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Desert Gardening: A Success Story (And Lessons Learned)


Desert Vegetable Garden

My Journey On An (Almost) Desert Island.

Last year, our family moved to an island off the coast of Los Angeles, California. I was excited to learn that they had a garden because the Mediterranean climate meant year-round vegetables.

When we arrived, I explored my soon-to-be veggie paradise only to find a fenced-in plot with a few fruit trees and invasive grass.

This was disappointing, but it afforded an incredible opportunity. I was working with a blank slate. So, I took the empty plot and, one year later, I’m neck-deep in citrus, peaches, cucumbers, kale, garlic, mint, edible flowers, and many other delicious fruits and veggies.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “How do I start a garden?”

Today, I’m going to answer that question.

This little plot was the most challenging in my horticulture career. We’re in a borderline desert climate, on an island, and water is restricted. During the summer, food is so scarce for animals that they will dig up and eat any seed that is planted. The soil is more like a dusty rock, and all soil amendments have to be purchased on the mainland and shipped over on a giant landing craft, which only happens two-three times per year.

I’ll show you how I was able to tackle each of these obstacles and grow a garden that suits the climate, and I hope it will give you encouragement as you tackle your own backyard to start growing your own food.

Desert Gardening Obstacles

There were a few interesting obstacles in starting this garden, and some required a great deal of trial and error.

Creating a garden in the desert presents many challenges.

Soil

The most important factor in a successful garden is healthy soil. Our climate gets about 12” of rain per year, and a desert is classified as an area that gets less than 10” of rain per year.

So, technically we’re a Mediterranean climate, although the average rainfall for those climates is more like 20” per year. The major difference between our island and a true desert island is that we have a rainy season.

The lack of much moisture means the organic matter has a hard time building up in the soil. No moisture means no microbial activityOpens in a new tab., so any dead organic material that falls on the soil will just dry up and blow away, instead of breaking down and being incorporated into the soil.

The lack of consistent water also meant the soil had become hydrophobic. This means the soil actually repelled water when I tried to water it. It was like watering a rock.

Now, if I had started improving the garden when the rainy season started, it would have been easier to make changes to the soil. But, with soil, it’s best to work it when it’s moist and not wet. Adding amendments during the summer allowed me to control the moisture level so I wasn’t harming the soil structure.

Wildlife

We have deer, birds, squirrels, and foxes in our canyon. And during the summer, when water is scarce and there is no green plant material besides cactus, the animals are desperate. Some escape back into the cooler parts of the canyon where pockets of green growth can sustain them. But, others try to raid my garden.

I was lucky enough to have a plot that was already fenced in. The fence is about 6’ tall, and I’ve never had a deer jump it. However, there are steep hills on two sides, a large ditch on another, and a building on the fourth side. So, it would be difficult for them to jump over given the terrain. In flat areas, a taller fence may be needed.

The fence is wire, with small enough openings to keep the foxes out. Foxes here will eat anything. I would not be able to have a compost pile if the foxes were able to get into the garden, and they would eat tomatoes, cucumbers, and all other low-lying fruit.

Squirrels and birds are a different matter. At first, I ordered a roll of bird netting to cover the entire fenced-in area to keep them out. This proved very difficult, because we had two established fruit trees to cover, and we were not able to use ladders due to the hills. Eventually, a section of fence blew over and tore the netting, so we gave up on it.

After the netting came down, I could not get anything to come up. No matter how consistently I watered, no seeds sprouted. At first, I thought it was a temperature issue. But, then I started covering each plot I had sown with a wooden frame covered with screen.

The makings of my first vegetable bed.

This helped on two fronts. First, it kept birds and squirrels away from the seeds. Second, it helped keep the soil a little more moist by providing some shade. Once I started using this frame, I had no issue with seeds coming up.

I left it on until the seedlings were pushing up against the screen, and then I covered them with some leftover fencing until they were about 6” tall. I’ve never had an issue with birds or squirrels attacking seedlings since.

Water

During the summer, our water is the most expensive water in the country. We live at a camp, so the first priority for water is the camp facilities and staff housing. This makes watering difficult because fruit trees and young seedlings require consistent watering.

So, to help the plants take in as much water as possible, I break the golden rule of irrigation and I water at night. Watering at night is not recommended, because sitting water on leaves can cause mold and other diseases that rot leaves, stems, and roots. However, our climate is windy and warm, and mold is almost non-existent.

