Archive for May, 2009

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.)


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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.




  • 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.


  • 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.

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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


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