Sweet corn grows in our garden.

Observe before planting your garden.

When we moved into our home we knew we wanted to have a family garden. The first summer we resisted starting one though. Why not just dive in? We could have, but we would be blindly going for it without the most important method of learning…. Observation. Lots and lots of observation.

While living in Arizona, we became connected with urban farmers who were really making gardens happen… in the desert. When we moved from Iowa to AZ, I gave away all of my canning jars because I presumed nothing but cactus would grow in the desert. My gardening would be non-existent there. Wow, was I wrong. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Gardens are not impossible in the desert. Gardens are possible just about every place a person can inhabit. You just have to understand what plants love your environment and the needs of the plants. Plants do come with some demands and they are good at not “beating around the bush.” They will let you know if they are thirsty, have had too much water, need more nutrients, or perhaps they need more sun or have a little too much sun. Plants give lots of physical communication. You just have to learn their language.

First thing’s first, though, you must observe your property for the best places for growing food. Observe the light in the spaces throughout the spring/summer/fall. As the sun rises and sets throughout the growing season, which areas get full sun (6+ hours)? Which areas get partial shade (3-6 hours)? Which areas stay shady? Are there wind concerns? Are there areas you haven’t thought about using to plant a smaller garden? Perhaps a building’s overhang might water plants beneath it?

Ever try lasagna, gardening?

Our first year, we did not plant a garden. Instead, we observed very carefully the light sources and convenience to a water source. Good soil is also a good start for plants. Lasagna gardening is a good no-till alternative to getting plants in the ground with a soil environment they like- and you just need a shovel or trowel. We used our brown cardboard moving boxes to begin laying out our next year’s garden space. Non-shiny cardboard is a great addition to begin layering up the garden. It smothered out the weeds and it is compostable. We layered our grass clippings from our first summer and in the fall layered up our leaves. By the next summer, we couldn’t believe how rich the soil was and easy to dig up plant space for each food we wanted to try. We will have more information on “lasagna gardening” at another time.

We may have jumped in too fast by laying out those boxes, but we figured that if we ended up putting the garden elsewhere, the good stuff that we laid out wouldn’t hurt anything- it would only make it better. When unpacking a house- sometimes you just want to get it done and be rid of those boxes. If you just can’t wait to get going- container plants can be a great start! They can easily be moved from place to place to find the perfect spot for growth.

After a year and a bit of thought, we did start our garden in the place that we laid out those boxes the previous summer. The space provided both full sun and partial shade for the varieties we were considering. The space had good drainage and was not consistently soggy. The soil was rich and easily dug into. We found plants for a small garden and let it be an opportunity for trial and error for us. We didn’t get too crazy with an abundance of plants. We chose a handful of different varieties, but ultimately, we chose one kind of plant to have a few of,  so we could work on canning with that variety. We figured if that worked out, we could add more vegetables to preserve the following year. This way, we’d have an idea of the process and not overwhelm ourselves.

Know your zone.

Something to consider when picking out your plants, is to look at which climate zone you live in. Unfortunately, sometimes the places where you can purchase plants- even nurseries- may carry some varieties that are not zoned for your area. Sorry. It happens. It would take extra work to keep those plants going and it just might not work out. It’s worth looking into and checking to make sure the plants you want are zoned for your area. This is the same for seeds if you choose to order online or pick some packets up from the store. Also, it’s a good idea to not pick out plants that already have fruit or vegetables growing on them. They look like a sure thing- but sometimes producing too early isn’t such a sure thing for the garden. A great place to look for seeds or plants are through local seed or plant exchanges. There is nothing better than getting seeds or plants that are known to work well in your area. This might be a wonderful way to obtain heirloom, non-GMO, organic seeds too! Check your local library, area extension, or neighbors for seed/plant/plant clipping exchanges. Once you find plants that thrive for you, you can save the seeds for next year’s garden. More to come on how to do that. For now, we will focus on what else to consider.

Gardening can get wild: Wildlife.

Where we live, we have to be proactive about the wildlife. If you live in an urban area or a fenced-in space, you may not have to worry about deer, raccoons, or rabbits. We have to take those animals into consideration. They also enjoy the fruits of our labor. We like to think of simple, not expensive solutions to problems first. We also like to talk with locals who might have our same issues and see what they do to make things work. Our neighbor uses dowel rods of varying heights to place a bar of Irish Spring brand soap on top. The soap has a very strong “human” scent that most animals, including deer, don’t want to chance being around. We tried placing this soap around the garden the first year of our garden and have followed up ever-since. We also tie reflective ribbon around the dowel rods to deter birds. We also plant marigolds around our garden as this flower has been found to deter certain animals from the garden.

We hope these gardening tips will get you thinking about how to plan your garden. Taking into consideration what you have to work with is a good start. If building garden boxes excites you and you have access to the supplies, go for it! If you have to use the ground, go for it. Share with us your garden spaces. There are so many traditional and creative ways to start growing food. With some planning and thought, you’ll get growing too!

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