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After a long, hot hiatus, our winter garden is finally going again! YAY!

WE HAVE A NEW TOMATO BED!
As I’ve written before, we have great success growing tomatoes all winter long here in the Mohave Valley. Previously, in our “frame” (see photo) however after two years of hard use, I am keeping that spot pretty fallow this winter. I am playing with the idea of planting peas and beans there to fix nitrogen in the soil. But nothing else.

Our new bed is located along our South-facing fence, where I had my compost pile this past year (yes, I planned ahead!) My Garden Engineer (a.k.a. Dad) built a small frame, and we got 5 tomatoes last week at our local Walmart.

Tomatoes we have great success with here during the winters are Yellow Pear, Plum, Sweet 100 (or any small “cherry” type) and Early Girl. We are also trying “Mr. Stripey” this year.

When planting tomatoes for the winter, I gravitate towards short-season (65-70 days) varieties which are indeterminate. Why? Well, for one thing, I’m not too patient, and I like to harvest quickly. And honestly, the conducive growing seasons here are SHORT. Mid-September to mid-December in the fall, and mid-February to mid-April in the spring. Outside of those windows, it is either too cold or too hot to get a good harvest.

But Kim, didn’t you say you harvested tomatoes all winter? Yes, I did! And here is one of the real keys to successful gardening in the desert: Learn how to extend your growing seasons. Number one: I pick short-season varieties; and number two: I plant and protect. Our tomato beds are wrapped in plastic during the winter, and sited along a south facing fence. We put black mulching paper against the fence, and it gets nice and toasty in there, even on the coolest of days (and yes, it does get cold in the desert.)

I am also working with microclimates in my yard. I have a north facing bed that is useless in the winter – no sun. But in spring and summer? It grows great broccoli! Simply because it is protected from the brutal sun, and it’s light enough to grow during the lengthening days of spring and summer. So it pays to be familiar with your yard, and the “micro-climates” within it.

Right now the weather has continued too hot, with highs in the upper 90’s, for planting salad crops. But the “salad bed” is ready for: lettuce, mesclun, beets, snap peas, onions, carrots & radishes, chard & bok choy. More on these in upcoming posts!

Happy gardening!

Well, autumn is just about here, and for me (at least as far as the garden is concerned) it might as well be February.  Why?  ‘Cause this is the time I start planting and planning my fall/winter garden.

I did have some plants growing during the summer, mostly melons, without much success.  We harvested one cantaloupe, which tasted only O.K.  I still have cantaloupe and watermelon growing, but there is NOT ONE maturing fruit.  So much for gardening in the summer.  I’ll stick to my winter garden!

This week I’ll be cleaning up, putting down compost and turning it under.  I’m also going to start a new compost pile, and as soon as the weather cools just a bit, i’ll be adding some worms from the local sporting goods store to live there.

I’m planning to plant some corn (didn’t grow well for me in Yuma, but I’m going to try it here) and some beans.  I’m also going to direct sow tomatoes.  I direct sowed some “October Wonder” last spring and they grew well, but it was a little too late to produce.  I actually got some tomato seeds from Campbell Soup Company, and it’ll be fun to grow them.

I’ll also be starting my cole crops: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc., as well as my peas. I’m really hoping to have peas, both English and sweet pea (flowers) this year.

A great resource for desert gardeners to know when to plant down here, is from the cooperative extension.  Here’s the link to all their information on vegetable gardening:

http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/vegetable/index.html

More to come!

may 30th sunflowers etc 003OK, yeah, I was in the musical “Carousel” once upon a time. Forgive me!

Here in Mohave Valley temps are rising about a month ahead of schedule. Average temps for May are usually in the high 90’s, and in June, in the 105-107 range.  Well, May was about 10 degrees warmer than normal, so it will be interesting to see what June brings.  We’ve even had some thunderstorms, VERY unusual for this early in the season.

I am getting ready to pull out my tomato plants.  Linn Mills at the Las Vegas Review-Journal says you can get them through the summer, and even get a few more tomatoes, but I choose to pull them and start fresh in August. (For more about keeping your tomatoes going, see Linn’s column at http://www.lvrj.com/living/45953762.html.)

 

Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe

We are also very excited to see how well our cantaloupe and squash are growing.  They get lots of water and food.  They are the rare plant that I actually feed with water-soluble all- purpose fertilizer.  The plant is so huge, and the energy to create the fruit needs it.  Also, the “mystery plant” is no longer a mystery: it’s a Danish squash.  It is amazing to me that these fruits grow at what I would call an exponential rate!  Every day, they are a little larger. This photo was taken on May 30th, and the cantaloupe was about the size of a kiwi.  Today it is about the size of a nice big russet potato.  Amazing! 

Here’s a picture of the squash:

No longer a mystery: Danish squash.

