If someone tells you they’re thinking about growing a garden in the desert, what would you think? People have an image of the ‘desert’, they tend to think that it’s just a desolate wasteland with no potential or prospects.
If that were the case, then why do so many people live and thrive here? Why is it that Native Americans made the American southwest their home for thousands of years? And why do we continue to live in these ‘desolate’ places?
In fact, there are quite a bit of resources here, though I won’t lie, some of those resources require a bit of hard work and dedication. Still, the resources are there.
My Relationship with the Desert
I moved to the desert from a humid area. I didn’t realize at the time how easy I had it in a humid area. I was able to grow anything and with a quickness and I barely had to water it. Not only that, but I was at a lower elevation. It also rained more often.
I had a lot going for me. So when I moved to the desert, I tried to replicate the same methods that I used in my previous growing region and failed miserably. The minute I woke up and realized I was in a much different climate (like, duh, right?) and needed to adjust, everything started to go a lot smoother.
Not only did I need to understand my new growing zone, but I also needed to understand my exact desert area. I live in a higher elevation, around 4,500 feet, which makes a significant different when it comes to planting times, weather conditions, etc.
Around my specific area, the big commercial farms are mostly cotton, hay and corn. Smaller private farms that offer CSAs grow just about everything under the sun and succeed.
Growing a desert in the garden is not only doable, but rewarding. If you’re new to the desert and want to learn how to grow a garden, you’ve come to the right place!
Desert Garden Challenges
I’ve written about my desert greenhouse challenge before, but let me talk about the larger challenges. There are going to be 6 primary challenges associated with growing a garden in the desert: wind, sun, irrigation, pests, soil, and plant limitations.
In higher elevations, wind is a big problem. Winds can make growing a garden in the desert exceptionally difficult. If your plants are strong, wind shouldn’t really flatten them, however, wind can have a drastic affect on water evaporation. Not only will the sun evaporate your water, but now you have the wind to contend with as well.
Consider putting up a wind breaker. Building a fence or using pallets will do fine, just make sure it’s well supported and/or weighted down to stand up to the harsh winds. Sand bags or extra ratchet supports might be helpful.
You could also consider cover cloth. While cover cloth is mostly to protect plants from frost, it can also aid to protect them from wind and keep the soil moist. Of course, mulch and straw will also help to retain moisture.
The sun will be a great foe for your garden. During the summer, which will be the hottest time of the year, using shade to protect certain plants is advisable. The sun is simply so harsh that even plants that need ‘full sun’ will benefit from a little shade in the summer months.
Extra water will need to be given during the summer months as well. If you normally water plants once a day, it may need to be twice a day, or simply upping the amount of drip irrigation.
Because of how hot, dry and windy the desert can get, irrigation is almost a must. Drip irrigation is usually the most economical and efficient method. It can give a pretty consistent supply of moisture without flooding and without having it evaporate immediately. Water is still an issue in the desert so being smart about exactly where your water is going and how much water you’re using is important. Irrigation can help to control that.
Again, mulch or straw will help to keep the moisture in as well.
We have unique pests here. I battle mostly with birds, kangaroo rats and ants. You might battle with deer, squirrels or even groundhogs. Figure out what animals and pests are in your area and be preventative. Don’t give them a chance to get a taste of your garden.
Prevent ants with diatomaceous earth. Prevent birds with bird netting. Keep deer and rabbits out with fencing. Keep rodents out by digging fencing down several inches into the ground to keep them from digging. If you have raised garden beds, you could even place fencing underneath the dirt in the bed so even if they dig under, they still can’t get up and through the dirt because of the fence.
Desert soil isn’t necessarily bad. Some of it may have more clay, some more sand, but in general, any soil can be used for planting, if you amend it. I would recommend getting a soil test for the areas you plan to plant in. Amend with compost and/or fertilizer, depending on the needs of the soil and the plants. Some plants will need special fertilizer. No matter where you live, you’d most likely be adding some type of feed or fertilizer to your plants anyway, but it’s always good to know what type of soil you’re working with so you can properly amend it.
Picking the right plants for your region and time of the year is extremely important. If you save seeds and continue to plant them in your area, over time they’ll adapt to your region. But you’d be doing yourself a huge favor by picking plants and seeds from places where they’re kind of already adapted to right off the bat.
Pick plants that will do well in the heat and maybe even are good with a little drought. Some heat tolerant plants might be things like eggplant, sweet potatoes, okra, corn and more. Check out our article that talks about the best vegetables to plant in the heat.
Some drought tolerant plants might be pole beans, corn, most herbs, sunflowers, black-eyed peas and summer squash.
Choose your plants wisely depending on the time of year and try to find local nurseries to source plants. If you’d like to start from seeds, get them from regional sources, if you can. Otherwise, find plants that are at least tolerant to your weather conditions.
With a bit of planning and forethought, a desert garden is absolutely possible and with the right care, it can thrive beyond your wildest dreams. Change your mindset, find solutions, and before you know it, you’ll be growing a garden in the desert!