Gardening in Arizona: The Little Garden that Could

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The bare patio area didn't look promising at first.
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Successful gardening in Arizona was a matter of hard work, wholistic methods, and water conservation. Soon the little yard was covered with lush growth.
3 / 5
We were warned that tomatoes couldn't survive the Arizona heat, but this Big Boy proved the skeptics wrong.
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Maybe these aren't the biggest ears you've ever seen, but every kernel was a taste of sunshine.
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Our "impossible" garden provided us with beautiful flowers as well as delicious vegetables.

When we moved to Tucson, Arizona from a big city in the
Northeast, we were delighted to find an apartment with a
patio … even though that plot was just a narrow
rectangle of barren adobe clay! We weren’t discouraged,
either, by the formidable challenges of gardening in Arizona: limited rainfall,  and temperatures that ranged between 100° and 110°
from June until October. After six years of a single plant
on a city windowsill and “Keep Off” signs on every
available patch of grass, we saw in this arid little
plot of dirt a great potential for vegetables,
flowers, and relaxation. We were right!

Doing More With Less 

Unfortunately, our new patio was small (15 by 29 feet), and
nearly a quarter of its total area was paved with concrete.
The usable space was reduced further, too, because we had
to leave an access path to the electric meter at the plot’s
far end.

In addition to the space problems, we discovered
that–since the “yard” was flanked on three sides by a
high wooden fence and by an apartment building on the
fourth–our prospective garden would receive only a
few hours of sun a day. (And that desert sun seemed more
likely to burn delicate seedlings than to nourish them!)

But we were undeterred. Although neither Jack nor
I was familiar with organic gardening methods, we knew
we didn’t want to use any of the chemicals and pesticides
that had been a part of our previous gardens. So, with
wholistically grown flowers and vegetables in mind, we set
to work under an already hot February sky.

The “native flora” on our tiny patio’s parched soil
consisted of a few especially stubborn weeds, which I
pulled up and stuffed into the open spaces under the fence
to form a crude retaining wall (I hoped this “dike” would
help keep desperately needed water in the garden where it
“belonged”). Once that was done, my husband and I outlined
a path to the meter with discarded bricks, and–using
a borrowed shovel–dug up the rest of the adobe to a
depth of eight or ten inches. It was a truly backbreaking and
blistering job.

To our surprise, we found the soil was rich, but also that it
packed down quickly. In order to keep our sunbaked earth
loose, we mixed in 10 cubic feet of redwood mulch and four
cubic feet of peat moss. And–where the patio sloped
up to the far-back corner–Jack and I built terraces
with small clay walls to help hold precious,
life-giving water.

From Plan to Plants

Everything was ready for planting by the first week in
March. After some careful consideration, we
chose the space between the path and the house (an area
that received direct sunlight from 10:00 a.m. till noon) to
grow six Big Boy hybrid tomato seedlings. Then, we bordered
those crossbreeds with a few mint sprigs and some purple
and blue violets to remind us of New England springs.

The very back corner of the patio was sunny from noon until
3:00 p.m., so that became our “cornfield” (two seeds to a
hill, 15 inches apart, and three rows deep). Four mounds
of yellow squash, two rows of beets, and a patch of lettuce
and parsley rounded out our vegetable section. Near the end
of the yard, we established a little plot of pansies and
marigolds surrounded with water-saving dikes. White
clover provided ground cover over the remaining barren
spots, and would serve to replenish the soil’s nitrogen at
the same time.

Waste Not, Want Not

Our Arizona yard didn’t have room for a compost pile,
but as the plants grew we mulched them with
clippings from the apartment lawns, plus vegetable and
fruit peels, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and so forth from
our kitchen. This waste soon crumbled in the desert sun and
was mixed into the dirt, causing no odor or pest
problems in the process.

We also poured our dish- and wash-water into the garden to
help reduce the amount of irrigation necessary.
And though Jack or I still had to soak the soil
thoroughly three times a week, our series of little
dikes and canals reduced the runoff and captured every
possible drop of precious moisture during the rare Tucson
rain showers.

Surprisingly, insects didn’t prove to be a problem for us
at all. We simply washed the occasional aphids off our
plants with soapy dishwater, squashed the inchworms, and
snipped tomato worms in two with shears. Our bug control
program was, however, simplified thanks greatly to a
number of praying mantises and lizards who took up
residence on the patio.

Sweet Rewards

Although our desert city garden didn’t provide Jack and me
with all the vegetables we needed, we were more
than happy with our results. Tomatoes (we were told) can’t
thrive in such heat, yet we harvested over 75 juicy,
red fruits. And the parsley and mint were so profuse that
we dried some for winter use! Our sweet corn yielded a couple of ears per plant in early June (the stalks were then
pulled up and zinnias planted in the reopened space). The
lettuce lasted until late June, when the blistering Arizona
summer heat finally killed it. But our squash mounds
produced abundantly throughout the hot weather, and we were
still eating from our beets well into the winter.

In addition to the fresh vegetables, our patio also
provided us with many lovely flowers. The violets bloomed
early in the spring, the pansies from March to late
June, and the marigolds and zinnias from early June
until late fall. By the time the pansies had finished
flowering, seeds (sunflower, millet, kafir, corn, etc.)
that our feathered friends had scattered from the bird
feeder were already up and growing. As these matured, we
were able to enjoy the antics of various finches as they
fed from the tops of swaying stalks.

When the plants died or finished bearing, we pulled them up
and returned them to the soil. And during the
following winter we continued to add organic matter
from the kitchen, plus a little dried manure. Then, the
following spring, we dug more peat moss into the soil … and discovered that a minor miracle had occurred!

You see, when we began our garden not a single earthworm
could be found in the dry, bricklike ground. Just
12 months later, every shovelful of soil was rich with
the squirming, helpful, little creatures. Thanks
to these natural composters, our second garden was even
more lush and productive than the first had been!

As a result of our success, Jack and I (who, as I’ve said,
are both former pesticide-and-chemical-fertilizer
gardeners) have become zealous converts to and advocates of organic gardening methods.
After all, we proved for ourselves that it isn’t
impossible (or even especially difficult!) to grow food and
flowers right smack in the middle of the Sonoran desert! Of
course, our methods are still crude, but we’re having a
ball while we learn. And in the meantime, our
household is eating better than ever!