Five years ago, I discovered gardening. And not only did I discover gardening, I discovered gardening in the Arizona Desert. I have always been a nature lover, marveling at the sights in a farmers market. Naturally, after establishing some roots in the Valley of the Sun, the sun was basically calling me to plant some seeds. And so I did.
After studying books and looking at website, I decided to start talking to people. I met a wonderful friend at the kids school who had a garden. One visit to her yard, I was hooked. I planned, I drew, I was really motivated. Wanting to replicate the old school garden, I decided to order garden soil and amended the soil directly. At the time, I had no interest in raised or wooden beds.
Being brand new to Arizona, I needed to learn more about the watering, the different things we could plant, and when. Gardening in the desert is a whole different beast. You have to forget a lot of what you think you knew about gardening, you have to be extra involved because of many extremes. We experience red hot summers, but the soil still can freeze during the winter.
It is then that I discovered the great community at The Urban Farm. I went on a tour of Greg’s house in Phoenix, and this gave me access to everything I needed to get started and to thrive. I was able to also participate in their fruit tree program. But more on that later. They also offer classes, they host a podcast, and truly spread awareness within the community about growing your own food.
Armed with all the knowledge, I planned my food forest in two phases. First I would take care of the vegetable garden, and then I would plant fruit trees. Lots of fruit trees.
PHASE ONE – VEGETABLE GARDEN
First, I dug two garden beds, totaling close to one thousand square feet. I installed a watering system, on a timer. After spending quite some time asking questions at the sprinkler store, I decided to order drip tape, as the mean to bring water to the plants. I decided for drip tape based on many recommendations.
Though soaker hoses are cheaper, they are also less precise. … Consequently, when you water with a soaker hose, you are watering the plants and everything in between the plants. Drip emitters, by contrast, can be spaced so they drip precisely over the root zone of plants.homeguides.sfgate.com
My first crops were entirely from seeds. I had been so dedicated at drawing and planning the spacing. I had put a lot of energy into my seeds, fussing over every little seedling that was coming up. Then we went away for the weekend, I came back and gone. This drama courtesy of quail and rabbit! That was a hard lesson. What would I do, with my beds in the ground. I didid’t want fencing. And now, I had nothing left to protect anyway.
I am happy to report that many seedlings actually made it through and I had a bountiful harvest that very first season! That’s a nice way of doing things, Mother Nature. But after that, I was completely and utterly hooked. I have to say I’ve become a lazy gardener over the last few years. I now let plants go to seed in the garden. I have lots of voluntaries, and I decided I would plant a little extra to feed the bunnies and the quails. What’s a garden if you don’t share the fruits?
With my new friends in mind, I found a way to share without them eating what I need to protect. I use food covers to shield new seedlings and leafy greens. That’s the best way I found to keep a full fence at bay.
PHASE TWO – FRUIT FOREST
Since I was so attracted to gardening in the Arizona Desert and plating all the vegetables I could, fruit trees became second thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy them as much as I enjoyed growing vegetables. I was so wrong! Fruit trees have given me the most joy of all. We are far from the limited fruits that can be grown where I’m from (I still love you, apples and pears!), but the Sonoran Desert allows you to grow a multitude of fruits, from Pakistani mulberry to peaches and pomegranates.
I started with bare root trees from The Urban Farm Tree Program. That first year, I ordered fifteen trees. I was able to put my hands on five different fig trees, two different peach trees, two apricots, two pomegranates, one Pakistani mulberry, one cherry (that didn’t make it), a weeping plum, and a loquat. Shortly after, I added two guava trees, two moringa trees, and six citrus trees. It took a little bit of patience, but I now harvest all of these fruits throughout the year.
That’s actually one of the wonderful things about gardening in the Southwest. There are two planting seasons. We plant in the spring for the summer, just like elsewhere, but we also can grow many vegetables in the winter because of our mild climate. When I started growing, I thought this would be paradise, literally.
But it turns out, my winter garden is much more productive than my summer one. It’s also more varied and colorful, and easier to grow. There’s much less weeds, bugs, and critters in the winter. This last winter, I harvested spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, carrots, lettuces. I am still learning about rotating my crops and planting at different time the same crop in order to harvest throughout the season.
In the past summers, I’ve harvest okra, watermelon, squash, peppers, eggplant, onions, garlic, and the occasional tomato. I seem to have a lot of trouble with tomatoes. My favorite vegetable to grow is eggplant. I love how it looks, and the fact that there are many varieties. I find eggplant easy to grow and interesting to watch evolve in the garden. I am still evolving with the garden. I try different ways to offer shade to my plants and to lower the soil temperature as much as I can.
Even if I consider myself a lazy gardener, like most of us out there, I try to improve my planting techniques, I strive to implement better watering solutions for the different scenarios we face in the low desert. I don’t eat exclusively from what I grow, but it’s a nice vision to keep in mind. Gardening in the Arizona Desert is not always easy, but it’s always rewarding.