December is an exciting month for a gardener in the low desert. The cool season harvest is at its peak and it’s time to prepare soil and order seeds for the warm season.
While friends and family in other locales are in the midst of snow drifts and cold rains, we are in seed planting season. Mid-January to mid-February is the time to get seeds in the ground and late February to mid-March is transplant time.
So for those of you who want to plant luscious tomatoes, squash or strawberries, get out some paper and make lists. It’s gardening dream time. The Maricopa County Vegetable Planting Calendar can show you what is in season and when to plant your seeds or transplants.
As you plan what you want to grow, think of what you like to eat. You will be much more encouraged to take care of your garden if you use what you harvest. If you love strawberries, plant a lot of them. If you want your children to try spaghetti squash but no one in the house is a fan, plant two plants. Maybe you can get the kids interested (and the rest of the family) as they help the otherwise “disliked” vegetable grow. I grow what I either can’t find in organic form or those that are expensive.
Experiment a little. I planted some white carrots last fall that were so much sweeter than standard ones and my granddaughter stood in awe as she pulled one out of the ground. I also planted Danver Half Long carrots, which are great for Arizona soil and resist splitting from water changes. They only need about six inches of loose rock-free soil to grow to their full size. This spring, I am planting a bright red variety called Dragon. It has been developed to grow well in our arid climate. I want to watch my granddaughter Kenzie’s eyes as she pulls one of them from the ground. Picture your summer salads with red, white and orange carrots mixed in!
Last fall, I got tired of planting ordinary broccoli so I planted Italian Romanesco Broccoli (this is a cool season vegetable so don’t plant it now). It is incredibly decorative and has a great flavor. I still haven’t harvested the florets because it has a long growing period (75-90 days). I love it raw in salads because of its beauty and it’s rare to find it in stores. If you want to impress friends as you cook for them, throw some of these florets into a salad or steam them lightly.
Try your hand at heirloom tomatoes if you love tomatoes. Walk past the standard Early Girls this year and try something different like Chocolate Pear Tomatoes. The taste and distinctive heirloom tomatoes are a real treat. Besides, if you really want to get into gardening, you can save seeds. You can’t do that with hybrids.
So pull out some paper and:
- List fruits and vegetables you like to eat.
- Check off which ones are expensive or can’t be found in the stores.
- Always throw something new into the mix.
- Check the planting calendar to see what to see if it is a warm season fruit or vegetable so you can plant it now.
- If you have young children, consider easy vegetables like carrots and radishes to get them involved. Give them their own space in the garden for this.
- Think about how much you want to eat and share with friends then add about 50 percent to the number of plants needed.
- Consider the space you have and prioritize what you will plant. The seed packets and tags with transplants will tell you the distance to plant, although with raised beds, you can plant a bit closer.
- Write out a schedule of planting times for each of your selected vegetables and fruits.
Then go online to the seed catalogs and order. If you want to transplant, start checking your nurseries late February. Remember to buy transplants from local nurseries. Your transplants will be acclimated and selected by people who know what will grow in your area. The big box stores get whatever national buyers want to sell and if you grow organically, it’s more difficult to find organic products there. Their plants are rarely grown in the Southwest.
My favorite seed companies are:
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers unique varieties not often found elsewhere. All are heirloom, which means you can save seeds if you would like and get the same results next year.
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds carries high-quality seeds with the home gardener in mind.
- Native Seeds/SEARCH is dedicated to preserving fruits and vegetables grown in the Sonoran Desert. Their experimental farm is in Patagonia, AZ and their store and research/training center is in Tucson, AZ. The organization offers wonderful weekend workshops on seed saving.
- Seeds of Change sells only seeds and plants that are certified organic.
- SeedSavers Exchange preserves the heirloom varieties of North America. The organization is a cooperative of private gardeners who donate or sell seeds so that American gardeners can keep the varieties going. Members trade seeds for free but anyone can purchase seeds at very reasonable prices.
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