Three Letters Re: Starting Your Desert Backyard Garden

I have some tips and ideas to add to Colleen’s wonderful article on desert gardening. I have successfully cultivated summer & winter gardens throughout the southwest desert regions of Arizona & New Mexico for the past 7 years. My methods are not necessarily in support of OPSEC in WTSHTF scenarios, but just desert gardening in general.

* Try to set up raised beds along the west or south facing side of the house or block wall – the walls retain heat all day and provide some radiated warmth during cold evenings.
* A very simple winter “greenhouse” method is to run two long PVC pipes crisscross over your raised bed into supports screwed into the sides of the bed, cover with heavy plastic sheeting (white or clear), and hold down with rocks or boards. Take it off during the day, put on at night to block frost. It does get cold here in the desert at night and sometimes even snows! But the 60-70 degree sunny days make up for it and allow for year-round growing.
* Check salvage yards, rebuilding centers, craigslist, etc for scrap wood cheap or free. I recently responded to a craigslist ad from a mobile home business that routinely offers tons of used boards & wood frames for free – perfect for building raised beds.
* I don’t use wood boards less than 2″ thick because they tend to bow & warp and are flimsy. If the wood is in good condition, I recommend coating it with linseed oil as this will help repel water and keep the wood in good shape.
* Don’t use railroad ties, as perfect as they may seem. These are generally heavily treated with chemicals & oils you don’t want leaching into your garden soil.
* I stick with bed sizes of 3′ x 3′, 4′ x 4′, or 4′ x 8′. You don’t want to build anything wider than 4′ in one dimension as it becomes hard to reach into the center of your garden. I now only build beds that are 12″ high – anything less and you will have plants that struggle. With a bed that’s 12″ high you can accommodate any type of plant, even root vegetables like carrots & potatoes.
* I always line the bottom of my beds with black, woven “weed blocker” material, two layers of it stapled to the bottom of the bed. I have learned the hard way when I fail to do this, as this nasty desert grass always manages to shoot up through a foot of soil and overtake my garden.
* I tend to cover most of my raised beds with some type of cage or screen to keep out birds, cats, and also provide a base for shade when needed. Making a cage out of chicken wire, PVC pipe, and zip strips is easy; they are light & can be moved from bed to bed. Make your cages at least 2 feet tall, anything shorter isn’t enough for most plants.
* I also use used, framed window screens (found a bunch at a rebuilding center for $1 each). They tend to be 3′ or 4′ long and 18″ tall. These make great sides for a wood framed cage or bed topper. I also lay them across the top of newly seeded beds for shade and to hold in moisture as plants start sprouting.
* With cages over the beds, you can also cover the entire thing with shade material during the most brutal periods in the summer: I found gauzy/woven drapery fabric spread over the entire cage provides nice shade while still letting sunlight in. You can find old drapes of this material at almost any thrift shop, usually for a buck or two.
* Many of the commercial black plastic composters are expensive. They are a good investment, but I’ve been equally successful composting with just a pit in the ground covered with cardboard and a simple box made out of scrap wood & chicken wire. With weekly turning & watering, you will have rich compost soil in a matter of weeks. I call it “brown gold”.
* Seek out local nurseries or other sources who sell compost or soil by the cubic yard (aka “a truckload”). I found a source in southern New Mexico who would load the back of my small pickup truck for $30 and that was enough to fill a 4′ x 4′ raised bed. Reserve your homemade compost for the top layer to give seedlings an extra boost.
* If you have roof gutters or a spot on the roof where water gushes down during a rain storm, get some rain barrels. I’ve had 55-gallon barrels completely fill with water in under 15 minutes during summer monsoons. Barrels can be as simple as just cutting holes in the top, wide enough to dip a watering can or bucket into, if you don’t want to install a spigot near the bottom. Make sure to cover the tops with a screen or lid when not in use so animals don’t fall in and to not attract mosquitoes. I have found clean, used barrels at flea markets for as little as $7 each. While I don’t know what they used to hold, after a few flushes I think they’re OK to use for irrigation water (but I would not use them for drinking water unless they were brand new).
* I do my main watering in the evening after the sun has gone down. With new plantings, I’ll do another watering in the morning so the soil stays moist all day. Once plants are substantial, I water carefully every 2-3 days and use shade covers during the hottest times.
* I keep all my seeds in their original packets, sealed in a Ziploc bag, in my freezer. I have seeds from two years ago that are still sprouting with this storage method.
* Most importantly, don’t try to grow plants that don’t belong here. I tend to focus on growing plants the natives have grown here for centuries: squash, beans, corn, peppers, etc. I have also had success with leafy greens (in the winter), tomatoes, dill, cilantro, and broccoli (winter).
* On squash: I either have one bed reserved just for squash or else I grow it in rows or mounds on the ground away from everything else. Squash growing with other plants will quickly invade the entire garden – it really needs a lot of room to spread out or grow up (if you have vertical supports set up).
* Unripe butternut squash (very pale or white) growing late in the season can be harvested and placed on a sunny window sill (or out in the sun during the day) and they will ripen. One winter I had 30+ good sized (but unripe) butternuts that I kept out in the sun during the day and they did ripen in about a month. And when properly stored, squash lasts “forever”. I’ve stored butternuts in a dark cupboard for over a year and they were still edible, – V. in New Mexico

