Tucson experts share their best tips to help new gardeners succeed this spring
By Elena Acoba
Special to the Arizona Daily Star
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to grow veggies, now is the time to fulfill that pledge.
spring planting season is getting underway. If you’re brand new to
gardening, this is the prime time to get a few tips and start digging.
be afraid of the coming summer, says Jessica Paul, gardening technician
for Community Gardens of Tucson. “Even though we live in a desert, we
can have a bountiful garden year round,” she says.
seasons are different in Southern Arizona compared to other parts of
the country, so be careful where you get your advice.
information that you read does not apply here in many cases,” cautions
Toni Moore, a Pima County master gardener. She recommends attending
local classes or using resources specifically addressing Sonoran Desert
Starting with a
small garden is “an easy way to keep things under control,” advises
Brandon Merchant, owner of Southwest Victory Gardens. A plot of between
18 and 25 square feet is a good beginning size.
container garden using 5-gallon tubs also is a good option to keeping a
small garden, suggests Luis Herrera, the home garden coordinator for
the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
As for location, Merchant suggests putting your garden where running water from rainfall will flow into it.
out for glass windows, advises Jacqueline Soule, author of “Southwest
Fruit & Vegetable Gardening” and other gardening books. As the
seasonal angle of the sun changes, light may reflect off of windows and
into your garden.
heat and light intensity reflected off windows can make a previously
fine crop wither and dry up within a day,” she cautions.
Fix your soil, the experts agree.
“Healthy soil is one of the most important elements in gardening,” says Paul.
“Our soil is desert dirt,” explains Moore. “It’s not sterile, but it doesn’t have a lot of bio-organic matter in it.”
matter — fungi, bacteria, microbes, insects and other living things —
provides nutrients to plants and aerates the soil to hold moisture, she
Replace as much as 50
percent of the native soil with compost. Compost is dirt enriched with
decayed material such as food scraps, plant trimmings and worm castings.
Optional amendments include ammonium sulphate and soil sulfur, says Moore.
If planting in containers, be sure to use an organic, nutrient-rich potting soil mix, advises Herrera.
your garden will be in the ground, dig basins, says Soule. That will
contain rainwater and flood irrigation so that water seeps deeply into
There are many spring and summer veggies that are easy to grow both in the ground and in containers.
“Peppers, basil and some varieties of tomatoes can grow well in 5-gallon buckets,” Herrera says.
easy crops for beginners include onion, bush bean, Armenian cucumber,
melon, corn, tepary bean, eggplant, pole bean, cowpea and squash,
especially zucchini and pumpkin.
Moore says tomatoes are “fussy” because of the narrow window for fruiting. Roma and cherry are easiest, she says.
Heat-tolerant varieties such as “Heatwave” or cold-tolerant ones like “Siberian” or “Alaska” can extend the growing season.
may also be challenging for beginners because some plants may need to
be pollinated by hand. “Plants that can easily self-pollinate tend to
have more chances of being productive,” says Herrera.
After planting, top the soil with a layer of organic material, called mulch.
Properly watering plants will be crucial as temperatures rise and before monsoon rains kick in.
It doesn’t matter what method you use for irrigation, as long as you’re consistently and correctly watering.
needs to go down 12 to 18 inches and the soil should be kept evenly
moist,” she says. Water every day until monsoon rains start.
soil and proper watering will take care of many growing problems such
as pests or disease. “Plant vigor is your first line of defense,” she
Warm weather will mean
lots of critters eyeing your plants, says Merchant. Birds, caterpillars,
rodents and other animals will munch away in your garden.
of this won’t kill your plants, he reassures. “The majority of the
time, these things will take care of themselves, but on occasion some
intervention from the gardener may be necessary.”
Merchant and Herrera suggest you spend time watching your garden grow
so you know what’s normal and what needs to be addressed.
Plus, the practice will give you benefits other than fresh food.
“It’s a very calming and therapeutic experience to be around plants and taking care of them,” Herrera says.
Don’t give up if the garden doesn’t do what you expect it to do, Merchant says.
I first started gardening, I would stress out if my plants didn’t look
perfect or if something didn’t go as planned,” he explains.
“This took a lot of the fun out of gardening and I was always spending money trying to obtain the perfect garden.”
He enjoyed gardening much more after he embraced the process and the challenges.
gardening, mistakes are simply learning experiences and there is never
one right way to do anything,” he says. “Each season brings new
challenges and rewards that will be totally unexpected, so it’s best
just to learn from them and move on.”
I have lived in Tucson Arizona nearly 40 years after growing up in Butler PA. I'm Retired from USWest and I am Master Gardener and volunteer at Tucson Botanical Gardens and Sun Sounds Radio Reading Service.