Vegetable gardening in Arizona can be challenging. Principles that work in other areas, timing guidelines on seed packets, and general zone requirements often don’t apply to gardening in the low desert of Arizona.
Growing a successful vegetable garden in Arizona is certainly possible. However, it is important to understand that Arizona has a unique climate for gardening with distinct benefits and challenges.
Some of the benefits of vegetable gardening in Arizona:
- Abundant citrus – only 2 other states (Florida and California) grow citrus commercially.
- Ability to garden outdoors year-round.
- Abundant sunshine – necessary for all living things.
A few of the challenges of vegetable gardening in Arizona:
- Extreme heat. A few vegetables (okra, Malabar spinach, Armenian cucumbers) tolerate the heat and continue producing. Some die, and others go into dormancy only to take off again when the humidity of late July or August sets in.
- Low humidity. Many desert-adapted plants such as cactus, succulents, and plants with waxy leaves are adapted to less humidity. However, most vegetables and garden plants need more moisture in the air to grow well in the low desert of Arizona.
- Native clay soil is great for desert-adapted plants and contains many minerals. However, it is alkaline and is low in organic matter. Most garden plants prefer slightly acidic soil and need the added nutrients organic matter provides.
- Caliche causes several problems including poor drainage.
7 principles for successful vegetable gardening in Arizona:
Growing a successful vegetable garden in Arizona is possible when you understand these 7 principles.
1. Choose the best location for your garden
Vegetable gardens need at least 6 hours of sun to grow and thrive. We have an abundance of sun, but the type of sunlight we get varies. Morning sun is ideal for a vegetable garden; its rays are strong and cool. The harsh afternoon sun is harder on gardens in the summer.
Take a look around your yard at sunrise and notice where morning light first hits your garden, and then if you can, plant there! If your garden area gets afternoon sun, you will probably need to provide some shade for certain plants during the summer.
Adding raised beds to create your garden? This article shares 10 tips for designing raised bed gardens.
2. Use the best type of soil to plant vegetables in Arizona
It is possible to grow vegetables in the native soil; however, most native soil is best adapted to growing native plants, not garden vegetables.
Because Arizona’s growing seasons are shorter, we ask a lot of the vegetables we grow – they need to sprout, grow, and produce during a short amount of time.
For the best chance of success, it’s important to give plants what they need to thrive in desert conditions. A combination of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite added to raised beds is a simple and effective way to begin gardening right away. Continue adding compost and organic matter each season and the soil in your raised beds will improve each year.
This blog post shares more information about the best soil for raised beds.
3. Plant vegetables at the right time in Arizona
Gardening in Arizona is different, not impossible. We have different seasons than most. Zone maps on the back of seed packets and other zone maps don’t usually work here. Instead of one long growing season, we have 3 shorter planting seasons:
- Cool-season crops grow from around September to March;
- Warm-season crops grow from about February through May; and
- Monsoon planting begins with the increased rain and humidity of July or August.
Use a research-based planting guide designed for the low desert to take the guesswork out of when to plant during each of these different seasons. I like this planting guide from the University of Arizona Extension office. Planting the right crop at the right time will increase the chance of success.
Wondering what other things to plant and what to do in your garden each month? Click on the monthly guide which includes a “to do” list and planting guide for each month.
4. Select the appropriate varieties of vegetables when gardening in Arizona
- Choose short-season crops. When you have a choice between two crops and one has shorter “days to harvest”, go with the one that is shorter. The low desert of Arizona has several growing seasons, but the seasons are shorter and crops have less time to produce. Smaller varieties of tomatoes and melons often outperform their larger counterparts.
- Choose plants adapted to our growing conditions in Arizona. Native Seeds Search offers arid-adapted seed varieties that tolerate the heat and drought of an Arizona summer better than varieties better suited to other regions. I grow Chimayo melons and Hopi yellow watermelons from Native Seeds Search each year.
5. Take advantage of microclimates in your yard
Some parts of the yard will be warmer or cooler than others. Use those areas to your advantage by growing plants whose requirements match up to the specific microclimate available.
Notice in your yard which areas receive the most sun and shade during different seasons of the year. Learn the sun requirements and heat tolerance of different plants. Consider adding shade parts of the garden that need it during the hottest times of the year. Take advantage of the shade provided by larger plants to interplant different crops.
6. Water your Arizona vegetable garden correctly
Vegetables and fruits do not produce well if they are stressed. Problems in the garden can often be traced back to watering – not enough, too much, or inconsistent water. Plants become stressed and are more prone to diseases and insects.
General principles for watering your vegetable garden in Arizona include:
- Spend time in your garden each day. You will notice the watering needs of your plants and be alerted to issues with your watering system.
- Pay attention to the weather – Plants require more water when it is dry, windy, and in the summer heat. During the summer in hot areas like Arizona, raised-bed gardens often need watering every day. Other times of the year, the raised beds may only need to be watered 1-2 times per week. Adjust the frequency of the timer for seasonal conditions.
- Water deep enough to moisten the plant’s entire root system each time you water. Adjust the frequency of watering, not the duration of watering.
- Water in the morning. Wilted leaves at midday don’t necessarily mean a plant needs water; always test soil a couple of inches deep to see if soil is dry before giving droopy plants more water. They will probably recover once the sun goes down.
- Water the soil – not the leaves of plants. This saves water as well as prevents many plant diseases.
Want to learn more about watering? This article shares more information about the best way to water raised-bed gardens.
7. Mulch garden each season (especially in the summer)
Add a 3-inch layer of organic mulch on top of the soil around your vegetables. Mulching helps an Arizona vegetable garden in several ways:
- Mulching helps prevent weeds which can harbor pests and diseases, and compete for limited resources of nutrients, light, and water.
- A thick layer of mulch helps protect roots from extremes in temperatures.
- Mulching helps preserve moisture.