Thursday, April 12, 2012

Disspelling the Myths about Desert Gardening

[Sorry for the lack of updates this spring. The garden is huge, and I have taken lots of pics, just haven't uploaded them yet.]

I just read an article in the Chandler Examiner entitled "Tips on making your garden-in-the-desert grow" ( All I can say is "Lies, lies, all of it, lies!!!"

I gotta be honest here, it is this type of crappy misinformation which makes people fear Arizona gardening. Let me tell you, straight from the AZ Victory Gardener, that woman is crazy. Just about everything she says in her interview is false.

Gardening in Arizona should NOT be difficult, or expensive. If it is, you are doing it WRONG.

First sign of trouble: she has "three very small beds", which took "months to get them together." Are you kidding me? I crank out a 10x10 bed in ONE HOUR!

First huge mistake: she did a raised bed, because the ground is hard. This is a huge mistake, because in AZ, you have to IRRIGATE, which means it has to be at or below ground, not above ground.

No wonder your water bill skyrocketed! Raised beds in the desert are a horrible idea, as they get dried out from every direction, and they can't be watered effectively. And of course it is expensive, as you have to buy all those blocks or timbers for the sides, then fill it with expensive dirt/compost mix.

As for the hard ground, I will admit, my "10x10 bed in an hour" job uses a tiller, but even without a tiller, with just a shovel, I can do a 5x5 in a hour. The secret is simple: You have to IRRIGATE first!

Yes, banging your shovel on hard pan or caliche is discouraging. Water it first! When it is nice and wet, your shovel cuts it up easy. Just put your hose on the low part, turn on the water and let it do its magic. Build your berms around your bed as it gets wet.

With berms up, let the water pile up to 3-4 inches, then let it sink in. Dig it down, using the double digging method to break up the subsurface caliche. When the subsurface ground gets too hard, water it again. Your veggie roots will love you!

Tips for Beginners

Her "tips for beginners" are especially perverse. Let me tell you the facts:

You do NOT need SHADECLOTHES. You do need DEEP ROOTS. If you have shallow roots, your plants will die in the heat. However, if you irrigate in ground-level beds, your roots will be strong.

Tomatoes are not DELICATE. I have kept tomatoes thriving through the August heat in direct full day sun. The trick is to keep their roots moist with deep irrigation.

You don't need to battle insects hand-to-hand! It all comes back to IRRIGATION. Irrigation takes care of your beetle, slug, ant, etc. problems. When you flood your garden bed regularly, insects cannot build their homes there! It is really that simple.

This is the awful truth, friends: I don't mess with bugs at all. Literally, not even a little bit. I have noticed that predator bugs pretty much take care of the plant-eater bugs. I just let 'em go about their business, circle of life and all that. My stuff grows great, and I never have a problem finding pollinators either.

It particularly upset my AZ Victory Gardener sensibilities when she said "our dirt isn't the best for growing things other than cacti."

The fact is, our desert soil is actually quite nutrient rich. It is missing one hugely important element, though: NITROGEN. And if you don't have chicken or rabbit droppings handy, or don't care to use your readily available human urine, to boost your nitrogen content, just buy a small bag of BLOOD MEAL. One of those little bags will cover 200 sf, so you should have plenty enough.

Put the blood meal directly where you plant the seeds, or directly over the root zone if already growing. Your irrigation will soak the nitrogen down to the roots. VIOLA! You can also use BONE MEAL if you want, as it adds Nitrogen and Phosphorus, whereas blood meal adds only Nitrogen.

Don't listen to the nay-sayers, my desert-dwelling would-be-gardening friends! Just follow the Arizona Victory Gardener's well-tested advice, and you can produce lots of crops, real easy and real cheap. Cheers!


