Today I’m welcoming Melissa from Ever Growing Farm to the Prairie Homestead. We share the challenge of gardening in less-than-ideal climates, and I love her ideas for gardening in the desert. Take it away Melissa!
Growing food in the high desert can be an incredible challenge, but I am living proof that you can be successful at it! If you follow a few simple methods to help combat the hot, dry, and windy conditions that are the norm in the southwest, you can be almost guaranteed a bountiful harvest.
Six Tips for Successful Desert Gardening
1. Find the Right Seeds – Seeds that have been grown in and adapted to the high desert are going to be your best bet in the garden. There are countless heirloom varieties that have been protected by the companies that make it their life’s work to preserve the history of our fruits and vegetables. Find them at your local nursery, Farmer’s Market or order them online via NativeSeeds.org, Baker Creek Heirlooms or Seed Saver’s Exchange.
2. Nurture the Soil – The soil in the high desert is full of sand, gravel, and clay and must be amended. Amend your soil with organic matter, such as compost from your own pile or from your local nursery, knowing this is the foundation of a successful garden. Amending, to some extent, will need to be done annually, and starting with your first planting.
You might also consider planting some cover crops during the off-seasons so as to continue building (and maintaining) your soil.
3. Commit to Lots of Water – The high desert has a unique, incredibly arid climate which not only affects plants at their roots, but also affects the plants ability to draw water in through their leaves. Given this, it is essential that, when watering your veggies, you optimize the amount of water they receive. The easiest ways to do this is through drip irrigation and heavily mulching your beds.
- Drip irrigation is a series of small hoses that allow water to literally drip slowly into the ground around the base of the plant and down into the root zone. The set up involves a network of tubing, pipes, valves, and emitters. Depending on how extensive your garden beds are, setting up your drip irrigation could take a few hours, but the end result is more than worth the effort put in at the beginning. Setting up drip irrigation will not only offer you peace of mind, knowing that your plants are getting the water they need, but it will also save you hours each week since you won’t have to water everything by hand!
- Water catchment, in the form of rain barrels, can be a life saver (if it is legal in your state). Allowing the rain water to be diverted from your roof and into large barrels or cisterns on your property can help offset your water costs (or alleviate some of the stress on your well) when used to spot water plants that require a bit more water than others. Alternatively, you can set up your rain barrels with hoses and a gravity feed or a timer to water your plants, but that’s another post entirely.
4. Mulch It! – Whether used in the form of straw, pulled weeds (before they go to seed) or the bags you can purchase from your local nursery, mulch pulls triple duty by
- Keeping weeds down
- Protecting the soil surface and the base of your plants form the elements
- Holding moisture in the soil
(Jill: If you’re wanting to dig deeper into the topic of mulching, I highly recommend the deep mulch method. I’m going on my second year of using it our own difficult climate, and I am in love!)
5. Watch that Sun – The sun in the high desert can literally fry your vegetable plants due to the high altitude and the intense UV rays. In order to avoid burning our plants, I’ve found that the following two strategies work best:
- Companion Plant – Companion planting is usually thought of in relation to safeguarding against harmful pests, but it can also be utilized to shade lower growing plants beneath the taller, hardier plants. For example, you could grow kale or chard beneath a pole bean tee-pee.
- Shade Cloth – Shade cloth is a wonderful and fairly inexpensive way to protect your tender veggies form the sun’s rays and baking heat. I’ve found that Summer and Winter Squash benefit greatly from a bit of shade at the hottest time of day! You can achieve this by simply inserting PVC pipes in your beds as you would when creating a hoop house or low tunnel and then securing your shade only over the very top of the PVC pipes using small clamps so your plants get some sun, just not the hottest sun of the day.
6. And the wind… The wind in the high desert can take a vegetable plant and lay it out flat in the course of just a few seconds! In order to protect your plants (and all of your hard work), creative windbreaks are essential.
Ideally, walls and/or; fencing can be constructed to protect your garden area. However, if that is unrealistic, straw bales can be placed around your garden area to protect your plants. Whether you surround the whole area, or simply create a wind break protecting your plants from the direction the winds usually travel in, every bit of protection is better than none!
We have tried trellising and supporting our plants, and are not opposed to it entirely, but have found that the wind is often stronger than any trellis we’ve put in place! The plants do survive, most of the time, but tend to be a bit worse for the wear.
Growing your own food in an extreme climate can be a bit intimidating, but it is absolutely doable by simply adding a few tips and tricks to your desert gardening arsenal! So, let’s learn from each other!
Share your tips and tricks to growing food in your unique climate in the comments below.
