Those of us who live in the high deserts and mountains of the West know average frost days are just averages, and can vary. Even though it might not freeze in early September, the weather can turn cooler than necessary to, say, ripen tomatoes. Here are some strategies to grow food in Southwest mountains and high deserts.
Select Short-season Varieties
Start planning for the growing season about three months before time to plant, especially if you want to start seeds indoors. Catalogs often label seeds as short-season or “early.” You also can compare the days to harvest/maturity with past varieties you’ve tried. Average number of days represents from the time you plant a seed in your garden to date of first harvest, or from the date you transplant a start to average first ripening of fruit. Of course, you also can keep growing varieties you know work well. Blue Lake pole bean from Botanical Interests is a favorite heirloom variety that has never failed us.
When I skim catalogs, I look at days that are average for a food such as tomatoes and choose one of the shortest numbers that otherwise fits what I want, like maybe a seedless cucumber.
You also can increase your chances of growing some foods by choosing varieties with smaller fruit. I would love to grow an heirloom Brandywine tomato, but I don’t see that happening without a hoop house or greenhouse to boost the heat. Instead, we grow cherry tomatoes (Garden Candy tricolor from Renee’s Garden) and cocktail sizes such as Fourth of July from Burpee, a hybrid designed for yielding its first ripe 4-oz. tomatoes by July 4. We usually don’t have fruit that soon, but do enjoy tomatoes earlier than other varieties. The cocktail size is large enough for slicing.
If this is your first year to grow food in your location, start with some easy-to-grow varieties, especially those that mature early in the year. Greens of all kinds can reach maturity in 20 to 30 days. Grow some lettuce, spinach or beets before the summer heat, or in a shaded area during summer. Zucchini and other summer squash usually yield the first fruit in 50 days or less and keep producing. Melons and winter squash, on the other hand, need a longer season of warmth.
Choose Perennial Edibles
Depending on your zone, soil and critter visits, you might be happier with a few perennial plants that produce food and spices. Raspberries survive cold winters well and fruit in late August or September. Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that thrives in long winters, but takes two years or more to produce edible spears. We planted our first batch of strawberries last year and I can’t wait to see how they do when it warms up.
Many drought-tolerant perennial herbs can ornament your landscape while providing seasonal or year-round spices. Thyme, rosemary, lavender, oregano and sage plants grow well among xeric shrubs and flowering plants.
Extend the Growing Season
You can’t control the weather, but you can make it easier for your edible plants to get a jumpstart or thrive through weather extremes. Here are a few tips that have worked for us:
Start seeds indoors. Planting a healthy start that you’ve grown and hardened off (gradually helped adapt to outdoor conditions) can extend the season. If you don’t want to start seeds indoors, buy starter plants from a trusted source.
Use succession planting. This strategy of planting the same crop in waves, a few weeks apart, can help ensure a longer harvest. For example, we had a really cool August one year, and our tomatoes just stopped ripening. Another year, it was too hot for them to set fruit at peak season. Staggering planting can help you prepare for the unexpected.
Help young plants survive and grow early in the season. A 5-gallon bucket with the bottom cut out can help protect a start from wind. We used walls of water to help warm our young tomatoes. White row cover cloth helps warm plants and keep pests off seedlings. Just remove any plant cover when flowers form or when the plants are large enough to push against the material.
Warm the ground. Walls of water can warm he ground a few days before sowing cucumber seeds. Many gardeners report success with black plastic around melons to keep the ground below warm.
Use containers and raised beds, which warm faster than the ground. I plant a tomato in a patio container every year as soon as possible. Southern exposure and hardscape around the plant help keep it warm.
Use organic and slow-acting fertilizers as appropriate. Worm castings and compost tea help plants thrive without burning tender plants or forcing growth too quickly. You want to boost food production more than you want a huge plant.
Practice patience. This is the hardest of all for me. I want to start everything immediately after the last frost date. But I have set back production by sowing or planting too soon, having to restart outdoor seeds.