By Scott Calhoun
The Southwest has been inhabited for a long time. For some of those gardeners who came before us, success with crops was the difference between life and death. We can learn a lot from them. Below are a few of my favorite bits of gardening wisdom from ancient and less-ancient peoples.
Choose Edible Plants
If you are going to work with high-water-use plants, why not plant something you can eat? Going back to ancient times, agriculture was intended to keep you alive. Although crops such as the mandarin orange, featured above, were not grown in the Southwest before the arrival of the Spanish, citrus, figs, and pomegranates are among the best plants to grow in the region. All arrived with the first European missionaries.
Follow Traditional Planting Dates
For many years Native American tribes have followed a planting calendar specific to the region. In and around Tucson in the fall, they planted fava (pictured), garbanzo, garlic, greens, lentil, onions, peas, and wheat. Come the summer monsoon season, seed for amaranth, beans, corn, melon, squash, and sunflower were sown. That schedule works just as well today as always.
Rainwater Harvesting Basins
Because rainfall falls sporadically in the Southwest, Native Americans grew some crops using sunken planting beds that collected rainwater. Those beds allowed rain to penetrate the soil deeply and provide water for food crops. In the photo, devil’s claw plants, which are used in basketry, are located in basins that rainwater inundates.
Keeping Cool Like Cleopatra
In the days before air-conditioning, residents of low-desert cities, like Phoenix, resorted to clever cooling methods. Those included hanging damp sheets over open windows to provide a primitive evaporative cooling system, and planting vines and other plants in front of windows.
Using vines on windows reduces heat gain and takes advantage of the transpiration from the leaves for cooling. It works today to lower air-conditioning bills—vines cover all my west-facing windows. As the photo of queen’s wreath vine illustrates, for some vines a trellis isn’t necessary—the vines cling to window screens.
What are your favorite nuggets of wisdom from gardeners who came before us?
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