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Notes from the Desert Winter Garden

I need to start keeping track of how many pounds and bunches of produce I harvest, because it kind of FEELS like my summer garden wasn’t very successful.  But, when I confessed that to my husband, he looked at me like I was out of touch with reality, which IS definitely a possibility…  But, so many of the things I planted didn’t work out well.

I was especially disappointed with my lone summer squash variety:  Tatuma Calabacita.  Its vines spread forever, yet it was very unproductive.  I think I harvested three squash total in the two hills I planted.  The beginning of September, I sowed seeds of Greyzini from Pinetree Garden Seeds in two hills, with three more hills a couple of weeks later.  I was attracted by the Pinetree’s claims that Greyzini produces early and prolifically, and that I’d soon be drowning in summer squash.  (Note:  The “summer squash” planting season in Maricopa County extends well into the winter.)  I figured if this was actually true, I could freeze, barter, sell, gift, etc., the excess.  The first baby squash is now about 4″ long and harvestable, though I will wait a few more days:

IMG_20151030_082226 My only problem right now is that I likely didn’t give the Greyzini enough room to grow, so the plants are already crowding the carrot area.  But, my carrots — Atomic Red from Pinetree — are having a hard time germinating and taking off, so I figure if they’re dominated by the Greyzini, so be it.

In my “old” 8′ x 12′ I have also sown:

  1.  White Sweet Spanish onion — These are slow to take off, as well… but onions always are.
  2. Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach — This is the first time I’ve planted spinach.  It is having a hard time germinating, and the small sprouts that have popped up seem to be a favorite of bugs.
  3. A Giant Mix zinnia — these have germinated and are growing well.  I’m thinking that a “giant” zinnia was probably not the best choice; as the garden veggies start struggling to soak in as many of the pale sun’s rays, I don’t want flowers shading them.  If worse comes to worst, I could yank them, I suppose.
  4. Super Sugar snap pea — These look lovely and are a good 6-8″ tall.  I’m pretty sure I had 100% germination, and they start germinating in 7-8 days, and grow quickly.  It’s very satisfying to see a plant grow healthy and strong after only a week or so.  I have an 8′ row in my 8′ x 12′ bed and have sown another 12′ in my new garden bed, the first of which just started sprouting a few days ago.
  5. My Clemson Spineless okra is still producing!!  Those bushes are 5-6′ tall!!  It’s pretty amazing.  Now that it’s a tad cooler, they don’t grow nearly as quickly.  But, they’re still alive!  I’ve heard from local gardening groups and a bit of research that one can overwinter okra plants, but they are very cold-sensitive.  I’m not positive, but I think I’m going to try.

My new, 12′ x 12′ bed is not fully sown.  So far, I have planted:

  1. The aforementioned 12′ of Super Sugar snap peas.
  2.  Lettuces — So far, both a Pinetree Lettuce Mix as well as a mix of Simpson Black-Seeded and Romaine lettuces, the seeds of which I saved from previous lettuce plantings that I let flower and go to seed.  In my experience, Simpson Black-Seeded is the most successful lettuce to grow in Maricopa County.  But, I’m looking forward to a greater variety of lettuces.
  3. Alaska Mix nasturtium — which I chose for its variegated leaves.
  4. Red Cloud beet.  I ❤ beets.
  5. Harris Model parsnips — I probably wouldn’t have attempted parsnips, as I know they taste better after a frost, which we’re not likely to have.  However, the CSA I hosted for nearly three years, with organic produce from Crooked Sky Farms, grew parsnips very successfully.  So, I’m trying it.
  6. Cardinal Chard —  Red chard of any kind just might be my single most favorite vegetable.  🙂
  7. I also transplanted a bunch of I’Itois (EE-ee-toy) onions — 18 bunches, to be exact — from my containers.  These green/spring onion-type heirloom, bunching onions are AMAZING.  They’re holdovers from the CSA.  Plant one bulb, and a year later, you have 50.  They just don’t die.  They go dormant in September, but start sprouting back in October.  Literally, it’s year ’round “free” green onions.  I haven’t purchased green onions in at least two years, maybe longer.  I figure I can go without, the one month they die down.

