In the Garden :: Growing Food in the Desert

In the garden...growing food in the desert

Growing food in the hostile desert is quite the challenge I assure you.

And after 8 years of living here…I’m still not sure I have it figured out yet! Everything’s so backwards (summer’s like winter and fall, winter, and spring are like summer)…it’s hard for this homegrown, 4 seasons-a-year Georgia girl to figure out desert weather cycles.

But despite my ignorance, each year my ability to grow food increases.

Now, back in August I wrote about the romance vs. reality of homesteading and living sustainably in my desert home.

Since then the weather has cooled off somewhat (from like 115 to 90 ‘ish) and I have been very focused on food production.

And as I’ve mentioned before, I presently find myself living on an acre and a quarter in a small community of mostly cattle & horse ranches right on the edge of the Sonoran Desert – just northeast of Phoenix, Arizona.

Not much falls here by the way of rain – and there’s no grass in my yard – but thanks to a deep water well on the property, I am able to raise my own food — and animals — with the best of them!

We’ll talk about the animals later.

But for now, here’s what’s growing in my garden!

Frugally Sustainable's Garden Strawberries

Frugally Sustainable's Garden Peppers

Frugally Sustainable's Garden Tomato

Frugally Sustainable's Green Beans

Frugally Sustainable's Spinach

 Frugally Sustainable's Garden Squash

(WOW…look at that guy! Thank goodness I was taking pictures today! He must have grown overnight!)

Frugally Sustainable's Garden Sugar Snap Peas

Garden Collection
My garden consists of 3 5’x10′ raised beds and about, oh, 20 or so large pots. Currently growing, I have…

  • a variety of heirloom tomatoes
  • cucumbers
  • a variety of heirloom squash plants
  • Swiss chard
  • kale
  • spinach
  • green beans
  • sugar snap peas
  • a variety of lettuces
  • celery
  • onions
  • a variety of heirloom peppers (sweet & hot)
  • strawberries
  • garlic
  • and too many herbs to count (i.e. basil, oregano, thyme, lemon balm, lavender, feverfew, and tons of mint, just to name a few)

I’d say about 80% of the garden was planted directly with seeds and the rest transplants from a local nursery that offers AMAZING organic and heirloom varieties that are tried and true desert producers.

All of my seeds (and garlic bulbs) I get from High Mowing Seeds and the herbs come from Horizon Herbs.

What are you growing these days?

Don’t you just love it when the Earth gives forth nourishment!?!

It makes me happy.


  1. Hi!
    I live in Scottsdale and have had minimal sucsess growing a food garden. We have a raised bed but have not had seeds grow. Tomatoes, small peppers and basil is all we can get to grow from seedlings. Can you give more tips on how you get yours to grow? Do you have a shade barrier? How much do you water? What are your best plants? When do you sew the seeds ( nothing I find ever matches up to the AZ weather patterns). Thank you

    • Hi Piper! I too am in Scottsdale…well northeast Scottsdale (Rio Verde to be exact). This year was the first year that I have had true success with planting from seed. This was also my first year using High Mowing Seeds (don’t know if that has anything to do with it…in the past I’ve used Johnny’s seeds and Baker’s). Anyhow, I pretty much just ordered from their “Easy to Grow Varieties” section and looked for seeds with good disease resistance, ’cause powdery mildew is the worst! I planted green beans, peas, squash, cucumbers, chard, kale, and spinach all from seed. I put them directly into the soil of my raised beds just a couple days into September (I also planted seedlings of peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce at that time.) It was a tough go the first few weeks because of the heat and actually put up a shade structure and cloth until the end of the month. When the daily temps. started to stay in the mid 90’s I removed the shade. To my surprise everything is flourishing! In the beginning I hand watered everything daily (in the early mornings). Now I am deep watering every other day. The best plants thus far are the squash (seriously amazing), my tomatoes are out of control (purple Cherokee, yellow pear, green zebra, amish roma, celebrity, and early girl), the cucumbers did not like the extreme heat but they have grown leaps-n-bounds in the past couple weeks, all the herbs are doing well and the green beans are looking amazing!

