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Desert Gardening

Preparing Garden Soil in Arizona to Ensure a Bumper Crop


areful planning of your garden activities means that Arizona gardeners can enjoy growing a wide variety of plants and vegetables all year round. Winter in Arizona is an exciting time for gardeners, especially for those who enjoy growing a harvest of fresh winter vegetables for the kitchen.

Every new season in Arizona means that the soil will need some attention to ensure a bumper crop, and timing is everything. You will always get the best results when you prepare your soil in advance and give your preparation time to distribute evenly throughout your garden beds.

Preparing Soil for a Winter Garden in Arizona

You'll get the best results for winter growth if you start preparing your soil early, preferably before fall sets in. When you start noticing the cooler days arriving, it's time to check you have everything in order. Here's how to prepare your garden soil for the Arizona winter growing season.

Get the Shovel Out

Arizona soil has a notorious tendency to clump, especially after long periods of dry weather. It can also happen when you walk on the ground after it rains. Use your shovel or rake to break up the compacted soil and get it nicely aerated for healthy roots.

Perform a Soil Test

Unfortunately, you can't tell whether your plants will have sufficient quantities of nutrients just by looking at your soil. Most deficiencies will make themselves known in unhealthy looking plants, which is a little too late. The types of plants you grow from season to season can also significantly alter nutrient levels.

Luckily, you can order a test of your soil to reveal where it may be lacking. You can tell if you need to replenish essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and make yourself aware of the pH levels to get an accurate gauge of the salt levels.

Add What Your Soil Needs

When you know more about your soil condition, you will be able to source the 'ingredients' you need to improve its quality. Use the pH levels to work out the quantity of each amendment. For instance, soil that is slightly too acidic will require the addition of sulfur. If it's leaning towards alkaline, it will need the addition of lime to balance it out.

Your soil will also benefit from the addition of organic matter, such as compost, which will add nutrients that support plant growth. The compost you make at home is an environmentally friendly strategy that helps reduce household waste.

However, it's not always possible to create compost in sufficient quantities if you don't have space. In these instances, check with your local garden nursery who may be able to supply you with high-grade compost.

Mix in Some Fertilizer

Fertilizer is available in liquid or granular form, and either is suitable for improving soil condition. Still, it can depend on what you intend to grow as to which one will be most suitable.

Vegetable and fruit growers will benefit most from a granular fertilizer designed for slow release. Using this type of fertilizer will ensure the plants have a steady supply of readily available nutrients to support their growth. Slow-release fertilizers also prevent plants from receiving too much of a nutrient, which can be just as detrimental to their development.

Before the start of the season, you should work the fertilizer several inches into the soil. You can add more fertilizer as needed once you can see that the plants are healthy and thriving.

Once all the hard work above is complete, it's time to thoroughly wet the soil so your additions spread evenly throughout the garden beds. Soaker hoses releasing a steady stream of water will ensure it stays sufficiently moist without overwatering.

Essential Nutrients for Winter Soil in Arizona

Vegetables drain enormous amounts of nutrients from the soil, making it necessary to replenish it after every harvest. The nutrient requirements of different plants vary, but in general, the three most vital to their survival include nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

Nitrogen's Role in Plants

Nitrogen has essential roles in the health and growth of plants. One of its primary jobs is to help plants photosynthesize, which is the process that harvests sunlight to break down carbon dioxide and water into sugars the plant uses for energy.

How to Tell if You Have the Right Nitrogen Balance

Nitrogen is also a component of amino acids, the building blocks for proteins that sustain a plant's life. If you notice withered, yellow leaves, they could indicate insufficient photosynthesis levels due to a lack of nitrogen.

On the other end of the scale, too much nitrogen can block the plant from accessing other vital nutrients needed for growth. As you can see, getting your soil's nitrogen balance just right will increase the chance that your garden will reward you with a bountiful, nutritious crop.

