Gardening with Kids in the Desert

by Kimberley McGee
lettuce and praying mantis

We reached out to local homeschool mom Terri Kurcab, who runs the helpful Homeschool Gardens. She and her husband grow their own veggies and homeschool their girls who are in 4th and 1st grade. Her site offers oodles of info so we asked her to share some of her top tips for gardening in the desert. 

There are many veggies to grow in the desert with the right soil and fertilizers. Locally, you can grow beets to create natural dyes for your paper crafts or a salad garden with radishes, lettuces, carrots and peas.

Can I plant in the ground or do I need to build a raised bed?

There are several problems with planting directly in the ground in our area. We have a lot of caliche, which is very difficult to dig through and can prevent proper water drainage. Our soil is also salty and has no organic matter. It needs a lot of help to become decent soil for growing a vegetable garden. Most people in the Las Vegas area choose to build raised garden beds. 

How do I build a raised garden bed?

Many different types of materials can be used to build raised garden beds, but please avoid pressure treated wood and old railroad ties. These have chemicals that can leach into your soil.  Non-pressure treated wood is a great choice and holds up well even in our climate. Some people use cinder blocks, but those can get hot during our summers. 

earthbox garden bed

Terri shows you how to create an earthbox garden container.

What size of garden should I build if I’m new to gardening?

It’s easy to get excited about starting a garden and build one that is too big and difficult to maintain. Large gardens can get overwhelming if you’re just starting out. A 4’x4’ bed (or two) is perfect for the first year. It’s easy to expand after that. 

What soil should I use in my raised bed?

The quality of the soil will have a HUGE impact on the success of your garden! Please don’t skimp on this step. The cost difference between many of these products is actually not that much, and it will save you much frustration down the road. 

I’m very passionate about growing organically, and that includes the soil. I look for OMRI Listed products whenever possible which helps me see which products follow organic standards. Even though we’re not growing food to sell, this certification can be found on many home gardening products. It’s also very important to me to avoid soil and compost products that contain biosolids (treated sewer sludge). Choosing an OMRI Listed soil helps me do that. You can find several options in our local big box nurseries. 

If I plant directly in the ground, how should the soil be prepared?

Dig down at least 12-18” to loosen compacted soil and take out large rocks. Mix 3-4” of compost into the top few inches of the soil. Water the whole area very well. Never plant anything into dry soil. 

Where should I build my garden?

Look at how the sun hits your yard. You’ll want at least 8+ hours of sun for plants that are grown for their fruit. These are usually warm season plants such as tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. Plants grown for their leaves or roots will be fine with 4-6 hours of sun. These are usually the cool season plants such as root veggies, lettuce, and other leafy greens. In my yard, I have beds that do better in different seasons because of the way the sun moves across our yard during the year. 

Most of the houses in our area have cinder block walls as a fence. These walls can really heat up in the summer which doesn’t help our summer crops. If possible, try to place the garden bed a few feet away from the wall. If you want to place a garden bed close to a wall, the radiating heat is helpful for a winter garden. 

Do I need to install irrigation?

Yes, but it’s actually pretty easy. We live in a desert, so the only consistent water your garden will get is through irrigation. You could hand water, but your garden will really suffer if you miss a day or two during the summer. Plus, many of us want the freedom to leave town for a few days and not have to ask others to water our plants. Luckily, you can find complete drip irrigation kits at local home improvement stores. Hook it up to an outdoor spigot with a battery operated timer. Experiment with the amount of time to water. Allow the top 1” to dry out a bit before watering again.  

What is good to plant at this time of year for beginning gardeners? 

Our planting seasons are very different from most other parts of the country. When reading “when to plant what” information, make sure the source is talking about our location or somewhere similar. In southern NV, we actually have three distinct growing seasons – two cool seasons (spring and fall) and one warm season (late spring into summer). 

As I write this in early May, we can still plant some of our warm season plants such as melons, squash, peppers, and cucumbers. You should be able to find transplants in our local nurseries, or you can plant seeds directly in the soil. For more easy to grow plants, check out this blog post.

Unfortunately, it is too late to plant tomatoes at this point. Our summers get too hot for them. We want to begin harvesting tomatoes around now.

