Making the Desert Bloom

Anyway, that’s what they say.

I think they say this usually in the context of applying liberal amounts of agua. But I am not making the desert bloom doing that. I’m applying just enough water and then doing a lot of other things to make liberal amounts of water unnecessary.

When we bought this place the garden looked like this:

It was in April after a unusually dry summer and winter. Looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? You need imagination to see potential.

Whoever lived here before had put up chicken wire fencing, a gate, a rickety two by four shade structure and the shade cloth covering it had deteriorated in the sun giving it a Pirates of the Caribbean look. The grape arbor had grown completely out of control.

I’m improving this to make it a flourishing vegetable and flower garden. I’m trying to work with the environment as best I can so I’m growing vegetables and flowers that are adapted to this high desert climate (for the most part). My indigenous crops are going to be Santo Domingo melon, Mayo watermelon, Mexican amaranth, Blue speckled tepary beans, Navajo copper popcorn, and Anasazi sweet corn. Crops that aren’t indigenous but are desert adapted are the Windsor fava beans, Armenian cucumbers, Red Russian kale, broccoli raab, and Parris Island cos lettuce.  My flowers are a mix of Southwest natives: Desert bluebells and marigold, lupine, fire wheel, penstemon, Desert senna, Globe gilia, Mexican hat and more.

All that black stuff is the tons of compost I’m incorporating to enhance the sandy soil. My long-term goal is to farm using no-till methods but first I need to get the soil to where it will be receptive to that. Shouldn’t take too long. I hope. The soil will tell me when it’s ready.

Lucky looks on wondering if he’ll get to eat any of it when it grows.
My gardens never look like Martha Stewart’s but what I grow tastes good just the same!

When and if we get the monsoon rains, I will be utilizing the ak-chin method that the Tohono O’odham peoples have used for millennia. That is to say, I will be creating shallow ditches to funnel the rain where it needs to go. The worked-in compost will help the soil hold moisture. In addition to that I will use mulch spread on top, both sheet and straw.

To counter the “pests” (I know, pests have to eat, too, but….) I am reinforcing the fence, making below-ground caging, and companion planting. We had a lot of rabbits when we moved in, but I haven’t seen many for a long time now. However, I saw rabbit pellets the other day so I know they’re out there. The good fencing should keep Peter out! I have one short row of straw bales to raise the tasty roots away from the gophers and homemade hardware cloth cages will deter the gophers from eating the other plants.

Top photo: Upright cage secured with zip ties. Bottom photo: The cage bottom is kinda hard to see but ya gotta cover that, too.

Mint planted next to the brassicas with deter flea beetles and make great mojitos later on. Thyme around the bean plants will deter black flies. French marigolds near the tomatoes will deter white flies. You get the idea. It’s a multi-pronged approach!

The more alert of you will now be getting exhausted reading about all my preparations. This leads me to the last comment I want to make:

Gardening is fun. Once the garden is established.

By and large I would say that projects are the most fun in the beginning. You know, the newness of it. The excitement of trying something new. In gardening this is not true. I want my garden to flourish and not be overrun by insects, rabbits, and gophers. The soil has to be right. If I neglect the soil, it just spells trouble later on. Good soil grows strong plants that resist disease. All this preparation and planning needs to be done up front. Yeah, you can go ahead and throw seeds on the ground and hope something grows but chances are it won’t very well and even that small amount of effort will be wasted. No, gardening is not fun in the beginning if you’re doing it right and this is the phase that I am in right now. The laborious, not fun phase. But it will be worth it. And I can see it all now.

10 thoughts on “Making the Desert Bloom”

  1. Hi Renee, we just moved away from Arizona after trying to garden there for a few years.
    Your place is looking good!!! Check out Gary Nathan’s place if you are down there by Tucson. One thing that was essential to us, is shade shade shade and mulch. Fast growing shade trees, like Moringa and Mexican elderberry and anything that likes high PH soil.. mulch like crazyyyyy! I had good luck with Calendula and safflower they take heat and drought well. Check out Tucson Mission Gardens and talk to Jesus Garcia about growing, he is great. If you are on FaceBook, join Gardening in the Desert group, and newsletter by my friend Ayschica there, they have lots of great desert gardening info. She is a wealth of knowledge what grows in Phoenix area!!! Best of luck, sending warm hugs.
    Kristina

    1. You know what? That is the one thing I did not consider SOIL pH! Uh oh. Better get it checked out right away. I’m not so deep into it that I can’t do a switcheroo. Thanks! Yes on board with shade and mulch. We are at 4,500 ft near Mexican border very southeast part of AZ. Not so hot here. Last year our summer did not see it get above 85 degrees. NICE to hear from you! All good recommendations

      1. Since you added gardening soil and compost, should not be too much issue. I used to mix mine with some native soil too. But native soil will definitely not grow any acid loving plants like blueberry, azalea, rhododendron, etc, as it is such high PH.. can always keep adding soil sulphur.
        Locust and Chinese pistache grows well. Mulberry does well and stonefruit should be good there too.
        Prescott was also mainly 85F in summer, but we did have heat waves of 105F for a week or two last summer which was unusual.. not so much heat as the intensity of the constant sun from 7 am to 8 pm is what did in the plants if they had no shade or mulch. Definitely keep those roots cool and moist.

      1. Hi Renee, we lived in Prescott Arizona for 6 years, elevations about 5,000 to 6,000 feet. So we got everything, snow in winter, late frosts until May, hail in June, winds in April, no rain April to June, fires in June, monsoon relief in July and August, flooding in July, and more drought Sept to Dec. Tough to grow. Constantly looking for that afternoon shade… It was definitely a learning experience 🙂
        Sounds like you are in Sierra Vista or Bisbee area? That was on our list to explore, but never madenit there. Our stomping grounds for foraging and mushrooming were Verde Valley, Sedona, Flagstaff, Payson and Mogollon Rim area, and the White Mountains of AZ, my favorite of all 🥰

    2. All good recommendations! Thank you! I’m going for a tour of Discovery Gardens in Sierra Vista today so I’m going to ask them for advice on local soil and water pH. I’m bringing samples, too! Prescott sound similar to here in terms of climate although we are not so high. We got snow in the mountains this past winter but none here. I belong to Hereford Gardeners and some of them grow something called a Lemonade Blueberry. Don’t know how they do it. Would never consider azaleas. I suppose some folks do but I prefer to try to get along with climate rather than argue with her LOL! Yes, the sun is very intense here and the air very dry. We have a structure that will support a shade cloth and I bet we will need it.

  2. Oh and keep an eye on soil PH and it is so high in AZ and local water makes it even more so. Soil sulphur may be needed for some plants. I loved Navajo watermellon. Go to Native Seed Search, they have great adapted varieties.

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