No longer a mystery: Danish squash.

The other plants that are doing well are the watermelons, of course, and my sunflowers. 

I went out and bought seeds today!  Why, you may ask?  Well, when August rolls around, and I am ready to start my tomatoes, corn, peppers, etc. for my fall garden, I will be ready.  I know from experience that if I wait I will search the stores in vain for those seeds.  They will be sending them back to the seller soon.  I’ll keep them in a cool dark place until I’m ready to plant.

 sunflowers 001Some of the seeds I found today were for more SUNFLOWERS! I love sunflowers!  Their bold flowers, towering size, broad leaves, and tough constitution make them great for the desert garden!  This patch has made a nice green spot for our patio, and the ones out in the tomato patch are even attracting hummingbirds.  Once the seed heads mature, they will be placed out in the bird feeding area for birdy joy!
 
Tomatoes in December

Tomatoes in December

The nation is seeing a resurgence in gardening.  Seed companies are having a banner year.  Everybody from Sunset magazine (not surprising) to the New York Times and even Epicurious.com are focusing on the home gardener.

Most of the nation is in springtime mode, and this can be a bit frustrating for those of us who garden in the desert southwest.  I have found that the most productive gardening here is done between September and May.  For those of us who are transplants from cooler, more conventional climates, like the northwest, or the midwest, this can be very confusing, as well as frustrating.

First piece of advice:  Don’t trust what the big “box stores” have on their shelves.  For instance, I couldn’t for the life of me find any sweet pea seeds until well into March, when the last realistic date to plant any sort of peas down here is the end of February. (I did plant some snap peas by February 28th; however, it got too hot too soon for those poor peas to produce.)  I could not find broccoli or cauliflower starts until March, when it was also almost too late.  I also see them selling items like blueberries and strawberries.  If you have gotten berries to thrive in your desert garden, PLEASE let me know.  I mostly raise my eyebrows and say, “good luck!”  In other words, unless you’ve got a fully equipped greenhouse, don’t waste your money.

While most of the country daydreams and plans their future garden in the depths of a cold and wet January or February, we are at the height of our garden year by that time.  I’m starting my plans for next year NOW!  Which means, that I am buying my seeds from the stores and seed catalogs, and keeping them for planting starting in August/September.

The best resource I have found for gardening in the Low Desert is the Maricopa County Extension. (http://cals.arizona.edu/maricopa/garden/html/general/hort.htm) If you garden in another county, just change the county name in the address. 

Some good books I have found in the local library include Desert Gardening: Fruits and Vegetables by George Brookbank, which is extremely comprehensive.  His garden calendar is my “bible” for what to do when in the garden.  Like starting tomatoes direct sown into the garden in August.  Seeds for cool weather crops like broccoli, cauliflower, etc. can also be started in August, for planting out in September.  I have had great success growing broccoli, lettuce, beets, carrots, and mesclun all winter long.  I use shade cloth to protect from any frosts.  I also grow tomatoes all winter in “the frame” (see picture, above.)

Another good book is Designing and maintain your edible landscape naturally, by Robert Kourik. 

There are many well-written and informative books, which can be found in your local library.

Invaluable resources also include “The Desert Garden” with Tyler Storey (http://thedesertgarden.com/) and the personnel at local nurseries. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and find the people in the stores who are actually gardening and can gift you with the benefit of their experience. (Hats off to Ken at the Bullhead City Wal-Mart garden center!)

Right now my garden is winding down. I’m picking the last of my tomatoes, and getting ready to solarize my beds for the summer.  The main things I’m growing right now are melons, Danish squash, and sunflowers.  My main energies are going towards watering and planning for next year.  Time to hunker down, stay cool, and dream about Spring Fall!

(If you are interested in obtaining seedlings for Fall gardening, I will be growing and selling seedlings for cool weather vegetables, including several varieties of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, as well as short season tomatoes, starting in September. E-mail me at kimbo_bob1961@yahoo.com or comment to this post, and I’ll be sure to let you know when they become available! Be sure to note “desert gardener” in the topic line of your email.)

Compost Pile Mar 14 2009First of all, I’ll have to do a disclaimer:  I’m not an expert.  And my compost pile ain’t perfect!  At least, according to all I have read, etc. it shouldn’t work at all.  But it does!

I started my compost pile by asking the local grasscutter if he would bring me grass cuttings.  This was rather humorous, because he has no English!  But he brought his boss over (couldn’t understand that I didn’t want him to CUT my grass – truth is, I have no grass, LOL – actually I don’t believe you should have lawn in the desert southwest, but that rail is for another post!) but we soon got it straightened out.  I dumped the grass into a big pile, and started burying my kitchen scraps in it.  Also put in a bit of soil, and half a bag of composted manure from the garden center. 

