When tomatoes don’t get planted until mid-March, we might be lucky and have a long spring with the possibility of an extended harvest. When squash bugs infest our zucchini plants, we pull out those plants and learn that perhaps the next time we plant squash we do it just after the summer solstice, because those nasty pests seem to thrive with long days but are less active after the days shorten – even a bit.
But there are two things that don’t allow for much trial and error, two things that are guaranteed to hurt any garden or potted plant if we don’t pay them close attention: Soil and water.
Desert soil typically is heavy in clay and needs to be heavily amended with organic matter and some nitrogen and other good stuff on a regular basis. The key is “regular basis,” not just the first time a garden is planted. So many people will come in with a plant issue and when we ask about the soil and when it was amended, they’ll tell us they did it when the garden was started – five years ago. That’s a good first clue to why they are having plant problems.
Organic matter makes the soil loose and easy to work. It improves nutrient and water holding capacity, drainage and aeration.
Adding a fertilizer with both nitrogen and phosphorus well before planting will benefit most crops. It’s also important not to work the soil when it is too wet. Gregory Ware teaches an excellent two-hour soil preparation class at Southwest Gardener every January and September . Take it sometime. You get key, fundamental information that will save you time, trouble and money in your garden.
Water is just as important as soil for desert gardens, but don’t be fooled into thinking more is better. It’s not. The secret to good gardening here is applying the correct amount of water in the right way at the right time of day. It’s doable, but it’s something that takes time and attention to learn. Trust us. We see more plants ruined from too much water than too little.
Water can be tricky because this is such a dry climate and we have temperature extremes even in our “cooler” winter months. What works for seeds, isn’t always good for established plants. What works in garden beds, isn’t going to cut it for plants in pots.
There are good practices with water and there are times when trial and error works. But water stress – both too much and too little – can cause a plant big problems that makes it vulnerable to disease and pest issues. Root depth and plant size also play a big role in watering, and the needs of the plant change as it grows so the watering practice also change.