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High Hopes! Gardening in the Desert

Gardening in the desert southwest has its own set of challenges.  This is our second year in our home and the third growing season for our little backyard garden, and lets just say, if we were relying on our garden to feed us, we would have died long ago!  The biggest challenge with desert gardening is the extreme heat in the summer and the fact that it hardly ever rains.  Another major challenge is that we really don’t have “soil” that we can readily plant in and must amend our soil with potting soil and lots of fertilizers and nutrients.  A third issue is our very hard water that also happens to have a high pH level.   The first year, we tried growing various herbs and vegetables in containers.  We learned that we were able to easily grow basil, parsley, rosemary and oregano in our containers, but we didn’t have good luck with thyme and sage and the tomatoes we planted either didn’t fruit at all, or gave us very tiny stunted fruit that was afflicted with blossom end rot.  Then cue the pests.  You name it, we had it–aphids, tomato hornworms, grubs.  It was as if a dinner bell was rung and all the pests came running!

Last summer, the husband created two gardens.  First he built a traditional garden bed in the ground, reusing some old cinderblocks from a built-in barbecue that was dismantled during a huge landscaping project (Reuse/Recycle!).  It’s not pretty, but it works! This garden has an irrigation system in place with a timer set to water at appropriate times and durations. The second garden is the husband’s “baby”–a small aquaponics setup that I have a feeling is not going to be small for very long.  More on that later!

Now, last year, because we were in the midst of the aforementioned landscape project, we didn’t get to plant the traditional garden until mid-late April.  I planted three tomato plants, an “Early Girl”, “Tomato-pineapple” and a “Beefmaster”.  These tomatoes didn’t do much better than the ones from the previous year, but I learned two important lessons.  One, April is too late to plant tomatoes in the desert because the temperatures start to soar before the plant is able to set fruit.  We were able to get a few tomatoes (maybe six) from the “Early Girl” variety and exactly two tomatoes from the “Tomato-pineapple” and the fruit was much smaller than expected. The “Beefmaster” didn’t produce any fruit at all, which was a big disappointment, leading me to tomato lesson number two:  large tomatoes are not the best choice for the desert.

All of this had lead to me being a bit tomato-obsessed this year.  This is the first year that we’ve been able to get the plants in the ground at the end of February.  We changed our strategy and planted small-sized indeterminate varieties.  The largest tomato we planted is a green zebra followed by Roma tomatoes and San Marzano’s.  The rest are cherry-type varieties and yellow pear tomatoes.  My hope is that due to their small size, they will reach their maturity long before the searing heat of July sets in.

Tomato Sweet 100

San Marzano Tomato

Purple Sage


So, about that aquaponic garden.  I will have to get the husband to do a post about it, but I’ll try my best to explain how it works.  We have a 150 gallon pond that is home to ten hard-working goldfish.  The water from the goldfish pond (with their nutrient-rich poo) gets circulated through three “grow-beds” where the vegetables are planted.  Now, there is a lot of SCIENCE involved with this garden, as there is a delicate balance with the nutrient levels that I don’t feel equipped to explain.  Late last summer and into the winter, we had some really outstanding results with Serrano pepper plants that we were able to grow well into the winter until we had a hard freeze that killed them all (again with the extreme weather conditions!).

Goldfish hard at work!

This year, we have planted tomatoes, Serrano peppers, cucumbers, zucchini squash, yellow squash, eggplant, basil, two varieties of thyme, sage, parsley.  So far, the plants in the aquaponic garden are doing quite well, and I almost hate to say it, better than the traditional garden bed.  Believe me, there will be a little healthy competition between us to see who is able to get the best yields.

Aquaponic grow beds – powered by SCIENCE!

Aquaponic Serrano Pepper

Green Zebra Tomato
English Thyme
Parsley, Sage, Oregano in Aquaponic grow bed

So, I have high hopes that this will be the year that we will be able to eat lots of veggies from our garden.  Tomatoes and peppers and herbs, oh my!

This entry was posted in: garden


Hello and thank you for visiting my blog, Salty Sweet Life! My name is Tracey and nothing makes me happier than cooking for my friends and family. Food is my passion, whether I'm trying out a new restaurant, delving into a cookbook or mixing up a cocktail.

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