Now anybody will tell you, you can’t make a good compost pile with just grass clipping and kitchen scraps!  You need a good, fairly balanced combination of “greens” and “browns”.  “Greens” include grass clippings, kitchen scraps, freshly pulled weeds or thinnings from the garden, fresh manure, that sort of thing.  “Greens” provide nitrogen, get your compost pile “cooking” – they heat it up so that bad things like weed seeds and insects are killed.

“Browns” include hay/straw, dried grass, old dry manure, dirt, leaves, etc.  Browns provide carbon. I like to think that Browns also provide “fiber”: organic content that opens up the soil, allowing air and water to circulate, and also helping to conserve water.

monday 27 april 001

Compost pile building blocks: Hay and grass clippings

Site your pile, optimally, where you are going to garden next year.  (The compost pile pictured above is the pending site of a third raised bed starting this fall.)  Or in any convenient corner or your yard.  I wouldn’t put it too close to the house, however.

To start your pile, I recommend going to a local feed store and buying one or two bales of the cheapest hay/straw they have.  I get mine for about $5 for a big bale. Put down a 6″ layer of straw and sprinkle it. Then put down a layer of green: grass clippings, kitchen scraps, manure.  Sprinkle again. If you have some dirt, or some composted manure from the garden center, put it on next.  (I like to cover the whole thing with grass clippings or hay just to keep it looking neater and also to help conserve water and keep the pile moist.) Try to alternate brown and green.  You want to aim for a pile that is no less than three to no more than four feet high and wide. 

After a couple of days, go out with your pitchfork (or spading fork) and turn the pile. I sprinkle first, then move the bottom to the top, the back to the front, etc.  Sprinkle again, and cover with hay or grass.  Turning the pile is KEY.  I find that if I turn my pile every second or third day, it works pretty fast.  If you don’t turn, it will still decompose, but at a much slower rate. It is a job that gets longer and a bit tougher as the pile grows. But remember that your pile needs air and water to do its job, so turning is a must.  I often find my pile is on the dry side, and turning is really the only way to be sure everything is nice and just right moist, about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.  Keep on burying your kitchen scraps and toss on any garden waste, wood chips, odd bits of potting soil, etc. you happen to have.  Turn, turn, turn.  Water, water, water.  You’ll be amazed at how fast it breaks down.

008One nice benefit from composting is that we have reduced our trash output by 1/3 to 1/2.  We keep a gallon size Rubbermaid canister on the counter next to the sink.  Lined with a plastic produce bag, it makes a perfect place to put all the kitchen scraps.  You may want to keep your compost bucket in a freezer. This reduces any possible smell (and possible fruit flies) and by freezing the scraps they do break down faster. I’d like to do this, but I don’t have room in my freezer, and my compost goes out daily, anyway.

 

 

DON’T COMPOST:

  • Dog & cat manure (too many pathogens);
  • Meat, bones or scraps (bad for the pile; attract pests);
  • Ashes (they may be good in other areas, but desert soils are already on the alkaline side, and ash would make them more so);
  • Garden waste that is diseased.

007DO COMPOST:

  • Veggie and fruit scraps, peelings, cores, etc;
  • Eggshells;
  • Coffee grounds & tea bags;
  • Healthy garden waste (trimmings, thinnings, etc);
  • Grass clippings (if you have them);
  • Leaves (again, if you have them);
  • Shredded newspaper.

Most gardening books and resources will have information on composting.  A great small book that can be found at the Mohave County Library is Basic Composting: All the Skills and Tools You Need To Get Started, by Eric Ebeling.

Composting is a great way to “reduce ~ recycle ~ re-use” and I highly recommend it to all gardeners, regardless of the size of their garden.  It is the absolutely best way to improve your garden soil.

What a difference three weeks can make!  I’ll let the pictures tell the story….
Tomato patch, April 16th
Half of the tomato patch, April 16th
 
 
 
The other half of the "tomato" patch (note the sunflowers) April 16th
The other half of the “tomato” patch (note the sunflowers) April 16th

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                          Here’s the “tomato” patch today:
 
"Tomato" patch, May 10, 2009

"Tomato" patch, May 10, 2009

Lessee, what’s all in here? Several types of tomatoes, including red grape, Early Girl (which are producing) and Red October and Pink Brandywine (which are not). The sad thing about the tomatoes is that once the temperature gets over 90F the flowers no longer pollinate, so we are really getting to the end of our tomato harvest.  Too soon!
 
Also in this bed are a couple of sweet onions, a couple of garlic cloves I planted just for the heck of it, to see how they’d do, Russion Mammoth sunflowers (can’t miss ‘em) a few leftover broccoli plants.
 
And what happened to our volunteer “mystery plant”?  I thought it was a cantaloupe, but since have revised my opinion, and expect it is some sort of winter squash. 
Fruit on the Mystery plant.