      I will be harvesting this goodness until late November-early December I assume and then look forward to more spinach, kale, turnips, radishes, carrots, broccoli, and I think I’m going to try Quinoa also. I’ll replant all of the warm weather crops again mid-late February and let them go until the heat kills them come June. But I’m planning to see if I can nurse okra, Armenian cukes, and eggplant through the summer? We shall see 🙂

      I hope this helps.

      Oh…and I have to say that I am only using a touch of neem oil in a spray bottle full of water (as a natural anti-fungicide and for pest control) and Epsom salts, kelp, egg shelf, and compost mixed in with some native soil we got from near the Verde River. Simple and so productive!

  2. I’m in Prescott and we’re getting our land ready for our first garden next spring. Your list gives me some ideas of what to grow! We’re also setting up to get chickens and hopefully a goat or two. My husband is also from Georgia and he gets frustrated at the desert a lot. I grew up in Phoenix and I keep trying to tell him how much better it is up here than where I grew up. 🙂 It was always a challenge for my mom to grow things when I was a kid but my mom always managed to grow a few things. Good luck in your homesteading efforts!!

    • Thank you Joslyn! Yes! You guys are better off in Prescott…a little closer to “normal” 🙂 That’s so crazy that your husband is in Georgia! I tell ya, I was really sad for a long time until I just a few years ago I never had success with desert gardening. It’s super frustrating…but now I love it because I have realized that with proper planning I can grow nearly 9 months out of the year 🙂 I have chickens (for eggs and I’m raising a batch now for meat), goats, and hopefully in a few days a cow. I wish you all the best of luck! It’s such an incredible journey!

      • It was hard for us to leave Georgia as well. We lived there for 3 years and I loved living in a forest and I’m really missing it right now as fall is my favorite season. I really love the west coast, but it was not in my plans to come back to Arizona so it’s very different than what we were expecting, but nothing exciting ever happens if plans don’t change!

  3. Well, moved to S CALIF (Bakersfield-edge of the Mojave Desert) 2 years & 1 week ago. Success has been Huge Hit or Miserable Miss. Right now I have broccoli (HH yr1), lettuce & spinach producing huge hit at present; snap peas plants look good; string beans (first fall planting) looks good; parsley & thyme huge hit (early spring still going strong). They are all in raised beds, with purchased reliable top soil, organic vegan fertilizer added, compost added as it is ready; peat mixed in, shredded leaves over the winter, kelp from our trips to the beach & egg shells. I have really been working hard to establish good soil. I think as my soil improves so will the crops.
    Warm weather crops HHs have been tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, yellow squash, basil, oregano, string beans. MMs have been radishes, carrots, dill, rosemary, cucumbers (yr1), peas (spr & fall), lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard (yr1), cabbage, cantaloupe.
    Peak summer from noon to 6pm I cover all but tomatoes & peppers with shade fabric.

    • I TOTALLY identify with the “huge hit or miserable miss” CTY! That’s the way I truly feel every year! I am trying to be diligent with keeping a better garden journal. I know it will help me keep track of planting times, seed companies, and the like. But you’re right SOIL has everything to do with it! I cant’ imagine having kelp straight from the ocean…how cool is that!!! Sounds to me like you have it down! That’s so great given your short time in this climate 🙂 I wish you all the best in your efforts in the months to come!

    • CTY do you have to prep the kelp in any way and remove some of the salt? I’ve thought about gathering it when we go to the beach but I didn’t want to just mix it in and kill the little I do have growing. We are just north east of LA. Growing up in Wisconsin this has been quite the learning curve. Our soil is so poor/rocky I gave up trying to build it and am just container gardening now. When we first moved here I asked the gardener who had been maintaining the place how to dig in this soil… he brought me a pick axe.

  4. Fabulous pictures! I really needed to see them, too! We are buying property about 60 miles east of El Paso and we plan to garden for veggies and herbs as well as raise goats and chickens. I’d love to find out more about your raised bed garden since that is what I’ll have to do. We will have well water a few miles away.


