November and December bring the fall’s first freezing nights in Baja Arizona and denote a clear end to summer. Leafy greens and root vegetables are characteristic of the season’s harvests. First frost dates range from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 throughout the region, with earliest frosts falling in southeastern Arizona, and the latest frost dates in the low deserts of the southwestern region of the state.
By this time, farmers are well on their way to growing and harvesting fall and winter crops. “We pretty much move inside into our cold frames and we start cranking greens and turnips,” says Bill Stern, manager of Arivaca Community Garden. Arivaca Community Garden has three full-time staff members who focus on food security through growing and local distribution. This area is considerably colder than Tucson overnight in November and December. “We go weeks and weeks in the teens every night,” says Stern.
Cold frame greenhouses help protect plants from extreme temperature swings and freezes. “We could be 14 degrees at night and 70 during the day,” says Stern. “That’s a huge change that the plants don’t totally appreciate.” Arivaca Community Garden uses evaporative cooling in greenhouses through November and December to mediate daytime highs. “Things really do well in there especially after the solstice,” says Stern, after which daytime temperatures mellow out. Stern’s success has come about through a series of adaptations to changing conditions over time. “Farming is a constant reaction to what’s going on,” says Stern. “All farmers are inventors at the same time.”
Arivaca Community Garden will be growing kale, chard, turnips, carrots, lettuce greens, arugula, spinach, onions, and garlic through November and December. Among the most popular crops this time of year are spinach and turnips. “Japanese turnips are amazing, and once people realize how good those are, we can’t grow enough,” says Stern. Arivaca Community Garden sells at the Santa Cruz Valley Farmers’ Market and the Arivaca Farmers’ Market and is most recently selling to Pivot Produce, who sources to local restaurants.
A common storyline told by Baja Arizona farmers is that this time of year brings a feeling of immense relief. Farmers have been working hard to suppress weeds and insect infestations in the heat, and they get a break with the onset of cool weather. “It’s the easiest time of year for us,” says Alex Atkin, farm manager of Tucson Village Farm, which is part of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. “Freezes encourage sweetness of our greens and clear out weed and insect populations.”
“If we get deep freezes below 27 degrees, we cover crops that are susceptible like peas and greens,” says Atkin. A “deep freeze” or a “killing freeze” occurs when temperatures are a few degrees below freezing for a longer period of time than a simple frost, about four hours or more. Draping frost cloth over susceptible crops can prolong their life and flavor for the season.
At Tucson Village Farm, insect infestations are few and far between this time of year. “The cabbage looper eats our brassicas,” says Atkin. “That’s really the only pest.” The cabbage looper is a small green inchworm that does extensive damage to crops in the cabbage family, including broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. Keep an eye out for this pest even in smaller scale winter gardens.
Tucson Village Farm will host two public events in November and December: the Harvest Festival on Saturday, Nov. 4, and the Holiday Market on Friday, Dec. 15. Tucson Village Farm hosts a U-Pick Market on site every Tuesday and will sell produce at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market starting in early November.
The Best Day Ever Garden is also preparing for a bountiful cool season harvest. The garden, located in South Tucson, is an urban farming project focused on empowering children through growing their own food. “We usually get started at about 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings,” says Taylor Moore, the garden coordinator of the Best Day Ever Kids Community Garden Project. A group of kids, most from nearby neighborhoods, will harvest vegetables throughout the day to sell at the farmers’ market on Sunday morning. “The minute that kids can do it on their own, it changes their whole mindset,” says Moore.
“We’re growing a lot of gourds, and we’re using these gourds in projects at schools,” says Moore. “We’ll leave the gourds in the ground until the first freeze, which is usually around Thanksgiving.” The Best Day Ever will sell the gourds at the market and use them in art projects at Hollinger K-8 School, where Moore also volunteers in the school garden.
Throughout November and December, The Best Day Ever Garden grows leafy greens like arugula, kale, and chard, root vegetables like beets and turnips, along with cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. The young gardeners sell their harvest at the St. Philip’s Plaza Farmers’ Market on Sundays. The Best Day Ever Kids Community Garden Project is also searching for mentors to help young gardeners share stories of their experiences with the community.
Rachel Wehr is a Tucson-based freelance journalist. She spends her free time in nature among cactus and pines.