Editor’s note: This article is the first piece in our series on gardening for your specific location. Check back every day for a new featured area of the country!
Southwest gardeners, including those in Arizona, southern California, Texas and southern New Mexico face some unique gardening challenges, mainly in the forms of heat and drought. These states lie in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 7 through 10 and rarely get frosts. Depending on where you live, you’ll probably experience fewer problems with disease and insect pests because of dry conditions. A few portions of the Southwest, though, are humid.
If you’ve transplanted to the Southwest from a northern climate, your first challenge will be to adjust your thinking to new planting times. Depending on the climate in your community, you’ll plant vegetables much earlier than you would in a northern garden. You can also take advantage of fall plantings to extend the season almost year-round. In general, your gardening work begins around January and ebbs off by June. Fall planting starts again in late summer.
The next task on your gardening to-do list is to improve your soil. Some pockets of the Southwest, such as the area around Mesa, Arizona, have fertile, loamy soil, but most areas have black clay or dry, infertile sand. Soil pH is often high. Take a soil sample to your university extension office. Within a few weeks, you’ll receive a soil analysis that details the pH level of your soil, its composition and any nutrient deficiencies. Use the recommendations in the soil analysis to build your soil. In general, you’ll want to amend soils with compost or manure. When preparing your beds, dig in three to five inches of compost or manure to a depth of eight inches. Thereafter, spread an additional two inches on your garden every spring. If you live in a rural area, you probably have access to free manure. If not, start composting or buy a truckload of compost from a landscaping firm. Avoid compost made with municipal waste or sludge, though, for your vegetable garden. These composts might contain heavy metals or other toxins that can contaminate vegetables.
Water is a constant concern for gardeners in the Southwest. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses and water early in the morning. Some gardeners in very dry areas even water at night. Common vegetable gardening knowledge dictates that vegetables need at least eight to ten hours of full sunlight to produce fruit. In very hot areas, though, your vegetables might get by with a bit less. In fact, a little afternoon shade can be a very good thing. Some crops, such as tomatoes, get sun scorched in very hot weather. You’ll also use less water if vegetables have afternoon shade.
To conserve water, you can also mulch vegetable gardens with untreated grass clippings. Spread no more than one inch of grass clippings over your garden each week and allow the clippings to dry out between applications.
Tomatoes: Plant tomatoes between January and April, depending on your climate. Gardeners at lower altitudes will plant earlier, while those at higher altitudes should wait a few weeks. In some areas, you can sow tomato seeds directly in the ground from November to January, a luxury few other gardeners in the U.S. experience. Tomatoes tend to drop blossoms and fail to produce fruit when temperatures rise much above 80 degrees. If your tomato plants fail to produce tomatoes, try growing cherry or grape tomatoes or a variety bred to withstand heat, such as Mountain Crest, Sunbeam or Sunmaster. Dry, parched spots on tomatoes indicate sun scorch. If you notice this problem, plant tomatoes in the shade or make a fabric screen to shade them in the afternoon. Some gardeners plant tomatoes in pots so they can be easily moved.
Peppers: Chile peppers in particular grow well in New Mexico’s warm, dry climate, while bell peppers need more moisture to form their fleshy fruit. Sow pepper seeds directly in the garden between November and March or set out plants between January and April. Grow eggplant and tomatillos as you would peppers and tomatoes.
Leafy greens: Leafy greens such as lettuce, broccoli, kale, collards, and spinach grow best in cool, moist weather. Growing them in the Southwest can be a challenge, but if you’d like to try, plant them in late fall. Keep the soil evenly moist to avoid bitterness.
Herbs: One of the perks of living in the Southwest is that you can grow tender herbs year-round when they’d normally be annuals elsewhere. Rosemary grows as a perennial in most parts of the Southwest and even tender basil survives all but the coldest weather.
Melons and squash: In the Southwest, you can easily grow almost any melon you want, including watermelons. Remember, though, that these plants need plenty of moisture and fertility to support their rampant growth. Plant melons between December and April, depending on your climate.
Green beans: Green beans are an adaptable crop, suitable for both spring and fall gardens. Plant them in the spring between February and April. For a fall crop, plant them between August and September. In the fall, plant them a bit deeper than you would in the spring. The soil in the fall is dry and warm and the seeds will dry out if they’re not moist enough. Planting slightly deeper ensures cool, moist soil, ideal for germination.
Berries: Although raspberries won’t thrive in the Southwest, you can grow luscious blackberries. In fact, blackberries grow wild in some parts of Arizona, California, and Texas. In very warm regions of the Southwest, grow Brazos, Rosborough, or Womack varieties. Some blackberry varieties need chilling winter temperatures to produce abundant fruit and are best reserved for zones 7 and 8. These include Navaho, Apache, and Chickasaw.
Strawberries: In most parts of the Southwest, June-bearing strawberry varieties perform best. These strawberries produce crops in early spring. Day-neutral and everbearing varieties produce later crops and don’t tolerate heat well. Try Earliglow or Jewel varieties.
Citrus: Although the Southwest isn’t known for its peaches, pears, or apples, it’s the perfect climate for growing citrus fruit. Try orange, grapefruit, orange, or lime trees, which make attractive landscaping plants, in addition to their culinary value. Plant citrus trees in full sun in well-draining, slightly sandy soil.
Pomegranates: Pomegranates have gotten a lot of media coverage lately, and it’s true – they’re a good source of heart-healthy antioxidants. They’re a bit of an extravagance to buy at the grocery store, but they’re easy to grow in the Southwest. Pomegranates grow on perennial bushes or trees and grow best in slightly sandy soil. Once established, they require little maintenance and tolerate some drought. The fruits mature in late fall.