After the Dog Days of Summer

It’s still hot outside so my mind has not yet realized that it is time to prepare my cool season garden. In desperation, I drove to Prescott Monday to remind myself of what cool weather feels like. I came back more ready to prepare for the season in hopes of the same cool Valley days in the future.

Traditionally, the Dog Days of Summer, the time to kick back and relax, ended Aug. 11. In Arizona, the season between mid-July and Aug. 11 were relatively slow work times for us in our gardens so the Dog Days concept fits our environment much better than back East where gardeners are busy harvesting and preserving food. In the Southwest, it’s time to get out of our easy chairs and prepare the soil for our most successful desert gardening season  – the cool season.

The spade fork is similar to a pitchfork, but its tines are thicker. The spade fork is used to loosen soil.


The traditional gardener thinks to prepare the soil, you  take a spade and turn over the soil. Modern, more ecological practices teach us otherwise. The soil works hard to decompose mulch, old roots and natural organic matter such as leaves and create good microbial action. It creates soil layers ready to accept seeds. Worms may show up along with beneficial insects within the layers so you don’t want to disturb all of that natural action more than you have to. Certainly you can loosen the soil with a spading fork, which looks somewhat like a pitchfork but the tines are about 1/2-3/4 inch wide.  Just don’t do that old technique of shoving the spade in and turning the soil upside down. By doing so, you have just disturbed those great layers of soil that have built up and those friendly worms and insects that have been composting for you. A small rototiller also works as long as it is gently loosens the soil without turning it over. Add some compost and work it into the soil as you loosen it. The compost will restore nutrients that plants used for their growing process. It takes a few weeks to add nutrients, however, so plan to apply it accordingly.

I am not going to overwhelm you with the chemistry makeup of soil and compost. Instead, I’ll just say two words to you: organic matter. If you want more detailed information on soil. a great video is online.

Cowpeas showing the roots that produce Nitrogen, a key nutrient for plant growth.

It’s time to work good organic matter, which includes compost, composted manure and green manure, into the soil. Green manure is simply a cover crop such as cowpeas. You grow it and turn it under before it begins to fruit and seed. It’s the best for the lower desert because you can till it into the soil the first or second week in September right before you plant. Many experienced gardeners plant cowpeas about June 1 and avoid a summer garden altogether. Once their warm season crops have reached their peak in May, they sow cowpeas into the soil.

Gardeners can also apply a very natural style of composting to the garden. As I clean out old plants before the new planting season, I like to cut off the plants at the soil level and if no disease is evident, I’ll leave the roots in the soil to rot. It’s already installing compost as the roots decompose. When it comes time to plant, if the roots get in the way, I’ll remove them, otherwise I let them stay and decompose more.

So clean up the garden and prepare the soil.Buy the seeds you have dreamed of for the fall, sharpen your gardening equipment and get to work! The cool season is upon us!




I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.