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Winter Organic Gardening inThe Desert

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How to grow plants that live longer, produce more and thrive with drought-tolerant landscaping.

By Maureen Gilmer

The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Here in the desert that first step is to forget everything you know about vegetable gardening back home. The seasons of planting and harvest are so different here you must begin again, often learning through that productive process of trial and error. Only that way can you push our growing season to a year-round garden that may slow for just a few months in the dead of summer. Consider July to October our horticultural winter when plants die or go dormant, not from cold but from excessive heat.

Seasonal Strategies
The launch of our gardening year starts in the month of October. This is when all the country clubs load up their planting areas in annual flowers such as snapdragons and Iceland poppies. Let them be your reminder that it’s time to start your garden because these flowers are annuals just like vegetable plants.

The fall growing time from October until frost is the most productive since temperatures are consistently warm but not blistering hot. Days are growing shorter which should slow growth, but it doesn’t, because plants that like cooler seasons don’t have to bloom to be edible. Knowing what to plant in October versus what you plant after frost at the end of January is key to success.

Cool Season Root and Leaf Crops
Cool season plants consist of leaf and root crops best planted in the fall. They will germinate quickly from seed in the October heat, or plant your seedlings for edible greens by the holidays. Leaf crops such as kale and lettuce can be gently harvested with scissors all winter long for a continuous supply of organic pot greens and fresh salads.

Root crops can be planted in fall too. Seed of fast growing carrots and radishes can be sown every two weeks all winter long for continuous harvest. Long-term root crops like beets offer both leafy cuttings and a final harvest of the delicious purple root. As temperatures spike in spring you may find these plants will bolt and go to seed from the heat, which alters flavor and ends their life cycle.

An exception to this rule is the edible pod peas, which must flower to make pods. These snow and snap beans germinate easily in cooler weather, so let New Years Day be your planting date, just as we used St. Patrick’s Day as the pea sowing date back home. They can be planted any time during the winter months, but January is ideal. The Mexican herb cilantro is also a cool season choice that produces the best foliage because it will change to needle-like leaves with coming heat.

Warm Season Crops
Vegetables that must flower in order to produce an edible fruit can be productive over winter, but temperatures aren’t suitable for ripening fruit like a tomato. They need longer days with plenty of even warmth to mature, then begin flowering, which in turn yields the fruit. This includes the nightshades such as peppers and heat loving cucumbers, which are safe to plant early February when frost has passed. Gradual increase in spring temperatures ensures all these crops ripen nicely before the onset of summer.

Exceptional Tomatoes
It is possible to grow two crops of tomatoes in our tropical desert climate. Tomatoes planted in October should be planted from larger container stock in quart or gallon pots. They’ll become well established before those few frosty mornings of December and January slow flowering. When frost is predicted, simply drape a bedsheet or a Planket over the tomato plants the night before to avoid tip burn, but remember to remove them each morning. Once beyond frost they’re smooth sailing until April or May when the first tomatoes ripen.

The second planting time is early February after frosts are passed, so there’s no need for protection. Tomatoes start well from much smaller seedlings and mature more quickly in the rising heat too. These tomatoes will ripen later into July. Note that some of these tomatoes may survive the summer under protective shade cloth to become perennial and produce for a second year with adequate nutrition and care.

How To Plant
Don’t hesitate to try those big two-gallon container grown tomatoes that cost a bit more, but they produce very well here. They’re great if you’re late starting your garden or if you want a head start on the spring season. Otherwise, grow your own from seed for the widest range of sizes, colors and flavors imaginable.

winter-organic-2The best non-GMO seed source is Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalog online at rareseeds.com. Here you’ll find dozens of different greens and fast-growing root crops to fill your beds during the winter moths. This is where you find tomatoes with Middle East origins such as Abu Rawan that is naturally adapted to our desert conditions. Their eggplant choices are nothing short of amazing.

Always remember your two planting times for cool and warm season crops: October and end of January. However, the tomatoes tell us that veggies can surprise you in this climate, so have fun, experiment and don’t lament your failures—they are your learning curve. Soon you’ll discover your desert garden filled with plants that live longer, produce more and they may even flirt with a perennial lifestyle in the desert, just like you do.

Home Garden Vegetables for Coachella Valley Gardens

Cool Season Vegetable Crops – Plant or sow in October
Crop                                Parts used                    Spatial demand
Arugula                          Fresh greens                small
Beets                               Root and greens          small
Bok Choy                       Greens                           small
Broccoli                          Flower/stem/leaves    small
Brussels                          Sprouts Greens           medium
Cabbage                          Greens                         medium
Carrot                              Root                              small
Collards                          Greens                          large
Kale                                 Greens                          small
Kohlrabi                          Root/stem/leaves       small
Lettuce                            Green                            small
Peas                                 Edible pod                   medium
Radish                             Root                              small
Spinach                           Greens                          small
Turnip                             Greens/root                 small

Warm Season Vegetable Crops – Plant or sow late Jan. into Feb.
Amaranth                      Seeds/young greens    medium/large
Beans                              Seeds                             small
Corn                                Seeds                             large
Cucumber                      Fruit                               large
Eggplant                        Fruit                               medium
Melon                             Fruit                               large
Pepper                            Fruit                               medium
Squash (summer)         Fruit                               medium
Squash (winter)            Fruitt                              large
Tomato                          Fruitt                              medium/large