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An Organic, Edible Garden in the Desert

Fresh from the Garden

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Tom Spitz

When it comes to edible gardening in the desert, the folks at Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort in Tucson know a thing or two, having grown their own veggies on the property since around 2010 for its onsite restaurants. “Our chefs demanded fresh vegetables, so we started out growing herbs,” says Jeff Timan, resort partner and director of gardening and art. Then, renowned health and wellness expert Dr. Andrew Weil moved into the neighborhood and suggested they pair up and create a vegetable garden on the grounds. 

Since then, the garden has evolved under the resort’s tutelage into a 1,500-square-foot organic Chef’s Garden located in the center of the property. Timan, pastry chef-turned-gardener Melanie Zettel and resort owner/partner Frank Hughes oversee the plot as well as the herbs and citrus that are spread over property’s 34 acres in the shadow of the Santa Catalina Mountains. 

“Almost all of the produce is used in the resort’s kitchen,” Timan adds. “Some, of course, we have to take home for research.”

Romanesco cauliflower is one of the garden’s more curious offerings. It’s earthy flavor is similar to broccoli.

As with any garden, crops cycle in and out with the seasons while other, hearty herbs are year-round mainstays. In the summer months, expect to find melons, peppers, eggplant, beans, Malabar spinach, cucumbers, zucchini and Tohono O’odham squash on the menu. Winter vegetables include tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas, bok choy, tatsoi, baby greens, onions, Swiss chard, spinach and parsley.

SEASONAL FRESHNESS

The degree of difficulty in growing vegetables in the desert depends on the season, notes Hughes. “But unlike many other areas of the country, conditions in Tucson are generally favorable for year-round vegetable gardening,” he says. And although Phoenix tends to run eight to 10 degrees warmer than its southern neighbor, it too, offers a relatively long growing season. Hughes says veggies need at least six hours of sunlight but do best with some afternoon shade.

Maricopa County has two prime growing seasons: spring (warm) and fall (cool). The spring season begins around mid-February, and, depending on the crop, plants can produce into June or July. Fall vegetables generally get planted anywhere from mid-August to mid-September and can continue to be sown or transplanted into February, with vegetables performing through April.

1. Located in the center of the Hacienda Del Sol’s property, the 1,500-square-foot organic Chef’s Garden supplies the resort’s restaurants with an ever-changing seasonal menu of fresh vegetables and herbs. 2. Cilantro, red leaf lettuce and garlic dominate this corner of the garden. 3. Timan shows off a handful of freshly pulled organic carrots.

Cool-season vegetables are relatively easy to grow both in Phoenix and Tucson and comprise a variety of options. They include arugula, beets, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce, kale, microgreens, onions, parsnips, peas, radishes, salad greens, Swiss chard and turnips. “I would recommend a timetable that would allow a first planting for the fall/winter season,” notes Hughes. “This is a much easier growing period with usually a wider selection of plants available, and therefore provides a higher probability of success.”

Warm-season vegetables, however, present more of a challenge, meaning they take some tender-loving care and a watchful eye. More often than not, plants are ruined by too much water rather than too little. Spring is the best time to plant corn, cucumber, eggplant, jicama, melons, okra, peppers, pumpkin and squash.

Contrary to belief, tomatoes can also be grown in Phoenix, although smaller varieties with shorter growing times do best, such as Sweet 100 and Sweet 1000. Tucson has much better luck due to its slightly cooler temperatures, and Hughes says he has often grown fussier types, such as heirlooms.

“Cherry tomatoes grow best in our climate. The easiest type we grow is the Wild Texas cherry. It self-sows, and if we have a mild winter it produces abundantly from end of April through May,” notes Zettel. “Tomatoes require different soil prep. Everyone has their own technique. I use epsom salts, kelp, and eggshells or bone meal, and I add additional fertilizer when flowers appear. I also grow Chocolate and Purple Cherokee heirlooms. I always start at least eight weeks in advance and plant seedlings as close to mid-February as possible. The fruit won’t ripen if the weather gets too hot. All varieties can be pruned back in the heat of summer, and if they survive they will produce another fall crop.

In fall/winter, Zettel enjoys growing cauliflower. “I grow cheddars, purples and romanesco. I like the beauty of different colors,” she says. “I start with seedlings—the bigger the better. Irrigation depends on temperatures, and I don’t fertilizer if the soil is prepared right.”

The crinkly green leaves and red stalks of Swiss chard add a bright pop of color to the garden.

According to Hughes, success for all vegetables has a lot to do with the soil. “Since our Sonoran desert soil is primarily sandy and gravelly, it is not high in organic matter. So organic matter, such as garden soil and compost mix, needs to be introduced to add nutrients and aid in the water-holding ability of the soil,” he explains.

For Timan, nurturing the lush, well-producing vegetable garden at the Hacienda del Sol is a passion, and with the right care, some trial and error, and a little patience, you too can be enjoying the bounties of your own patch of the desert.   

“Generally, the best tip for growing any plant is to pay attention,” he says. “The plant will let you know when it’s happy and when it’s not. Most do not do well when they are constantly wet, which encourages rot. Vegetables like an easy draining, balanced soil with a good mix of organic matter. Other than compost, we use almost no fertilizer.”

For more information, see Sources.

JEFF TIMAN’S FAVORITES

CAULIFLOWER “It has a beautiful, otherworldly floret that spirals up like the top of an onion dome. It also has a rich taste and makes a wonderful sauce.”

When to plant: Fall

Best to plant: Seedlings (the bigger the better)

Note: Can take three months or more to produce, depending on seedlings and temperatures.


BASIL
“There are so many varieties, and they are such beautiful plants. When you prune them, they put out a rich aroma.”

When to plant: Spring

Best to plant: Seedlings, except for lemon basil, which is best grown by seed

Note: In the heat of summer, basil needs to be cut back to encourage another fuller growth. Harvest is continual.


TOMATOES
“I especially like heirlooms—they’re a treasure. They are so full of flavor, like nothing I’ve ever had from a store.”

When to plant: Late winter (mid-February)

Best to plant: Seedlings

Hacienda Del Sol partner and director of gardening and art Jeff Timan can often be found relaxing in the garden and harvesting some of his favorite produce.

Note: Cherry tomatoes do best, as they require less time to ripen. Prune back all tomato types in the heat of summer, and if they survive, they should produce another fall crop.

 

CARROTS “I love the taste, but also it’s like a surprise when you pull it out of the ground. There’s almost nothing there, and then you pull it up, it makes a little popping sound, and there is a fully grown treat.”

When to plant: Fall

Best to plant: Seeds


RADISHES
“I enjoy them for the same reason I enjoy carrots. I like to eat them with a little mustard.”

When to plant: Fall

Best to plant: Seeds


SQUASH
“I love lots of different types of squash; butternut and acorn are wonderful. But the best I’ve ever had is Kabocha squash. It is unbelievably sweet and good-flavored.”

When to plant: Spring

Best to plant: Seeds

Web Exclusive Photos:

1. The Chef’s Garden at dawn. 2. Robust red leaf lettuce and herbs. 3. Rainbow chard sports stalks of bright yellow and maroon. 4. Nubby kale grow abundantly. 5. Colorful flowers also inhabit the garden. 6. Leafy broccoli flourishes in the garden. 7. Various types of lettuce sprout up in rows. 8. Leeks, which are relatives of the onion family, are nearly ripe for the picking.

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