Extreme Heat: Gardening in the Low Desert

One Arizona gardener shares her ongoing journey to combat the high heat and make her desert garden thrive.

  • As a result of the unusual climate in the low desert, many traditional gardening practices are altered to adapt to the high heat.
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Planting in large patches, as opposed to narrower row formats, helps cool the soil.
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • With a patch format instead of rows, the framework for row covers changes to a series of movable PVC T-shaped structures that spin around to accommodate almost any size of plot.
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • The Native Americans knew how to adapt to their landscape and carefully selected seed varieties that would yield bountifully despite their dry conditions
    Photo Courtesy The Library Of Congress
  • The seeds grown by Native Americans were adapted to the unique conditions of the low desert. They were tolerant of heat, drought, and high soil alkalinity. The methods they used to plant, tend, harvest, and prepare the food crops also evolved into systems that were effective for them and the environment.
    Photo Courtest The Library Of Congress

My garden in Arizona lies in USDA Zone 1 Million. No, that’s a lie. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map only goes to Zone 13. It just seems that hot.

In fact, the USDA map is not based upon summer heat at all. Instead, it helps gardeners identify their average minimum winter temperatures. Truthfully, I live in Zone 9A, where I can expect the average low temperature in the winter to be between 20-25 degrees.

Sometimes I wish the map would address the extremes of summer heat. If it did, I’m sure my garden would be in Zone 1 Million, because the high temperatures kill even the toughest of plants.

As a result of the unusual climate in the low desert, many traditional garden practices are altered. New and exciting opportunities arise, such as near year-round gardening. However, daunting challenges also surface to threaten success including extreme summer heat, drought, and alkaline soils. Solutions often turn time-honored practices upside down — planting in rows and furrows, for example. One thing is certain; growing food crops in Zone 1 Million is very different than elsewhere.

The wonderful thing about living in the Southwest is that there are two planting seasons. Summer, of course, is the traditional planting time. Due to the mild climate here, however, many vegetables can also be planted during the winter. For a gardener normally accustomed to only one season, this sounds like paradise, but things are not quite that heavenly.

My winter crop is the most productive and is, by far, the easiest to grow. This is where the USDA Hardiness map comes in handy. Knowing the average low temperatures in my area helps me select plants that grow well in this range. For example, broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce thrive in the mild climate, because they are somewhat frost hardy. Beans, melons, and squash, however, are more “frost tender” and must be planted in a warmer season.

4/10/2019 5:09:40 PM

Thank you, Donna, for this very informative description. I'm compiling information about best veggie varieties to grow in the low desert for a future publication at Desert Botanical Garden. If you, or other Valley growers, have specific varieties (a la Broccoli Cabrese) to recommend for our unique climate, please share them with me. Many thanks, David Hill, coordinator of the on-site community garden at Desert Botanical Garden email: dhill@dbg.org

3/11/2019 11:41:33 AM

It was nice to read some tactics to overcome similar struggles I've encountered while trying to have a decent crop. Although in Las Vegas, the heat may not be as extreme, but the high heat breaking up growing season has been an obstacle for me. I've been using drip lines in my raised beds, but what was written about the supply being localized and the temperature of water generated in the lines makes a lot of sense. What watering system have you had the greatest success with during the summer months? Any specifics,suggestions or thoughts are greatly appreciated. Thank you. Nathan



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