First Time Gardeners| Abbi’s Garden

I am doing a short little series here on the blog about first time gardeners. These posts will be different in that they won’t include a video. Instead, we’ll share photos and information about several first time gardeners who all have started their gardens in different ways and for different reasons. Hopefully, you’ll see a little of yourself in their stories.

Abbi’s Garden:

Abbi is a lifelong friend of mine. Our parents were friends before either of us were born. We grew up going to the same church and we graduated from the same highschool. I was a bridesmaid in Abbi’s wedding and we have remained close as we have both had our children.

Abbi has four children under 6 years old, so needless to say, she has a lot on her plate. She and I had chatted back and fourth on Facebook brainstorming ways that she could start a garden at home with minimal effort and expense. They had moved into their current house not long ago and were still familiarizing themselves with it. Up until recently, she had focused her energy on getting settled and organized inside the house, but spring was tugging at her heart so while she was waiting and gathering materials to build a small raised bed, she decided to pull some weeds in an area of her sideyard and found this:

She'd had a garden all along. It was simply growing a crop that was undesireable (weeds.)

She discovered three of these beds in her sideyard under the weeds. They already have nice ammended soil and an automatic drip system! Score.

Abbi is organized, calculated and research driven. Before she began planting, she wanted to make sure that she laid out her garden in a way that maximized her space and allowed for continued harvest. She used to plan her garden layout and cross referenced the suggested plants for zone 9 against the Urban Farm planting calendar that is linked on the sidebar of this blog. You can’t always trust Zone 9 planting recommendations in Phoenix because of our extreme heat, so I always recommend that desert gardeners double check their planting dates against a local source.

Once her plan was complete, Abbi and her kids planted some seeds and a few transplants into their new garden!

I love how she labeled her newly seeded veggies with river rocks and a Sharpie!

And, a few weeks in, many of her seeds have sprouted and are starting their journey towards harvest!

The baskets protect little Zuchini seedlings from the neighborhood squirrel. Everything is off to a great start!

Here are Abbi’s answers to the questions that I asked all of my first time gardeners:

Have you ever grown vegetables before? No, this is my first garden. Why did you decide to start your garden this season? I needed something else to do.  Just kidding.  I thought it would be a good experience and something fun to do with my girls.  Also, I’m looking forward to eating from my own garden. What are you most looking forward to harvesting from your garden? Zucchini or watermelon.  Probably watermelon. If you could give first time gardeners one tip, what would it be?  Square foot gardening is the easiest method.  Row planting is not.

To see more from other first time gardeners, click here.

First Time Gardeners| Ivy’s Garden

Today, I am launching a short little series here on the blog about first time gardeners. These posts will be a different in that they won’t include a video. Instead, we’ll share photos and information about several first time gardeners who all have started their gardens in different ways and for different reasons. Hopefully you will see a little of yourself in their stories.

I asked each gardener the same questions:

Have you ever grown vegetables before? Why did you decide to start your garden this season? What are you most looking forward to harvesting from your garden? If you could give first time gardeners one tip, what would it be?

Ivy’s Garden:

Ivy and I have been friends since elementary school. Ivy is a florist (here is her fantastic business…yes, she does weddings,) and creates beauty everywhere she goes. She dreams big and lives life to the fullest. She’s a great friend! Over the kids’ spring break from school, she invited me over to her house so that our kids could play together, but also so that she could share some of her gardening ideas for their backyard. Like I said, she dreams big. She had drawings and plans that included several gardening spaces in her backyard. The problem that day was that most of what she had planned involved building things that we didn’t have the materials for and running water to places in the yard where it didn’t yet exist. I loved all her ideas, but I knew that the clock was ticking on getting a spring garden going. The heat would come on fast. She has a great flower bed right out her back door near where her kids’ swingset was. It had heavily amended soil and a hose bib. After a short brainstorming session, and a look around her shed, I realized that she had everything she needed to turn that unused bed into her kitchen garden.

About a week after our planting, squash, cucumbers and sunflowers begin to emerge.

Newly emerged seeds are starting to fill Ivy's kitchen garden with possibilities!

I had brought my seed portfolio with me (Yes…I have a seed portfolio…don’t judge…) so we talked about what their family likes to eat, and based on food preferences and sun exposure, picked appropriate plants for that space. We decided to do a modified Three Sisters Garden using sunflowers instead of corn, pole beans planted at the base of the sunflowers (after about 3 weeks of growth) fix nitrogen into the soil and use the sunflower stalks to climb.  A combination of winter and summer squash and cucumbers to cover the ground and create a living mulch. A tomato plant, some lettuce and basil tucked in to the corners and the garden was complete. The kids helped us plant seeds, measured distance between plantings and wrote the plant varieties on river rocks with a Sharpie marker while we talked about the history of the Three Sisters Garden and how native Americans understood the important relationships between companion plants. Math, science, anthropology and writing lessons all while planting the garden. And they thought they were just sticking their fingers in the dirt. In about an hour she had her first garden, and her precious kids had a lot of fun planting it!

