Gardening in the (Northern) Southwest

Reader Contribution by Regina Hitchcock

When most people hear “Arizona”, they think of saguaro cactus, blistering heat waves, lots and lots of sand, and dry heat. But that only describes the southern half of the state — where only about half of the state’s population lives.

Gardening in Northern Arizona isn’t like gardening anywhere else in the southwest. Here in St. Johns, our winter temperatures average between 0 and -10 degrees Fahrenheit, though we have had temperatures as low as -30 degrees in my lifetime. Our garden season runs from about May 20 to October 5 or so, but in recent memory, I have been able to have tomatoes in the ground as early as April 29 and have been able to harvest as late as October 27, though not in the same year.

You would never hear this when reading a gardening article about gardening in Arizona. Even the University of Arizona’s Master Gardener certification only deals with those conditions found in southern Arizona, so even taking that course does not net useful information for people in the northern half of the state.

Gardening in the ‘Other’ Southwest

So, what do you do when the conventional regional information for your area does not fit your particular microclimate at all? Well, you join or start a local garden club like I did in 2008, talk to other locals, become involved with local cooperatives, and do research for yourself.

The Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club focuses mainly on raising food for our families, but we have also discussed raising animals, preserving our harvests, companion planting, herbs, and much more. We focus only on gardening and living on the Colorado River Plateau and the White Mountains. We work together to improve the knowledge bank of people gardening and ranching with our unique challenges.

Red Clay and Poor Drainage

We battle very different soil issues here than in much of the rest of the Southwest. While nearly all of the western United States battles with some variation of alkaline soil, much that is written about the southwest deals with sand. Right here where I live, sand isn’t the issue — it’s the dense, red clay.

In fact, the soil in my yard is so dense that a rainstorm will leave puddles that last for weeks. The soil just doesn’t drain. To combat that issue, I build raised beds. I mix our native soil with amendments and compost and run slow-drip water lines to allow the water that does fall onto the soil to drain down slowly, as the clay is able to take it in.

Raised beds also allow me to cater the soil nutrients to specific plants, something that is difficult to do when gardening in-ground in soil thick and heavy enough to suffocate hardy trees. Raised beds allow me to take the best parts of our heavy clay soil (water retention, high phosphorus) and add nitrogen, compost, and other organic matter, and make soil good enough and soft enough to raise amazing onions, something many local gardeners don’t even attempt anymore.

There are many other differences between Southwestern gardening lore and what we deal with on the Colorado River Plateau and the White Mountains. I love sharing my experiences on how I’ve learned to cope with these unique issues. Stick with me here on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Organic Gardening blog and I’ll share what I’ve learned for this region.

Regina Hitchockis a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect withRegina on Facebook.

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