Cultivate

Monsoon Season Garden!

If you live in the southwest desert (or other similar spot), you know all about monsoon season! The stifling dry heat builds and builds, until you start to see those giant clouds forming on the horizon. Soon the dry heat turns humid. If you are lucky, the humidity brings with it the summer monsoon rains.

Monsoon clouds over lake
Monsoon clouds building beyond the mountains

Here in the Sonoran desert, monsoon rains can often be torrential downpours coupled with claps of booming thunder and lightning shows to brighten up the night sky. The rains move quickly across the valley – fierce bursts that flood roads and parks.

Monsoon clouds at sunset
Monsoon rains pelting the Phoenix valley

Ground that is parched and dry from the summer heat can’t keep up with absorbing the fast influx of water. As a kid, we used to make leaf boats to float down the raging gutters following a big rain storm.

Time to Plant

If you are a desert vegetable gardener, then monsoon season means more than just stormy weather and potential floods. It is our signal to start planting again. The “monsoon season garden,” if you will! This is the time to start planting a second round of summer veggies like tomatoes, chiles, eggplant, beans, corn, cucumber, and summer squash. It is also the time to start winter squash! Once we hit mid-August, we can start planting some of the heartier leafy greens again. Our typically mild fall and winter means an exceptionally long growing season for all leafy green crops. I can’t wait to take full advantage of it this year!

Planting Calendar

For deciding when to start planting which vegetables, I like to refer to two resources – The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, and Native Seeds Search. Their recommendations are slightly different, so I take a combination of the two, and aim for where they overlap. Seems like a safe bet 🙂 As I get more garden seasons under my belt, I will have a better idea from my own experience of what works well for where I am. I am tracking my planting, harvesting, and growing progress in my own calendar, and hope to have my own planting schedule dialed in eventually. Here’s a peak at how I am tracking things:

Garden calendar
Garden Tracker: Yellow – seeds planted, Red – transplants planted, Green – harvest

Seedling Starts for Transplanting

I started some seedlings indoors in June to transplant and grow on our new trellis tunnel. (Read about the new trellis here.) Since the summer is so hot here (>110°F for the average highs in June/July), I wanted to try and give our new plants a head start by starting indoors, letting them develop a beginning root system, and then transplanting a heartier seedling to withstand the summer heat.

Tunnel trellis
Squash tunnel with seedlings

On the trellis, I am growing acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squash – two plants each. I am also trying a personal size watermelon. I moved the seedling starts into the garden in mid-July, right as the monsoon season was beginning.

Fingers crossed we get a decent harvest for them all! You don’t have to start these squash/melon plants indoors and transplant, I just wanted to give it a try and see if the head start helps with their growth at all. For the butternut squash and the watermelon, one of each transplant pairs actually died, so I started the second plant from seed directly sown in the garden. This will be a good comparison to see if the transplant route actually made a difference!

I plan to do a similar comparison of transplant vs. direct sowing with my leafy greens this fall. I’ll start some by direct sowing in the ground, and I’ll also start some seedlings inside on my new growing stand. I hope to learn some tricks, and build on my successes for next year!

There are also more chile and tomato seedlings going. I started the chiles indoors at the beginning of June, and transplanted them about 6 weeks later once the monsoons hit. So far, these transplants are doing quite well! The tomatoes are further behind – seedlings started at the end of July, aiming for an early-September transplant. Tomatoes will produce the best when the high temperatures are in the 80s, and we have average highs in that range through October, and maybe into early November. So planting tomatoes in early September should give me enough time to get a fall harvest.

Buckwheat as a Cover Crop

One other thing we are testing out in our monsoon season garden, is growing a cover crop. One of the local farms (The Arizona Worm Farm) recommended buckwheat as a quick and easy option, so we are giving it a try.

Buckwheat seedlings

Buckwheat is:

  • Easy to grow
  • Matures quickly (3-4 weeks)
  • Stays fairly short at 2-4 feet (good for smaller raised-bed gardening)
  • Brings pollinators once it flowers
  • Helps to break up disease cycle in the soil, and draws beneficial organisms
  • Can be used to smother weeds prior to vegetable planting
  • Doesn’t have a deep root system so it’s easy to pull when you want to replant
  • Accumulates phosphorous in the soil, and improves the top few inches of soil health to the benefit of subsequent plantings

For us, we are just using it to make the nutrients more readily accessible to the transplants that will follow behind. Plus, it will be an extra draw for our pollinators and other beneficial insects once it flowers. And lastly, some extra organic matter mixed into the garden once we pull the buckwheat and let it decompose will be welcomed as well!

Flowering buckwheat

What’s Growing NOW in Our Monsoon Season Garden

Cucumbers

The cucumber plants have been growing well through the summer, and are finally starting to produce. We harvested our first two Marketmore 76 Cucumbers the first week of August.

Marketmore 76 cucumber

Malabar Spinach

The vines are well established and growing well. The more I trim leaves to eat, the more it branches and grows out. It adds some very pretty visual interest to the garden as well.

Malabar spinach - tops of vines
Malabar spinach - close

Eggplant

The eggplant is growing really well. Of the three varieties I am growing (Ratna, Ping Tung, Black Beauty) the Black Beauty is doing the best, producing many fruits. I have one plant that I over-wintered from last fall, so it is on its second season now. (We barely got any harvest last year). It is growing really well and very prolific. I have a second Black Beauty that I started this spring, and while it is not as large or setting as much fruit, it is still producing well. The other two varieties got buried under some large plants, so I think they were suffering from lack of sun. We’ve cleared a few things out, so hopefully now they will kick into gear for the fall.

Chiles

Chile harvest slowed down a little through July, but they are still setting fruit, and have more on the way. The plants themselves are very healthy and happy – hopefully this will mean a good fall chile harvest! Read my featured post on a fun one we have growing – the Ordono Chile.

Basil

The basil is still growing really well (it’s been going crazy all summer, actually). We have two varieties – the classic Genovese Basil, and a Purple Basil. I am especially enjoying the purple basil! It has a delicate flavor, and very tender leaves. We are getting ready to retire our older plants, and I have some new seedlings started that we will re-plant and grow through late summer/fall.

Purple basil

Oregano

The oregano continues to grow and flower like crazy, as per usual. Read more about my Oregano, in particular how I harvest and dry it, here.

Kale

Believe it or not, I still have one Kale plant that is holding on. It is in a pretty shady section, and was well established before it got hot. But it has continued to grow slowly, and is doing fairly well. I will harvest it soon, as we are getting ready to start a new batch of fall greens.

That’s a Wrap!

And there you have it! An example of the Phoenix-area monsoon season garden. What is growing, what to plant, what to think about planting soon… I hope you have a chance to start growing something in your yard or on your patio this fall!

I will leave you with some of our friendly garden guests, doing their part to help tend our plants…

Bee
Bee on watermelon
Pipevine swallowtail butterfly
Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly
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