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Warm Season Edibles

nz_spinach.jpg

New Zealand Spinach
Courtesy specialtyproduce.com

New Zealand Spinaich

This probably won’t surprise anyone, but summer gardening in Southern Nevada does present a few challenges. OK, that’s an understatement; it presents a lot of challenges. As my dear husband used to say,

          “It’s gardening on the surface of the sun”. 

Some of our most popular plants don’t exactly flourish when temperatures are over 100° - that’s when landscapes can start looking mighty bleak. Heavenly bamboo is heavenly in the spring, but when that summer sun hits the leaves, they fry. Purple leaf plum trees are gorgeous, especially when they’re flowering in the spring, but summer can turn them into brown leaf plum trees – sad, but true. I even have a picture of sun-scalded prickly pear cactus!

And then – let’s consider our edible gardens.

Almost none of the vegetables we grow are from the desert.

We might love tomatoes, and they are “warm season” plants, but only a couple of varieties are able to withstand our summer. Plant most of them too late (usually after mid-April) and they’re likely to fry on the vine, assuming you get any fruits at all.

Peppers are related to tomatoes, and some of them will do better at higher temperatures. Even they can’t tolerate ridiculous heat, though.  Someday, when I have the time and a little grant money, I want to do a study to determine whether hot peppers are able to withstand hot weather better than sweet ones.

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Don’t give up hope for your summer garden, though; there are some veggies that’ll survive, even thrive, throughout our summer. Pumpkins for instance – get them started around May, and you’ll have pumpkins in time for the big celebration at the end of October. As long as they’re in decent soil and aren’t permitted to get dry, they’re pretty resilient. These are big plants, remember, so if you’re committed to growing one, and have only a tiny space, you won’t be growing much else.  

Pumpkins and other winter squash aren’t the only things that can keep going over the summer.

Can anybody imagine gumbo without okra? Here in Southern Nevada, it’ll grow merrily in the hottest weather. They’re lovely plants, with flowers that look like their cousins, hibiscus. After the flowers are pollinated, okra fruits develop. The fruits can grow to several inches long, but I prefer them when they’re about three inches. If I haven’t harvested them before they’re big, I discovered that I can cut a whole stalk of them, let them dry, and they become quite the rattles! For Christmas, I paint them either gold or red. Why not grow your holiday décor! Another great thing about okra is that it’s a perennial. Plant them where you can enjoy them for several years.

Sweet potatoes are sweet, but they aren’t potatoes! These vines are close relatives of morning glories, which are wonderful, as well as field bindweed, which definitely isn’t. Sweet potatoes are so easy to grow, I don’t know why we don’t have them everywhere. They love heat. Yes, they do take a bit more water than we might like, but if you get them started around the end of May, you can have sweet potatoes in time for Thanksgiving. They’re perennials, but once we dig them up for their roots, they’re gone. If you don’t harvest them, you’ll have a vine that’ll spread over the ground and even produce flowers.

Most leafy greens are best in cooler temperatures, but New Zealand spinach tolerates our heat. It’s not really spinach, but it serves the purpose. Another perennial, it’s not particularly thirsty; decent drought tolerance. Once it’s established, it might be hard to remove. In fact, it’s considered an invasive weed in some parts of the world. That’s not a problem here.

I said before that almost none of our vegetables are from the desert, but there’s at least one major exception: nopal, a form of prickly pear cactus. They love to grow here – stand a pad in the ground so its bottom quarter is covered by soil,   give it a little water, and you’ll have a big plant in no time. They flower in spring and produce an attractive red fruit, which is also edible. Nopales don’t have the big spines you find on other cacti, but their pads do have the tiny glochids that are miserable to remove if they get in your skin. Once you get past that problem, however, you can chop up the pads with onions, tomatillos and tomatoes for a delicious meal.

This isn’t the full list, just a few ideas to remind us that even in our unbelievably hot Mojave summer, food gardening is possible, and productive!

 

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, This is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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