In the space remaining in the big garden bed, I plan on sowing more lettuce, bok choy, collards, some more flowers (probably gaillardia), and more onions — if I have the space.

I have also been cleaning out my containers — I’ve done eight so far.  This is a HUGE PAIN IN THE @SS, as — of course — bermudagrass, that evil and invasive species — has found its way into each and every pot.  So, I’m digging out all the bermudagrass stolons, roots, and “leaves”, plus doing other cleanout and refreshing of the soil that’s there with compost and some native clay dirt/soil as needed for better water retention.  I have more I’Itois, a bit of parsley, a few flowers, and lots of basil already growing.  I’ve sown lavender, more nasturtiums, cilantro (I actually meant to sow flat-leaf parsley seed and grabbed the wrong packet), and Crimson Giant radishes.  I have another 6-8 pots to clean out and replant, and I’m planning on growing more radishes, herbs, and flowers.  It’s funny, because previously, I had felt kind of grumpy about my containers, calling them my “fake garden”.  But, now that I have my real garden — in the dirt — going, I view the containers as… “free” space.  And, they’re especially easy to take care of in the winter.  (In the summer, my containers need water at least once — often twice — daily, to keep them alive in the blistering heat.)

One more note about gardening in the winter.  OK, two.  Maybe three.

  1. Winter gardening is kind of a crapshoot.  Last year, we had ZERO freeze days.  The year before, we had five — with three of those being back-to-back, which is kind of unprecedented cold for the Phoenix area.  The only bad news about having such a large garden is that I probably don’t have enough sheets, et al, to cover everything, if it does freeze.  So, I’ll probably be praying for no freezes.
  2. The “days to maturity” on each packet of seed don’t count for much.  Yes, things will grow beautifully here in the winter (unless it freezes), but as the sun’s rays are not nearly so strong or long as in the summertime, things take longer to grow.  Still, it’s so worthwhile growing in the winter, as a greater variety of veggies do well here in the cool months:  all cole/cruciferous crops, all root crops, anything leafy, plus other extreme-heat-sensitive veggies like peas.
  3. My permaculture ideas — going through the tremendous strain of digging out SUNKEN beds when raised beds are all the trend right now, has proven to be a good idea.  Other than keeping the seeds moist for germination by light sprinkling, I’ve watered my garden NONE in the last almost-two months.  The garden beds are placed at the lowest slope in our yard, so the rainwater soaks and percolates down to that area.  In 110°+ heat, there’s NOTHING that can be done to gardens to preserve water;  you just have to water, and usually daily.  But, now that it has cooled down and we’ve had a few fall rains, the sunken bed idea is paying off.
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The desert organic garden journal — July 6, 2015.

11703152_940032102686262_7402766941140771172_nI won’t lie:  I’m really happy with my garden.  I go out to visit it several times daily.  In the evenings, when the right-hand wall (which is on the western edge of our property) is in shade, I often sit on the walk path.  The shade makes it tolerable, and the water content in the air around the garden acts as evaporative cooling.  The screen — which is actually concrete “remesh” from Home Depot — makes a fabulous bird blind, even though the beans have not traveled very far up it yet.  Hummingbirds and verdins flit and zoom right by my face…  It’s perfect.

il_570xN.570441898_n96zThe water-pollination dilemma:  I’m happy that this coming week, the highs top out at 105°.  I’m hoping that it’s cool enough for more flowers to be pollinated before they die.  This is the big dilemma in summer desert gardens:  female flowers bloom, but they die before they become pollinated.  And, similarly with water:  we need enough water — usually daily — for the plants to grow and not die… and the most effective way to water is with an old vintage sprinkler which I found in the shed of this house when we moved in.  We had one identical to it when I was a kid.  Newer sprinklers are more efficient and don’t deliver enough water to provide a good soaking.  This one is pretty leaky and the drops it distributes are big.  I have carved channels in the garden bed in which the “excess” water travels, making sure every corner of the garden gets soaked.  However, here’s the rub:  watering with a sprinkler soaks the blooms, and makes it difficult for the bees to pollinate them.  So, I just water everything enough to keep it alive, and the greens are lush, but the actual fruit of the garden is not gigantic.