A few weeks in, the sunflowers, squash and cucumbers have sprouted and its time to plant the beans!

The moral of Ivy’s gardening story is use what you have and just start. Since that day, Ivy has planted a repurposed vintage feed trough that she already owned with potatoes and is using reclaimed railroad ties to make another raised bed.

A repurposed vintage feed trough makes a great container for growing potatoes. 4 inches of soil in the bottom and add straw as the potatoes grow.

Having a long-term plan is wonderful, but it’s also important to start small and scale up as you have the resources. You’ll learn a lot along the way!

Here are Ivy’s answers to the questions I asked her:

Have you ever grown vegetables before? Just a couple of tomato plants, this is a first! Why did you decide to start your garden this season? A healthy hobby I’ve been wanting to start for a long time, now my kids are at an age to enjoy it with me. What are you most looking forward to harvesting from your garden? Any and everything, maybe I’m especially excited to see “mammoth” sunflowers!? We are already building another garden so we can grow corn and watermelon, which has me pretty excited too. If you could give first time gardeners one tip, what would it be? Call the greenest thumbed friend you know and bribe her if you have to, to come over and teach you what she knows and even get you started with her very own seeds! (wink wink) No truly, it’s like anything else, you don’t diet, work out, parent or garden without someone to celebrate with!

The cutest garden gnome ever! She goes out every day to chat with the plants,

To see more from other first time gardeners, click here.

Growing Potatoes in Bags with Straw

Honestly, I am the most distract-able person on the planet. I will be talking about one thing and then my mind is like, “Squirrel!” and I am off on a tangent. This video is mainly about growing potatoes. Specifically a “no-dig” potato growing method where you plant the potatoes at the bottom of a bag and then fill in with straw as the potato grows. In reality, this video covers that, my disdain for oleander, yet my reluctant admission that they are pretty when they flower, and a quick little update on the lean-to veggie garden in the “back forty.” And then, I become determined that I am going to reach my hand into one of the bags and pull out a potato to show you. Thus, the video is over 7 minutes of painful potato hunting. It’s ADHD gardening at its best.

Potatoes have gotten a bad rap recently. Everyone has jumped on the low carb bandwagon, and starchy potatoes have gotten left at the ranch.  They have earned a reputation as an unhealthy food. I suppose when you peel them, slice them thin, fry them in oil and cover them in chili and nacho cheese (mmmm…chili cheese fries) then I can’t say I disagree. But the humble potato itself is one of the healthiest and most nourishing foods on the planet, and makes up a large portion of much of the world’s diet…Americans included. The potato has no fat or cholesterol, is low-calorie, high in fiber and is one of the best sources of Potassium you can consume. If you leave the skin on and prepare them in a way that doesn’t include excessive added fat, they are very good for your body, and versatile in the kitchen.

I am here to tell you, like you will discover with much of the produce from your garden, home-grown tastes WAAAAY better! The little potato you met in the video, we’ll call him Bugsy, he got eaten not long after I filmed this video. I scrubbed him up and popped him in the microwave for 1 minute (I stopped cooking when I heard a loud pop. I forgot to poke holes in Bugsy so he wouldn’t blow up in my microwave.) I spread a dollop of butter on what was left of Bugsy and he was delicious! I know…I just told you how healthy potatoes are without added fat and there I am adding butter. But I worked up a big appetite trying to find a potato to show you, and Bugsy was just a baby. A tasty baby.

In the Sonoran Desert, potatoes can be planted mid January through mid February and need about 4 months growing time. You can start harvesting baby potatoes, like Bugsy, around the time the plant starts to flower. Harvest them gently and you won’t disturb the plant. Once plants yellow and start to fade, wait another week and then you are ready to harvest! I promise to do another video when I harvest and show you how it worked out!!


The Great Sunflower Harvest

Sunflowers are a wonderful plant and one of my favorites in the garden. They’re truly a multipurpose plant! They provide delicious seeds that are super healthy and can be pressed to make sunflower oil, they are great at attracting bees and other pollinators to your garden, they make great poles for peas or beans to climb and they are so cheerful looking that they can brighten the darkest day.

But, the number one reason that I grow them is because they are one of the quickest growing plants available that can provide 2 of the most important components to a successful desert garden: afternoon shade, and wind protection. When sunflowers are planted along the southern border of the garden, they provide the valuable dappled afternoon shade that nearly all vegetable crops need and a gentle break against our arid “blow dryer” winds.