Mr Rawles,
Colleen M.’s advice on starting a kitchen garden in a low rainfall area is sound advice and I agree with the ‘challenge’ to avoid becoming technology dependant. I am fortunate to have a small Plan-B retreat which is amongst a community of small-holders in South Africa, but one challenge we have here is water. The irony is that there is a small seasonal stream the runs along our common land, but our government has passed laws that prevent us from using the water unless we pay a substantial fee per kilo-litre; well substantial for a resource that some of us have had a right to use since 1863! We have adequate rainfall for household needs, but many kitchen gardens in our community use recycled grey water. These systems vary from a buckets used by poorer families in our community, to more sophisticated systems relying on gravity (most of the homes are off-grid). The system I am installing is a shallow grey water soak-away beneath the planting beds to increase the moisture level in the soil. Regards, – Saffer

Dear Mr. Rawles,
As a native Arizonan and a resident of the city of Tucson for the past 32 years, I just had to send in a response to Colleen’s article about gardening in the desert.

1. Colleen didn’t mention that we have a year around growing season in the desert. Plant cool weather crops such as dill, tomatoes, lettuce, and other greens in September for harvest in October through March. In March plant warm weather crops such as peppers, corn, beans and squash for harvest in May through October.
2. The three sisters method of planting works especially well in the desert. The three sisters method is native corn, pole beans, and native squash. The beans replenish the nitrogen pulled from the soil by the corn, the corn provides a stalk for the pole beans to grow upon, and the squash shades the roots to retain moisture.
3. Do not use seeds purchased from Burpee, Home Depot, Lowes, etc. These seeds are hybrids that have been developed to grow back east and will not tolerate the desert climate. Instead go to Native Seed Search, They have spent the past thirty years collecting and propagating heirloom seeds from plants native to the Southwest. They are happy to share their expertise. Another local resource is the Tucson Botanical Garden. Every year they plant a demonstration garden showing the crops and farming methods of the local tribes.
4. Yes, shade is important but planting fruit trees is not the best method. The few orchards located in southern Arizona , such as the apple orchards near Wilcox and the former orange groves in northwest Tucson all depend on a specialized microclimate and heavy ground water irrigation. Instead, plant mesquite trees. They are native, drought resistant, fast growing, and the beans can be harvested and ground into flour.
5. It is better to use brick or cement block instead of lumber to build your raised bed. Most commercially available lumber has been chemically treated to be insect resistant. You do not want those chemicals leaching out of the wood and into the soil. Also, we have termites in the ground in Tucson and they love the lumber.
6. Do not get discouraged if your first attempt at a garden fails. Gardening is a hands on learning experience and even master gardeners are always discovering new things. Now is the time to get started; do not wait until the S has HTF.

Thank you for all your hard work, Mr. Rawles. God bless you and your family. – Julie in Tucson