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Herb Garden
Courtesy Angela O'Callaghan

Low growing herb, rosemary, is a perennial herb that grows well in the Mojave.

Cooler Weather Garden

This has definitely been the year of the unexpected.

I can’t imagine how I’d survive this ongoing quarantine if I didn’t have a garden. Even if I didn’t rely on it for some of my vegetables, I’m happy just looking at the plants that are growing, despite temperatures in triple digits and our ridiculously strong winds.

Being a professional horticulturist, I’m happy to know that a lot of people have taken gardening to heart during these strange times. However, a lot of people learned their gardening skills in other parts of the country. They become disappointed by some of the results they get in under our challenging conditions. They tend to think of vegetable gardening as a summer activity. This wouldn’t be unreasonable, except in the Mojave.

Like tomatoes. Tomatoes aren’t a sure thing when it gets desert hot. When they become poached on the vine it’s upsetting and at all appetizing. Or they can develop deep cracks from heat stress- not pretty. That’s not to say we can’t grow veggies in the summer; my fruiting vegetables – my okra, peppers and eggplant – they’ve all been thriving, but they won’t be happy come the fall.

The pandemic is still going on, for heaven only knows how long, but summer will end. It’ll soon be significantly less than 100° during the day. With that in mind, what do people want to consider planting?

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We’re kind of upside down here in the Southwest. Autumn’s a great time for growing edibles in the desert. When people in other areas are putting their gardens to bed for the winter, we’re deciding what to grow in the cool season. As soon as nighttime temperatures drop into the sixties, desert gardeners can forget about the fruiting vegetables and think about leafy greens and robust roots.  

These vegetables grow best from autumn into early winter; then again in early spring.  In fact, in a mild winter, it’s possible to keep veggies going past Christmas, even New Year with some protection. Members of the spinach family, like beets and chard, are pretty hardy. Same with carrots and parsnips. Cabbage and its cousins, broccoli, collards, kale, actually develop more flavor when it’s a bit chilly.

Don’t forget herbs! Most culinary herbs are easy to grow, and usually prefer cooler weather.

That being said, if we get a serious frost, all bets are off. No plants grow under freezing conditions. Some perennials don’t do well if it even gets too chilly. You don’t often see the great big saguaro cacti, the ones with the arms, around here. Too cold. They can get frostbite, even die.  

Leafy greens can grow well in autumn, even in pots!

Leafy greens can grow well in autumn, even in pots! Photo courtesy of Angela O'Callaghan.

What you should plant really depends on what you want. I believe in growing food, but it doesn’t need to be either decorative or edible. There’s no reason why we can’t have delicious ornamentals, or gorgeous edibles. We can even eat weeds! A colleague is trying to convince our horticulture team to eat the weeds we’re constantly removing. I’ve been thinking about harvesting the purslane taking over my yard. This low-growing weed’s a cousin of moss rose, portulaca, but it doesn’t have the pretty flowers. Around here, it doesn’t grow much higher than a few inches. If it weren’t an annual, it could have been a ground cover. The leaves are round, and the whole thing is succulent. Definitely edible, but I find it somewhat slimy. Maybe I should cook it.

We can grow almost year round, here in the great American Southwest.

So all you gardeners, whether experienced or beginner, plant what you want, and then, enjoy your fall garden.

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

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