We like Tatooine…
Gardening in the desert can be harder than other climates, especially if you’re not used to it.
I live in the high desert, ~6500 feet. We only get 9-10 inches of rain a year, with a hot dry summer.
Plus we have cold (-20F) and snow (no tropical fruits, sad!), high winds (very drying and blowing sand/dirt), and wild temperate swings, so the climate is tough.
Unfortunately, most gardening books focus on northeast/northwest gardening, where rain falls beautifully and abundantly, and dew adds lots of moisture.
This is NOT the climate I’m talking about!
People from wetter temperate climates don’t know what 10% humidity feels like, or when a hot dry wind sucks the moisture from you until your lips crack and you crave water. Remember (the book or movie, preferably book) Dune?
That’s the kind of climate we’re up against, just without the giant (rideable!!!) sandworms or super-cool water recycling suits. I want one of those suits! (birthday coming up… Or at least a giant rideable sandworm…)
Sidenote: If you’re looking for a high desert gardening book, I’d like to recommend Growing food in the southwest mountains as a good permaculture-infused applicable guide. The growing tables in the back are also really helpful.
So the solution is…
The key to success in the desert is “anti-evaporation strategies” (thanks Geoff Lawton! – my PDC instructor).
In drylands, because of the properties of heat, drying winds, and (usually) sandy soil (sand is also known as small rocks), it follows that water tends to be a scarce resource most times of the year.
One solution is a greenhouse (see my DIY easy greenhouse project), but this really does limit your growing space, and we won’t cover greenhouse growing in this article.
Like I said above, gardening in the desert can be hard, but I’ll try to make it easier!
Tip 1: Full sun doesn’t mean full sun?
When a plant tag says “full sun”, it usually means just 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.
And if you’re at higher elevation like me, then you can maybe get away with even less.
Because there’s less atmosphere between your plants and the sun, the sun is more intense, so you need less time.
So make sure that your plants aren’t getting baked all day by a hot summer sun.
They don’t need (all of) it, which means they’re probably getting stressed. And stressed plants don’t grow well.
To reduce the effects of heat stress on plants, think about what makes you comfortable in the summer:
- Cold drinks?
- Bathing in cool water?
- Fan or gentle breezes?
Yep, all of those work!
So let’s talk shade first.
Tip 2: Garden in the shade!
It’s good idea to shade overhead, south and west/southwest.
Why? It reduces water losses from heat evaporation, ‘natch, so that reduces plant stress!
Another benefit is that it can reduce wind evaporation, if it blocks the prevalent summer wind.
The west/southwest shade should be the heaviest, as that is direction you will get the most late afternoon sun.
The overhead shade can be a little lighter, as you get less direct sun that way.
The south shade can be quite a bit lighter, as you usually only get morning sun to the south.
The east shade is the lightest, because morning sun is the gentlest. You may be able to get away with none, depending on your conditions.
The suggestions I’ve encountered are:
I have used shade cloth to do this, but depending on the size of your garden, you could use a lattice framework, or some other artificial shade.
When starting seeds in the ground, a floating row cover is helpful to shade, protect from birds, and control moisture.
You could also strategically position your garden to take advantage of a (southwest or west) large shade tree’s afternoon shadow.
Dappled sunlight would be best, so that you’re not totally blocking the light, but still lowering the heat.
I’ve planted trees to do this on the southwest and west side of my house. When mature, they will help with cooling the house in the summer, lowering my utility costs.
Tip 3: You made the bed, now lie in it!
Common gardening books will suggest you make raised beds, with the following reasons:
- To allow the soil to warm faster in the spring and stays warmer, so longer planting season
- To aid in draining water away (AKA the opposite of what we want to do!)
- For ease of harvesting
- Less weeds
- Soil quality control
- Easier for intensive planting
- Prevent pests
These are valid benefits, but like with most things in permaculture (and life), the answer to whether or not to make raised beds is “it depends“.
It depends on:
- How good your soil is at holding onto moisture
- What your natural rainfall pattern and quantity is
- How intense your sun heat is, and when
- Elevation of the site
- Individual site conditions and microclimates
- Your ability to water the garden (frequency and quantity)
Some people can have good success with gardening in raised beds in the desert.
But you HAVE to mitigate the drying effects of sun and wind.
Let me tell ya a ‘lil story.
When I lived in town, I made raised beds, cause that was the “new thing” and it was so great.
Well, my soil was not, and when I watered, it didn’t hold onto much of water.
So I wasted time, and water.
The beds were also in full sun the whole day (almost 15 hours!).
Needless to say, my beds never produced very well.
I took away the wood bed sides, buried wood under the beds (like in hugelkultur), added lots of compost, and put on some thick mulch.
BAM!!! Gardening success!
What did I really do?
I mitigated the drying effects of sun and wind.