Watering in the morning would work, but it would quickly evaporate as the sun came up and the water evaporated. The plants would get something, but water would be wasted.

Watering in the afternoon is pointless. By this time, the soil has dried out so much that it doesn’t take in water very well. A large amount of water is required in order to penetrate the soil, and even as it does, it is evaporating.

When I water in the evening, the sun is setting, and the water can get down to the roots of the plants. I cut down the pressure on my hose, and allow it to sit next to each plant for 5-10 minutes so it moves down, not out over the soil.

For the fruit trees, I allow it to sit longer. I only get to water once or twice per week, so this watering method gives the roots the ability to grow deeper to search for water and gives them better drought resistance.

Drip irrigation would be the best option in my situation, but right now it is not possible due to shipping large supplies.

Materials

Our camp has no roads in or out. And, even if it did, our hardware store is limited in supplies.

So, a few times per year, the whole camp takes inventory and determines what it needs to order, and everyone places orders for large items. This is the only time to get large amounts of materials to our camp, and this is how I had to order most of my garden supplies.

Pallet of compost for desert gardening project.

I ended up ordering 70 bags of composted manure, 15 bags of potting soil, pots, hoses, netting, and some hose ends. It all came in on two pallets that had to be transported via tractor to the garden.

Additional gardening supplies.

Because it is so difficult to get supplies, I had to limit myself on what I could use, so I chose a high-nitrogen compost (manure) to amend the soil. I was not able to get a soil test, so I opted for the most valuable nutrient, knowing my own homemade compost could build up other vitamins and minerals over time.

The Process: Transforming Desert Soil Into A Thriving Garden

The first step in preparing a garden is usually boring and labor-intensive. The fun part of growing a garden is watching it grow (and eating, of course), but this comes after a lot of preparation.

Soil

I had a few options for improving the soil. I could have sprayed RoundUp on the grass, then watered the soil and tilled it. I could have pulled all the grass and layered the compost over the whole garden. Or, I could outline beds, weed by hand, and pile compost on top.

I quickly discarded the RoundUp idea. It is windy in our canyon, and I did not want to damage the fruit trees. I wanted to pull the grass by hand and spread compost over the whole area, but this proved to be too difficult and almost pointless.

The grass in the garden was bentgrass, which spreads on top of the soil and is very difficult to remove. Pulling it does almost no good since even a small amount of root left in the soil will regrow and spread out. This also meant tilling was a no-go, because it would break apart the roots and spread them everywhere, making weeding a nightmare.

So, I decided to just outline beds and dump compost on top. Normally, this is not the best plan. It would be better to spray, allow the plants to die, and wait a few weeks. If more weeds pop up, spray again.

Then, till the soil, and wait for another few weeks for more weed seeds to sprout. Spray those, and then start installing beds and incorporating compost.

I’m not a fan of spraying, but there are some homemade options, like vinegar and salt, that work well. You just have to be careful because salt can stick around and kill off your veggies.

To install my beds, this was the process I used:

  • Lightly water the area with low pressure for half an hour. This made the grass easier to pull, and allowed me to rake some before adding compost.
  • Pull grass, weeds, and trash from the area.
  • Rake area with a leaf rake to get rid of debris.
  • Rake area with dirt rake to break up the soil.
  • Outline 4’x6’ area with rocks.
  • Add 8-10 bags of compost.
  • Water thoroughly.

For my first two beds, I dug up the area and removed rocks. However, I noticed that these areas had substantially more weed problems due to bringing up dormant weed seeds from beneath the surface.

So, I opted to just rake the top. With the depth of compost I added, the roots had plenty of loose soil, and began to dig into the layer below, which will slowly allow the two layers to blend together.

First Planting

planting area

By the time I prepared my first two beds, it was already the end of September. In this climate, that meant dropping temperatures, and the rainy season was on the horizon. Daylight was getting shorter.

This made it perfect weather for cool-season crops. Year-round gardening is doable in almost any climate, given the right materials, but in our climate zone you can plant without coldframes, greenhouses, or frost fabric.

For cool-season veggies, I started with:

  • Peas
  • Purple Kale
  • Radishes
  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Nasturtium (edible flower)

There are many other options for growing in cooler weather, but I did not have the space for all of them.

Cool-season vegetables are generally root crops and leaf crops. If you plant them near the end of summer, they will have enough warmth and light to sprout and grow almost to maturity, and then the cooler weather will stall growth.

Kale growing in desert garden.

