I moved to the high desert of Arizona with my family in spring of 2020. Why live and homestead in the desert?
Here’s a quick video explaining some of our reasons:
But if you’re reading this then chances are, you don’t much care about why we chose the desert life, you just want some tips on how to garden in the desert!
When I attempted a garden the first time shortly after we got here, I made all the mistakes. In fact, I was trying to garden the same way that I had gardened back home in San Antonio, TX. It’s very humid in San Antonio and almost seemed too easy to garden! I didn’t even know what I was doing back in San Antonio and plants grew with little to no effort.
However, a little more effort needs to be made in the desert, high or low.
If you’re looking online at general gardening advice, it’s only generally relevant to desert gardeners. Yes, plants generally germinate the same way, plants need water, they need fertilizer and they need pest control, but there are also some unique differences that we need to do in order to have a successful garden in the desert.
You can grow anything in the desert. You just need to know HOW.
There might be some plants that are better suited for drought or are heat tolerant, but in general, there’s nothing you can’t grow in the desert, there just might be special considerations for certain plants to keep them alive.
Here are the top 5 tips for growing a garden in the desert:
1. Retain Water
Instead of watering more or more often, the best thing to do is to retain the water that you’re giving the plants. Straw or mulch will be your best friends. You may need to re-apply, but in general, you need to RETAIN what you’re putting into the soil.
It doesn’t matter what gardening method you use; bed, container, no till, in ground, back to eden, whatever; you need to retain the water with mulch or straw, or both!
Retain. retain, retain. I can’t stress this enough. I do a no-till garden and at first, I didn’t cover the soil at all and I was watering, watering, watering and none of the moisture was being retained! So much water was being wasted (which is already a precious commodity in the desert) and finally, I slapped on the straw and it was night and day. I learned a hard lesson but it’s something I’m passing onto you.
Retain, retain, retain.
2. Wind Breaks
In the high desert, we get heavy winds almost daily but even more so in the spring and during monsoon season. In general, high winds can happen in the low or high desert, but we just get more winds in the high desert and more often than not they’re averaging 20-30MPH.
I have a pallet wind break for my garden and it doesn’t look like it’d work at all, but it is amazing how well it works. You want to protect the soil as much as the plants from the high wind, as well as protect your mulch or straw!
You can build a natural fence using trees or cactus or something else tall, but those may take some time to grow. In the mean time, you may want to erect a permanent structure to break the winds. Use cement to keep the poles in the ground so your wind break isn’t being knocked down.
Some plants may require shade so do provide shade to the plants that need it. Keep the soil moist and offer shade to the plants that need it. I have a greenhouse that reaches 100+ degrees sometimes and the plants thrive in there because the soil is moist, and the greenhouse provides a little bit of shade here and there to the plants that need it.
In general, know which plants will be more sensitive, like lettuce, and give them a little bit of shade during the hottest times of the year.
Monsoon comes around every summer and while it’s amazing for the land, we need to pay close attention to our garden.
The best advice I ever heard about monsoon season is to just not water during the season. Only water if you feel that your soil is drying out, but in general, during monsoon season you shouldn’t have to water at all.
Keep the mulch and straw over your soil so the water doesn’t wash it away or pummel it and destroy the soil which in turn will destroy your plants.
Next best piece of advice is to use pest control direct after the rain has ended. We may not be watering during monsoon but we still need to control the pests.
The desert still has plenty of pests to deal with, especially bugs! Everything wants a piece of your garden. Diatomaceous Earth (DE) has been the most effective for me personally, but there are plenty of other options out there. With DE you have to reapply after watering so this may be an issue during monsoon, but the mixture of soap and water will work as well.
Creating a barrier with fence will keep other animals out like deer and rodents. I have bird netting over my entire garden to keep the birds out as they were my worst enemy when it came to pulling out young seedlings.
Inviting other beneficial insects with flowers will also help with pest control. Or you could introduce good insects to your garden by purchasing them from local nurseries or online.
In general, get creative with how you use your water. Create swells or other rain catchment systems so you can use the natural water source instead of having to rely on a well or city water. Use the rain water to your advantage.
Also, invite bees to your garden by adding a small water container with rocks or pebbles inside of your garden. Before I had the container of water, they would just suck the water from the soil after I watered, but they were ecstatic when I offered them specific watering “holes”.
Here are some books that have helped me a lot: