I didn’t start off growing food. Instead, I cultivated cacti, succulents, orchids, native plants, ornamental and exotic plants. When I eventually started playing around with small vegetable and herb gardens, I found myself stressing out about wasting all the beautiful tomatoes I produced. So I started preserving: pickling, canning, dehydrating, and fermenting. The garden pushed me into the kitchen.
Accidentally, I discovered I could be responsible for a majority of my own food. This gave me a sense of self-sufficiency and control over what I put in my body. I also found I actually enjoyed making food. Today I keep a vegetable garden, chickens and other fowl, goats, bees, and my kitchen is full of vessels of fermenting food and drink. My personal goal with this section is to share my enthusiasm for becoming a home food producer in the modern era.
The modern homestead may lack the spinning wheels, butter churns and horse-drawn plows of the past. But the purpose is the same: To produce or supplement our daily sustenance. How dependent you are on that which you produce may depend on how you feel about the food you have access to otherwise. Many would like to grow most of their own food. Others may just want to have some fresh basil at their disposal. But even the smallest attempts at growing some portion of your diet will not only improve your quality of life, it will educate you on what it takes to get food to the table. And perhaps making your own food will help you understand its true value; how, for example, a locally-grown tomato is worth double or more the price of a conventionally grown one.
The Warm Season Garden
This time of year, many people get discouraged from growing in southern Arizona. Tomatoes often cease to produce fruit. The garden that was so lush in April and May is now encountering hot, dry, pre-monsoon weather, turning what was pleasant work into drudgery and discomfort, sometimes with little reward.
It is true: summer gardening is more work than spring or fall gardening. But there are things you can do to improve your success, be more efficient with resources, and help you keep loving the time you spend in your garden:
Remove and Replant. Discernment is called for during this season. If you have an unruly, rambling tomato plant that has stopped fruiting, pull it out. Don’t waste water on something unlikely to produce again. Make room for new plantings. Indeed, there are lots of edible plants you can start now, even in the hottest, driest time of year (see Planting Schedule).
Have a plan for watering. Automatic irrigation is much more dependable than humans with hoses—humans that may prefer not to venture outside in triple-digit temperatures. Automated irrigation also means that if you leave town, you can worry a little less about your garden being forgotten by housesitterss. You can do something as simple as purchasing a timer that connects to your hose-bib and running drip tube from the timer. Perforated polyethylene tubing delivers water slowly and deeply. Additionally, hose watering is rarely consistent or deep, instead running off and percolating the soil in an erratic manner.
Ensure proper light exposure and mulch. You can add a little shade to the garden which will sometimes give plants a break from our relentless sun. But be careful not to cast too much. All too often gardeners with good intentions invite more trouble by over-shading their crops encouraging aphid infestations, etiolation (weak growth due to light deprivation) and other problems. More importantly, make sure you have properly insulated the soil with layers of mulch: One layer of compost to feed the soil, as well as a layer of straw (at least a few inches) to keep the sun from beating on the surface of the ground. This will save water and make your plants a lot happier. As these materials break down and become part of the soil profile, you will need to add more.
Start indoors in June from seed (to be planted outside when the monsoon arrives): Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant.
Plant all summer season: Direct sow seed of Armenian cucumber, cantaloupe, melon, watermelon, basil, okra, gourd, and sweet potato (from slips). You can also start plants of oregano, mint, lemongrass, rosemary and other herbs.
Plant when monsoon starts: Direct sow seed of tepary, pole bean, corn, panic grass (edible seeds), epazote, squash (except those which need exceptionally long season), pumpkin, cowpea, sunflower, tomatillo, cucumber.
Start indoors in July from seed (to be planted outside in August): Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, heat-resistant lettuce.
End of August: Set out plants of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, lettuce. Most of your other cool season crops can be started now from seed including the aforementioned plus parsley, chard, chives, cilantro, dill, kale, radishes, beets, carrots, collards, mustard, peas, etc.
In organic gardening you feed the soil, not just the plants. Feeding the soil means feeding the microbes that feed your plants. Each crop has different requirements and you can check out our detailed online guidelines for each. In general try to use dry fertilizers like kelp meal, alfalfa meal, and bone meal. Liquid fertilizers are “stabilized” in bottles using sulfur, and sulfur is not an organic substance (it kills microbes). We don’t condone using chemical fertilizers because they contain heavy salts that kill miroorganisms which is at odds with the objectives of organic gardening. Good compost is the best fertilizer and should frequently be added to your beds.
Watering your plants on a hot summer afternoon will bake your plants or magnify the sun and burn the leaves.
FALSE. What happens when water evaporates? The process of evaporation removes latent heat from the surface on which it occurs. Thus, the opposite actually occurs when you water plants on a hot afternoon; plants cool off. There are other reasons not to do too much overhead watering. Mineral buildup on leaves can make plants look ugly. But on a hot summer day, plants will actually appreciate a splash of overhead water.
BENEFICIAL INSECT FEATURE
These generalists eat a variety of pests: eggs, larvae and nymphs of aphids, mites, thrips, whiteflies and moths. They tolerate our desert heat well and are easy to introduce to the garden. Eggs are best applied to the leaves of plants where larvae will find their way to prey. Adults feed on nectar which they need to reproduce. Encourage them to stick around by having lots of flowering plants in and around the garden. ✜
Jared R. McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona and a lifetime gardener and botanist.