Growing gardens is one of the most enjoyable pastimes for older adults, and it offers significant health benefits to boot. Because many seniors spend a great deal of time indoors, they often suffer from vitamin D deficiency, which has been shown to cause cardiovascular and neurological problems. Fortunately, a flourishing garden gives you a great reason to spend ample time in the sun — our main source of vitamin D. Planning and creating your garden may even boost your brain power and help keep dementia at bay.
But gardening isn’t always easy in the Arizona heat. Warmer and drier than most of the country, our state presents a few unique challenges for aspiring gardeners. Still, with a little ingenuity and know-how — and plenty of time spent practicing your craft — you can create a flourishing, sustainable garden in our climate. These tips on desert gardening can have you growing in no time.
Picking Your Plants
With the right space, equipment and climate control, you can grow almost anything. But you’ll realize a far better return on your time investment if you choose plants that can truly flourish in a dry climate.
If you’re interested in flowers, try wildflower, marigolds, desert lily and poppies, just to name a few. If you want to grow plants you can eat, consider squash, peppers, watermelon, green beans and okra. Finally, if you’re willing to try some less conventional plants, consider the species native to our state. These include agave, aloe, desert willow and all varieties of cacti.
If you’re still stumped — or if you want to find more desert-friendly plants — head to a local hardware store or nursery. Gardeners who work in a desert climate will be able to help you find the plants best suited to your living space and skill level.
The Right Seeds
Aside from picking the right species, you’ll want to look for seeds from plants that have adapted to the desert. Many companies specialize in producing heirloom seeds for specific climates, and you can find them at your local nursery or farmers’ market. If your local markets are fresh out of the varieties you want, you can also look online at places like Native Seeds and Annie’s Heirloom Seeds.
Soil Care 101
Perhaps even more important than your seeds is your soil. Desert soil contains sand, gravel, clay and other inorganic matter that make it difficult for plants to grow. To give your seedlings a fighting chance, add compost, manure or other organic matter. These materials provide nitrogen and other essential nutrients that plants can’t make on their own. A good rule of thumb is to add two inches of organic matter per year.
In some climates, mulch makes a nice addition to an already-thriving garden. In the desert, it’s a must-have. Mulch will protect your soil and roots from wind, heat and cold, sealing moisture in and preventing erosion. It will also help prevent weeds, which will consume valuable nutrients and keep your favorite plants from growing. Most gardeners use bagged mulch, which you can buy at nurseries and hardware stores, but you can also use compost, grass clippings, shredded leaves and even newspaper.
With high altitudes and intense light, the desert sun isn’t exactly friendly to growing plants — particularly fruits, vegetables and delicate flowers. One strategy is to use larger, heartier companion plants to provide shade to shorter plants. For instance, you might grow kale or strawberries beside tall eggplant or bean plants.
Dryness defines any desert, and your plants will need significantly more water than they would in other climates. Different plants have different watering schedules, but in the summer heat, new plants may need watering every other day or even every day.
Watering by hand isn’t your only option, however. Some gardeners use drip irrigation — a series of small hoses that slowly drip water into the soil throughout the day. Other Arizona residents collect rainwater in barrels, which are attached to hoses that gradually release the water into their gardens as needed. While these systems take some effort to set up, they can cut down on your water bill and save you hours of watering per week.
Overall, gardening can be a fun, fulfilling and healthy addition to your Arizona lifestyle. While you may need to take a few extra steps to cultivate a thriving garden, your efforts will be rewarded with hearty produce and visually stunning plants.
For more ways to remain active and healthy, download our Vitality Guide.