Desert harvest

Make the most out of a short vegetable growing season

Leslie Allen of the UNR Cooperative Extension says, “You might as well water what you can eat.”

Leslie Allen of the UNR Cooperative Extension says, “You might as well water what you can eat.”

Photo By Nick Higman

For more information, contact the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Office at 784-7070 or, and visit

Northern Nevada’s freezing night temperatures and a short, 90-day growing season present significant challenges to potential gardeners. But with preparation, local gardeners can enjoy fresh produce without waiting for the next farmers market.

“Start seeds early in your house,” advises Janet Brawner, Green Goods and Color Buyer for Moana Nursery. “April is a good month to start seeds.”

Gardeners need to check the calendar, the weather and plant based on the cold-tolerance of the vegetables. Vegetables such as cabbage, peas, spinach, turnips, lettuce, carrots and beets thrive in cold weather. Gardeners should wait until late May to plant cucumbers, lima beans, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and tomatoes. Planting seedlings like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower also circumvents the short growing season.

Vegetable beds require nutrients for growth, so it is essential to prep the soil with compost or manure before planting. Horse, llama and chicken manure all work well for vegetables. Like fine wine or cheese, the aging process improves the quality of the manure, reducing salinity and destroying pathogens.

Janet Brawner of Moana Nursery says starting seeds indoors gets a jump on the season.

Photo By Nick Higman

The Three Sisters garden is based on an Iroquois creation myth rooted in scientific reality. Many Native American tales feature variations of the tale: corn, beans and squash, precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sister spirits. Unlike some human families, these sisters thrive in a supportive coexistence. Corn provides structure for climbing bean vines, which in turn support the corn and improve soil fertility. Squash leaves shade the soil to offset soil evaporation. Gardeners must pay attention to spacing while planting a Three Sisters garden. Otherwise the “family” will become a tangled snarl of vines.

To best maintain a vegetable garden, Leslie Allen, Commercial Horticulture Program Coordinator at UNR, advocates being an active participant. She advises to check the soil’s moisture: “Put your hands in the dirt a day after watering. If dry, add more water.”

Allen recommends “water and diligence” to ward off potential insect pests drawn to hot, dry environments. For those who prefer offense as the best defense, she recommends planting carrots, cilantro, dill, aster and parsley—creating an environment favorable to the pests’ predators “so the good guys eat the bad guys.”

Growing fresh produce is not limited to those with wide open spaces. Brawner suggests that dwarf fruit trees, such as peach or nectarine, work well for patio gardeners.

“Heirloom tomatoes, especially Brandywine and Green Zebra, are easy to grow with regular irrigation,” Allen says, noting that the tangy taste of a homegrown tomato is the surest way to win converts to homegrown vegetables.

The increasing cost of gas may also produce more backyard farmers. Oil and petroleum-based products are used in the manufacture of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. Their rising prices directly affect the cost of food. Growing vegetables can impact one’s water budget because heavy watering is required to maintain thriving plants in Northern Nevada’s dry windy climate. But unlike a lawn, as Allen points out, “You might as well water what you can eat.”