Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend about life in the Mojave Desert. When I mentioned that I was starting to prepare my autumn garden, she told me that she’d never had a garden during the cool season. That really surprised me, since she’s been living here longer than I have. Gardening for food in the fall is one of the easiest activities we can do, especially when we don’t need to worry about being sautéed in the summer sun. Even in the winter, it’s possible to get a whole range of tasty vegetables. Think of great, fresh, green salads in December!
Now, having had an entire year of surprising temperatures, I’m hesitant to predict what the weather’ll be for the next couple of months. Still, it is autumn with shorter days and cooler temperatures, so it’s a terrific time for getting started with cool season crops that’ll thrive when the air’s a little nippy.
Another person asked me whether Las Vegas has a growing season! We have several, and if we can be reasonably sure that night temperatures aren’t going to drop much below freezing, we can be growing great things.
When I say “cool season crops”, I mean vegetables that’ll tolerate some chilling; plants you start during the fall.
A lot of these veggies are green and leafy – spinach, kale, cabbage, and collards. Also all the lettuces. Unlike the three or four varieties you’ll see in the grocery, you can find seed for green, red, purple or some that have all those colors. You can be growing leaf types or ones that form a head, and none of them take more than six or seven weeks before becoming mature. In fact, most of these fall vegetables are pretty fast.
Just because plants can tolerate chilly weather doesn’t mean they’re able to survive all the other hazards we throw at them.
Our soils, for instance.
Ever tried to dig a simple hole and found yourself flattening your pickaxe? I have. Or you get a hole dug and water sits in it for days. Or, you’ve found that plants don’t thrive when you get them in the ground.
So before getting those veggies planted, start working from under the ground up.
Your soil needs help. Even if we lived in a place where there were no giant rocks, no great sand dunes, and no caliche, I’d still say that. Even if you’ve been growing in raised beds. Before doing anything with a plant, you’ll almost definitely have to improve the soil. Loosen it, and add some compost, either your own or something you purchased. Putting compost into the mix improves its structure so roots expand more easily. Root growth tends to be slow when it’s chilly. Another benefit is better drainage. One of the big killers of landscape plants anywhere is when roots’re sitting in a pool of airless, watery mud. You’ll also adding a whole storehouse of nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. Something of a slow release fertilizer.
The green leafy things and the other veggies that tolerate cool weather generally don’t need as much sun as something like cucumbers, but they do need about six hours of direct light every day and more if it’s not direct light. If the garden’s getting morning and early afternoon sun, you’re way ahead of the game.
Most of these plants don’t have deep root systems, so make sure to provide them with regular water. Don’t forget, our air is dry, and you might say it pulls water out of leaves. This’ll be especially important when temperatures rise, but don’t neglect watering even during cool weather.
You’ll have to keep the planting beds weed-free. Most of the cool season crops are on the small side, and they don’t compete well against weeds. Try to get rid of the weeds while they’re still little problems.
So it’s simple: plant your salad greens and root crops in cool weather, in a spot where there’s sun for about six hours, in soil that you’ve improved by adding compost.
For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
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