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So many things make gardening in the desert southwest surprising and interesting. Everyone knows it’s not like growing plants in any other region. We have our five seasons, while most other gardeners have to be content with only one. Summer’s definitely the toughest time, but the other seasons allow us to grow almost anything!
Spring here is like spring anywhere, except that begins around February. When I lived in the great American Northeast, we didn’t dare plant anything until mid-May. I remember putting tomato plants into the ground on the 4th of July and hoping to get a few fruit before the first frost in October!
No, the Mojave is a gardener’s paradise. Honestly!
This past fall, I started my seeds for the leafy greens – mustard, spinach, lettuce - and got them planted around the end of October. Actually, they’re in a small raised bed and some 14-inch pots. I was able to start harvesting the end of November.
Our middle of winter is not the “dead of winter” as in other places. Not only is it a great time for thinking about spring and looking at catalogs, it can be yet another growing season.
Two factors make it possible to have a garden of greens during the winter. One is the way many of these plants grow. Take lettuce, for instance. The outer leaves are the oldest ones. I harvest the outside leaves and permit the inner part of the plants to continue growing. It’s not necessary to take out the entire plant! Since I don’t do a lot of food preservation, I only need to take some leaves every day. Besides, what can you do with lettuce besides eat it fresh?
The other element for success in a winter desert garden is protection.
Ultra-light fabric, called “floating row covers” can rest on the growing plants overnight, and that keeps temperatures two or three degrees warmer. Many plants will normally survive temperatures down to about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, although it does stress them, and causes considerable damage to leaves.
This row cover protection can mean the difference between freezing and thriving. It’s the winter equivalent of shade cloth, which we use to shield plants from sunburn.
In past years, when winter temperatures dropped below freezing for many nights in a row, I’ve added heavier materials to shelter crops. I bought a roll of dense clear plastic at the hardware store. I suspend the plastic on pvc pipe or rebar and it’s like a mini greenhouse. It’s not hard to work with; can be put up or taken down easily. When daytime temperatures hover in the 30s I keep it up and might even lay row cover on the plants themselves. That’s double protection, like insulation in the roof.
This year, I’m doing something different with plants that’re absolutely not winter crops. My tomato plants looked puny most of the summer, in part because I had an irrigation malfunction. Since I felt they deserved a chance to come back, I didn’t pull them out as I normally would in September. They came back. All through November, they produced fruits. More than they did throughout the whole year. Every morning I’ve been harvesting green tomatoes and putting them on the windowsill. As long as they’ve reached a certain level of maturity, they turn red and tasty! When it gets cold, I’ll have to decide whether to dig them up or cut them down and let them come back next year. Tomatoes are perennials, but rarely produce as well in subsequent years. Might be worth a shot, though.
In 2014, I’ll be offering an expanded version of my “Growing in Small Places” series. This year I’ll present a different topic every month. Call the Master Gardener help line for details.
Finally, I’d like to thank the members of the Desert Green Foundation for giving me the 2013 Bill Tomyasu Award for service to Nevada’s horticulture industry. This was a high honor, and I am so grateful. It puts me in distinguished company.
For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, This is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.