Growing vegetables in the desert is a challenging process. High temperatures, burning sun, wind and lack of moisture can make for difficult circumstances. Still, it is very possible to build and maintain a successful garden in the desert with just a few considerations.
Desert soil is not conducive to planting or growing. It is often sandy, rocky, salty and very hard. Planting soil needs to be moist, full of nutrients and light and airy. It is essential to make proper soil available in desert areas and the best way to do that is to create a raised bed.
This insures that plants will get the three most important nutrients of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous that are not available in quantities needed by filling the raised bed with better soil.
Make raised beds with untreated wooden boards nailed together or with two courses of concrete blocks dry stacked to make a 16-inch frame. Pound rebar into the holes to keep the blocks in place if you choose.
Most raised beds need a layer of gravel for drainage, but because the soil in the desert is mostly rock or sand, the gravel layer is not needed. However, the bottom layer of the raised bed does need something to attract worms.
Achieve this by placing layers of cardboard or newspaper in the bottom of the bed. If you want to add gravel, add it next. Add rich amended soil and compost over top and fill it to about 1 inch from the rim of the sides of the bed.
Another concern in the desert is water retention. Because of extreme sunshine, wind and heat, water evaporates quickly and is not replenished adequately. Substances must be added to the soil for it to retain moisture.
Those substances include perlite, mulch and other woody materials and vermiculite. One way to ensure desert gardens are getting a constant supply of water is to use plastic 2-litre bottles with small holes poked in the bottom. The bottom is buried in the soil around existing plants and are filled daily through the top opening and capped. These bottles release moisture to the plants all day.
Other alternatives require soaker hoses be placed under mulch around plants in the garden and are run every day for a few hours.
The sun is blazing hot in the desert and plants can get burned to a crisp. Some sort of shade is needed to protect them from afternoon ultraviolet rays. Erecting fabric shade cloth that allows some of the sun’s rays to penetrate works well in the desert.
Shades also help with water evaporation and sometimes repel pests too. Row covers are another option and consist of tunnels made of hoops covered with shade material. They are light and cover the rows and do not impede growth.
Floating row covers are usually made with PVC pipe and shade material and are so light, they just lay on the tops of the plants to protect them.
The wind can flatten a garden in seconds in the high desert. It is important to provide protection from the wind with specific trees, fences or walls to keep them sound.
Trees like Ironwood, Mesquite or Desert Willow are dense and make for great wind breaks as well as providing shade for the garden. Make your own wind breaks with fencing or use straw bales placed around the garden.
Mulching the soil right around plants is a must. Mulch will keep the roots of the plants at least 20 degrees cooler and it also retains moisture. Good mulch to use is bark, straw, shredded leaves and alfalfa, which gives extra nitrogen to the soil.
Place mulch about 1 inch away from the plant’s stem and do not let the leaves of the plant touch the mulch. Place at least 3 inches of mulch on the garden and no more than 4 inches.
The desert does have seasons and certain plants are more suited to one season than the other. Yes, there are two seasons and one is the season for cold crops and the other for warm.
Cold season usually starts end of August and September and warm season may start around February to March. Cold season crops are those with leaves you can eat and include, cabbage, kale and lettuce but also include beets, carrots, onions, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and peas. Warm plants have edible fruits and include tomato, corn, eggplant, melons, peppers and squash.
Practically anything can grow in the high desert if you provide the right conditions and soil for plants to grow. The most important thing to consider is moisture. If you water your garden and add things that retain moisture and shade, you should have a successful desert garden.