Growing in the Desert: A Guide to Arid Land Gardening


Photo credit: Author

Have you been trying to get a backyard garden going somewhere in New Mexico? Has it been harder than you thought it would be? Do you want to try getting a garden going but don’t know where to start? Well, I have some tips for you! As the general population continues to progress in our mission to build a sustainable food system, more and more of us are attempting to garden on some level in order to gain access to extremely local produce. It can be hard to start a garden from scratch, especially when you live in a dry climate like we have in New Mexico, but with a little planning and some conscious decision making, your garden can thrive, even in the dry, sandy desert!

One of the best ways to have a successful garden in arid spaces is to make sure you are growing crops that do well in dry climates. If you are planning your garden for the first time or for the tenth time, your first thoughts are probably going to be about what you want to grow. It can be tempting to try to grow all of your favorite produce in your garden but there are some things that just won’t grow in the desert, or they will but they’ll drink up your water bill! Choosing crops that thrive on little water can be good for reducing water waste and improving crop yields. Many of the crops that do well in arid climates have been defined through trial and error. It is because of this that some of the best advice can come from gardeners who have been growing for upwards of 50 years.


Image credit: Author

In order to utilize the seemingly infinite wisdom of our elders, I spoke with Cecilia Delgado, who is 69 years old and has been gardening intermittently since she was a child. In her opinion, if you would like a high yielding garden, then leafy greens are the best way to go. Growing up, she lived in Puerta de Luna, NM, where she grew what she compared to baby spinach. “The leaves never grew very big, but we had lots of it. We didn’t call it spinach but there isn’t an [English] translation for what we used to call it. But we always had spinach. Spinach is good in the desert.” She also claimed that cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, peas and radishes were always staples in her household, and that pickling is a great way to keep food all year.

Emily Montoya, 68, of Cuba, NM also had some wisdom to share. She swears by pumpkins, melons, squash, tomatoes and calabacitas when growing in dry soil. She also recommends that if you are planning for the future to invest in some fruit trees. “Stone fruits do really well here, and you really can’t go wrong with apples. They make for easy canning to get you through the winter.” Emily is known around Cuba for her cinnamon apple butter and apricot jam. She also felt the need to emphasize the importance of seed saving and informed me that most of her garden is grown from seeds that originated in her own great-grandmothers garden. “You’re already buying the veggies that you like, and guess what, most of them have seeds! Plant them!”

Aside from choosing your crops wisely, you should also be wary of your water usage. Whether you are collecting water or just paying for it, effectively utilizing every last drop can be a crucial practice when gardening in arid regions. One of the best ways and most basic ways to prevent water loss is to water in the early morning to prevent evaporation from the heat of the day. When watering, do not allow water to puddle at the base of plants, this can cause crusting and can actually make the ground around the plant less permeable. If your plants start to wilt, turn brown or get an almost soggy appearance, then you are most likely overwatering. Underwatered plants can usually recover, but when plants are overwatered the damage may be irreversible.

Another thing you can do to help conserve water is measure out how much water you are using if you are using it in smaller quantities. Invest in a watering can or some other method that can help you keep track of the amount of water you are using. If you are watering in larger quantities, then you can use a meter hose attachment that will measure your water usage. There are also a handful of very helpful phone applications that can help you to manage and keep track of your basic water usage.

Utilizing these arid land growing tips can arm you to combat the dry heat of the New Mexico growing season and ensure that you are as successful as possible in growing your own food. Knowing how to handle drought and dry soil can assist in crop yields, reduction of food waste, water waste and cost, and works towards building a sustainable future. It is hard to get produce more local than your backyard, so roll up your sleeves and have fun!

-Posted by Adriana

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