High Desert Gardening - What you need to know

High Desert Gardening: What You Need To Know

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When I tell people that I live in Idaho, I always get the comments, “So you live in the mountains?”, or “Oh it’s so beautiful there!”. And while yes, I do agree that it’s beautiful in its own way, it’s not “beautiful” as some people think. Specifically, I live in a region of Idaho known as the “high desert”. And living here has its own unique challenges, the biggest one is high desert gardening.

Gardening isn’t a “one size fits all” kind of thing. You constantly have to take into consideration your climate, soil conditions, and growing season. Most gardeners in the low desert, for example, have to garden throughout the winter in order to avoid the blistering heat. Let’s talk about the high desert climate, and how to garden here.

The high desert has an amazing variety of ecologic diversity
This is more what my area of Idaho looks like!

High desert gardening challenges

Guys, the struggle is real! High desert gardening presents several challenges, but with the right tools and methods, you CAN have a great garden.

Poor soil

Soil in desert climates tends to be loamy sand that has very little organic matter. It is normally high in potassium, and slightly alkaline. Soil pH (the amount of acid in the soil) in the desert is usually around 7.5 to 8. Most vegetables prefer a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. But you should always test your soil before amending.

Dry conditions

Another big challenge for some is the low amount of rainfall. If you don’t have an effective watering solution, you’ll never be able to garden here in the high desert. If it’s allowed, you can capture rain water, but you’ll have to plan ahead to do that. Setting up your water catchment systems before winter is a good idea.

Highs and lows

While a lot of people think that the desert is just hot, we “desert vets” know that the high desert is home to some major temperature extremes. This climate is well-known for being over 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, then dropping to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit at night. These temperature swings can be difficult for plants – and anything else, for that matter – to adapt to. Plants are quick to bolt (go to seed), but you also need plants that have a little bit of frost tolerance.

Poor drainage

Desert soils are notorious for having issues with poor drainage. That’s why we often have issues with flooding. The poor, hard, compacted soil has a difficult time soaking up water in a timely manner. So the little rainfall that we do get isn’t utilized in the best way.

Difficult for cool-season crops

When you live in the high desert, you typically have a very short window for growing cool-season crops. Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower are quick to bolt in the desert’s heat. Don’t plan on growing these crops outside of spring or fall!

Poor drainage is often an issue with high desert gardening.

Overcoming high desert gardening challenges

There are a few solutions to overcoming the challenges that gardening in the high desert presents.

Build the soil

Since soil in the high desert is of relatively poor quality, a lot of your gardening efforts should focus on building up the soil. Organic matter is very important to prevent the soil from becoming like a brick. Add as much compost, aged manure, and straw as you can before tilling it into your garden. Add compost frequently throughout the growing season as well. Consider growing cover crops in the off-season to provide more organic matter and to break up the soil.

On the other hand, if you don’t have the ability to till and amend your soil, you may want to try no-till gardening. I have always been intrigued by the Back To Eden style of gardening, but haven’t gotten The Hubs to agree to it. He thoroughly believes in the standard modern farming method of tilling the soil. Maybe I’ll convince him someday!

Adjust the soil pH

If your soil pH is above 7.0, as is the case with lots of desert soils, you will want to lower it. Adding lots of compost can lower your soil’s pH back to acceptable levels, but this is usually short-term. Peat moss is another good addition, but it’s quite expensive, and using it isn’t a very sustainable option.

Elemental sulfur is the best way to lower your soil’s pH, as it is the longest lasting fix. But it also takes the longest time to change the soil’s pH. For best results, use a combination of compost and elemental sulfur when lowering the soil pH of a new garden plot.

Develop an efficient watering system

The best way to water, especially in a high desert garden, is drip hoses positioned along the rows in the garden. This allows the water to be placed directly where it’s needed, which improves its efficiency and decreases waste. It also avoids some of the issues and funguses that watering overhead can cause in your plants.

My last garden was much too big to do drip hoses, but this year I’m going to really try to do drip irrigation. It’s very zen-like for me to water by hand, but I know it’s not as good for my plants. Plus it’s time-consuming and not very efficient.

During the hottest part of the summer, some people find that they have to water their high desert gardens twice a day. So investing in an efficient watering system is super important.

An efficient watering system is important in high desert gardening.

Use raised rows

One thing that really protects against pooling water is raised rows. Raised rows essentially lift up the plants to a higher level. This will help ensure that your plants don’t get waterlogged with the standing water. Another advantage of this is that you can focus your soil building efforts to just the productive rows, rather than the whole garden space.

Invest in drought-tolerant plants

If you are trying your hand at high desert gardening, you really need to get drought-tolerant plants. Your options are still pretty wide open as far as varieties of vegetables, just make sure they are well-suited for dry environments. It’s also good to get plants that have a bit of frost tolerance.

I’m definitely not the type of person who says, “I’m only going to grow native plants in my yard and garden.” For my area, that would mostly include….sagebrush! Instead, I focus on plants that provide beauty without needing a lot of water to maintain.

Use season extenders

Since the window of growing cool-season crops is relatively short in the high desert, you should consider using season extenders. Floating row covers and cold frames help protect plants against frost, so you can plant earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

Keep in mind that certain season extenders will need to be removed if it gets too hot in the day, then put back on in the evening when the temperatures dip. Greenhouses are great for starting plants earlier, but usually can’t be used during the heat of summer in the high desert. And cold frames become like an oven during hot weather.

Mulch is your friend

In some climates, mulch in the garden isn’t a great idea. For example, in the very wet rainforest climate of the Pacific Northwest, mulch can cause mold and fungus around your plants. But mulch in the high desert is your friend! Mulching in dry areas is a great way to both conserve water, and minimize weeds.

My personal favorite mulch method is to lay down cardboard and put mulch on top of it. The cardboard makes an excellent weed barrier, and keeps the soil underneath fluffy and rich. You can also just put a thick layer of grass clippings directly on the ground between plants. Just don’t put the mulch really heavy directly at the base of your garden plants. Your veggies need room to breathe and grow.

Garden during cool parts of the day

One of my biggest tips of gardening in the high desert is to garden during the cool parts of the day. Try to do most of your work either in the morning or in the evening. The high desert heat will get to you. And, make sure you always have plenty of water to drink!

High desert gardening success

Even though high desert gardening has its own set of challenges, you can have a beautiful, productive garden with the right tools. Do your research, take your time planning, and have fun with your new high desert garden!

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