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Tips from a master gardener: What to plant in Phoenix in the spring

Spring may not officially start for nearly another month, but here in the Phoenix area, it certainly feels like spring is in the air.

Temperatures are in the 70s, the sun is out, spring training baseball is about to start and if you have a garden — or a plant on the windowsill — things look like they’re starting to grow. 

So, The Show spoke with Melissa Kruse-Peeples with her seasonal gardening tips is master gardener and educator. She manages the garden at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, helps the university with urban garden education and outreach, and teaches classes on how to garden in Zone 9b — that’s Phoenix, Arizona. 

Interview highlights

What are you planting right now?

KRUSE-PEEPLES: So, with the warming up of the temperatures, it's time to plant all those warm-season things that love long days and lots of heat. So, first up, I want to do all the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants. Those are kind of take a while to get going. It takes a couple of months for it to get to a size to put on all the fruit. And I love planting summer squash, like zucchini and yellow squash, basil and of course, always the flowers can't have enough flowers in the garden. So sunflowers, Xenia marigolds to bring, bring all the pollinators and beneficial insects.

What about what's harvesting right now?

KRUSE-PEEPLES: Yes, we're kind of at the tail end of our cool season gardening. So lots of carrots, leafy greens are finishing up — like spinach and lettuce and kale. Lots of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages that we planted way back in October. I've been harvesting over the last few weeks of those things. Some of that survives the heat a little better and can last until April. But some things are more sensitive to the heat, like lettuce in particular. It's time to harvest and eat it and move on to the next.

When you're planting for a new season, are you taking everything out, turning over the garden, putting in the good dirt and planting again? Or do you do a sort of piecemeal?

KRUSE-PEEPLES: I kind of do a piecemeal. It's, it's nice to think about a plan — which can be hard. ... When there's nothing in the garden, you put stuff everywhere. But thinking about a plan, and so where I have done my lettuce, that's gone now, is ready for the tomatoes. But some of my cauliflower and cabbage takes a little bit longer. And so that's where I'll put my watermelons and melons in a couple of weeks when it's a little bit warmer, they really love the heat. And so it's kind of a continual cycle, but everything's kind of on a slightly different cycle. And so you just as you become familiar with things, can know how to turn those things over. And so ultimately nothing's really empty in the garden. There's always like something growing. And you don't have to do this, but I do a lot of seed starting myself. And so, you can direct seed a lot of things, but by starting them early, kind of gets a jump. So then you don't have any lag time, I guess, where things are sitting empty.

I know you're big on seeds and seed starting seed swaps. What are you starting right now? In small, tiny pots, not actually in the garden.

KRUSE-PEEPLES: So actually a lot of what I'm planting now. I started way back at Christmas. So the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants was kind of the week between Christmas and New Year's is when a lot of that was started. So now they're like larger plants — 6 to 8 inches tall — ready to go in. And then, once I get kind of space inside my house and move those things out, then I can start some other fun things like roselle or loofa is a good one. But do a lot of things are perfectly fine with just putting the seed directly in the ground, especially squash and melons and okra, okra is another good one.

Your specialty is looking at planting in the Sonoran desert. When you talk about the real seasons in Phoenix you include: full spring, second winter, then spring of deception. What actual season are we in right now in Phoenix?

KRUSE-PEEPLES: So, I mean, you know, the calendar, we're technically winter is what we're still in. But for Phoenix, true, spring really starts kind of mid- to late February. And so that's when the days are longer for one, but the nighttime temperatures are 45 to 50, 55 degrees, and we're no longer in that danger zone where it might dip to freezing to 32 or lower. It's not impossible that we don't get a frost and a freeze, as late as March 15, that's happened historically, in Phoenix, but the danger zone is kind of out. So because our spring is relatively short — because summer definitely is our longest season and definitely is coming — we want to take advantage as soon as we can that it's spring, to get planting. Because a lot of, you know, our Phoenix summer is very different than the rest of the country. And so we're kind of a month before the rest of the country is still like in the dead of winter — you know, it was like 80 something the other day. And then the month of January kind of fluctuates a lot too and that's where, you know, you may think it's spring but then it'll hit, and we get those cold, cold nights again, so that's that spring of deception. And so weather nerds like me, like you just watch and look at the forecast and see. When is it go time? And it usually happens around Feb. 20.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.