Introduction to The
Vegetable & Herb Garden
Whether you have lived here your whole life or you just moved here, growing a garden in Arizona comes with a lot of misconception and appropriation from other climates. Ad it comes with rumors and old, dead ideas.
Your Own unique experience
For one, your experience will be your own, slightly different from what other people experience. You must be cognizant when growing plants because the conditions which you grow in are going to be different than even your neighbor—the soil and history of land use in your yard may be different, let alone the actual geological and biological composition of your soil. Your watering methods, habits and even actual water may be different (using city water vs. well water vs. harvested rainwater). Your terrain and exposure to sun and wind may be different. And YOU are different. Your timing, choices and habits are different. And the combination of plants and other wildlife will be different. So, of course you will have different experiences than someone else will, even with the same clone of the same exact species.
Learn to fail
Some of the biggest issues in the garden arise when we, the humans, cannot except failure. When a plant dies, we punish ourselves. So many people spend their time developing an idea that they have a “black thumb” when they kill a plant. Mistakes are sometimes made, but are opportunities to learn. You won’t become a better gardener if you don’t learn from your mistakes. Sometimes, the mistake isn’t your own. Let’s say you were at the grocery store, and they had a basil plant near the checkout line that looked lush and green. You bought it, took it home, and rather than grow into a bounty of basil you made pesto from, it just went brown, withered and died. Sometimes it’s actually not your fault, but the fact it was grown in a greenhouse and sat inside a building for weeks before it went home to your desert garden. Sometimes, people fight the season. Maybe you have a Swiss chard plant that you planted in the cool season, and it’s still going in the summer but is covered in aphids. You try everything you can to rid the plant of the aphids, to keep that plant looking like it did in the cool season. An unwillingness to accept failure will have you forcing something that isn’t appropriate—making a cool season crop live in the hot summer and still look the same. It won’t. Because it’s out of season. Learn the mistake, accept the change, pull that plant (or let it be until fall when it may revive), and maybe plant some okra instead.
share the bounty
No matter how strong your idea of ownership is, you don’t own your backyard. You share it with literally billions of other organisms. Your backyard is the setting for countless plots of many individuals eating, mating, reproducing, metamorphosing, dying. The garden is not just for you. You wouldn’t even have any fruits if it were not for various bees and other insects pollinating your plants. Your soil would be barren if it didn’t have microorganisms converting organic material into plant food. And they don’t do it for you. They just do it, and you are lucky that the result of their activity is nutrition for the plant that makes something you can eat. This isn’t to make you feel unimportant, but to make you appreciate that your garden is the result of a lot of activity—and may of the things we humans do impact that activity in a negative way. Spraying pesticide to solve one “problem” in the garden has a host of consequences that disrupt the system. Most of the time, you should be letting things be, rather than trying to manipulate that system.
diversity produces balance
This also means planting a few things that aren’t for you. The best gardens are a mix of plants that are used by people, and others that please the surrounding nature. Plant lots of nectar-rich flowering plants that attract not only pollinators, but insects that may eat aphids or lay eggs that unleash larvae that do. Maybe plant a few larval food plants. Always, diversity produces balance.
You are the steward
Remember that your actions effect those around you. Using pesticides is always a bad idea. The rate of cancer in people has gone up dramatically in the world because of the rise in pesticide residues that show up everywhere. And those pesticides aren’t just harming humans, they harm all living organisms. Also be aware that in the vegetable and herb garden, you are often growing non-native plants that stand the chance at becoming escapees. We are somewhat lucky that our climate is inhospitable to many plants without our assistance. But that doesn’t mean they can’t find their way into the wild. Most of our introduced weeds primarily populate disturbed sites. But a few have become horrendous and noxious: horehound and vinca seem harmless until you see how they can completely overtake wild riparian areas. Don’t plant noxious weeds.
Where you should put the effort forward is in your planning. Know the needs of the plants you put into the ground. Make sure each plant goes into the spot that meets its needs. Know the general dimensions of each plant at maturity and make sure you have given it enough room. Be prepared to stake or tie up when needed. Have a consistent plan for watering, feeding, and mulching. And when your plant is producing the thing you need, be prepared to use and preserve your bounty. You will end up with more than you can eat. You can dehydrate, can, freeze turning that crop into something that lasts throughout the year. Or you can share your bounty with the people in your life.
In general, the garden should be a humbling but lovely experience. Watch the various diversity of insects that visit the various flowers in the garden. Learn what they are: you may not learn the exact species or even name of the critter you see—there are more native bees in this region than even the experts can learn, so don’t feel bad if you can’t figure out what they are. But you can note, ‘oh there’s that fat one with the green eyes’. Note the changes throughout the season, how different the cool season is from the warm season. Note how different the spring rains are from the summer monsoons.