Maureen Gilmer is a syndicated gardening columnist and author of eighteen books on gardening and landscaping design; she lives in Palm Springs, California, in the heart of the desert. Her latest book, Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert & Dry Times, is the definitive guide to growing healthy organic vegetables without wasting our precious water resources! Read more about this book below and enter to win one of five copies, courtesy of Sasquatch Books!
1. You live in the heart of the desert in Palm Springs, California so obviously some years of experience went into writing this book. In the course of your trials and tribulations what was the most important, and perhaps the hardest, lesson you had to learn about growing vegetables in drought, desert & dry times? And, does your garden still continue to teach you lessons and confront you with new challenges after all these years?
Growing in the desert is a huge challenge but once I discovered how the row cover system is used by organic farmers, I knew this was a great solution for everyone. No, it’s not pretty or ornamental in the landscape but it’s highly productive in some of the most ferocious climatic conditions from extreme +110 summer daily temps in the low desert summer to snow in the high desert winter. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is our granular soils that lack organic matter and thus have very low microbe populations. Water moves right through before plants take it up unless slow drip irrigation is used to wet the root zone thoroughly. However, the challenge to plants is our winds which are very dry, almost negligible humidity so it literally draws moisture out of plants like vegetables. What I continue to realize over and over is that growing vegetables for water conservation means that location is everything to help minimize the negatives and ensure all the positive influences possible.
2. What are the most common pitfalls and mistakes that people make when gardening in drought, desert and dry times and how does your book help them course correct?
The book is geared for novice gardeners because those who grow food aren’t always dedicated but more often families seeking safe, fresh organic food. For that reason we make sure they understand the word desiccation, which is the process of drawing moisture out of a plant through its foliage. It happens in many ways and if there isn’t moisture enough in the roots the plant wilts temporarily, then if not watered permanent wilt occurs. I want my readers to learn how to spot the subtle sag of growing tips for the first signs of water need or a signal to increase protection from desiccating influences.
Another issue of great importance to desert gardeners is selecting crops suited for the season. Too many think everything grows in summer, but that’s not true in milder winter regions. The crops typically grown in spring and fall are cool season, and those planted after the last frost are warm season. When cool season crops are planted in late spring they often fail because they are adapted to cooler temperatures. I stress the differences because when you’re growing on the edge of epic drought, no matter how much water you apply, the cool crops will not perform well in hot summer regions like California.
3. Gardening can be an expensive endeavor and your book discusses many of the purchases, such as rain barrels and drip system kits, that one can make. What should those with a modest budget be investing their money in first and foremost? And, does your book offer those who wish to pursue gardening more frugally some options on how to do so?
I wrote The Budget Gardener because I am very frugal by nature and most of the good ideas for water use on the cheap began with that effort in the 1990s. What I learned long ago was that growing vegetables is one of the most affordable of all gardening endeavors, but advertisers like us to buy lots of specialized stuff we don’t really need. The items we use in the book are actually geared for a DIY novice to find success by sticking with the basics and offering the home grown recyclable ideas used by generations past. After all, everyone had a garden during the Great Depression and so can we, it’s just that we need to do some things differently due to water conservation.
4. How does your book help the reader choose the right plants for their droughty or desert garden? And, for first time gardeners or for those trying to assure themselves some modicum of success, what are considered to be some of the most drought-tolerant vegetables that you can grow?
An heirloom tomato from Germany is adapted to a short cool growing season so it won’t make a suitable variety for a hot, droughty garden. A tomato developed in the Middle Eastern desert countries may be perfectly adapted to minimal humidity and extreme heat. This is why just selecting heirlooms is not a great idea unless you study their origins first. I went through my best seed catalogs and selected those vegetable varieties that come from hot, desert or drought ridden parts of the world. These will be best able to stand summer heat waves, resist sun cracking and stand up to winds without excessive wilt. My readers will be able to find these varieties in their seed catalogs to quickly get started growing these age old desert varieties and their arid zone relatives from Australia, Persia, Mexico and the American desert Southwest.
5. Will this book also benefit those that do not currently live in a droughty or desert area – and how?
The way we grow crops is changing from flooded rows to the Israeli method of spot irrigation using low pressure irrigation. My experience has shown that even where it’s not dry, plants just grow better on drip because of the way it is applied. There is no evaporative losses so every drop is put to good use. No runoff either. And when you can put the drip on a battery operated timer, everyone can reduce their chores and keep plants evenly hydrated so they grow evenly instead of fits and starts after dates with the garden hose. This is crucial for a book aimed at young families, often with both parents working full time who don’t have a lot of time for gardening, but can, through our system, grow amazing crops and expect great yields.
To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Thursday, June 23, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:
Have you ever gardened during times of drought and, if so, how did you overcome the obstacles and challenges you encountered?
Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See Rules for more information.)
UPDATE 7/16/16: Congratulations to Laura Sproull, Brandon Johnson, W Brown, Linda Lee & [TBD]!