One of the most common questions I hear on the farm is “how do you grow things out here in the desert?” Followed by “I didn’t know this could happen!” We are officially pedaling into the peak of our summer season. The heat coupled with monsoon season generates a humidity that doesn’t let us forget its endless dripping warmth in the evenings. This time of year can create many obstacles for growers in all parts of the country. In the high desert specifically, a giant stop sign is often triggered in the plants as temperatures consistently soar past 110 degrees. For those of you growing, never fear and don’t get discouraged! What may appear to be a failure is simply a plants response to self-preservation.
Plants are complicated organisms and each species, genus, and family have their own unique traits and requirements. Scientists are still striving to understand the complexities, nuances, language, and relationships plants have with their environment. This is an endless process in observation, data, and experience. It’s also a process that every grower must take even those that don’t have a background in the lab. I’ll talk about a few of the plants we are growing at Faultline Farm and what some of the possible reactions the plants may have to the heat.
There are many crops that can still stand their own in the hot weather. Those in the Solanaceae family, more commonly referred to as nightshades, do particularly well in this climate. Plants found in this group are eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and okra. Another family we find more success with is the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family. These are squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Unfortunately, no matter how heat and drought tolerant these vegetables may be, even the toughest of fighters rest in the garden during these temps. Here are just a few common issues that may start to arise in your gardens.
White Fly: They appear as a small white cloud when the leaves are brushed or moved. They can be treated with a neem oil solution that can easily be purchased from a garden center or off the internet. Just make sure to spray the solution early in the morning or later in the evening before the sun becomes too harsh. It is best to do it on a still day when there is no wind blowing in order to prevent drift.
Squash Bugs: The earlier the detection the better, you can find their brown pin prick sized eggs on the underside of the leaves starting in early June. Simply remove the leaves and discard in the trash as opposed to the compost. If the small insects are spotted, begin a diatomaceous earth treatment as soon as detected. Sprinkle directly onto pests, soil, and leaves for treatment.
Stunted Growth: Attempting to provide a little dappled shade for cooling and giving consistent moisture is about all that can be done. Our goal as growers it to try to give them the best fighting chance for survival and to ensure they are staying strong during this heat.
Predominantly Male Flower Production: We see this sometimes in the beginning of the flowering process. It is usually a way to signal to pollinators that it is time for their help. The same happens in extreme heat. Instead of producing the female flowers for fruiting, the plant produces male blooms to ensure more energy isn’t going into fruit set. Harvest the males and stuff some squash blossoms with ricotta and herbs for dinner!
Incomplete Fruit Set: This can be unfortunate for us as we watch our beautiful squash and zucchini that were half way developed stop mid-way. Once this is identified, and the forecast isn’t showing any sign of letting up, it is ok to harvest the half-developed squash, cut off the healthy end and prepare.
White Fly: As mentioned above, they appear as a small white cloud when the leaves are brushed or moved. They can be treated with a neem oil solution that can easily be purchased from a garden center or off the internet. Just make sure to spray the solution early in the morning in later in the evening before the sun becomes too harsh. It is best to do it on a still day when there is no wind blowing in order to prevent drift.
Flower and Leaf Drop: This happens so that the plant can conserve its energy. There is little to be done for this unfortunately. They can be shaded but over 100 degrees and the plant may still undergo this process.
Horn Worms: These beautiful beasts can destroy all the leaves on your tomato plants overnight. Be careful and don’t confuse this with leaf drop. A quick inspection can be a bit like where’s waldo game but also makes identification relatively easy. They are bright green with white stripes and black circles. The mature adults are relatively large and can be 1”-2” long. Put on gloves and remove these caterpillars from the stems. Keep an eye out for the young ones, they are smaller, but once your eyes adjust it is easy to find them.
Limited Photosynthesis: This can happen due to leaf drop and energy conservation. Especially in the case of tomatoes, the simple sugars stop converting to complex sugars leaving a sour fruit. It is possible to shade them but they will likely still undergo this process in temperatures above 100. Be patient and once temperatures drop they should begin the flower and fruit set process again.
Mulch: This minimizes moisture loss and cools soil temperatures. Mulch about an inch thick around the base of the plants near the roots.
Fertility: Do not fertilize during this period, it will tell the plants to grow when they are attempting to conserve their energy.
Consistent and Even Moisture: This is something to strive for, if there is too much moisture or pooling this can kill roots and create bitter fruits. If there isn’t enough moisture then the plants become stressed becoming more susceptible to pests and disease.
Seeding and Transplanting: It is not a good time to plant seeds or transplant seedlings. With direct seeding, the seeds will often not germinate and rot in the ground. With transplanting, they will become too stressed and often die.
This is a quick summary and there are many more environmental complexities that contribute to our garden and farm’s eco-systems. Fortunately, while these plants ride out the blistering temperatures, our unphased fig trees and grape vines are ceaselessly prolific. Here is a recipe for grape gazpacho inspired by Jane to help everyone cool off and replenish during these feverish conditions. I hope this helps!
3 medium sized shallots
4 cups (about 1 lb) of seedless green grapes (we are using champagne from our garden, slightly more floral and complex)
2 cloves of garlic
4 cups seedless cucumber
¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup mint leaves
1 lime (just the juice)
¾ cup almonds (we like marcona)
2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
2-3 tsp kosher salt
a few twists of fresh ground black pepper
2 cups of pasteurized heavy cream
2 Tablespoons of buttermilk
-Combine in a clean glass jar and cover. Leave out for 8-24 hours until it thickens. Cover and put in the fridge until ready to use. It should taste similar to sour cream but a bit tangier with a slightly more fluid consistency.