New to the desert, new to gardening or wanting to rekindle an old planting hobby in new ground?
If the height of traditional harvest time has you hankering to raise something or design a garden, these hints from local gardeners can help assure success.
When it comes to determining what thrives in the desert, no worries! You’ll be amazed at the variety of plants that can. It’s less a question of which plants than creating the right conditions.
• If you’re from somewhere else, forget what you knew; gardening here is going to be different, so don’t depend on what worked there, said Elissa Dearing, a Green Valley transplant from Texas. She is one of six women who log roughly 40 hours weekly harvesting fresh produce from the raised beds cultivated by Green Valley Gardeners at Desert Meadows Park on behalf of Sahuarita Food Bank. So far this year, the group – Dearing, Nancy Lucas, Sue Kenney, Karen Gabriel, Betsy Smith-Schatz and Kim Tompkins — has donated 3,500 pounds.
The sky’s pretty-much the limit, depending on your time commitment and enthusiasm for experimenting, although there are some plants that won’t do well here no matter what, certain onion varieties are one example, she said.
(Pre-COVID, Community Food Bank of Green Valley also benefitted from the GV Gardener harvests before donations were limited to non-perishables, and may resume again someday when permitted.)
“I was shocked, it’s such an amazing thing how much you can grow here,” Dearing said.
Back to the outdoors. Just chat with the ever-curious, up-before-dawn bunch of nature-lovers who passionately spend sometimes days every week discovering the next delectable delight they can coax out of often- inhospitable surroundings.
There’s bugs, birds, raccoons, squirrels, rats and gophers just waiting to make some tasty roots, leaves or veggies disappear, alongside temperature extremes, dogged dryness, dramatic summer storms, and watering just right. Challenges all, but many are manageable.
• When deciding what to grow, research relative companion plants, they can help keep out insects; flowering varieties serve as pollinators.
• Consult most any volunteer at the park — if they don’t know the answer, they’ll likely know who does.
• Read, read, read. Even seed catalogs have a wealth of helpful tidbits on seasons, planting zones, maturity and more. See info box for more resources.
• Do your homework: the new shipment of plant-starts at the big-box store might look tempting, but before investing, check which variety they are — those sold at such stores may not be the best ones for this locale.
• Prep your soil properly. Seek advice from active gardeners on how much compost, nature, worm castings, and/or granular organic fertilizer to add, the latter of which won’t burn except if it’s fresh manure. Fertilize throughout the season, roughly every two weeks.
• When starting a new garden, use netting to help keep pests at bay.
• Don’t overwater, it will smother the roots and rob them of oxygen.
If it’s doable, you’ve got a good shot at success. Even when gardeners decide a trial crop wasn’t worth the effort, the lesson is knowledge. Never overlook the tirelessly creative, who help conjure up new angles to try or enhance the garden atmosphere with artistic whimsy and color enough to inspire the stubbornest of spirits.
The gardeners are happy to share.
One, it’s their mission as a service club. As members, they promote education and relative environmental issues to members and public through informational and charitable means; encourage friendship, introduce children to the wonders of dirt, help beautify the community and extoll gardening’s therapeutic aspects.
Two, most came from other states like a lot of newcomers still do. Time to adapt their growing techniques to get their garden goals to take root.
What’s there? (What isn’t?!)
While harvesting on a late-summer day at Desert Meadows, Dearing offered an informal walk-about, and oh what fun it is to see what’s growing in our midst! It’s sensory explosion, even their names are wondrous:
• Armenian cucumbers (a melon), and also known as yard-long or snake, with a milder taste than some store-bought varieties.
• Artichokes, some of which aren’t all that edible, but fast-growing, interesting-looking bushes with jumbo-size thistles that spring from the edible bud. Not the nuisance other thistles can be.
• Chocolate sprinkles. Each bed of these heat-loving tomatoes seems to have a different type. Popular is this sweet, a hybrid cherry variety with dark strips over lighter skin and chocolate-like coloring; hardy, tear-drop shaped Juliets also proliferate at the park, all great for grilling, salads and snacks.
These are in addition to three local standards — Sungolds, Super Sweet 100 and Early Girl, and several heirloom tomatoes from Native Seeds/SEARCH (see info box) that have grown here for generations.
• The elegantly titled trombetta di Albenga, an Italian heirloom squash and curvaceous show-stopper with its trumpet shape sometimes extending 20 inches or more. A bit nutty-tasting and they don’t get mushy like regular zucchini.
• Sweet potato vines that can commandeer a raised bed, which provide visual contrast to more vibrantly colored crops, with their orange tubers remaining underground till ripe.
• And others too numerous to mention — many versions of beans (some purple bush, others 15 inches long), dazzling peppers (including spicy Caribes and lunchbox orange), petite fairytale eggplant and another variety shaped like a softball.
• Oh, don’t forget okra, a tropical and prolific herb exceeding heights of 6 feet with lovely blossoms (a relative of hibiscus).
• Other herbs such as basil can nearly knock you flat with their intoxicating fragrance. It’s difficult to resist this place.
Also are crops that have long been staples of the Tohono O’odham diet, including the bountiful multiplier I’itoi (EE-EE-toy) — a bunching onion resembling a wild variety harvested on I’itoi Mountain, southwest of Green Valley. According to legend, I’itoi — creator of the O’odham people — called them together and presented them with onions to plant and share. The people inhabited a large chunk of this region for thousands of years. The mountain, also known as also known as Baboquivari, is the tribe’s most sacred place.
Alas, Desert Meadows’ summer beds will soon be cleared and readied for winter planting, making way for cool-weather crops; “winter” season generally starts Sept. 15. Soon to come are kale, cabbage, chard, lettuce, broccoli, radishes and turnips.
And even though growing seasons are short (summer planting can start around mid-March), garden-related tasks are never-ending, including constant checks for bugs and other pests infiltrating the system. One can learn much just by observing.
A gardener’s work is never done, but many aspects can be a lot of fun (though probably all would argue, pests and weeding aren’t among them).
Kitty Bottemiller 520-547-9732