Melissa Willis shares about her family’s adventures in Urban Farming on 1/8 acre in the high desert of Santa Fe, NM on her blog Ever Growing Farm . With 20 laying hens, five fruit trees and 425 square feet of active growing space, every extra hour in the day goes into producing as much of their own food as possible and learning many of the old skills that have stopped being passed down from generation to generation. Melissa can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest
Prairie Wife says
This post was perfect for me! We are venturing to plant our first vegetable garden this year and these tips will come in handy. I was pleased to read about the mulching tips as I have not heard of doing this…and the wind protection too will certainly be needed as well. Now if it would only stop raining we could plant our seeds (its been one of the wettest May on record here in Wyoming)!
Jill Winger says
I KNOW. Crazy wet May!
I am wondering about any tips you have for high desert like the Mojave Desert in California. We reach 30 degrees and below in winter but will also reach triple digits in the summer. I think I have an idea of what to do but I am asking for any tips or tricks.
alice conaway says
drip or soaker hoses on a timer set for 3 or 4 times a day helps keep the soil wet and the roots cool so they do not stress and loose their blossoms or wilt. also the straw bale trick for wind protection has worked well for me . We live in the high desert are by Ridgecrest The wind can be brutal and also dry out plants stressing them .The wind generally comes from the west and so several bales placed properly can really make a difference then after a few years when they break down they can be used as mulch or a soil ammendment. look for heat tolerant varieties they really do tend to grow best in the high desert area.
Living in the high desert of Southern California, I can attest that all of these things are problems for us. Our small yard was 3-4 inches of rocky sand on top of clay. Terrible conditions! We put in raised beds, and have figured out most of your tips the hard way over the past few years. So far, it’s been successful, though I’m going to commit to more mulch in the future.
The only thing I would add is that storing rainwater does no good when you’re in an area that gets virtually NO rain! 🙂 We recently added buckets to each shower, to catch the wasted water that would otherwise flow down the drain while we wait for the water to heat up. With a family of 5, it really makes a difference. Totally worth the inconvenience of hauling buckets outside!
Thanks for the post!
Jill Winger says
Oh yes– great tip about the rainwater JJ. Especially when water is scarce!
Torrey Neel says
Believe it or not, for every inch of rain that falls on a catchment area of 1,000 square feet, you can expect to collect approximately 600 gallons of rainwater. Ten inches of rain falling on a 1,000 square foot catchment area will generate about 6,000 gallons of rainwater! Turn scarcity to abundance, we only use rainwater to grow and we have gutters and tanks on every structure from main to shed. Or go to my favorite informational site on the subject http://www.harvestingrainwater.com
Jill Winger says
I’ve done this for awhile do you know how to use dish water and wash water ?
I also make sure to save all the water that I get from doing water changes on my fish tanks. My roses absolutely love it and I am hoping that once I start my veggie garden this year, the veggies will be just as impressed with it.
Alia Coleman says
Lol, I’m glad to read that im not crazy alone about all of the water that gets wasted down the drain too. When I was a kid everyone had a hose from their washing machine right out into the garden. A bucket sat inside the kitchen sink with soapy water for doing dishes in everyone’s house. As I grew up I saw these things less and less and now I get funny looks and have heard much criticism. Not so crazy now. My city code enforcement tried to get a mandate prohibiting catching of rainfall. Luckily his argument was that rain fall belonged to the city and it was laughed out.
Ray White says
At about 3700′ near Kingman, Arizona our soil is caliche, so you need a rock bar or jackhammer to “dig.” I did this for our fruit trees but built critterproof raised beds for our veggie gardens.
I used landscape timbers for the raised bed frames. Lined the interior of the wood with 6 mil plastic to prevent rot. Lined the interior and bottom of the beds with at least two layers of offset 1″ chicken wire to keep out packrats, ground squirrels, pocket gophers and other tunnelers. Installed 3′ tall 1″ chicken wire around the exterior of the beds to keep out rabbits. Then built PVC hoop houses over each bed to hold shade cloth and bird netting (and more 6 mil plastic in the winter). I use weed free straw for mulch and drip irrigation (mostly) though I will top spray early in the mornings when needed to keep the mulch moist.
This system has worked really well for several years now and we grow food outside year-round.
Jill Winger says
That sounds amazing Ray!
Amy Murrell says
I’m new to Kingman, and would like to put in a few plants. I want to know if it’s possible with the right irrigation and sun protection to grow my Mississippi girl tomatoes, yellow squash, cucumbers, and okra in my small little plot, or am I wasting my time and effort?
I don’t know about your specific tomato, but in a raised composted garden they will all grow out here just watch out for the pack rats. Sift the native soil through some snake screen to weed out rocks and 50/50 blend with compost your first year and a bit of manure (1 cubic ft manure to 3 cubic ft compost) do your major watering in the evening and a touch up in the a.m. to give your garden a little boost for the heat that’s coming. Next year just turn in 2-3 inches of compost and manure mixture. Good luck from Meadview.
What is “snake screen?” Do you mean hardware cloth?
What do I do about Mesquite tree roots invading the garden and killing all the plants. I tried a large child’s pool but the roots made a hole in it.
