I’m pretty sure that my creative landscaping efforts sometimes look like paint splashing on canvas to my husband and the neighbors, but I’m told the farther you step back, the prettier the blend is. Still, I think I’m getting better at it. I take hope from knowing that many professional garden photos either are impossible in my climate or are photoshopped. Seriously, tulips and hollyhocks do NOT bloom at the same time of year. And neither does spring planted dill mature at the same time as cucumbers in my world. Planted once on purpose, dill is now a volunteer bordering on being categorized as a weedy tree in late spring. But it has a hard time germinating after the heat hits, heat which cucumbers have to have. So, what is a high dessert gardener to do?
I have some strategies: Learn about the variables of plant needs, plant growth habits, and patterns of sunlight and play with combinations of time and spacing that are both fun and practical. Here are my basic categories for doing this, some of which end up with overlapping influence. An example is given of each.
- Cool versus warm weather crops. Peas versus zucchini.
- Love of sunlight versus preferring some shade during intense heat. Peppers versus lettuce.
- Leafy or top growth versus root crops. Cabbage versus onions.
- Spreading versus upright growth patterns. Melons versus broccoli.
- Vertical vining versus horizontal growth preferred or easiest. Grape versus cucumbers.
- Multiple versus single harvest crops. Green beans versus winter squash.
- Multiple plantings versus one planting. Lettuce versus green beans.
- Edible versus decorative harvesting. Chives versus gladiolas.
- Sturdy in windstorms versus needs support. Potatoes versus corn.
- Regular pest management versus fairly pest free. Cabbage versus carrots.
- Shared pest or disease concerns between plant types. Cabbage and broccoli.
- Random location volunteering versus volunteering in basically the same spot. Dill versus potatoes.
- Perennial versus annual. Strawberries versus leeks.
- Overwintering versus winter kill. Onions versus basil.
I admittedly have a problem with seeing bare dirt in the spring. No matter that I know that I know (intended repetition) that most plants will grow and fill the space, I fight mentally with the idea of wasting space and leaving space for weeds to grow in the spring, mulch though I may. I deal with some of this by succession and companion planting.
Here is an example of one 16 x 4 foot raised bed I planted this spring: It has tomatoes, spaced three feet apart along the center. Honestly, I lost track of whether they are determinate or indeterminate when I was planting. (I do know I could look it up now). I know that indeterminate tomato plants grow larger on average, but I am planning on pruning them this year. The orientation of the raised bed is lengthwise east to west and the backyard is south facing with a slight slope to the north. Even in the summer, the sun comes more from the south, meaning that anything on the north side of the tomatoes will get some shade in the summer when they are larger. This seemed like a good place to put some lettuce. I put leeks on the other side, taking advantage of the leafy versus root crop differences, while also hoping that any over growth of the tomatoes on that sunny side will actually cover the leeks in ways that I want them covered to produce more white at the base anyway. It’s worth a try, is my motto.
I applied these shading principles to my strawberry bed a couple years ago, growing my pole beans for shade in the heat of summer, and they have benefitted from it.
In another two raised beds, I am going to stubbornly plant my four rows of corn. Stubbornly, because I have an ongoing battle against corn smut, which everyone says is untreatable. I took a couple years off from planting corn, plus I am trying different varieties, and the smut seems to be less of a problem. The corn also tends to fall miserably in the summer wind storms, so I am going to be creative with my heavenly blue morning glory and “tie it together.” With corn having a limited harvest time and the ornamental morning glory being a relatively soft vine, I don’t think it will be in the way. It will also provide a splendid splash of blue on what otherwise just looks like tall grass on the way to the barn. I’ve never thought corn plants were much to look at.
This is the second year that I am planting many of my favorite cutting flowers amongst the vegetables. The reason is twofold. First of all, I have a hard time cutting flowers that are out in the general landscape. They are both hard to find and cutting them detracts from the full blooming look that I like to see when I am out and about there. Also, I have more available space in my garden now that fewer kids are home. I have noted that having the flowers in with the vegetables simply makes me happy while I am out harvesting. One exception and opposite of this is planting the hot peppers with the flowers. The peppers are relatively carefree, pretty until harvest, and easy to spot when the peppers are ripe.
As far as seasonal planting goes, if one wants to make use of the climate spectrum that passes over southern Idaho (or probably anywhere), then one must get used to the idea that something will almost always be spent and ugly in the garden. By the end of June here, it is already time to pull up the peas, which are getting dry and crunchy. However, if some zucchini were planted not too far away, they can fill in the space efficiently. If the lettuce in an area has been harvested, as most of it needs to be before the blazing heat of July and August, then having some overwintering onions ready to transplant can help. It can be hard to get anything to germinate in that much heat, at least things that will be mature enough by the time frost hits in the fall. But, if you are willing to cover some of the large plants, it can be done some. Still, there is the decreasing daylight to contend with, so sometimes it is just best to wait until September and plant another crop of lettuce! Of course, any transplants will need extra attention to water needs.
One of my dilemmas is what to plant on my more frequent paths in the yard. Some places are seen more often. There are advantages to being visually reminded of a crops’ existence. The tomatoes are more likely to get picked. The aphids are more likely to get dealt with. The pruning is more likely to get done. If I am waiting all summer for a harvest of winter squash, it is sometimes a toss up between not needing to think too much about it, but needing to keep squash bugs killed or not missing the harvest window because I forgot about them. I will put favorites for other family members where they will see them. A few times I have planted the cherry tomatoes where my husband parked after work. He just couldn’t help himself and we always had a fresh handful of the sweet red things on the kitchen counter. Planting the peas next to where the kids played soccer meant they would both eat them for quick snacks and tell me when they were ripe. I will also plant certain things along the path to the chicken pen so that it is easy to pick overripe produce to give them. It is hard to keep up during harvest with everything and the chickens love it when I smash juicy melons for them or toss in flowering broccoli branches.
I have pretty much given up on trellising my cucumbers. Maybe I am spoiled with too much space, but I think it would be a full time job to keep tying them up. On the other hand, they make a great ground cover mulch for taller, skinnier plants, like edible sunflowers. True, the cucumbers will vine up a little, but it is easier to detach them a bit as they grow than to tie them up. Or I can let them grow a bit up the generally strong sunflower stalks. It does make for a very prickly patch, though, as both plants are scratchy.
The very stationary potato volunteers are currently mixed with the traveling lettuce volunteers. This works well because the lettuce is mature enough to harvest well before the potatoes need much space. Also, the potatoes have no trouble showing the lettuce who is boss and taking over when it is their turn. What volunteer lettuce does not make it to our dinner table is appreciated by the chickens, who don’t mind at all if it is bolting. So while I do weed lettuce volunteers that are in pathways or in the way of other plantings, I tend to leave lettuce volunteers as long as possible.
I try to keep in mind that the perfect garden is the one that is being enjoyed. I encourage you to enjoy being creative with it. Enjoy spending time outdoors planting, watering, and pulling weeds. Then, enjoy figuring out ways to make it work better next year.