I’ve harvested only Armenian cucumbers so far.  Three of them, and another will be ready tomorrow or so.  And one okra.

Growing is:

  • More okra (I’ll probably have enough for a meal within a week).
  • More Armenian cukes.
  • One getting-quite-large banana squash and several smaller ones.
  • Two spaghetti squash.  I didn’t plant it;  it came up volunteer in the compost.
  • One melon (I think it’s honeydew — again, it came up volunteer in the compost).
  • One mystery volunteer squash/melon that might be watermelon — actually, there are three on the plant.
  • Another melon plant that has a good 5-6 melons on it, which I am cheering on — it might be a Fonzy melon I planted from saved seeds.  It’s hard to tell what’s what in the tangle of vines.
  • Many tomato plants — those came up volunteer, as well.  Same pollination problem:  it gets too hot too fast, and they bloom and die before they’re pollinated.  Historically, if I can keep tomato plants alive through the heat of summer, they’ll start fruiting in September or so.
  • Lots of flowers — mostly cosmos so far, but my marigolds are about to bloom, and my first sunflower bloomed yesterday.
  • My asparagus yardlong beans are flowering and there is ONE baby bean.
  • My native Yoeme Purple beans aren’t doing so well, but they’re alive….
  • The summer squash I was excited about — Tatuma Calabacita — is growing and climbing, but the blooms and baby squashes keep dying before they’re pollinated.
  • There’s a butternut squash vine — two of them, actually — growing nicely, with darling little butternuts on it.  I didn’t plant that one, either.

I also planted an apple tree, developed in Israel — an Ein Shemer — and it’s not looking great, but I’m not surprised about that.  I have more hope for it, for next spring.

The only thing that has flat-out died is all the nasturtiums I planted (from seed).  It’s just too hot for them.

The tiny, long-legged fly, my dear friend.

For bugs:  I have had very few problems with harmful bugs this year.  Shortly after it germinated, the okra plants were beset by aphids, which kept the growth stunted and killed off one plant.  I sprayed the leaves off thoroughly — especially the undersides — about once a week.  There is a little aphid activity in the garden currently, but it’s really minimal.  There are LOTS of hoverflies  — actually, lots of what I’ve been calling “hoverflies”, but upon research, I’ve discovered that they’re actually long-legged flies.  In any case, they’re very beneficial to the organic gardener, as they eat aphids, thrips, and spider mites, all the small, soft-bodied insects which like to eat garden plants.

For feeding the garden:  I’ve soaked the plants with compost tea about once every 7-10 days.  There are lots of pricey compost tea systems you can purchase, but mine is a cheap hack:  When I water and turn my three bins of compost, I dunk the head of the hose into an empty plastic garbage barrel.  While I work on the compost, the barrel fills.  I have a zip-top burlap bag from a 25-lb package of basmati rice — I’m not sure if I got it from Costco or the Asian market…  I have several of them.  Anyway, I just fill the burlap bag with almost-completed compost and lower it into the barrel of water.  I cover it and let it stew for 1-2 days, and voila!  Compost tea.  I fill two garden watering cans and it takes 3-4 trips of refills to soak the garden — leaves and all — in the “tea”.  It’s kind of gross, so I inevitably have to spray down my legs with the garden hose, post-feeding.  Compost in general is not for the faint of heart, but that’s a post for another day.  (Hint:  compost needs decomposers.)  This is actually the first year I’ve done compost tea.  I’ve favored fish emulsion in years past, but I will never go back to that.  Not only does fish emulsion smell like puke, it doesn’t wash off well, and it’s pretty expensive.  Comparatively so, compost tea is less-gross, washes off completely, and is free.  Win-win-win.

In the above garden pic, I’m working on prepping the bed on the right-hand side for a mid-August planting.  According to the very reliable University of Arizona planting calendar for Maricopa County, that’s the next big planting “season” for a fall garden.

And that’s it, for now!!

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