Since Jim and I moved to Tucson over 16 years ago, I have learned that vegetable gardening in the desert is a challenge that not everyone is up for and can be expensive. Until these most recent events, I have considered it a hobby. Through my experimenting, I concluded that tomatoes from Mexico, and fresh vegetables from the farmers market, were cheaper than attempting to keep every critter in the desert from feasting on my hard-earned meager bounty. These days, gardening just seems to make more sense.
There are essentially two growing seasons in Tucson, Spring, and Winter. Spring planting starts in March and grows until, oh June. Fall planting starts in October or November and grows until March or April. Nobody does any planting in Summer.
My gardening experience began with a couple of tomato plants in early March one year, after we finished landscaping the yard. The critters found them. Tomatoes will not set fruit in temperatures over 100, so I watered them diligently over the summer, hoping to have another crop in the Fall. Nope. I got fruit, but then the frost came.
The next year I enclosed the tomato plants in cages. The critters climbed up the cages and ate them anyway. If you want to plant tomatoes from seed, start in January indoors.
I once purchased an heirloom tomato plant. It had one gorgeous purple tomato, about 4″ diameter. Seriously. One day, I decided that I would go out to pick it the next morning. It was gone. Disappeared. The lizards were quite large that year.
So now I am trying seedling tomatoes from the Mission Garden. Last year I planted grapes from the Mission Garden. These tomatoes are supposed to be heat resistant, and small so they ripen faster. There is a reason that in Tucson, cherry tomatoes are popular to grow. Summer comes early!
Native Seeds Search is a cooperative seed sharing and storing community, selling native and heirloom seeds from their store on Campbell as well as online. They also sell packages of wildflowers. Currently, the online store as well as the brick and mortar store is closed. I will update this post when things get back to normal.
Once I discovered that I could not have a garden without protection I started experimenting. My goal was to create a garden that did not cost more than it would cost to drive to the grocery store. Needless to say, I failed miserably. The first year I built a 10X10 makeshift enclosure with bird netting and four eight-foot posts. It had rained well that winter. I dug up a lot of clay, then it dried out and turned to hard clots of dirt. I watered it again and mixed in some mulch.
I caught a lot of snakes and lizards in the bird netting. It was a pain getting in and out. The yield per trouble factor was low.
The next year I made three 4X8 boxes from 2X6X8’s and filled them with dirt. I put 4 foot 4X4’s in the corners and covered the whole thing with bird netting. The results were better but I still caught a lot of snakes and lizards in the bird netting although it was elevated off the ground.
By the third year, I was pretty tired of killing critters and cutting them out of the bird netting, so I caved in, bought concrete blocks and made a 4X8 foot enclosure. Just one. The reasoning behind making 4’X8′ or 3’X8′ enclosures is so that you don’t have to climb in to reach anything. For me, 3’X8′ or 3’X10′ would have been better But the enclosure with good soil worked much better. I also purchased some 1/4″ hardware screen and built a box around them. I have found that I do not really need anything on the top unless I want to shade some plants through the summer. Since I have not planted anything that grows into the summer this is unnecessary.
Summer is really hot, so if you are going to grow plants that will live into the summer; peppers and eggplant come to mind, then you will need shade. Your 4’X4′ corner posts will have to be tall enough for your tallest plants. Of course, tomatoes, unless you buy the bush variety will be the tallest. I am moving forward slowly. Summer gardening is a lot of work and requires daily watering. I have tried automatic watering, both irrigation and a lawn sprinkler. Neither were satisfactory.
If you live in the city, Tucson Water charges on a sliding scale; the more you use, the greater the price per unit. My water bills skyrocketed. I opted to support Farmer’s Markets in the summer. Perhaps those with commercial licenses and those on well water have cheaper water. The wells are not free but the water is and there is currently no limit to how much of the aquifer you can drain. Nuff said.
The current situation we face is less than fun, and most of us have more time on our hands. I have a new reason to grow veggies. I do not have to go out to get them. So when this virus abates, I will go out and buy more concrete blocks. I will make a U-shaped garden. Eventually, I will add another tier and more dirt so this old body does not have to bend so much. Concrete blocks seem to work well for me. Wood rots and collects termites. Some say concrete blocks make the soil hotter but it seems to be working for me. Next year, I will move the peas to the middle, those being the tallest.
Start-up costs can be more than frequent trips to the store. Several hit or miss attempts at vegetable gardening in the desert, have cost me well over $1000. The garden that I settled on cost less than $200. Concrete blocks and soil. Figure a dollar a block or less if you buy them at the right place. The hardware screen is extra. I purchased 50 yards wholesale. You won’t need that much. I still have 25 yards left. The frame is a little rough, but does the job.
I have a separate herb garden that faces North. It is a perfect spot. Thyme, oregano, cilantro, dill, and mint. Basil needs warm (over 50) nights. Still waiting for that. Skip the mint. It will take over. The cilantro is too but I like it more.
At some point, I will add an in-ground composter that will leach into the garden and add worms. I had a composter before, the tumbling variety. It leaked like a sieve. Also, you need more than one to rotate the scraps. This is the one that I am considering. It is called SUBPOD. They are currently ordering in advance.
There are plenty of garden kits online. I had some links but they keep changing. If they last, they might be cheaper than concrete blocks. It might require some kind of finish in this Arizona heat. You can also find them on E-Bay.
Good luck and happy gardening!