Growing Vegetables and Herbs In Phoenix Arizona

Arizona is the biggest producer of commercial tomatoes in the United States. This is largely because a company located in Willcox called Eurofresh grows over 125 million pounds of hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes a year. The irony of this is that tomatoes are actually not that easy to grow here in our regular old soil and sunshine. Regardless, people always want to grow tomatoes and for that matter other vegetables and herbs in their yard.

Vegetable Garden In Phoenix

There are many good reasons to grow your own vegetables. For one, almost everything tastes better when it is fresh out of the garden. Additionally, with the growing popularity of organic foods many people like to grow their own organic vegetables so they can fully certify the organic origins of what they eat.

There are definitely some vegetables that are easier to grow in Phoenix AZ than others. Some vegetables can be grown almost year round and some can only be grown during the cooler months. Given below is a general approach to vegetable growing and then a listing of vegetables I have tried and what my experience has been.

An Overall Approach To Vegetable Gardening In Phoenix Arizona
Fruit trees are the primary focus on most of this web site, but vegetable gardening requires a different technique than growing trees. Unlike trees, vegetables do best with frequent waterings and lots of fertilizer. Most vegetables pop out of a seed, grow extremely rapidly, produce their crop, and die within months.

If a gardener wants to grow their vegetable garden organically, the two most useful components are compost and fish emulsion. A couple inches of compost can really help out a vegetable garden. Compost helps to keep the soil moist and also generates a slow steady supply of nutrients. Fish emulsion gives vegetables the nitrogen boost they need for rapid growth. A local celebrity in the field of organic vegetable gardening is Dave Owens - The Garden Guy. Many more suggestions about how to grow organically can be found on his site and in his book "Extreme Gardening".

Another great source of organic fertilizer is chicken manure. I have had neighbors who owned chickens and grew some impressive vegetables by using the dried out manure from their chickens. It seems that chicken manure is far less salty than steer manure so it is a better choice for our already salty Arizona soils.

If a gardener wants to go the less than 100% organic route, the good news is that vegetables are more tolerant than fruit trees of strong fertilizers. Being rapid growers and heavy feeders vegetables will often respond positively to common off the shelf garden fertilizers. Still, it is possible to over due it and build up a lot of salt in the soil so start conservatively and see how your plants respond to what they are being fed.

The primary seasons for growing vegetables in the Phoenix area are winter and spring. Fall is the primary planting season. October is a particularly good time to plant. The majority of vegetables are not worth keeping alive and watering through summer. A garden that will not be maintained through summer does not need to be sheltered from the afternoon sun, so the best place for a winter/spring vegetable garden is in full sun. Still it is best to avoid placing a garden in the reflected heat of a western exposure. For example, avoid creating a garden close to a western facing wall. Note, there are few vegetables that do well in the summer heat or need to survive the whole year and can benefit from afternoon shelter from the sun in summer. A gardener planning to have both a crop of winter/spring vegetables and a crop of summer/fall vegetables will probably want two garden locations.

Freeze/Frost Protection
While October is definitely the best time to plant vegetables, this does expose your plants to possibly being frozen on the handful of nights that it gets below freezing during the Winter. We have had many years where it never went below freezing (sometimes 3 years in a row) but we have years where it does. Light freezes are more common and hard freezes are less common but do happen. Where you live in town is also a big factor. Temperatures definitely get lower outside of developed areas and those couple of degrees can make all the difference.

Protecting your vegetables when there is a freeze is done by covering them. The ground is a source of heat so insulating your veggies with the ground will keep them warm. It is imporant that the ground is the floor of your "tent" so that it will be able to supply heat. Wrapping up your plants like a person wearing a winter coat doesn't work as well. Frost cloth is a way to cover your plants but still let some light through since it is somewhat transparent. It is a bit like heavy kleenex and can be left on for a week.

A thicker sheet or blanket will provide more protection than frost cloth but doesn't allow light through so might need to removed every day and re-applied at night. Having a shorter tent works better because the ground is closer and your plants are more "one with the earth". You can also bury your plants in leaves for a couple days to protect them for this same reason. If temperatures are going to get really bad you can put an incandescent bulb in your tent to supply more heat. Plastic completely doesn't work as an insulator, so don't even bother. The reason greenhouses work is that they have a double layer of plastic with an air gap between. It is actually this air gap that provides insulation.

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Growing Artichokes
Globe artichokes actually grow fairly well here, but they need afternoon shade and plenty of water. If planted in the early spring they will not produce until next spring so its best to plant them in the fall, so that you will get heads the following spring. In summer they look dead, but don't despair just keep taking care of them and they will come back. I find the effort to reward ratio on artichokes to be a little low. They only produce for a short part of the year but require maintenance all year. Probably that is why they are expensive in the stores.

Growing Cilantro
Cilantro has to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow in Phoenix. Plant it from a nursery plant in mid October and enjoy fresh cilantro until late Spring, when it goes to seed. After it goes to seed it dies back but water the same spot next year and in winter you will get a fresh crop of cilantro plants from the seed from last year.

Growing Corn
I grew corn one time. What a mistake that was. Corn is so hungry that you have to fertilize it a lot and even with what I thought was a lot of fertilize my corn ears ended up being 25% the size of your typical Iowa supermarket product. Furthermore, it seems that the corn completely ruined the soil in that spot for years, because it was a long time before I could get anything to grow there again. Leave the corn growing up to the professionals I think. Not really worth it for the home garden.