There are countless different varieties of sunflower to choose from in a range of heights, from “Elves” which is a dwarf variety to “Mammoth” which is a giant variety. They come in a range of colors and petal patterns and some form a single head while others form multiple flower heads on one stalk.  All are equally easy to grow. I grow the “Mammoth” variety because I figure, if you are going to do something, do it big!

Two of my sunniest flowers!

You can plant sunflowers in the Sonoran Desert February through October. Mine survived all the frosts like champs this year. I think the reason for this is that they were at least 6 feet tall before the first frost and since cold air sinks, they were tall enough to make it. If you plant them late, they may be more susceptible to frost, and shorter or dwarf varieties may be more tender. The good news is, if they get killed by frost, they sprout and grow quickly from seed, so you can try again after the last danger of frost.

You may need to stake super tall varieties like “Mammoth” especially after deep watering or rain because their large heads will get heavy. Once you can see that the seeds have formed on the flower heads, wait a few weeks for the heads to turn downward and for the green disks at the back of the flower to start to yellow, and then you can cut the flower head off and allow it to dry on your porch or inside. Once the flower is dry, you can shake out all the sunflower seeds and roast them for eating, save some for replanting and probably still have plenty to share with the wild birds.

Sunflower heads laying out to dry

I use my large serrated bread knife to cut off the flowers for drying.

I have no idea what I am going to do with all those sunflower seeds!!! I have enough to plant the back 40 in sunflowers! Well, hope you try sunflowers in your desert garden!

Here’s lookin’ at you kid!

See no evil!


Growing Blackberries in the Sonoran Desert

Did you know you can grow blackberries in your backyard in the desert? Just imagine, going out in the morning and gathering a bowl full of berries for your breakfast!

The varieties I have planted are Apache and Ebony King…both thornless varieties. They are supposed to be productive in Arizona according to the nursery I bought them from (not that they even know.) The others are an unknown variety that were given to me by a friend who has grown them in her garden for several years successfully. Blackberries spread through runners under the ground, and if you want to confine their growth to specific areas then you have to dig up the runners and offspring. Her blackberries are locally adapted and I anticipate they will be the most successful. We will monitor this experiment as time goes by. Here is the U of A Extension service’s advise on planting and caring for blackberries in Phoenix, Arizona and other desert climates.


Backyard Orcharding| Growing Fruit in Arizona

You wouldn’t believe all the delicious fruit you can grow in your own back yard! Lots of people have citrus trees in their yards in Arizona, and that’s because citrus does very well in our climate, is evergreen and makes a great landscaping tree, but it is far from the only fruit that is easy to grow in our dry, arid climate.

Some of the easiest, lowest maintenance fruit trees to grow in your backyard are:






(Date Palms grow easily and are all over the valley, but pollinating them and caring for and picking the fruit requires renting a “cherry picker.” Renting heavy equipment isn’t what I would consider easy.)

The above list requires very little maintenance once established. Regular deep irrigation, mulching, and pruning to control size are all that are needed. (Grapes need a specific method of pruning depending on type, either cane pruning or spur pruning, but once this is learned it will take you a few minutes every year.) Remeber that you aren’t the only one that will want your fruit. The birds will be after it too. That’s why it’s important to keep the trees to a size where you can throw bird netting easily over the tree. Also, you want to be able to pick the fruit by hand, and if the tree gets 15-20 feet tall, you won’t be able to, so keeping the tree 6-8 feet tall is recommended. The tree will still give you plenty of fruit for your family, and it will be easier to manage. Dave Wilson Nursery has a great YouTube channel, where their video’s teach you how to plant, prune and care for your trees to keep them manageable.

The following fruits require only slightly more maintenance because care needs to be taken in selecting types, as well as researching whether they are self-fruitful or if they need a pollinator. Varieties that need a pollinator will mean that you need more than one variety of tree, planted near each other to cross-pollinate. As a rule in the Phoenix area, select varieties that require less than 300 chill hours if you want fruit every year. If you don’t mind having years where they don’t bear much, you can choose cultivars that are up to 500 hours. The Fruit and Nut Guide document linked on my sidebar will list proven cultivars and their chill requirements. Here is the list of only slightly less easy fruits to grow in Arizona.

Stone Fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, pluots, apriums, plumcots and nectaplums)


Pears (Even though some are low chill, these seem to be fussier than other fruit trees.)

Asian Pears (not fussy like traditional pears)









These fruits are more difficult and need protection from wind, bright sun and frost:



Avocado (just because you find these at Lowes, doesn’t mean they will grow easily or that they will ever fruit.)


Passion Fruit

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully you are encouraged that you can grow more than you would think in your own backyard!