This is great news for gardeners because as the plants stop growing, they are almost in a static state of harvesting. You can gather what you need, and leave the rest without worrying about it bolting or wilting. Plus, these veggies taste best when harvested young and in cool weather.

Then, as the weather starts warming up, you can plant these veggies again. The growth pattern will reverse, though. It will start cool and they will take a while to grow, and it may take longer for them to reach maturity.

This is fine because you can still eat baby root crops and leaf crops. As soon as the weather gets warm, though, the root crops may get bitter and woody, and the leaf crops will bolt.

The exception to this is peas. In the fall, you have to time them where they have enough light and warmth to fruit before it gets cold, and then you may not get a great harvest. Planting in the spring, though, is perfect for peas. They grow during the cooler weather and as soon as it gets warmer, they fruit like crazy and you can barely keep up.

Most of my first planting was destroyed by birds and squirrels, so I ended up getting my seeds in a few weeks later than I hoped. After I realized why things were not coming up, I had to find some barriers.

Second Planting

In February, I started planning for my second round of cool-season crops. This planting also includes starting seeds of warm-season crops for transplant.

I also had to install new beds, since I had only developed a quarter of the garden the previous winter. So, I added three additional beds and layered them all about 4” deep in compost. This is way too much for normal soil, but my conditions are far from normal.

Along with a second planting of the same cool-season plants, I had to decide when to start my transplants. This is the truly fun part of spring planting.

My warm-season transplant starts were:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Yarrow
  • Cucumber
  • Beans
  • Cantaloupe
Cucumbers have thrived in my desert garden.

If you’re a seasoned gardener, you’re probably wondering why I started my cucumbers, beans, and cantaloupe as transplants. Generally speaking, these plants do not handle transplanting well, and they should be direct-seeded.

However, our squirrels are persistent. I did not have a way to create a barrier for my bean seeds when they were so close to the trellis. So, I decided to start them as transplants. They worked beautifully and produced prolifically.

I wanted to plant the cucumber and cantaloupe among my dying cool-season crops, and at first, I thought the birds and squirrels would be fooled because they were covered by lettuce and kale.

They were not. So, I started them as transplants, also. They did not do as well, but I did end up with about a 50% success rate. Since I only need about 3 plants of each, this was not too detrimental.

I started my tomatoes and peppers in an empty egg carton on top of my fridge. This has worked for me in the past, but in this climate, everything died. The cardboard allowed the soil to dry out too quickly, and I could not keep them watered enough.

So, I tried again with wax-coated paper cups. I had the opposite problem, and they didn’t dry out enough. Most of them died, and of the few that survived, only four made it through the transplanting process. I started about 30, between 3 varieties of pepper and 2 varieties of tomato, and none of the peppers made it past their initial seedling leaves.

Luckily, tomatoes are resilient, and the four I have are doing fantastic. I have tried direct-seeding peppers twice, but they have not come up. I did not put a barrier over top because I did not think squirrels would like hot pepper seeds, plus I was using my barrier for lettuce and kale starts.

I am going to try one more time with direct-seeding before I give up and buy a grow light with a proper seed-starting medium and containers. I have not needed one so far, and our next barge won’t come until it is well beyond pepper season, so this may be a project for next year.

Fruit Trees

There were two established fruit trees and one stump before I began developing the garden space. One was an orange, and the other was a peach. The stump was a mystery, but I noticed a few suckers so I watered it anyway and gave it a nice compost ring. It has fruit on it now, and has turned into a nice citrus bush. I’m still not sure which citrus, but time will tell.

Mystery fruit. Native to the island (I think).

The peach tree had been neglected for years. Fruit trees should be heavily-pruned in the fall to increase fruit set the following spring. They should also be pruned to have an open middle, so fruit is easily accessible and so all developing fruit can get sunlight. Fruit that develops in the center of the tree is shaded, takes a long time to ripen, and just saps water and nutrients from the healthy fruit.

Citris tree.

So, my first order of business was to prune both trees. I had the pruners sharpened, and started with the peach tree. I pruned off half of the growth, focusing on clearing the center of the tree and cutting off dead and diseased branches. Clean, sharp pruners and saws are necessary for pruning to ensure clean cuts and avoid disease.

Next, I pruned the orange tree. This was more difficult since orange trees have 1” thorns, which I was unaware of until I started pruning. There were tiny oranges on the tree, and they were mostly rind with a very tough, sour fruit.