  1. Now that the secret is out, maybe I can be more successful at it! LOL... It is true I really don't have much of a problem growing things... But, water was a question for me!!! Irrigating instead of sprinklers or drip is the better solution... MAYBE the pesky bug problem from last year won't show it's self this year!!! I never really put a huge amount of money in to my garden either! Hmmm! How do people live with telling incorrect info... and think it is okay?

  2. Poor thing, I think she really doesn't know any better. Why the Examiner reporter chose to interview her, is the real mystery.

  3. Interesting post. As I am starting to try to garden seriously here in Phoenix, I would be interested in knowing more about how you create your "below ground beds". After I double-dig and add some compost/manure, I seem to automatically have a raised bed without trying. Any good pictures?

  4. Hey Dave, good for you! After you have loosened up the soil, just scrape some from the middle to the edges, and use that extra soil to create berms around the ouside edge of the bed. I use the back of a rake for this. This allows you to flatten out your bed into a nice even flood plain while scraping the extra soil to edge for the berm walls. I recommend berm walls 4-5 inches high to deal with the heat of the summer. You will only need to irrigate once a day, in the morning, if you fill it up to the full 4 inches with water.

  5. Thanks for writing the post, Justin! I agree that there are so many myths being perpetuated out there about gardening in the desert.

    I personally never use the Examiner as a source for real news or information. They let just about anyone who wants to write for them, and I have personally seen many of the writers plagarize. Not the article you linked, to be fair, but I have seen several. They just go find an article about their topic on google, copy it word for word, and put their name on it. That's stealing any way you slice it.

    The lady she interviewed was a new gardener by her own admission. She was just starting out and learing as she goes. I always love hearing that people are gardening, even if they make lots of mistakes along the way. That's how I have learned after all (and continue to!) I think the author of the article should have done a better job at specifying that this was one first-time gardener's experience and not "stand-by" gardening advice.

    I am doing a series on my desert gardening video blog right now about First Time Gardeners and their experiences and reasons for starting. I feel like I am always setting people straight about what a great climate and soil we have here to garden in. Like you said, there are so many myths out there!

    Its amazing how afraid of failure people often are. I can't believe how hard it sometimes is to talk someone into simply pushing some seeds into the ground and then giving them some water. And, I'm always amazed by how shocked they are that those seeds grow, thrive and produce food! I love your blog! I have been lurking here for a few years now, and I finally decided to comment! Keep it up!

  6. Thank you, Karis! Now I feel guilty about not updating my blog this spring... This weekend, I promise! :-)

  7. Thanks for the great article, Justin!

  8. Thank you for your post. It was a major "aha!" moment for me. I've been experimenting with vegi gardening here in Arizona for about a year with mixed results at best. I just realized that all of the things that have done best for me in the summers have been in the ground instead of boxes. So I'll take the boxes out and replace them with the sunken beds. So now I'm wondering, does anyone have any ideas what to do with the wood from the raised beds once I tear them out?

  9. Claudette, I am so happy to have helped! As for the old wood, I chop mine up and use it to keep me warm during the winter. I have a fireplace, but even lacking that, maybe a fire pit marshmellow roast is in your future? :-)

  10. Thanks for this post! It really does simplify/dispel all the mixed information I've received about gardening...and I've received a LOT of confusing/complex information. I always thought you had to add a lot to the soil to get good soil. If I'm starting from scratch, totally new plot...had decorative rock on it up till today...All I'd have to add is blood meal, bone meal, droppings, or urine to get the soil balanced correctly and then use the irrigation method to keep bugs away?? That seems too easy to be true...not that I don't believe you or anything. :)

  11. Erin, all I can say is, it works for me! Good luck, let me know how it goes.

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  13. How’s the garden doing? I recently just started puttering around in my backyard myself, and was just about to start transferring the young ones to the beds. I really didn’t like the raised bed idea, since when you start watering your plants, the water will just seep through and go as deep as it can. Which makes it useless for the plants way up in the raised beds. Great tips, though. Hopefully my attempt to grow my own veggies pays off! :)

    Maurine Roe

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