I’m in your area as well. We’re building the raised beds now and would love more info on what type of plants you have been successful with.
Best regards tim.
Jessie Johnson says
I was enticed into your blog with your bottle calf blog post, and then I got lost in your amazing site! I like your font plug in 🙂
I was wondering if I could use this post and/or the bottle calf post on that site. I will contact Learning to Be Me as well. Of course I will be crediting your name on the post, and linking it back to your blog. I will also post it in For Farm and Ranch Women: Memoirs on Facebook.
If you want to check it out, I would be honored! Learning web design and building as I go, I have a VERY rough draft of what I think is going to be a really neat website that posts tons of blogs from tons of women in ag. I’m hoping to drive the content in ways that our urban friends will benefit from hearing the story of ag in our words and begin talking about it in their homes the way we do in ours.
Jill Winger says
Hey Jessie! So happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog. 🙂 You are welcome to link to any of my posts that you like– I just ask that you don’t copy a post and republish it in its entirety. Google frowns upon duplicate content, so I try to avoid any sort of republishing like that. Sounds like you have a great website, tho!
Jessie Johnson says
Thank you so much! Having some of your work on there will be a great addition! I will notify you when I do make that post. I usually honor all the original words and syntax of the author but condense the images and omit any sidebar information from the original post.
I will keep your paragraph formatting but otherwise match the font etc to the For Farm and Ranch Women page. Is that acceptable? I’m very new to the web production side of things, and I would not want to use material unethically.
Jill Winger says
I’d rather you not include full paragraphs, etc. Links are fine, but full text/large chunks of text are not. 🙂
Jessie Johnson says
I see; I will not include large chunks of text then. I will definitely run a rough draft by you before publication which might be sometime later this week. Thanks for your guidance!
Jill Winger says
Awesome– thanks Jessie!
James Harmon says
I honestly feel, seeds have important role in desert gardening. I am doing it from years and had great results with that.
Just joined.I garden in semi desert in Africa.Perhaps we can learn from each other.
Judy mogere says
Its over a year without rain our place no wells and I wish to start successful planting to rescue my people please
Doug Arnold, Pinon Hills, Calif. says
We have been doing container gardening here on the California High Desert for a number of years.. This year we are also trying raised bed gardening. Seed gets planted this week. Wish me luck! If I learn any new tips I’ll add them.
Sarah D. says
You need to rename this article “high desert” The desert in CA is typically the Low Desert. Not the same climate!
Brad Edwards says
I live on the water in florida and we get a ton of high wind and its pure sand. We do have rain though. I find that digging down and using the soil you dug out for the sides of the beds is the best thing, then putting in manure and compost. This does a couple of things. First, it conserves moisture by being in the low spot drainage wise. Secondly it protects from wind damage. This works if your spot dries out really fast. There is potential for flooding but for me its worth it. I’ve done areas that were complete sand and within a year doing a reverse trench they are in good shape. You can even take felled trees and put them around the beds you want, then take the soil you take out and put on top of the trees. That way your not hunting materials for raised beds. Then put pine bark, cypress mulch, etc on top of those for water retention/anti soil runoff/less heat directed into your beds/walking path. Its far cheaper than constructing raised beds.
Cali does have high deserts …. I live in Yucca Valley by Joshua Tree and my elevation is 3000+….very strong winds and even snow at times… we have monsoon seasons…new to this area so any tips on hi desert gardening in Cali is most welcomed!!!
Thank you, for the clarification. My patents have lived in Twenty Nine Palms for 25 years….so, I know that area as “High Desert”. My husband and I are looking forward to relocating from Pasadena, CA to Joshua Tree. I am very excited to embark on gardening there. I appreciate all the useful information on this site.
Birdie Noble says
Great Article! The tips you have mentioned in this article for gardening are impressive, helpful to those who are looking for it. Thanks for sharing!
I live in Yucca Valley, CA., at about 3800 feet. You need a raised garden bed for vegetable gardening is this area. The animals will find a way in if you do not have a secure bottom and a cage built over the top. You do need a wind block and a drip system. Also, your beds will need shade as the heat from the sun will cook your garden. The main thing is to visit your garden every day in the spring, summer, and fall to review dryness, horn worms, etc. We have found that raised beds can dry out quickly, however, it is very easy to over water. If you want success in our extreme area, you must be committed and have the time needed to be successful. Extreme gardening in the high desert is truly extreme and it takes time to perfect it and a lot of attention to detail.
I have a drip irrigation system and am having a difficult time figuring out what sort of watering schedule my plants need to thrive. As summer wears on, they develop yellowing/browning leaves. I have read a lot about watering deeply and infrequently for the roots. My landscaper has it set at 60 minutes 3 times a week for the heat of summer. My plants are living but not happy. I was intrigued by your watering 3-4 times a day comment. How long for each watering? I have sandy soil with some amendments applied years ago at initial planting. I live in hot, dry, windy, high desert.