I am always filled with admiration whenever I read about homesteaders up north, with their short growing seasons, long winters, early frosts and heaps of snow many months out of a year. I sometimes feel like a softie for living in a country where the land never freezes and we get a light snow maybe once every winter.
However, gardening in a hot, dry climate – often with water shortages – comes with its own set of challenges. We don’t get any rain for approximately six months out of a year – usually from May to October. A heat wave, if not properly managed, can kill plants as surely as a hard frost. Here is what my husband and I do to make our gardening venture successful.
Plant what grows well locally. This is true for every climate, of course. I would really love, for example, to grow some bush berries – blackberries, raspberries, blueberries – but it’s simply too hot for them here to grow and produce well. On the other hand, grapes thrive in our climate and produce superb fruit, so we have six young vines which, we hope, will start yielding next year.
In my vegetable garden, the tomato, pepper and melon plants are enjoying the heat, and herbs such as mint, sage and rosemary grow prolifically year-round.
Conserve water. Even when water isn’t scarce, it is expensive, and we must carefully evaluate every drop we put into the garden. We have a drip irrigation system for our trees, and love it. It saves us work, conserves water and is very efficient. In our vegetable garden, mulching and planting in partially shaded areas (still, however, giving the plants enough sun to thrive) help save water as well.
Many local-growing trees – such as grapes, figs, pomegranates, almonds and olives – require very little watering once they are mature and have a well-developed root system. It’s wise to take this into account when choosing what to plant.
We don’t have a lawn – keeping one just wouldn’t be sustainable – and we steer clear of tropical plants that require extensive watering, such as hibiscus or bananas.
Stay indoors during the hottest hours. In the long, hot days of summer we do all our garden work – watering, weeding, pruning, and so on – in the early morning or in the evening, before or shortly after sunset. We put in new plants in the evening, just before nightfall, to give them the best chance to survive the trauma of transplantation. This way, we avoid the health hazards of sun exposure. When we do have to spend some time outside around midday, we minimize damage by applying sunscreen and wearing wide-brimmed hats.
Keep an emergency water source. In our area we frequently experience water shortages during the summer. You can imagine what I felt one morning, as I went out to water the garden and discovered that the hose just isn’t running. It was an extremely hot day and, if the water flow hadn’t returned in a few hours, all of our plants would have died. We are wiser now. We have a large fish tank outside (for eco-friendly mosquito control), and we can partially empty it for emergency watering if need arises.
Protect young plants. I start many plants from seed indoors, because it’s hard to keep the soil outside moist enough for the seeds to germinate. A few weeks ago, when I transplanted my tomato and pepper seedlings outside, I knew the harsh midday sun might kill them, so during the first days I shaded the plants from noon until about 3 P.M. I did it simply by putting a wire cage over the seedlings, then pulling an old sheet over the wire and holding it down with rocks. It worked well and the plants thrived. The need for this is eliminated once the plants get hardened up a bit, in about a week or so.
On the brighter side: We do have advantages we are thankful for. In our warm climate, we can garden practically year-round, even without a greenhouse. After our summer garden is done and the cool rainy season kicks in, I plan a fall garden of greens, garlic and brassicas. Any winter frosts we might have are usually light, and most likely I will be able to protect my small garden by covering the plants.
Bottom line: in gardening, like in so much else in life, it’s pays off to play to our strengths. Wherever you live, there are plants that grow well in your area and can provide you with a beautiful, functional, easy-to-keep garden.