Not all plants require the same levels of nitrogen. For example, tomatoes, squash, and roses will drain a little more from the soil than other plants.

How to Add Nitrogen to Your Garden Soil

The average Arizona gardener will be dealing with soil rich in minerals but lacking in most nutrients. Fortunately, adding nitrogen is a relatively simple process.

One of the most popular methods is to dig animal or plant byproducts into your garden plots. Manure from cows and chickens provide a good foundation for nitrogen. You can also purchase bagged fertilizer from your local garden supply store.

If you prefer to use plant-based materials, you can try adding alfalfa meal. Most gardeners have a compost heap or two on the go, which is also an excellent source for nitrogen replenishment and will do wonders for the soil's quality in general.

The Role of Phosphorous in Plant Life

Phosphorous is one of the main ingredients in general garden fertilizers, which is included because it is needed for a few critical plant functions. Animal manure is also a good source of phosphorous.

Despite its importance, phosphorous balance relative to other nutrients is also an essential component of a healthy garden. Too much phosphorous can have negative consequences on plant life.

Plants consume phosphorous in the soil, but phosphorous in fertilizers is also water-soluble and can drain away in heavy rains, and therefore requires replacing every growing season. It's also not a good idea to fertilize if you know there are heavy rains on the way because you will lose a significant amount in the runoff.

Plants grown from seeds will benefit most from adequate levels of phosphorous. The nutrient helps the young plants establish a robust root system that will support them during maturity. Phosphorous is also needed for healthy flowering and seed development if you plan to let some of your plants go to seed for next season's crop.

How to Tell if You Have the Right Phosphorous Balance

Soils that are deficient in phosphorous will be slow to mature and grow. You may also notice purple coloring on some of the more mature leaves. In general, the youngest plants will suffer the most from low phosphorous levels, which will struggle to mature because of a poorly performing root system.

Be mindful that you don't over-fertilize with phosphorous, as too much will block the absorption of minerals like zinc, manganese, and iron. If you want to ensure your soil nutrient levels are just right, there are soil testing services available to tell you what your garden needs.

The Role of Potassium in Plant Life

The third number of the NPK represents potassium, which is regularly applied to gardens to ensure adequate nutrients are available to the plants.

Potassium affects plant growth in many ways, including size, color, and shape. Gardeners who enjoy the fresh flavors of homegrown produce will also appreciate that phosphorous is responsible for the tastes they will enjoy. For these reasons, phosphorous is considered the nutrient most responsible for the quality of a harvest.

There are a lot of biological mechanisms requiring adequate levels of potassium, including:

  • It regulates CO2 levels by opening and closing the stomata during photosynthesis.
  • Potassium activates enzymes responsible for energy production and growth.
  • It regulates the uptake of water through the roots and throughout the plant. It also controls water loss through the stomata.
  • Potassium helps plants endure drought conditions.
  • It's required for starch and protein synthesis.

How to Know if you Have Enough Potassium

Plants with low potassium levels will show stunted growth, have slower flower development, and produce a lower quality harvest. Plant leaves will curl at the tips and can appear scorched.

As the leaves grow, they might curl along the edges and look dry. White spots may also show up on the leaves. The plants will be slow to mature and will be especially vulnerable during high temperatures and strong winds.

Potassium is essential for crops like potatoes, as its presence ensures healthy tuber production. Plants with access to potassium also form more fully, taste better, and store fresh for longer.

How to Add Potassium to Your Soil

Liquid fertilizers are a popular means for ensuring your plants have an adequate supply of potassium. You can also purchase solid granular fertilizers to sprinkle over the soils, which will deliver a slow release of potassium over the winter growing season.

Winter is Coming - Is Your Soil Prepared For It?

When the days start to cool, a little preparation of your soil now will go a long way to creating a bumper crop and keeping you well-stocked in tasty and fresh winter vegetables. Test your soil, get your nutrient mix just right, and you will prevent the majority of issues that plague many gardeners during the typical Arizona winter.