We struggle with gardening in a harsh climate. Part of the struggle is that we want to grow vegetables that require extra effort but we don't always have the time to put in that effort. Puebloan people have been 'dry farming' in the southwest for hundreds if not thousands of years. Without the benefit of irrigation at the turn of a spigot. Although admittedly closer to natural sources of water or in small areas sited for maximum benefit from whatever rainfall there was. And without the benefit of soil tests and store-bought compost and mulch. Which is all to say that we can be productive gardeners here.
I want to describe some of my strategies over the course of the season.
In our community garden, I have a row near the front of the garden. Evergreens and deciduous trees provide some shade on the north end of my row in the morning but for most of the day, my row 'bakes' in the New Mexico sun. Depending on what the gardeners in the row east of me grow, I might have some or even too much shade from their plants. I have no control on what happens or even what to expect since we don't determine jointly what we'll grow. The garden is sloped and my row is closer to the bottom of the slope than the top but far up enough that heavy rains tend to roll right off (even if I have my row well mulched.) I have put up about a 6 inch 'retaining wall' which helps hold in surface water but any water under the ground will, of couse, carry on on its way downhill to the river.
As I write this on 2 March, the weather is a balmy spring day. In fickle New Mexico, this doesn't mean winter is over and we can still expect some frosts and even snow. Still, it's past time to plant snow peas. I put out snow peas three separate times: Late January (up about a week ago), early February (up about a day ago), and mid-February (up any moment now, I suspect!)
Why peas? Well, mostly because I like them. But also because they fix nitrogen. This will improve my soil naturally for whatever I plant later this year.
And, a note, I did not have peas last year in the interests of crop rotation. Crop rotation, even in a small space such as our community garden is helpful for two reasons: 1) Viruses and bacteria and some bugs will winter over in the soil. If their host plant isn't available, their populations can be substantially reduced, if not eliminated; 2) plants use particular nutrients and can deplete them locally in the soil. Of course, if you want to plant the same vegetable year after year, you can fertilize to ensure appropriate nutrients for particular plants.
As scientists' understanding of soil increases, it is becoming increasingly clear that the soil is a living organism (or at least filled with teaming, thriving communities of organisms) and is best left alone. This is good news for us who did not get the double digging and heavy tilling genes. Leaving the soil generally alone, you can poke your finger into the ground to the depth appropriate to plant your seeds and put them in their own holes. And, all in all, the living organisms in the soil are happier with what you might think of as a home cooked meal - compost (the latest thought is partially finished so they can help too!), manure, and mulch. There certainly is still a place for chemical fertilizer on occasion but more when the soil is being prepared initially or there's some deadline that requires fast growth and production. At the Master Gardeners we heard of the case where a football field had been denuded of grass and had to be reseeded and grown in six weeks. But back to my peas. I poked little holes about 2 inches deep and dropped the seeds in. I tamped the earth very gently.
Other seeds I've put out during these late winter months include root vegetables: radish, carrots, parsnips, and turnips. And some greens: spinach and chard. I've tried starting lettuces in seed trays at home and just put them out this week. They're a bit more sensitive than the other vegetables I've mentioned although they also are a cool season crop. As quickly as it heats up here, lettuces will often bolt before they've formed nice heads. I have to confess, I don't think I've been very successful with this first attempt but we'll see. If nothing else, gardening is a continual experiment!