    • Hi there Linda! I should have taken a picture of my beds. But you know…we will be building a couple more in just a few weeks and I should probably put together a picture tutorial 🙂 But they are basically 5 foot by 10 foot. We used untreated 10’x10’s and the corners are supported with 2″x2″ posts that stand 4′ high and then I wrap them with garden screen to keep the bunnies and javelina out. On the animals topic…I keep goats and chickens with ease 🙂

  5. It’s wonderful that you are able to grow your own food. I just love your blog. You should look at what Larry Hall has done also with self watering containers. He calls it “rain gutter system”. He has done several types of growing systems. It works everywhere. I hope that this coming year I will be able to start growing my own food. I am starting a vermi-compost in the next week or so to be able to have plenty for the spring.

    • That’s so AWESOME Loyda! I love composting with worms 🙂 Thank you for the suggest and I will research Larry Hall!

  6. I am in Chandler, AZ, and I started about 4 years ago. Mainly things that I have growing are from compost seeds that grew by themselves…..cantaloupe and honey dew melons are just dying out. tomatoes still flowering and producing good….. spinach self seeded and has given prolifically all year (planted early spring)…basil and mint taking over a section of the yard.
    the only things that i planted that are actually doing good are okra (fried okra for lunch every other day…kids love it…yummy!) and pumpkin/squash…i am not sure what it is, but it has taken over a section of my front yard, climbing my oleander bushes, and looking lovely …all sunflowers are dead though! 🙁
    my main problem ..,hardly anything i try to grow from seed works!

    • Hi Naeema! I am laughing and texting my friend now about your comment! He had tons of melon and squash grow BEAUTIFULLY out of his compost pile! I love okra too 🙂 I agree with you…growing from seed is hard and I’ve actually never had success until this year! I think I just timed it right and the “garden gods” smiled on me 🙂 I don’t know if you have a Summer Winds Nursery by you in Chandler…but they are the ones I get my seedling from locally. The always offer great desert proof varieties of organics and heirlooms.

  7. We live southwest of Palm Springs in a valley and is semi-desert. Have 7 large raised beds with strawberries, spinach, onions, potatoes, corn and more during the spring and early summer. Like everyone else, seeds don’t seem to work as well though. Right now we have onions, potatoes, lettuce and spinach growing. Our strawberries we keep under shade cloth as the sun can be very brutal.

    • That’s so great Danielle! I too kept a shade cloth over the strawberries until the heat broke. I didn’t at first but then I started to notice that they were all getting sun scorched! Now they are thriving 🙂 I tell ya…before this year I rarely had success with planting from seed…but it happened!

  8. I was a year round grower in Phoenix and Cordes Junction before returning to NV. I am now in Las Vegas. It’s similar to Cordes and I’m told Bakersfield. I became a Yavapai County Master Gardener in 1995, let it lapse and renewed it in Vegas. The AZ Master Gardener Manual (CA one too) is worth the money. There may be day seminars if you don’t want the MG series of classes and required community service. My main effort is to create wind breaks and varying microclimates. I have passive solar greenhouses, dappled shade for some and full sun for others with wind breaks for all. Use either 5 gal containers or raised beds. Wherever you are the your local county extension service may be able to give you publications for your immediate area. I currently have a similar garden to Andreas with kale, Swiss Chard, broccoli and collards in production from last year. Gorgeous sweet potato vines abound and soon I will see what’s under them. The vines are edible also. The young seedlings will begin feeding me in the spring. Most amazing thing are beets, I let some become enormous shrunken heads and they make the tastiest leaves for stir fry. I think I get 3 years out of them. I’m planting turnips, kohlrabi and beets now. Got 4 plantings of corn this summer, 1 is still growing in a greenhouse. Yellow pear tomatoes are great summer producers. Squash bugs take the fun out of squash for me but that’s my only complaint. I raise hydroponic lettuce and Lincoln peas in my greenhouse during the winter. Desert south west gardening is the best for year round. Love the blog look forward to getting ideas from you all.

