Summer reveals the essence of the Sonoran Desert—the heat and monsoon storms are a defining characteristic of our region. This means that farming during the summer has its own challenges and rewards. Summer vegetables are a lot of work, require abundant space, and take a long time to produce compared to quick-growing, cool-weather crops. And the heat can take its toll on even the hardiest crops.
For plants growing this time of year, no amount of irrigation is as beneficial as a monsoon storm. Anne Loftfield of High Energy Agriculture says, “Irrigation water has more salts than plants need. Rain not only refreshes and cleans plants, but washes away accumulated salt. The increased vitality after a good monsoon is apparent almost immediately.”
The summer rainy season is a traditional planting time for native crops like tepary beans and corn. Many farmers take advantage of the rains to plant crops that will bear fruit late into the fall. But summer storms (or lack thereof) can wreak havoc on the harvest. Torrential downpours can cause flooding or turn into hailstorms, damaging produce, hurting harvest, and even blocking farmers trying to get to market. Storms that flood one farm can leave a neighboring farm dry. “I’ve watched storms come up from the southeast and literally split into two smaller storms, and move around the perimeter of our land, reconnect northeast of us, and carry on,” says Al Lakomis, formerly of Walking J Farm. Besides confronting us with erratic weather, monsoon rains and longer days encourage the growth of weeds. Squash and cucumber beetles, grasshoppers, tomato hornworms, and other large plant-eating bugs thrive in the summer and can decimate plants in a surprisingly short amount of time.
Despite these challenges, the rewards are great. These are the fruits and vegetables that people swoon over. Unless you’re growing your own, farmers’ markets and CSA shares are the best places to get summer vegetables bursting with freshness. Fruits and vegetables left to ripen on the vine accumulate more sugars, making for delicious yet highly perishable produce that is difficult for grocers to stock. Farmers can bring those crops directly to the market. This means they can harvest crops at their ideal ripeness and use heirloom seeds that produce all kinds of produce in strange shapes and colors. Shopping at the farmers’ markets or belonging to a CSA gives you a chance to try some of these tasty and distinct varieties.
Summer produce can be extremely delicate at its peak. Ready to burst and easily bruised, farmers have to be extra careful transporting and displaying these beauties. Be gentle when handling—ask farmers to help you select the best produce based on when you will be eating it. Less-ripe melons, tomatoes, and peaches can be left on the countertop to ripen for a few days if needed.
Peppers (sweet and hot), squash, eggplant, tomatillos, and okra thrive in the summer heat. These meaty veggies are delicious when stewed in dishes like ratatouille and gumbo. They are also great for grilling. Thread okra and small peppers on a skewer for easy handling. Tomatillos and large peppers are delicious blistered on the grill and puréed with onions and garlic for a green salsa. Squash and eggplant can be sliced into ½-inch thick pieces, marinated in a simple vinaigrette, and grilled until tender and lightly charred. Whether grilled, stewed, or lightly sautéed , these summer vegetables taste great with pesto, made from bunches of basil available at markets or growing in your backyard.
Greens are hard to find at markets in the summer, but now shoppers will have another option. Larry’s Veggies has a new aquaponics system that they plan to use for delicate greens like lettuce, bok choy, and cilantro. Also, keep an eye out for heat resistant greens like amaranth and verdolagas, which are tasty raw or cooked. Both greens are great stirred into a bean soup or sautéed with onions. Verdolagas, or purslane, is particularly good chopped into a Mediterranean-inspired salad with tomatoes, onions, and feta cheese dressed in a light vinaigrette.
Many summer plants are decidedly thirst quenching, perfect for the sweltering heat. Keep an eye out for large Tohono O’odham yellow-fleshed watermelon, which are on the Slow Food Ark of Taste list for Arizona. Though traditionally planted with the monsoon rains, you can find these watermelon from early July into the fall. Another desert-adapted crop is the Armenian cucumber. The long cucumbers (usually between two and three feet) are actually more closely related to melons than the cucumbers we are familiar with at the supermarket. Available in either a pale, ridged variety or a dark-striped snaking variety, Armenian cucumbers have mild, crisp flesh.
What can you do with a three-foot Armenian cucumber or a 30-pound watermelon? Make a refreshing drink! This drink is one of the best ways to beat the heat and keep your electrolytes balanced. Don’t bother removing any seeds—they offer extra nutrition and flavor and any chunks will be strained out anyway.
Watermelon Cucumber Agua Fresca
For 1 gallon you will need approximately:
3 quarts of any mixture of cucumber, watermelon, cantaloupe or honeydew, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon to 1/2 cup agave nectar
2-3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
Pinch of salt, if desired
In batches, purée in a food processor or blender chunks of fruit and/or cucumber, adding water as needed to make a mostly smooth mixture. Strain liquid into a pitcher and repeat with remaining fruit. Taste the agua fresca for sweetness and add agave nectar and lemon juice to your taste. Serve over ice and topped with seltzer water, if desired. ✜
Sara Jones is a longtime employee of the Tucson CSA.