Beginning a garden in Phoenix wasn’t just going to be difficult because of the heat, I also don’t own the property where I live and thus didn’t want to plant anything into the ground. Could I successfully keep garden plants without planting a real garden, in Phoenix? The seasons are different from most other states. It rarely freezes and growing season can begin in December! I didn’t realize quite what a project it would be when I began my plant journey but I’ve enjoyed every second of it. I quickly learned that plants are addicting and, like children, they require regular attention. I think they require even more attention when in pots, and when temperatures hit 100+ degrees.
The plant caregiver must be attentive to their needs, able to quickly notice and remedy wilted leaves, white spots, and dry soil. Like a child whose stomach hurts and doesn’t realize that it means he has to go to the bathroom, a plant will become wilted and it is your job to figure out why. I guess that’s why they’re now calling me crazy plant lady.
Learning about all my plants has been a near full-time job and has resulted in a lot of research. My knowledge originally consisted of caring for simple starter-plants like my bamboo, cactus and succulent plants. They were straight forward, didn’t have diseases and required either constant water or little water. Receiving my first orchid plant taught me my first lessons in temperamental plants. I had strung the poor thing along for years, and it never grew more leaves or flowered since the ones it came with. After doing some research on why the leaves felt leathery, I realized I wasn’t watering it enough. As soon as I put it in a window and began to deep water it every 4-5 days, it grew many new leaves and is now growing a new spike. I have high hopes of flowers this year.
My sustainable garden began with my herbs. I wanted to begin an organic garden and purchased organic plants and organic potting soil. First I bought a wee basil plant. It thrived in the window with regular fussing and water. Then I bought oregano, thyme, sage and rosemary: all sun-loving mediterranean type plants and planted them all together in a my EarthboxEarthbox (self watering planter box). They love Phoenix’s winter sun and warmth.
Next I purchased a Blackberry Bush, which I never imagined would do well in the desert. My goal was to feed the leaves to my pregnant doe goat. Raspberry and Blackberry leaves (to a slightly lesser extent) strengthen and tone the womb tissue, ease labor and support lactation. Immediately upon purchase from a local exotics nursery, my blackberry was thriving in the Phoenix winter sun with and quickly grew bushy leaves; providing at least one or two leaves a day to my goat from January through April. She had a flawless birth, all on her own, the first time. The trick is keeping the soil consistently moist.
Around the same time I purchased Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) seeds upon recommendation of Juliette de Baïracli Levy’s book, “The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable.” She said that even while traveling one of the herbs she always had on hand was Southernwood. I had to look the plant up, I’d never heard of it. I couldn’t find any local nurseries in my area that sold such an herb so I decided to try my not-so-green yet thumb at seeds. I watered the little seeds their coconut coir grow up diligently in my windowsill for months. I was about to give up when a tiny sprout emerged. Just one. I’m still babying my beloved little Southernwood in hopes that it eventually provide it’s famous fresh scents and future generations of perhaps the only Southernwood in Phoenix someday!
And then of course I planted Perfume Acacia, because why wouldn’t I have Acacia? I nearly gave up on those seeds too, after months and months with no luck. But I diligently watered them in their little grow cups and months later, they sprouted.
If I could give new gardeners one word of wise, it would be not to give up on your plants. Some take months to find the right mixture of sun and moisture to germinate. Just keep watering, and/or change their location or watering.
Because of my recent, perhaps serendipitous success at the previous seeds I thought I might try to grow plants from the fruits I buy at the store. It was a mostly-free experiment and I bought specifically organic everything. I first dried the seeds and washed them to get any leftover fruit or vegetable leftovers off of them (a very important step because this will cause mold), planted each type of seed in individual plastic baggies and labeled them with dates and wrapped them in damp paper towels in hopes of quick germination.
My windowsills, much to Brent’s dismay became alive with clunky baggies of germinating spaghetti squash seeds, butternut squash seeds (which are terribly easy to grow and grow quickly!), kiwi seeds, apple seeds, grapefruit seeds and a mango seed from store bought food. And guess what, they all sprouted! Everything but the organic lemon and orange seeds managed to grow in the baggies, which molded before ever sprouting. I had to give up on them. One mango seed sprouted quickly and is now doing quite well. The other never sprouted. It turned into a true trial and error experiment.
Tomatoes are very easy to grow, and somehow, I accidentally ended up with three plants. One Sweet-100, one Valencia from the farmer’s market, and a third I’m still not sure what variety it is, or where I got the seed because I forgot to label it. All are flourishing. Around this time I bought Annaheim Pepper plants and a three pack of Bell Peppers, too. They are also thriving in the Phoenix sun with the right amount of water, sunlight, protection from the afternoon sun and pots of coconut coir mixed with my home-made vermicompost and nutrients. I have no doubt that they’d shrivel quickly within a day if not watered well int he morning. With temperatures nearing 100 degrees, they just won’t make it.
Other potted inhabitants of the Serendipity Garden include a Croton’s Plant, a Geranium, a baby Elderberry tree, a small apple tree in a pot, a strawberry plant, Hibiscus (to feed the flowers to my baby desert tortoise), Texas Sage, two aloe vera, various succulents, cactus, and rosemary, two English Lavenders and ivy. Even the English Lavender seeds, which are notorious for being impossible to germinate, sprouted after I froze them for a week (cold moist stratification) before setting them out in a windowsill.
I’m sure there will be more additions eventually because as I said, plants are addicting. So in case you were curious, you can begin your garden in pots, and being able to move the pots around into shade and sun as needed is a huge help in our extreme weather, allowing you to be able to garden year-round in the desert.
If you have any tips or other suggestions for desert gardening, feel free to share!
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