Winter Solutions for Desert Gardening

By Philip Bonafede

Yes, you can grow a nice garden in the winter in the
high desert. November through April is actually the best growing season for a variety of delicious vegetables and fruits.

One of the things that has been working for me is growing vegetables in 3–5-gallon pots and in raised beds. The main expense is the base soils which can easily be recycled, rejuvenated, and reused. There are several organic soils at Home Depot. I mix two or more to get my preferred combo. Mixing in worm castings until you have a worm farm going is a good idea for the richness and quality of the soil. Perlite will help aerate the soil. Two of my own personal choices for soil nutrients are from Neptune’s Harvest – crab and lobster shell and kelp powder. Visit for a detailed video on ocean nutrients. When you open these organic nutrients, they smell fresh like the ocean.

A typical 5-gallon potting starts with about 6 inches of dried straw, a handful of crab and lobster shells, kelp, rock dust powder, and a pinch of gypsum. Mix in with a good potting mix with perlite. I spread the seeds on top and cover with a tiny amount of soil. My Chinese broccoli sprouted in 7 days after being planted like this on October 31st (cold weather vegetable).

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Wind/cold/freezing temperatures? Here are some solutions. Build a greenhouse and glass/plastic covered raised beds or grow indoors in a southern exposed glass window. Then you have a safe year-round growing medium. Currently I have tomatoes, English cucumbers, bell peppers, Chinese broccoli, lettuce, mango trees, eggplant, basil, rosemary, beets, garlic, onions, carrots, celery, fig trees are thriving in the greenhouse & raised bed gardens. 16mm clear plastic greenhouse covering on eBay seems to do the trick. 6mm only lasts 11 months, makes a lot of noise and winds destroy it. 16mm claims to last 5 or more years! Zero wind noise so far!

Climate control? The Bonaire Durango evaporative cooler keeps the greenhouse and aviary around 85 degrees during the hot summers.

Greenhouse alternative? You can create a similar growing environment with a raised bed garden. During the winter you only need a sheet of plastic or glass. 3’x4’x4’ is a good size for outdoor carrots, celery, garlic, cilantro, parsley, scallions, and cabbage. I have three raised bed gardens with all these items growing and  thriving. Since this is a more long-term growing bed you can start with dried leaves, sticks, tree trimmings, straw, which will slowly decompose over time and provide nutrients. Cover with a raised bed soil.

Tomato seeds or clones? There is no wrong answer, yet once you have established your favorite varieties of indeterminate tomatoes you can avoid planting seeds in the future by cloning your tomatoes. Take a sucker, 12 inches or smaller, from your tomato bushes and place it in a tall bottle of water for a month or two until the roots have sprouted sufficiently to transplant it into a 3-5 gallon pot. The transplant technique I use is to dig a deep hole into the pot, set the rooted tomato plant in the center with one hand and gently pour water around the hole to cause the soil to gently surround the roots in a more natural way as to not harm them. I never use my hands or pack the soil. The action of the water does all the work! Mix in the nutrients before you dig.

I have been gardening in the desert for many years, yet I still consider myself an amateur on many levels. I always welcome advice from neighbors. I started the group “Joshua Tree Gardening” on Facebook to expand the learning process and rewards. Please feel free to join and share your thoughts and ideas! We can all avoid trial and error by learning from one another.

Local Philip Bonafede has been a hi-desert resident since 1973.

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