They won’t look too good during the hot summer, but they’ll come back to life and start producing again for the fall. If you plant tomatoes now, they won’t produce much until the fall. Some grape and cherry tomato varieties will continue to produce a little during the hottest months. 

gardening in the desert

Should I buy transplants or seeds?

Starting your own seeds, either in the ground or inside, opens up a whole new world of plant varieties. You’ll find even more if you shop for seeds online. For beginning gardeners, it may seem easier to buy transplants from a local nursery but definitely consider using seeds in the future. Transplants come in handy if you’re short on time and need a more mature plant quickly. 

When is it too late to plant seeds?

You can find planting time information on the back of seed packets. Don’t worry if it shows that you’re a bit too late. Sometimes planting late still works out. Go ahead and try it! 

Can seeds go directly in the ground or should they be started inside first? 

The biggest benefit to starting seeds inside is that you can continue to harvest your current crops while your new plants grow to transplant size. This is fantastic for people with small garden spaces because it makes the most productive use of that space. 

However, some seeds actually do better when directly sown in the garden. Root vegetables are difficult to transplant because their roots can be easily damaged. Large seeds, such as peas and beans, like to be direct sown too. It is possible to start vine plants indoors but make sure to transplant them in a timely manner or the vines can get tangled together.

 

What’s the best way to get seeds started indoors?

If you want to start seeds indoors, you can use a sunny south facing window. Use a seed tray or fill small paper cups with seed starting mix. Poke drainage holes in the bottom and water from the below. Many beginners start there, but you can find far more success with an actual grow light and heat mat. You can start with a basic model for a reasonable cost. My first setup was under $50, and I was able to fit a tray of 32 seed blocks under it. Over time I upgraded to better quality lights, and each upgrade greatly improved my seedlings’ health. You can find more about starting seeds indoors here and here. If starting seeds in a window doesn’t work as well as you expected, try a grow light. 

What can be planted over the summer? When should we start the “winter” garden?

We can start planting warm season crops in late March. As I write this in early May, it’s too late to plant tomatoes and beans. They can be planted late March through April. You can continue to plant melons, cucumbers, eggplant, orka, peppers, and squash through June. I love to get a head start on my tomatoes by using season extenders. Check out this blog post for more info about starting tomatoes early

Start planting your winter garden in August with broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and root veggies. Add in your leafy greens, garlic, kohlrabi, and peas starting in September. Use succession planting to extend your harvest by planting new seeds or transplants every couple of weeks. 

Even though we do get a few below freezing nights in the winter, it is possible to continue growing food here all winter long. Our cool season can be from the fall, through winter, and into spring with a little frost protection. Learn more about protecting your veggies from cold winter nights

kid holding earthworms

On her site, local homeschool mom Terri Kurcab digs deeper into how to garden in the desert.

What is a good basic fertilizer? How often should it be applied to new seeds/transplants/established plants?

Look for an all-purpose organic fertilizer. There are a number of OMRI Listed organic fertilizers available locally. Always follow the package directions. The label will tell you how much to use and when it should be applied to different stages of plant growth. Synthetic fertilizers harm the beneficial microbes in the soil. These organisms are vital to creating a healthy garden. Quality compost can also be used as a fertilizer. Once you build a healthy soil, you may be able to use just compost.

More Garden Fun with the Kids

I’m a big fan of getting kids involved with gardening by just going outside and planting something. I don’t like to force kids who aren’t interested. Invite them into the space and encourage them to help, but let them run off if their interest fades. You can find more child-led gardening activities here

Gardening in southern Nevada is a bit different than other parts of the country. Even though we may have to use raised beds, irrigation, and a different planting calendar, we can still have a thriving gardening. It is possible to raise our kids here with the experience of growing their own food.

 

Terri Kurcab

Terri Kurcab

Terri Kurcab is a wife and mom to two little girls in 4th and 1st grade. The family’s goal is to produce as much of their own food as possible using organic methods. The busy homeschool mom teaches gardening classes and volunteers in the community.

Kimberley McGee
Author: Kimberley McGee

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist and homeschool mama of twins.

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