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Desert Gardening: Growing Edibles in Small Spaces

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Learn strategies for getting the most food production from a small garden plot in the Desert Southwest.

Raised-bed veggie garden filled with lettuce

By Scott Calhoun

What if I told you that in a tiny 4x8-foot plot you can grow enough lettuce and greens so you don’t have to purchase any for six months? How about if I told you that the same is true for tomatoes and peppers? Would you believe me?

Well, that is exactly what my wife and I did this fall, winter, and spring in our little raised 4x8-foot garden bed. From October through April we ate a daily salad of colorful red, green, and freckled lettuce leaves. We also stir-fried spicy Asian bok choy, and froze bags of collard greens cooked with bacon. This homegrown produce was so fresh and delicious, we dreaded going back to store-bought stuff in plastic clamshells. Now in spring we are into the tomato, pepper, and cucumber season, and we are having similar results.

Useful Dimensions and Containers
You don’t need a big plot. For a family of two to four, one 4x8-foot bed, or two 4x4-foot beds, can easily suffice. If you live in an apartment, consider clustering large pots on a sunny porch or balcony. For veggies the larger the pot, the better.

Although I prefer earthenware pots for my ornamental plants, plastic pots are more efficient than clay at retaining water. (Clay pots wick water through their sides.) For growing in the ground I prefer raised beds, as they offer a chance to add serious amounts of good compost to a bed. Raised beds also provide excellent drainage.

Bok choy or Chinese cabbage

Exposure and Soil
All you need is a sunny location. In the desert this also can mean with east-facing morning sun, but the spot should get at least six hours of sun a day. Beneath a large shade tree is not a good location.

To improve your soil, double-dig your beds -- that is, turn over your soil to a depth of two shovel blades -- and add generous amounts of compost, worm castings, bat guano, and other organic amendments. One of the keys to getting a lot of produce from a small space is begin with excellent soil and amend it each season.

Here’s some bok choy (Chinese cabbage), a cool-season crop that’s great for soups and stir-fry dishes.

Planting Seasons for the Low Desert
Planting times are one of the biggest regional differences between veggie gardening in the Low Desert region and the rest of the country. In general, it is helpful to think of veggie crops as either cool-season or warm-season.

Cool-season crops include lettuce, bok choy, Swiss chard, spinach, garlic, onions, artichokes, asparagus, fava beans, and garbanzo beans; plant those in fall. Warm-season crops include tomatoes, peppers, corn, cucumbers, squash, melons, and most other beans; plant those in spring. You can overlap some -- for instance tomatoes sometimes overwinter in mild winters, and Swiss chard often persists into the hot part of summer. But in general stick to the aforementioned schedule.

We do have a third planting season: the summer monsoon, usually around the end of June. That’s when you can plant again some of the warm-season crops I’ve mentioned.

Cherry tomatoes ripen in late April

A Word about Tomatoes
A favorite for gardeners, tomatoes can thrive in the desert, but you need to choose your varieties carefully. Generally, you need to get big, beefsteak types in the ground very early in spring, as high temperatures (typically over 95°F) cause them to cease fruiting. Better choices for desert gardeners are cherry (pictured), pear, grape, and Roma tomatoes. All produce at a great clip all season long.

In small spaces tomato cages or stakes are good at keeping plants upright, which allows you to grow more plants in a small footprint. In mid-June many desert gardeners cut back their tomatoes by half to rejuvenate their plants with the onset of the summer monsoon season. June also is when desert gardeners begin shading their plants with up to 40-percent shade cloth.

Pomegranate tree in bloom

Small Fruit Trees
If you have a bit more room, consider small fruit trees such as pomegranate, which has pretty flowers and is low-water-use; and dwarf citrus trees. Leave room for dwarf citrus to spread at least 6–9 feet wide. Also remember not to shade out your raised beds with other veggies. Pomegranate trees, such as the tree in both flower and fruit shown here, are showy and tasty. They require heavy pruning to keep them in check amid tight quarters.