The summer is a tough time for both humans and gardens alike. But a change of attitude can change your experience. Be the type of person who loves Baja Arizona because of the summer, not in spite of it.
May and June offer the biggest challenge to summer gardening, although the biggest challenge might simply be changing your habits. If you move along with the season and prepare for what is ahead, you can learn to love summer gardening. The biggest disappointments come with expecting that the ease of spring gardening is going to continue. Spring is wonderful with its bounty. But summer can offer its own gifts; it just takes a little more work.
First of all, remember this: Most plants don’t mind the summer sun. It is the heat that causes problems. Warm-season plants love the sun, but can sometimes look toasted, burned up, or shriveled—it’s no wonder that people blame the sun when they see plants succumb to the summer heat. Here are some survival tips for the next two months while we wait for the sky to burst with rain.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Providing a layer of mulch at the top layer of your soil profile, around plants, helps to insulate the soil from summer heat, slowing down water evaporation and keeping the root zone of the plants a few degrees cooler. It also keeps the microorganisms of the soil happier—and those microorganisms provide food for your plants. You can mulch with straw or compost.
Feed the Soil. As you water your plants throughout the summer, the nutrient content of the soil decreases as the organic components of the soil are used up. Plants that are nutrient-deficient are more likely to have problems (and use water less efficiently). When you pull out plants that have finished their season, use that opportunity to add some fresh, rich compost and manure to the soil. Also, use balanced organic fertilizers, like water-soluble kelp meal, to feed the plants still growing. Adding those organic fertilizers to the soil will allow you to get nutrition into the soil without disturbing it, which will dry it out.
Cast some shade, but not too much. In an effort to do good, many do harm by casting too much shade on their plants. If you want to take the edge off the sun, use a shade cloth with no more than 33 percent shade factor. Too much shade invites a lot of problems. Plants need the sun, even in summer. When they don’t get enough sunlight, they etiolate—they become leggy and weak. Such growth attracts harmful insects like aphids, whitefly, and more.
Grow appropriate plants. There are many crops that do well in our summer heat: black-eyed peas, okra, sweet potato, basil, Armenian cucumber, and various melon varieties. Many varieties of eggplant, peppers, and even some tomatoes continue to produce throughout the next few months. Also, though many of our warm-season crops slow down fruit production when the temperatures hit triple-digits, the plants themselves can be fine. Start new seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant so that when late summer and fall arrive, you will have fresh new plants that will be more productive than an older plant you spent a lot of energy nursing through the summer.
Pull out unproductive plants. As mentioned above, this gives you an opportunity to freshen up the soil. But also, keeping plants around that are past their prime offers little reward and takes up precious resources, and also invites insect problems like aphid and whitefly. Pull those old plants up and make room for new ones.
If you have the time (and if you have the garden, you should make the time) check the undersides of heaves and stems for larvae with an appetite. Watch out for tomato hornworms, grape leaf skeletonizers, and squash vine borers. If you see their little eggs on the undersides of leaves, rub them out with your fingers. They look like little pin pricks, but are surprisingly easy to notice if you pay attention. If you notice the damage, move quickly. With squash plants, the tips of the vines will start suddenly drooping, regardless of soil moisture—follow the droop until you find the larvae burrowing their way along the stem and snip off the plant before the larvae reach the base. Tomato hornworms may devour large quantities in a short time, but the big, fat, green caterpillars are easy enough to spot, pluck, and destroy. As a preventive measure, you can apply Bacillus thurigiensis, beneficial bacteria that destroy various harmful insects. There are many varieties of Bacillus thurigiensis that can be obtained from Arbico Organics (Arbico-Organics.com). They also offer many other safe, organic methods of pest control.
You might get an aphid infestation. If you do, a powerful spray of water is often sufficient for removing them, though you may have to do this every morning for a few days to a week to control the population. If the aphids are persistent, try using soapy water (1 tablespoon per gallon of water). If that doesn’t work, the host plant may simply be weak.
Citrus trees need a lot of food this time of the year. Feed them a balanced organic fertilizer, with lots of micronutrients like iron and magnesium, and avoid watering too shallowly or frequently. You may notice the tops of trees yellowing. This is sunburn and pretty much unavoidable. For the most part, this damage is mostly cosmetic and sunburned leaves will soon be replaced with fresh new growth when the monsoon is in full swing.
For those of us who reside here throughout the summer and still garden, the cowpea or black eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata) is an easy summer crop. If you haven’t grown any sort of bean or legume before, this is the best one to start with. The cowpea loves heat. It also doesn’t require extra nitrogen to grow since it a nitrogen-fixing plant—that is, it has a relationship with symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia within nodules in their root systems, producing nitrogen compounds that help the plant to grow.
Plant seeds directly in the ground (they don’t transplant well from starts). Seeds germinate easily within about a week or so. While seedlings, keep them moderately moist. Once full-grown, water thoroughly when they droop (don’t let them wilt too much) but let them dry out a bit between waterings. Some varieties are determinate (bushy, no need for additional support) while others can be indeterminate (viney, in need of a trellis or some other medium to grow on). In general you will find them easy to grow. Some people will stick to growing just cowpeas in the summer as a cover crop (a crop that demands little from the soil and allows or encourages a buildup of microorganisms) and also because they require so little care.
What is more, cowpeas are shade tolerant which makes them a great companion crop. Try growing them next to other taller crops like corn, tomatoes, amaranth, eggplant or peppers.
There are many varieties to choose from. Seeds can vary from the very traditional white pea, with the black “eye,” to mottled- or solid-colored; they can also range in colors: white, black, brown, purple, and red. Native Seeds/SEARCH has a great variety of cowpeas to choose from (NativeSeeds.org).
Some people collect the pods green but most grow cowpeas to store. For dry beans, wait until the pods totally dry on the plant. Sometimes the entire plants may dry up with the pods. Cowpeas, once dried, can store for many years.
Native to Africa, black eyed peas have a culinary tradition that is very embedded in southern American culinary culture. It is traditional in southern states to eat them on New Years Day for good luck.
Your experience will be positive if you plant crops appropriate for the warm season, especially if you select heat-resistant varieties:
Summer is also a great time to browse the seed catalogs for cool-season crops. Before you know it, you’ll be planting for the fall—you’ll be glad you thought ahead. ✜