Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tell It To Me Straight, Mama: What Are the Easiest Edibles to Grow in Arizona?

Recently, I got a Mother Earth News email touting the Easiest Vegetables to Grow. “Good stuff!” I thought. “Those folks at Mother Earth News know what they’re talking about. Considering all the problems I’ve been having with the garden lately, this might be just the refresher course I need to get back on track.” 

So what did they have to say? In a nutshell: salad mix, herbs, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, and summer squash. Now I am not an Arizona garden pro, (for that, I point you to the AZ Plant Lady or the Scientific Gardener), but I think it is my hit-or-miss, purely amateur status that makes me qualified to talk about what’s “easy” and what’s not.

Trust me. I grow the best tumbleweeds in the state.

Mother Earth News, I think you’re great. And this list is probably a good one for a lot of the country, but Mama, I think you’re steering Arizona wrong. Well, not completely wrong, but not completely right either. Let’s do the run-down: 

  • Salad-mix: Absolutely. Yes, this is easy to grow in Arizona. Heck, if you’re feeling feisty, you can even start it from seed. It’s that easy.
  • Herbs: Yes, I have found herbs to be pretty easy here, although I have yet to grow them successfully from seed. When I get a seedling from a nursery (or sometimes even from the grocery store) though, they do great. I’ve had particular luck with rosemary (which I use as a landscaping plant in my front yard. Double duty!), basil (which goes crazy under the right conditions), and parsley.
  • Potatoes: Meh. I have successfully grown plants from spuds, but I would hardly call it easy. First, I had to do a ton of work to sift through my native soil to get all the rocks out. (I read somewhere that the rocks in our soil can make the potatoes malformed.) And the potatoes that I got in the end had lots of brown bits in them that made me nervous (were they diseased?). In the end, I think I only got one meal out of the whole plot. Not so easy.
  • Green beans: I’ve only tried this once, with no luck. Better gardeners than me have made it work, so I haven’t given up. Still, no judgment yet on whether it’s easy. Initial outlook: Not good.
  • Tomatoes: No, no, no. Just no. Yes, you can grow tomatoes in Arizona. But, from everything I’ve read, it’s all about the art of timing. (Notice that I say “from what I’ve read?” I’ve never got more than a few tomatoes off a plant myself before the thing kicked the bucket.) Basically, our winters are too cold for tomatoes, our summers are too hot for tomatoes, and our other seasons are very short. So to get any sort of decent tomato crop, you have to time things juuuuuuuuuuuuuuust right, and possibly employ all sorts of season extending techniques (shade cloth for summer/frost covers for winter). Better gardeners than me seem to have tips for how to do this. Maybe this will be the magic year that I can make it happen too.
  • Summer squash: Yes. Very easy. Zucchini, in fact, is what got my gardening addiction started. I don’t even think I did anything special when I planted it. I probably just plunked it in some native soil and watered it. And then it grew and grew and grew. Ah, magnificent zucchini!  

So, what is easy to grow here? Here’s what I’ve personally had a lot of luck with:

  • Summer crops: Okra, melons, zucchini, sunflowers, and sweet potatoes. (By the way, the one thing that really flummoxed me about sweet potatoes was when to harvest them. I've since learned Thanksgiving or first frost, whichever comes first.)
  • Winter crops: Salad mix, herbs, broccoli, and Texas Granex onions
  • Permanent crops (bushes & trees): Pomegranates and rosemary.  

(For information about when to plant these forgiving beauties, see the Maricopa County Planting Calendar.) 

Of course, this whole discussion got started because I’m not having much luck with anything right now, and I was trying to think about what plants might go better. Really, this is all a distraction from the real matter at hand. I think it’s time for me to get my soil tested and see if I need to make some adjustments. I'm pretty sure I do. So tune in next time to see how those efforts are going. In the meantime, happy gardening!

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