Fall and Winter Desert Gardening

Dori Wittrig October 28, 2020

Now is a great time to plant a Fall and Winter garden for the freshest organic food imaginable for your weekly menu. Vicky Derksen, our marketing director, is a trainee in the Maricopa County Master Gardener program. We’ve asked her to give us some Fall gardening tips.

What is Your Gardening Background?

I grew up in northern Idaho where everyone had a garden and fruit trees. The house I grew up in was built for an orchardist in the early 20th century, so we still had apple and pear trees from that era. My mom always had a large vegetable garden and spent late summer days canning dozens of jars to fruit, vegetables, and jams to eat throughout the winter. It was unheard of to buy zucchini, tomatoes, apples, pears, apricots, or walnuts at the store. 
But when I became a teenager, I decided gardening was not for me. I negotiated with my mom to do the household laundry and make several dinners a week during the summer months if she would let me off gardening chores. I had no intention of stepping into a garden again.

What Changed Your Mind?

It was a gradual change. I moved to Phoenix in my early 20s and had to pay money for zucchini for the first time in my life. And the zucchini at the store was so tiny compared to what we harvested in our gardens. I asked the produce manager if they had any that were bigger. I got a funny look. 
We bought our first house when my oldest was five. I decided I wanted my kids to understand the value of food, to appreciate eating organically, and to dig in the dirt. So we built our first raised garden beds. I didn’t know anything about gardening in the desert and thought that we wouldn’t be able to grow very much. But as I researched desert gardening, I was surprised to find out that I could garden here year-round and grow just about any vegetable I wanted! I’ve been gardening in Fountain Hills for 15 years now.

How Did You Get Involved in the Master Gardener Program?

When COVID hit and we got our Stay at Home orders at the end of March, I decided I wanted to use the newly freed time on my calendar for learning something that would better myself. Although I had been successful with vegetable gardening, I felt like there was so much I still needed to know. I wanted to learn more about my citrus trees, my lawn care, landscaping with native plants, and organic pest management for my garden. So I signed up for the 4-month program and am set to complete it at the end of October.

How Does Someone Get Started With a Raised Garden Bed?

Mel Bartholomew’s book, The All New Square Foot Gardening, was foundational for helping me understand how to set up a garden and how to grow the most plants in the least amount of space while watering conservatively. When it comes to figuring out what to plant and when, Mary Irish’s book Gardening in the Deserts of Arizona is like having a magic hat. It walks you through month-by-month for a successful harvest throughout the seasons.
To learn more about vegetable gardening, fertilizing, watering, pest management, and so much more, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension provides extremely valuable publications. Visit Extension.Arizona.edu/MaricopaMG and click on “Publications” to search for a publication that answers your questions.

What Are Some Easy Things People Can Grow This Fall?

Fall is a great time to grow root crops, and they are some of the easiest things to grow. This includes carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips. Peas do great in the cooler winter and don’t mind the winter cold. Lettuces, spinach, kale, and chard all thrive in the cool weather and continue to grow more leaves as you harvest them. It’s also a great time to grow flowers and herbs. 
My greatest success with flowers has been impatients. I filled two large terra cotta pots with them last October. I neglected them all winter with only a few waterings. I watered them every morning through this long, hot summer. It’s been a year and at no point did they ever stop flowering. I recommend them if you’re not great with flowers or get bummed out when they don’t survive temperature changes.

What Are Some Reasons People Should Consider Gardening in Fountain Hills?

Gardening can be a form of meditation. It relaxes you, keeps you in the moment, and reduces stress. It is deeply satisfying to sit at the dinner table and count up all the ingredients on your plate that grew in the soil just a few yards from where you eat. 
For more information about gardening, visit FountainHillsCommunityGarden.com or Extension.Arizona.edu/MaricopaMG.

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