    • Wow Susan! I’d love to just sit at your feet for a few hours 🙂 Thank you so much for joining in on the conversation. I look forward to hearing more from YOU 🙂

  9. Lori Robin Wilson says:

    Like you I live in a desert (Coachella Valley east of Palm Springs, CA). Also like you I grow my vegetables in raised beds and pots very much contrary to the seasons I learned growing up in Vermont. Just planted my winter garden with Swiss chard and kale and spinach and peppers and eggplant and snap peas and one brave little artichoke. It’s been a fun and interesting journey learning what grows well and when to grow it. Turns out that broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts LOVE this time of year and do amazing here! With the extreme heat of the last few months however our local nurseries didn’t carry the plants I used last year and my seedlings fried. So maybe next season. At least I get the chance to try my hand at celery for the first time. Gardening is my passion and I thought is have to leave the desert to enjoy it, but it turns out all I had to do was leave my old thinking behind and embrace a new way of looking at growing my veggies.

    • YES! It’s so true Lori! You really do have to forget everything old and open yourself up to new ways. Lots of trial and error 🙂 Good luck with your celery…that is one thing that has always grown beautifully for me every fall/winter/spring.

  10. Sara Micromatis says:

    I live in Tucson and am curious as to where you got information to start out with growing veggies in the desert. I would love to start but have no idea where to even begin. What kinds of resources are there for someone who is just beginning and has no previous gardening experience?

    • Hi Sara! When I first moved here I started by reading a book called “Extreme Gardening: Growing Organics in the Hostile Desert” it was a great start for me. Then I just jumped in and started much like many others…trial and error. Nevertheless, see about getting that book. It’s awesome for the beginning desert gardener.

  11. I live in N Phoenix. I use Native Seed/SEARCH for a lot of my seeds. They have a lot of native varieties that grow really well in the desert heat of the summer. I garden in raised beds using sawdust and sand. I use organic fertilizers and a product made from Pacific NW lava rock for trace minerals. This is my first year trying this and it is the best garden I’ve ever had.

  12. I just moved from the desert back to Spokane, Wa. I was in Silver City, NM at high elevation so that was an extra challenge having a thinner atmosphere. I used a lot of shade cloth both to give a break from the sunlight and to help preserve moisture. I also learned that a lot of plants that I would normally have grown in full sun actually prospered by being grown as an understory. Like basil and filet beans. I grew the basil under the tomatoes and the beans under sunflowers. They both had morning sun only. But the most important thing I realized was the rain. I studied horticulture and there learned that plants KNOW when the rains are coming and prepare for it. So, even with well water, until those monsoons arrive, the plants will kind of hang in dormancy and even seeds will not germinate. Well water is better than city water because it doesn’t have the toxic chemicals in it, but still, the plants know. They really know.

  13. Impressive for growing here in the Valley. I live in North Phoenix and still have a lot to learn. I am growing from seed in 2 raised beds this fall and just got serious about it. Before if it worked or not I didn’t really care. I also have Dave the Garden guys book for growing here and it has helped. I just watched a film online called Back to Eden about using tree mulch. I am going to try that method too. I am curious when you started your plants that are still living or when were they transplanted?

  14. I just moved to South Carolina and am currently in the middle of growing my first raised bed garden. I planted a TON of cool weather stuff like broccoli, cabbage, beets, kale, radishes, peas, etc. and was SO hopeful. Unfortunately, the squirrels were also hopeful about hiding their acorns in my beds. 🙁 Every day for the past two months I’ve had to go out a replant my little seeds/sprouts. Currently we have chicken wire covering the beds to keep them out, and it’s helped a lot more than any of our other squirrel deterrent ideas, but they are digging through it. Just wondering if you had any advice for salvaging the life of my remaining garden?

  15. I am so jealous you get to plant tomatoes twice a year! The only thing ‘growing” in my garden right now is my cover crop, since it is forcasted to get into the 20’s tonight 🙂 Good luck with your cow, that’s so neat!!!!

  16. Your doing outstanding with your garden. I’ve had beautiful gardens in the past. I’ve lived in the valley in AZ since I was 8 and my mom alway grew flowers. I tend to want to go the way of wanting to use what I grow. I’m impressed with variety you have and I really appreciate that you have mentions the brand of seeds you are using.
    I hope you can continue to take advantage of the duel seasons of growing here. It really is better then only having the one in most areas. Just takes a little getting used to.
    Gilbert, AZ

  17. Richard says:

    this is a great guide for growing in the desert

  18. Do you know of any classes that would be good for first timers? I want to do some raised beds in my back yard…

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