The Q&A Archives: What to Plant in Tucson?

Question: I moved to Tucson from Buffalo, NY. I want to have a garden, but I'm not sure what will work best for this climate. My yard is TINY, so something big wouldn't work well.

Answer: It wasn't clear if you meant garden plants growing in improved soil like veggies and flowers, or landscape plants in the yard. So, I'll give you some general guidelines, and if you have more questions, feel free to send another email. The most important things when choosing plants are determining what sun exposure (full, partial, shady) they will thrive in and how much space they need to grow to maturity (both vertically and horizontally), and then comparing that with what your landscape offers. What exposure will you be planting in? Note that, for example, a northern exposure can be full shade in winter, but full sun in summer, and it is difficult to find plants that will thrive in those two extremes. Soil type is another important characteristic. Analyze your site, determine the sun exposure and amount of space, and think about what you want from plants (color, shade, cut flowers, bird attraction, low maintenance, etc.) then choose plants that fit that situation.

In the landscape, I strongly urge you to stick with native and desert-adapted choices. They are adapted to our heat, alkaline soil, aridity, sunshine and have few, if any, pest problems. There are hundreds of colorful, interesting choices, including perennials that bloom for long periods. Don't be fooled by the repetitious oleander and palms seen everywhere!

If you meant a cultivated garden, here's some basic info:

Almost every type of vegetable, flower and herb will grow here, but you need to know when to plant them. There are two growing seasons, a cool and a warm season, when different crops thrive. The cool planting season starts around late September or so with plants growing through April/May. The warm season planting starts in Feb/March and plants go until the heat, or some go through the summer. Now is a pretty rough time to start a garden in the low desert. Only a few crops do well started now, such as blackeyed peas, okra, and melons. A rule of thumb for determing when to plant is that cool season crops are those which you eat the stems, leaves, and roots, such as greens, carrots, beets, onions, etc. Warm season crops are those which you eat the fruits, such as tomatoes, melons, peppers, etc.

To improve your soil, incorporate plenty of compost. In sandy soils, compost improves soil fertility, water and nutrient retention. In clay soils, it improves fertility and drainage. Add a 4-6 inch layer of compost and incorporate it about 12-18 inches deep. You can use manure if it is well-aged (6 months) or you won't be planting until it has lost it's heat and decomposed. Each planting season, add more compost. Incorporate a balanced fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10) or add organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion, bone meal, and seaweed/kelp. Follow package instructions.

As salts accumulate in clay soils, they impede water penetration. Gypsum is a soil amendment that helps sodium be dispersed and leached beyond the root zone. With our high pH soils, it isn't really possible to reduce the pH significantly or permanently. The addition of organic matter reduces it temporarily on a localized basis. Soil sulfur can do the same. Sulfur also acts the way gypsum does (but uses a different set of chemical reactions), so it isn't necessary to add both.

After planting, add a 1-2 inch layer of mulch. Mulch is great to help retain soil moisture, reduce weeds, and as it breaks down it provides nutrients to the soil. Any organic matter can be used as mulch. Try compost, bark, wood chips, straw, or pine needles. As it breaks down, dig it into your soil and add more.

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