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The Best Place to Garden

Photo by Marius Ciocirlan on Unsplash

As we welcome Fall with seeds in hand, we're reminded that gardening in the desert is not 'all' bad. Here's Angela O'Callaghan:

Southern Nevada is the best place in the world to be a gardener. There. I bet you never expected to hear anybody say that. This isn’t the same as saying it’s an easy place. That would be crazy, and definitely inaccurate. 

If you pay attention to our soils, you know they’re notoriously infertile, and salty, and have a pH that’s too high for a lot of plants. And the winds can be so fierce that leaves become shredded and wind up looking like streamers. And the sun is as bright and intense as anywhere on earth. It can and does burn plants, along with their leaves and fruit.

Still, it is a terrific garden spot for several reasons.  

Water, for one thing. Yes, we don’t have any to spare. But we do have a terrific water recycling system here, and as long as we’re relatively frugal with it, there’s an ample amount for most gardens, especially veggie gardens. Being frugal means using drip irrigation for vegetables. Drip was invented for growing vegetables in the desert. It really isn’t the best for trees and shrubs, but that’s another story.

There’s one absolute definition of a desert – it’s dry. We’re always dealing with that problem, whether it’s our skin flaking or our gardens wilting. On the other hand, that dry air helps keep our plants healthy. We have remarkably few foliar diseases here in the Mojave. In other places, fungi are major pests. Gardeners around the country are either spraying fungicides that’re marketed as “disease controllers”, or looking for organic ways to curb fungal diseases. Most pathogens need much higher humidity than you find in this climate, saving us a lot of grief.

I started thinking how lucky we are when I was planning my fall/winter garden, looking at seed catalogs. How many places have a climate that permits gardening almost the entire year round? This environment has at least three growing seasons, one for warm season plants, and two for cool. You can even break them down into five or more.

Here’s what I mean, starting with autumn.

Once the raised beds are cleaned up, and all the summer plants have been pulled out and put in the compost bin, it’s time for the cool season crops. These are anything you’re growing for roots, like turnips, beets and carrots; or leaves: spinach, lettuce, kale; and the oddballs, such as broccoli and kohlrabi. In early October, you can seed them directly. If you wait until later, maybe Halloween, you’re better off putting them in as transplants.

These’ll grow and produce even through the winter, as long as you make sure to protect them from the coldest night time temperatures. They won’t grow terribly fast, but generally produce enough to harvest a fresh salad every day.

In late winter, replenish the salad bowl by planting more fast growing lettuce and other leafies.

Next - the spring garden. Around March, tomatoes can be transplanted, so they’re producing through May and June. When temperatures rise above 90°, most tomatoes get poached on the vine. You can cut them down and they’ll re-grow a second crop around September. Or –protect them from the sun with shade cloth. They won’t produce terrifically, but some.  

In April, put in the peppers and eggplant. They tolerate heat pretty well, and you can have ratatouille through the summer.

Only a few food plants thrive in July and August, but those that do are great! If you like okra, you’ll be in heaven. Same thing with all the melons and winter squash, like butternut. As long as they have water, and nighttime temperatures are above 60° they’ll give fruit at least through September.

So at the end of summer, you can be harvesting tomatoes again, as well as squash, cantaloupes, and chilies.

In October harvest pumpkins, and begin again with leafy vegetables - the dark green ones we know we’re supposed to eat, and the bright fresh salad that makes dinner look like spring!

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