Now here’s a crazy thought: what if we reversed the raised bed idea and use sunken pits to grow in, not raised beds???
This technique has seen a lot of success in the American desert southwest, Africa, and the Middle East, which do have more severe dryland issues.
It has been used by many native peoples to grow survival food crops, so they must be doing something right!
I am testing this idea myself, and I will have more data come fall.
Tip 4: Make a rain garden
What the heck is a rain garden? Easy!
It’s a shallow depression or pit, planted with deep-rooted native perennial plants, that traps runoff water, like house gutters or road runoff.
It should be heavily mulched, to keep down soil temperatures and reduce evaporation.
Some source of “excess” water should be directed into it, with thought put into what happens if it overflows.
It should overflow gently, not eroding soil or washing away plants.
This is mostly a maintenance-free garden, not really for intensive annuals.
This is where perennials rule, because their taproots are deep and can store water during drought.
You could create a chain of rain gardens, connecting one to another.
Brad Lancaster has done an awesome job of this in Phoenix. He did curb cuts to direct road stormwater into his sunken basins.
This really reduces the dangerous erosive potential of flash floods in the desert, and puts to good use an otherwise wasted resource.
Tip 5: Block desiccating wind
This was already mentioned above, but it bears repeating.
We can get some really hot, dry winds, and anything exposed looks like the scarab beetles from The Mummy got ahold of it.
So some way of reducing the wind is helpful.
You could build a large dirt berm, which can then be planted with all kinds of soil-improving and edible or medicinal plants.
This berm would “bump” the wind up higher, reducing its speed and drying effects.
A vertical wall of lattice is a possibility, and you can grow edible vines up it, like hardy kiwi, passionflower, or hops.
Trees are a multifunctional element that do just that, plus they are self-repairing and don’t need to be fixed every year.
Depending on the variety, they can provide food, fuel, medicine, or just make the backyard BBQ more enjoyable.
In a suburban backyard setting, wind may be less of a problem due to the close proximity of houses.
But there are situations where the wind is channeled into an intense wind tunnel.
Tip 6: Use drought tolerant or native plants
Where possible, choose varieties of plants that are more resistant to heat and drought.
It may be that there is a vegetable or fruit bred or adapted for your area.
If it’s been grown in that area for a while, it may be considered a “landrace” and would be the best option for you.
For example, if a certain local cucumber variety has been selected and replanted from seed every year, it has adapted its genes to be more successful in your climate. Get this one!
There also may be a native or native-ish plant that does what you want.
For example, in the desert southwest there are many squash and corn varieties that the native people have propagated and bred.
The varieties that survived are the one that adapted best and managed to get their genes spread.
They should do better for you than generic varieties at the store.
Tip 7: Deep mulch
Wood chips, straw, leaves or old hay are some choices, though the last two tend to compact and keep air and water from penetrating to the soil below.
Thick mulch cools the soil, conserves water and allows plants to grow for more of the day.
For example, tomatoes don’t set fruit if it’s too hot.
For a fascinating dive down the rabbit hole, check out Gabe Brown’s video:
Pretty important to keep cover on the soil, huh?
Mulch also retains water and can feed the soil by breaking down.
Tip 8 – Freebie tip #1: Thick planting, close placing
You thought were were done?
Ha! No way!
If you plant your garden veggies closer than the “recommended” spacing, you get some benefits.
One, you shade out weeds and prevent them from germinating due to lack of sunlight.
Two, you conserve water by cooling soil, just like deep mulch.
So less work. And less work. And your plants grow better.
I like less work! And more production! Sweet two-fer!
Tip 9 – Freebie tip #2: Small shaded deep ponds
I must like you or something, cause…two freebies? Lucky!
Generally, an open shallow water holding structure (dam/pond/lake) is not recommended in the desert due to the problems of evaporation.
But it is possible to get the benefits of a water feature without quickly losing all your water.
But what are the benefits?
- Relaxing sounds of water, fish watching
- Habitat for dragonflies, frogs/toads, and birds
- Increase local humidity
- Growing water plants in or near the pond
- Fish for viewing, eating, or fertilizer
The trick is to minimize the surface area and maximize the volume. This keep the sun from heating up the water, and reduces wind blowing across it.
We do this by making the pond as deep as (feasibly) possible, and not putting in too many shallow areas.
Think beach ball instead of pizza box.
We want to make sure to shade it as much as possible, especially during the hot afternoon sun.
And shade the pond as well with floating plants. Duckweed or lily are good choices, though there are many plants that could work.
We also don’t want to make the pond too big, or we won’t be able to properly shade it.
There you go! 7 tips on successful desert gardening, plus two freebies!
I hope that helps you in your desert gardening adventures!
If you have any questions about gardening the desert, please comment below and let me know.
I’d love to talk to you!
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The Crew at TPL