Growing Sweet Basil
Sweet basil is a good vegetable to grow here. Plant in the fall or winter. It likes a rich soil so it is best to mix a lot of compost into the soil when planting. When it gets hot, it will bloom and slows down its growth after that. It seems to not really gain its vigor again so as far as I can tell its an annual that needs to be replanted every year, even though it may never be killed by frost in our climate. You can of course get a head start on your sweet basil by buying a big transplant at your local store. I have found those cardboard pots are not as biodregradable as they say and tend to make the plant root bound, so I remove them.

Growing Broccoli
Broccoli is a relatively easy crop. Plant it in the fall from seeds and harvest it in spring. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Growing Chilis and Peppers
Both hot and sweet peppers do very well in Phoenix Arizona. Interestingly, they don't like the hottest part of the year, so they are most productive in spring and fall. They can be kept alive through the summer, but its really not worth the trouble. To maximize your pepper production either plant them in the early fall from seed and pray for a mild winter, or plant them in early March as larger nursery stock. Unfortunately, the local retailers don't often have these plants available until later in spring, so a good plan is to raise your own from seed in pots. Peppers are hungry plants so fertilize them well to maximize yield. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Growing Cumcumbers
I have not grown this myself but my neighbor has a lot of success and gives me his extras. Armenian cumcumbers seem to be a particularly good variety for here. Check the other sources on the web at the bottom of this page for growing times etc.

Growing Dill
Dill is a weed here. It is easy to grow. Planted in early spring and cared for a dill plant will be 5 feet tall by early summer. At this time cut it off at the base, hang it in the shade to dry up, then just rub the dried out leaves between your fingers, drop them into a tray, and seal them up in a bottle. The result will be years worth of dill seasoning. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Growing Eggplants
Eggplants do very well in the Arizona desert and even like the summer heat. They are so productive that its not unusual to see people sharing them with coworkers and friends. Like most vegetables they need the soil to be kept always moist and are heavy feeders. Frost in the winter can kill them, so it is best to plant them in March.

Growing Melons
Melons do very well here, except for one problem, whiteflies love to suck the life out of the plants. Most years the whitefly invasion starts in July when the humidity starts to rise. Anyone who plays tennis probably has fond memories of all those little white moths flocking to their tennis ball. The best strategy is to plant melons as early as possible in the spring, so that fully ripe fruit is produced before the middle of summer. Don't even bother trying to poison the whiteflies once they have decended, they rebound amazingly fast. They are more or less invincible in the melon patch, you will never win. That being said, the best cantaloupe I ever had was grown in my own garden here in Phoenix. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Growing Mint
I have tried peppermint, and it lingered for years in light shade. It never really took off, or took over as mint is known to do. Mints naturally grow in the mountains which leads me to believe it is just too hot for it here without lots of extra water and shade. Also, since mine grew so slowly in native soil I'm guessing that it doesn't do well with the alkalinity. So, maybe mint is best as a winter crop in containers, in potting soil, and maybe even use cistern water if you really want it to grow like a weed. Possibly the variety of mint could be very significant as well. I have seen mint growing high in rockies in a tundra like climate. I'm guessing that variety would do terrible here. The variety that friends are handing out here from their gardens seems to be spearmint. Maybe spearmint is easier to grow than peppermint.

Growing Oregano
Oregano is so easy. Grow it in light shade and water it on the same schedule as your grass. That's all you need to know.

Growing Rosemary
Rosemary has to be one of the easiest plants to grow in the Phoenix area. It needs very little water and likes the sun and heat. Even if you don't plant it, it might show up in your yard anyway. It grows as a bushy ground cover and makes a decent landscape xeroscape plant. The big bonus is that it is an excellent spice.

Growing Spinach
Spinach is a relatively easy crop. Plant it in the fall from seeds and harvest it in spring. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Growing Squash
I have not grown this myself but I have had friends and neighbors that have a lot of success growing it. I think it is similar to growing melons. Check the other sources on the web at the bottom of this page for growing times etc.

Growing Strawberries
Strawberries are a frustrating crop here. Right about the time they take off and start pumping out berries it gets too hot for them. Furthermore, they don't like the alkaline soil so one has to practically replace the native soil with compost and other amendments to get them to grow. Sure, there are always those gardeners you will run into here that tell tales of their wonderful berry patch and how sweet the berries they had last year were. Further investigation always reveals that they had just a few nice berries for 2 weeks in late May before the cooker started. Strawberries in the Arizona desert .... not worth it. If you still insist on trying the best variety for here appears to be Sequoia. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Growing Swiss Chard
Swiss chard is easy to grow in Phoenix. You can use it like fresh lettuce or cook it. It looks like lettuce on steriods and can get fairly large. It also comes in a variety of unusual colors, so it can add a splash of color to your yard. With regular watering you can keep it alive all year, but it looks a little ragged in the summer. A garden that receives full sun or afternoon shade is good.

Growing Tomatoes
The tomato is always the star of the vegetable garden so everyone wants to grow it. Yes, home grown tomatoes always have a lot more flavor than store bought ones. Unfortunately, no other garden plant seems to have as many pests and diseases hunting it down as the poor tomato. Being a celebrity draws attention apparently. In Phoenix, tomatos have a problem very similar to strawberries. Just when they are getting ready to really produce the summer heat knocks them out. Therefore, the key to tomato growing is planting early and choosing the earliest varieties. A formula that works well for me is transplanting 1 foot tall Early Girl tomatoe plants, purchased at your local store, in October. There is some risk of frost when doing this, but the head start the plants get is well worth it. Even so, keep in mind that your season will be short. Keeping tomatoes going through summer here is a waste of time and water, so say goodbye to your little darlings when temperatures go over 105° F., and pull the plug. A garden that receives full sun is best.

Links to more vegetable gardening information

Roger Smith's Desert Garden

Maricopa County Home Horticulture

Vegetable Planting Calendar For Maricopa County

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