Desert dwellers get down in the dirt


Eggplants and tomatoes in the beginning stages of growing. Photo by: Elena Gonzalez/Arizona Sonora News

There is not a more relaxing springtime activity in Arizona than gardening on a cool, 85-degree day surrounded by sky-high saguaros and the dry, cracking dirt floor beneath you.

Gardening in desert lands can seem impossible. The days are warm—hot, even—and rainfall is few and far between, but what many desert dwellers do not know is that planting vegetables in places such as the Old Pueblo is an outdoor hobby not as unfeasible as some may think.

“We’re really fortunate we live in a climate where we can grow year-round,” said Noelle Johnson, a horticulturist based in Phoenix.

As February turns to March, locals should break out their wide-rimmed sun hats and prepare their gardens with beginning buds of tomatoes, corn and peppers as Arizona heads into one of it’s main growing seasons.

What can be grown at different times of the year is much different from places with more diverse weather because of Arizona’s unique climate Johnson said. March is not only the beginning of the spring growing season but it is also when summer produce can be planted.

From the cool, sunny days of March to the scorching summer heat of June is when gardens will be most bountiful with fruits and vegetables, but once monsoon season begins, backyard gardens will begin to drown, said Janet Swanson, a Pima County master gardener.

Drainage and proper soil ratios will help plants survive according to The University of Arizona’s Extension Cooperative’s Master Gardener Plant Clinic.

Clay in soils will keep the plants wet, which means the roots will end up smothered. The plant clinic advises a soil with little to no clay and instead use a light compound like vermiculite, which helps aerate the soil.

Gardening in a desert can come with it’s challenges but a well-educated, well-prepared gardener will be able to work through those challenges and be successful at the hobby Swanson said.

Johnson and Swanson recommend beginner gardeners educate themselves on gardening in Arizona by reading books and attending classes on gardening in specific Arizona landscapes. Johnson hosts presentations and workshops in the Phoenix area to teach the community about gardening.

“Gardening in the desert isn’t hard, it’s just different,” Johnson said.

Throughout the Grand Canyon state, the rules of gardening will bend to accommodate the certain land of the city. A variety of produce will grow throughout Arizona, but not all produce will grow at the same time, Swanson said.

“Basically we all grow the same things but Green Valley will freeze more frequently than Tucson,” Swanson said.

Cathy Hoyt took Pima County’s Master Gardener program so she could educate herself on all the tips and tricks of gardening in Tucson.

At the University of Arizona’s Co-op extension offices, Hoyt takes a phone call with a Tucsonan about the best ways to fertilize his citrus trees. The Master Gardener program is only one of the ways beginner gardeners can learn how to grow in Tucson climate.

Raised beds at the Master Gardener’s program. Photo by: Elena Gonzalez/Arizona Sonora News

The most crucial factor to gardening in the desert is water, Hoyt said. Often time’s people either over-water and flood their plants or under-water and dehydrate them.

“Make sure you’re using appropriate soil mixes and make sure you’re watering correctly,” Hoyt said.

The dry soil of the desert is one of the biggest factors that make gardening Arizona much different. The native soil has a naturally higher pH, resulting in the soil being chronically short on nitrogen.

“Which means we have to fix the soil,” Swanson said. The native soil needs to be fertilized with organic soil in order to make it nourishing for the plants to grow, Swanson said.

Elena Gonzalez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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