What Are Your Best Tips for Gardening in the Southwest?

| 4/6/2010 11:49:49 AM

Tags: gardening advice, southwest gardening, question to readers,

Red bell pepperIn the gardening world, we often speak of average last frost dates and of crops that enjoy “cool” spring weather. At the mention of such topics, there are sure to be readers in the hot and dry desert southwest that glance out their windows at 90 degree spring days, asking, cool?

While we try to provide region-specific advice when discussing garden crops (for instance, see the great article The Best Tomatoes to Grow Where You Live), some readers in the hottest areas of the country are still sweating over how to find the perfect tips to grow the best garden possible. And you can help.

For those of you familiar with triple-digit temperatures, can you share with our readers your best tips for gardening in the southwest? Please post your advice about what to plant, when to plant and how to plant in the comments section below.


Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and .

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Alan Cleaver. 

9/7/2015 12:22:12 AM

Haven't seen much here about irrigation, but in a hot desert climate, it is pretty important, especially when water supplies are getting tighter than ever. Whatever you use has to be in excellent condition or you are doing yourself a disservice. I have a few thoughts on this on my own blog: http://sprinklerdoctors.com/?p=120. I will be looking at your site a lot for more ideas.

jack veggie
4/26/2010 7:25:31 AM

The biggest hurdle is between your ears. When it is super hot summer time, if it isn't cactus or bermuda grass it doesn't grow. Relax and wait for fall. Disease and bugs hunt down stressed plants and in July in the SW they are all stressed!

russell meyers
4/24/2010 11:19:34 PM

Compost, compost, compost, mulch, mulch, mulch! Many people refer to clay soil but desert soil can be clay or all sand. (I have areas of each.) Desert soil is notoriously devoid of organic matter and Nitrogen, while being very alkaline. Compost and mulch help the former, while highly diluted pure ammonia and vinegar can do wonders to correct the latter in the short term. Soil testing is crucial. Large mounds are preferred over thin rows or mounds. A greenhouse is best but short of that, raised beds are great options. Protection from the elements is important in the form of windbreaks and cold covers. Well placed trees can help develop a hospitable environment.

gale green
4/24/2010 1:31:26 PM

I'm fairly new to S.W. gardening. I live in high desert (6,000'). I have a question for more experienced gardeners. I know shadecloth comes in 'protective levels' of from 10% to 90% and I would like to know, what percentage is best? Or, what range of %-ages is best? We rarely have temps over 100, and nights can get cool. I water during the night, and winds here can dry things out really quickly. I have amended my soil with compost, perlite, and peat moss to help hold water, and mulched plants. But, I still need to know about shade cloth, and, does it need to be a certain height above plants? Thank you for any help! gale.green@gmail.com (Silver City, NM).

alicia kearney_2
4/23/2010 9:58:55 PM

I agree, the answer is lots of gypsum and lots of compost made from goat or cow manure. I also use shade cloth over pvc conduit tunnels. That lets me grow most vegetables year round. In the triple digit temps of the summer I also grow melons and gourds. If you water at night, (I use soaker hoses), the ground stays damp enough despite the heat. I've lost plants to unexpected frosts in the winter, but my plants manage the heat pretty well, even the tomatoes as long as they are in the tunnels. Small mister lines can also be used as long as you make sure the water line isn't exposed to the sun giving your plants a blast of hot water when turned on. With shade, enough water and soil heavy in compost to hold the water, gardening in the desert is not as hard as most people think.

4/23/2010 11:53:44 AM

The ground is horrible here for gardening so I have above ground gardens with a blend of compost, soil, vermiculite and peat moss to hold water longer. I plant based on the shortest days to maturity for a spring garden as it gets very hot very quickly here. I use a lot of mulch and always use shade cloth. I miss having a full summer garden as I did when I lived in Colorado but come fall seeds germinate quickly in the heat and with plastic sheeting to keep frost off we can grow all winter. Planting in late winter in protected above ground beds means an early spring harvest. It is tough here and some spring crops go right to seed or won't set fruit if the heat comes too quickly but I learn more every year and actually love the challenge of growing in Arizona.

lorraine _2
4/13/2010 12:07:01 AM

We moved to the desert several years ago from the east coast. Every day is sunny and clear, beautiful mountains on the horizon, our little taste of heaven. Then we started a garden,first you need a grenade to open up the dirt (what the heck is cliche'?), my husband pulled out 12-5 gallon buckets of rock in our 15x20' garden. Wow, is that why I saw three concrete companies on our way in to town? After putting in a timed irrigation system, fencing for rabbits and havelina, a plastic cover for the cold in the winter and shade cloth for the extreme desert sun, we are finding gardening rewarding and fun. Very few weeds in our small plot and lots of results. We grow lettuce from October till May so we have a fresh salad every night, tomatoes, peppers grow wonderfully. Some of my favorite herbs are perennials, such as rosemary, bay and lavender. My favorite resource has been a local farmers market where we have met lots of friendly folks with great advice, Victory Garden associates has been the most helpful and has supplied lots of our fabulous plants. One of the challenges in the east is keeping back the weeds and grass, weeding is only difficult here in early spring and only if we have had winter rains. So out comes my sun bonnet and gloves and scissors for clipping in our beautiful desert garden, while enjoying a huge variety of sunflowers dancing in the breeze, with a backdrop of mountains and a breathtaking sunset. We really did end up in heaven.

4/11/2010 2:08:04 PM

In the lower deserts we have two gardening seasons. The fall/winter season begins in October and lasts until about February. Our last frost is no later than Valentine's Day. The short spring season begins in February and extends until the 100 degree heat sets in, usually mid May. We can easily grow cool season crops like lettuce, spinach, cole crops, peas and root vegetables through the winter. We can start the warm weather vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and green beans in the fall, but they need protection to survive the occasional winter frosts. But if we can get them through the winter, they will have a headstart and a good root system to get through the hot weather, and we will get a spring crop. If we plant in the spring, we should choose early maturing varieties. Summer squash loves the heat as long as there is plenty of water and can be planted in the spring to grow over the entire summer. The other warm weather crops can also deal with the heat if they are watered well and evenly, but will not produce well above 95 degrees, and will appreciate some shade in the afternoon. Soil amendments are critical. Gypsum or sulfur, and lots of garden mulch and/or compost must be added to the alkaline clay soil to make it productive. Adding sand helps maintain adequate drainage. An irrigation system on a timer is best to provide regular and even watering.

4/6/2010 2:04:08 PM

Making micro-climates within your space is crucial, followed by shade cloth and mulch. Too many people fail to use gypsum to loosen caliche and they end up with root rot from poor drainage. Trying to garden under the usual rules doesn't work in the summer. We just adjust our "seasons."

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