inches deep; if you find the soil is too hard for turning, water it slowly and deeply, then wait two days and turn it then. Never dig in really wet soil. Next, spread a layer of compost about six inches deep on the top and spade that into your loosened soil, breaking up any large dirt clods as you go (clod-breaking is a good kid activity). Mix it well.

Note: you can use manure instead of compost, but take these precautions if you do. First, use only well-rotted steer manure, never fresh. Next, water it in well after digging it in and then let it "mellow" a few days before planting, to avoid damaging your new seeds or plants. And don't use manure for those areas where you'll be planting root crops, or you can end up with all greenery and no root. I have done this; don't let it happen to you.

You'll find that you now have a bit of a raised bed; this is good. Use a rake and pull some of the soil to each of the sides of the bed to form a raised edge or lip that's higher than the planting area. You'll plant within the watering basin you just created, and the lip will help to hold the water in.

The following vegetables are among the best for planting now in the middle of October:

From seed:

  • Beets
  • Bok Choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Collards
  • Endive
  • Kale
  • Lettuces of all kinds
  • Onions (green)
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Turnips

From plants or sets:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Garlic (from cloves)
  • Lettuces
  • Onions (bulb and green, from sets)

I hope this helps,

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