True, there usually are no tomatoes, the stars of most spring and summer gardens. But fall and winter vegetable gardens offer their own joys.
For one thing, forgetting to water one day or having your irrigation timer fail while you’re on vacation won’t turn your garden into withered brown tinder the way a lapse of moisture will during July or August in Tucson.
Fall and winter gardening advocates extol the joy of lower water use and being able to work in their plots long after sunrise without getting scorched.
And it’s a time for greens and root vegetables, some species that are hard – or even impossible – to grow in the Tucson summer.
“Winter is good,” says west sider and longtime Tucson gardener Eb Eberlein. “Artichokes, some beets, a lot of greens. Typically early spring crops do well here in the winter. I just planted the lettuce 10 days ago.”
Norm Koehler, an experienced gardener and fan of fall and winter growing, said he also planted seeds in mid-September at his near-east-side home and expects to have two varieties of lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, parsley and beets in a month and half.
Koehler has three raised beds, made of concrete block, roughly 4 feet wide by 15 to 20 feet long, and said that it will keep two people in greens for most of the winter.
“These are things that the rest of the country would plant in the spring,” Koehler said.
Koehler said he has gardening friends who start even earlier, sprouting the seeds inside to get a head start, then moving them outside as soon as it’s cool enough not to scorch the young plants. And others use containers, and move them inside or cover them to protect them against heat and cold. But Koehler said his raised bed approach is all about low maintenance. He said the raised plots are highly productive with a minimum of labor.
Patty Dean is a coordinator for Community Gardens of Tucson’s Sabino Vista Garden – one of that nonprofit group’s 29 local gardens. There Dean works with gardeners of all levels. For $18 a month (paid in six-month increments of $108), gardeners get a plot 3 feet wide by 20 feet long. The fee includes irrigation; tools (including Rototilling); a monthly meeting at which master gardeners and other experts come to talk about pest control, plant diseases and other gardening topics; and a bimonthly newsletter.
Dean said Community Gardens of Tucson’s fee can be waived or reduced with scholarships and discounts for those who can’t afford the full charge.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Dean said of the fall and winter gardening. “I’ve been doing it about three years now.” She said she grew up in Tucson with a mother who tried to grow corn and tomatoes, with mixed results. “Not much success. And I tried (as an adult). My kids would pick the tomatoes when they were green, or the dog would dig them up. But when we moved, I thought I’d try again.”
Dean said she found that “in the fall, it cools off and we can actually grow some stuff. And there’s not so much maintenance. The birds in the summer attack the tomatoes. ... In the winter you can grow a variety of plants and you can enjoy working in your garden and use less water because it has cooled off. I already planted my broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard, kale, beets, arugula.” She said she’d plant lettuce and leeks a week later “and that stuff will grow all winter. You can keep planting all winter. Keep it up all the way until spring, pulling up dead plants as you go” and replacing them.
She said some of the other gardeners at the Sabino Vista Garden are planting peas and fava beans.
So what is the star, the tomato of the fall and winter garden? “I would say people are so happy with their lettuce, and broccoli and cauliflower. And it seems everybody is growing Swiss chard,” Dean said.
“I have a couple of gardeners at our garden who are master gardeners who grow from seeds they get from all over the country and are very meticulous. And then there’s me,” Dean said. “I go to Lowe’s and see what’s there and plant it. There’s lots of levels of involvement.”
“I have found it to be a really fun thing. The people at our gardens are super nice. I’m just a homeowner who was looking to have some fresh zucchini or a tomato or two in the summer, and I took off as garden coordinator. I have no formal training, just years of gardening here in Tucson. Self-educated.”
Eric Behling, secretary of Community Gardens of Tucson, said most of the activity at the group’s gardens takes place on weekends. The exception is its Blue Moon Garden, a favorite of Behling’s, next to Tucson House at North Oracle Road and West Drachman Street. Some of the gardeners live in the big apartment building and are more likely to be out every day, rather than waiting for the weekend.
“It’s one of the nicest gardens and might be one of the best for getting folks in the gardening effort,” Behling said. “I might suggest that as the best garden for folks just getting underway.”
No, it’s definitely not too late to get a fall and winter garden started, said John Swanson, a volunteer with Community Gardens of Tucson. Swanson has been gardening, both as a professional and a backyard gardener, since he landed a nursery job while working on a psychology degree at the University of Arizona in the early 1970s.
“Now is the time where everybody is converting over” from summer crops, Swanson said.
Swanson has been working on a demonstration plot at the group’s newest garden, in the 1400 block of Riverview Boulevard along the west side of the Santa Cruz River between Speedway and Grant Road.
He also has a home garden, where he planned to put in his fall and winter vegetable seeds around the end of September and the beginning of October.
“It’s a little bit difficult for a lot of people to give up on the summer stuff, especially if it looks good,” Swanson said. “But that’s one of the things we try to teach at community gardens, when is the optimum time to switch over. We encourage our gardeners to pull out all the summer vegetables, chopping those up and composting them. Most of them are looking fairly ratty this time of year.”
He said the ground needs to be amended — “adding steer manure, compost or peat moss or some kind of an organic soil amendment to their beds. Sometimes they’ll add some fertilizer. The organic gardeners will add blood meal and bone meal. We allow our gardeners to use commercial, and sometimes they’ll use ammonium phosphate. After that, they dig it in. We have Rototillers, but a lot of folks do it by hand. Then they level it out and plant. Typically they either use seeds or go out to a nursery and use transplants.”
He said the changeover typically begins the last week in September and can run into November.
“Some like to get a jump on it, others are reticent. Some will wait until November,” Swanson said. “But the soil temperatures are nice and warm, and that’s good for germination. You can see seeds emerge in three to five days for broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.”
“The best things to grow are most of our leafy greens. Lettuce comes to mind. Almost everybody grows lettuce, but kale, collards, arugula, a slew of Asian vegetables, bok choy, rapini, rabe, flowering broccoli, cabbages, Brussels sprouts and a whole group of root crops — radishes, beets and carrots. They do much better (in fall and winter). They’re impossible, really, here in the summer. They can take cold soils and frost, and they can be grown into until spring. But it warms up quickly in May and it becomes too hot.”
“Peas are also good —snow peas, sugar snap peas, English peas. These are fall and winter crops here. Beans are not. Beans are summer warm-season vegetables” here.
And not only does Swanson relish the comfort of cooler temperatures and low water use for fall and winter gardening, he says pests are less of a problem in the cooler seasons.
“The only pests we seem to have problems with in fall and winter are cabbage loopers and aphids. Cabbage loopers look like an inch worm. They chew (leaves) irregularly. Cabbage, cauliflower, greens.
He said a lot of the group’s gardeners go organic and buy ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps to manage pests. “We’re trending in that direction. We don’t allow pesticides and herbicides in the garden anymore. That’s a good way to control pests.”
Swanson suggests that gardeners using nursery plants. Instead of seeds, buy locally grown plants. He said the plants sold at the big box stores tend to be imported from cooler areas and won’t do as well as plants that were grown here and are acclimated to Tucson weather.
“This time of year it’s sitting out in 95- and 100- degree heat. It’s not as big a problem in November, if you’re putting things out, but it can be a problem in warm temperatures for plants that are not acclimated.
“Even if they’re the same species, Packman broccoli for instance, if you buy it locally and it’s been sitting out in the sun and you sit it directly in a garden in the sun, it’s going to have a higher success rate than a plant that’s been grown in a greenhouse in Oceanside and put in a refrigerated truck.”