5 tips for a successful vegetable garden in the Southwest

5 tips for a successful vegetable garden in the Southwest

by Jacqueline A. Soule

In the Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and San Antonio areas, there are many things that make vegetable gardening easy, especially early spring greens.

Ample sunshine and lack of rain, surprisingly, make for healthy gardens in the West. Since you have to add water only when and where you need it, far fewer weeds sprout. And the great thing about even a small vegetable garden — greener living!

Here are five simple tips to get verdant vegetables here in the Southwest:

1. Start small. Until you get a good feel for how much time you actually have, don't invest massive amounts of time, money and space in a garden. The smallest start is growing a container garden utilizing a few big pots. For spring greens, shallow pots 10 to 18 inches deep are ample. Some large decorative ceramic pots on your patio will do fine.

2. Location, location, location. Greens are fast growing leafy plants that need a lot of sun. In spring, this means direct sun for at least half a day. That said, when a seed packet reads "full sun," most have "back East" in mind. Our Western "full sun" in summer is too much for greens. Shade in the afternoon will be better.

3. Soil. If you plant in the ground, loosen your soil and blend organic matter including compost or rotted cow or horse manure. If you don't make your own, you can buy it at a garden center or scoop some up at a stable or farm.

Loosening Western soil for the first time isn't done with a mechanical tiller. Also called hardpan, it requires a pick ax and sturdy shovel. Water the site where you want your garden so the water soaks into the soil. Return to the spot the next day to dig. It will be much easier. The tough soil makes another great argument for gardening in containers where you can use any good potting mix.

4. Plant selection. For the spring garden, plant green leaf crops. These include arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Swiss chard, collard greens, corn salad, endive, kale, kohlrabi, leafy lettuces, mizuna, mustard greens, radish, radicchio, spinach and winter purslane.

In the West, it's very important to look for varieties that will do well in our conditions. Cultivars with short growing seasons do best. These vegetables will taste better if grown and harvested quickly. In Denver and Albuquerque, harvest by July 4. Harvest by Memorial Day in Phoenix and San Antonio.

5. Fertilizer. Fertilize plants only after they're established. This is generally two to four weeks after planting seedlings, and four to six weeks after sowing seeds. Too much fertilizer can burn tiny baby plants as they emerge from their seeds. Err on the side of saving money and wait to fertilize.

Jacqueline A. Soule, Ph.D., is a botanist, writer and educator. A member of the Garden Writers Association, she writes gardening columns for a number of newspapers throughout the Southwest. A self-avowed "Darwinistic" gardener, Soule prefers plants that need as little care as possible while providing color, texture and movement in the landscape.

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