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Why it's getting harder to grow a summer garden in Phoenix

Melissa Kruse-Peeples
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Melissa Kruse-Peeples

A few years ago, master gardener Melissa Kruse-Peeples showed The Show around her garden in the heat of summer to explain that you can, in fact, grow a whole lot — even in Phoenix's sweltering summer heat.

But, these last two summers have been different.

The heat in the Valley of the Sun has intensified — breaking records and burning up even native plants. But, Kruse-Peeples is still gardening. The Show went back out to her home garden recently to see how it’s going.

Conversation highlights

It's getting hotter, but it's not incredibly hot yet. Let's talk a little bit about what's working so far this summer. What are you growing?

MELISSA KRUSE-PEEPLES: Yeah. So in spring, in Phoenix started in late February. So I still have some zucchini, my tomatoes, peppers — those both live — and eggplant is thriving. It loves, loves the heat. And then I have lots of flowers, xenias. And I still have parsley and oregano and lemon balm and all the herbs that'll live through the summer. They may look a little crispy. But, I can cut those back at the end of summer and those will be great. And so there's still a lot thriving and growing.

So in mid-Juneish, it's still going OK.

KRUSE-PEEPLES: Yeah, it's still going. So we're still getting all these big harvests from our spring plantings. And that wouldn't be the case if we planted, like in April, when most of the country considers it spring. Those things wouldn't ever reach their full potential. But because we consider spring late February, those things are really, their height is kind of the end of May. And so they're kind of tapering off, but still getting quite a bit of stuff every week from the garden.

Flowers grow in Melissa Kruse-Peeples' garden in Phoenix.
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Flowers grow in Melissa Kruse-Peeples' garden in Phoenix.

What are these purple flowers? These are so beautiful. They look like roses.

KRUSE-PEEPLES: They do look like roses. So this is called lisianthus. ... So they're like a cut flower and they just are gorgeous and it's like 100 and 110 and look at this. Beautiful. They surviving this. So some things, it's just good genes, right? They have the genes and the genetics to survive. So some flowers are, you know, drying up and not doing well. Because they don't love the heat, they love 70 degrees. And so planting the right thing, when, really helps.

And you I'm sure look at where things go in the garden. What needs shade some parts of the day, what can handle the heat. But when it's 110, and they're getting fried, what can survive that?

KRUSE-PEEPLES: Okra and melons. They can be full sun and survive that and don't need any shade. Tomatoes and peppers on the other hand, need some shade. And so my pepper patch over here, I haven't set up shade yet, but I really need to. Because those, all these little fruits you can see what happens is when they start to get a sunburn, just like that ... it gets all soft. And so giving it a little shade will help.

Peppers grow in Melissa Kruse-Peeples' garden in Phoenix.
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Peppers grow in Melissa Kruse-Peeples' garden in Phoenix.

I was here a couple of summers ago it was very rich, full of stuff. You kind of preach the gospel of: You can garden in summer in Phoenix. But it's changing, it sounds like.

KRUSE-PEEPLES: The last few years. I mean, because we're not getting the monsoon, too, and even if we don't get a lot of rain, we'd get the clouds and just that relief. And so when we don't get that, there's no break. And so it's getting harder and harder to do the summer garden.

So it's the break from the sun — that's the hardest on the plants, not the consistently over 110.

KRUSE-PEEPLES: Yeah. So, I mean, a lot of plants like will stop growing new leaves. Once we reach about 105, they'll just kind of go dormant. And so it's also the temperature, too, because at night, if it never dips below 100 like those plants never get a break. And so even native desert plants like barrel cacti, they won't photosynthesize if it's above 100.

Will they die or will they just wait?

KRUSE-PEEPLES: They die ... they can't breathe, essentially. And so vegetables and plants are the same. But the key is to look for those varieties and those things, those genetics, that have adapted are more likely to survive the heat waves and direct sun. ... And so I like a lot of melons and watermelons have great genetics. ... And so I kind of knowing it's so hot, went all in with my melon patch this year.

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.
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