Fruit on the Mystery plant.

We eat a lot of acorn squash, so it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see that sprout in the compost pile. 

 
Soon after I took the photos on April 16th, we had another hot spell, and we just about lost the plant, which, if you remember, looked really healthy.
Mystery/Volunteer cucurbit, April 16.

Mystery/Volunteer cucurbit, April 16.

 It was totally wilted, and I feared that the roots had been fried to a crisp.  I sacrificed what was left of my broccoli (didn’t expect much more from that anyway) and we tucked it in there, watered it well, and covered the rootball with hay.  I was planning to grow melons in the broccoli bed anyway, and was just about ready to transplant my cantaloupe seedlings.  Here is the same plant today:

Squash (?) plant May 10th
Squash (?) plant May 10th There are also 2 sweet pepper plants (under the shade cloth) as well as three cantaloupe seedlings. 

 Since Mother Nature seems to have decreed that it’s gonna be hot now, I went ahead and planted my watermelon.  Got some seedlings at Lowe’s, and also planted some seeds all in the frame.  So far, so good.

Black Diamond watermelon, April 27th

Black Diamond watermelon, April 27th

 

Black Diamond watermelon, May 10th.

Black Diamond watermelon, May 10th.

One nice thing about growing your own flowers, you can save a lot of money avoiding the florist. Red sunflowers run $3-$5/stem and I just go cut them!  I’m perusing the seed catalogs, and plan to expand my sunflower growing next year.001

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, EVERYBODY!
This is ONE yellow pear tomato planted last fall.  the vines are 4-8 feet long and loaded with green tomatoes.

This is ONE yellow pear tomato planted last fall. the vines are 4-8 feet long and loaded with green tomatoes.

Well, my beet & broccoli bed is looking very ratty.  I had pulled out the last of the mesclun last week, and planted Hale’s Best cantaloupe (2 seedlings).  Yesterday I finished off the beets and the broccoli.  It’s getting too warm, too often, to expect them to produce much more. Today I am going to clean up the bed, dress it with a bit of compost, and convert it to melons. 

So we will have Hales Best cantaloupe.  We also have red & green bell peppers.  I only bought one of each, and they are doing great; so great I wish I’d purchased more.  Well, there’s always next year. 

Tomatoes.  Dad planted several tomatoes (red grape, yellow pear and red cherry) in large pots in the frame last fall.  When I arrived in January, they were vining all over the place, so we transplanted them in to the ground.  We kept the yellow pear in the frame, and moved the others to a raised bed. 

As you can see, the yellow pear is doing great, and is absolutely loaded.  The black tarp keeps everything toasty, and we have the irrigation set just right.   The other three tomatoes went into a raised bed, and they are doing well, just not quite as rampant as this one.  (The wind has been an issue.)  In the raised bed we have Early Girl, Sweet 100, Pink Brandywine, and Red October.  The Red October I planted direct from seed in January, just to see how that would work out, and it is working out great. I have since learned that it is good to actually direct sow your tomatoes in August. (If you direct sow your tomatoes, you need to choose short season types like Early Girl, or July 4th, unless you have a frame to protect them.  So that is on the agenda for NEXT year’s garden!

So, tomatoes & melons.  I have started two varieties of winter squash, Delicata and Acorn,which will be planted in a basin and allowed to ramble.  Sugar Baby watermelon will be direct sown in the frame.

The "Frame"

The "Frame"

(The “frame” is our original garden, which we framed so we could put up plastic in the winter and shade cloth in the summer to extend our harvests.)

We didn’t use the frame much this past year due to some family medical issues; lots of trips to Vegas to the doctor really cut into the ol’ gardening time.  We sure did miss our year-round tomato harvest, though!  We are looking forward to building another bed, which will be a hot bed, for tomatoes next winter. (Much more on that in future posts!)

Tomatoes this summer?  Well, once the temps stay above 100, most, if not all tomatoes, will not pollinate.  So we do tomatoes usually from mid-September to May-June, depending upon the weather.  That’s why we use shade cloth!

Bean pot.

Pole beans, Scarlet Runner & Kentucky Wonder.

I haven’t forgotten about the cats.  We have several buckets of cat grass around, as well as some catnip I am trying to get to sprout.  Oh, and also I have a bucket of beans.  This pot contains three Scarlet Runner and nine Kentucky Wonder pole beans.  Now, I haven’t had much success with beans in the past, but they are SUPPOSED to grow well here, so I’m not giving up yet.  I’m hopeful we will have a stunning focal point once these start climbing. The pole is about 8′ high. The black pot is a concern – I don’t want to cook the roots.  One thing about using pots is that they can be moved around to more clement locations, and that may be necessary for this one.

 
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