This is an indication of underwatering, and to allow them to remain would sap nutrients and water from the tree.

So, I removed all fruit and pruned back the center of the tree and all dead branches.

I put compost rings around each tree and began to water them deeply once a week. My goal was to encourage deep root growth, which helps trees handle stress and drought easier. They also needed to recover from pruning, and store nutrients for the winter.

My oranges grow as big as grapefruit despite the desert soil.

I stopped watering during the rainy season and picked back up when it had dried out and the trees were flowering. The orange had put on fruit during the rainy season, so I just kept watering once per week once the rains stopped. It has flowered twice since then and has fruits in different stages.

For trees in the prunus genus (peaches, cherries, apples, pears, etc.) watering is especially important from flowering through fruit set. This takes a large amount of nutrients, and in order for nutrients to be taken up by roots, they need water. Fruits are also mostly water, so large, sweet fruits require water.

As fruit begins to ripen and turn color, it is time to cut back on watering. A decrease in water at this point will help the ripening of the fruit, and will give it sweetness and flavor.

Compost

The final component of the desert garden was starting a compost pile. Since we live at a camp, and our dining hall serves three meals per day, I have plenty of green material for compost. Most of my tree prunings were thrown out to the deer, or they had thorns, so my brown material is mostly Amazon boxes and shredded paper.

If you are wondering about composting amazon boxes, click here to read what we’ve learned.

Me composting with Amazon Boxes.

I started one pile and had almost daily additions from our kitchen, which resulted in it smelling like a garbage can from too much green material. I turned it, added in cardboard, and mixed it all together. We are not adding anything else and will continue to turn it until it is finished.

I started a second pile for continuous additions. This will be more of a passive compost pile until my first pile is finished. As the kitchen adds layers of green material, I will add layers of cardboard and paper.

Once my first pile finishes, I will use it up and start a new one. As a new pile starts, the old one will become the active pile and get turned once per week until it has finished, and the new pile will become the spot for new green material.

The Results

I have continued to water the garden once or twice per week as the rains have stopped. I was afraid the compost would cause nitrogen burn, but all of the vegetables grew nicely and tasted delicious.

A picture-perfect orange in my garden.

I have noticed a significant improvement in the fruit trees, and the oranges are almost the size of grapefruit, while the peach tree can barely hold the branches up due to all the fruit.

Deep, regular watering has kept the soil moist enough to keep taking in water each week. Seedlings need watered more often, but not as deep, and I have noticed that the soil can still get hydrophobic between waterings.

If I dig down ½”, the soil is still dry and dusty. So, my next goal is to start using cardboard and shredded paper as mulch to help hold in moisture.

All of the veggies and flowers I have planted are heirloom, meaning they have not been altered for commercial production. This means they are sweeter, more colorful, and a little bit more susceptible to pests. However, I have had no pest problems, and they are growing beautifully.

Conclusion

I broke a lot of conventional gardening rules as I established this organic desert garden. My compost is much too thick, I water at the wrong time, and my seed-starting is not ideal. However, the beauty of gardening is that it is flexible.

Horticulture is as much an art as it is a science, so don’t be afraid to break the rules and experiment. The worst case scenario is dead plants, and even then it’s something you can learn from.

Check out our other articles to learn how I built my active compost pile, and why I chose Amazon boxes for my brown material.

Common Questions Related To My Desert Garden

Why can’t you use a rain barrel?

In many areas, this would be a great way to conserve water. However, it is illegal on our island. I do try to conserve water by watering deeply at night to make sure the water reaches the roots, and to avoid evaporation.

Why don’t you use a soaker hose?

Soaker hoses are great for some scenarios, but they give out too little water for this climate. Also, they break apart quickly in the sun, and our sunlight would render them almost useless.

Why don’t you use weed fabric?

Weed fabric is only useful in permanent landscapes that will not get much maintenance, and even then they’re a nightmare. Weed fabric breaks down in the sun, and over time will leave patches of fabric spread throughout the garden. I found some scraps when I was digging, and it was difficult to remove it all without it shredding. Natural weed barriers, like cardboard, paper, and mulch, are much better solutions.

Photography services for this article were provided courtesy of William Martens. Follow Will on Instagram at @alt_will_martensOpens in a new tab..

Sydney Bosque

Sydney has over 15 years of experience in lawn maintenance, landscape design, and organic gardening. She has an A.A.S. in Landscape Design/Organic Produce Production from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.

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