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Tips and tricks for gardening as a student

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A small garden sits in a pavestone planter. Container gardening is an accessible hobby for students.

If you’re looking for a way to distract yourself from the final grueling weeks of this semester, look no further. Gardening may just be the stress relief you are looking for. 

Late February to early March is the perfect time to start a warm-season garden as the temperatures begin to rise and the danger of frost disappears, according to Jan Groth, the Master Gardener program coordinator for the UA’s Cooperative Extension Program in Sierra Vista. And it isn’t too late to begin now.

Whether you were born with a green thumb or you’ve never touched a plant in your life, the following tips from some gardening gurus will have you sowing your first seeds before the end of this semester. 

1. No Backyard? No problem.

If you think the word “gardening” means tilling the soil, planting seeds in perfectly straight rows and spending hours on your knees pulling out weeds, think again. 

“I think especially since students are transient and because they have limited space, the best thing for them to consider doing is container gardening,” Groth said.

Container gardening can be easily moved from place to place and doesn’t depend on the seasons, Groth added.

“I think it’s a great starting place; that’s a good way to figure out the seasonality of Tucson and kind of get a little gardening under your belt before you try to garden on a bigger scale,” said Moses Thompson, Tucson Unified School District/UA school gardening coordinator.

Though the idea of growing a garden out of containers might seem strange, it’s really not that different from a traditional garden. You can grow everything except full-size trees in a container garden, from herbs to vegetables to flowering bushes, Groth said

2. It’s All About the Soil

When it comes to soil, don’t be frugal. Investing in a good potting soil is the first step to a successful container garden, according to Groth.

An important part of any garden soil is the fertilizer. Groth cautions against synthetic or man-made fertilizers, which can burn the soil. Instead, opt for an organic blend that contains natural materials like bat guano or earthworm castings.

3. Water Thoroughly, But Less Often

The key to helping your plants survive the Tucson heat is to water less often but more deeply, Thompson said. 

“If you can water at a two-foot or 30-inch depth once or twice a week, you’re just going to grow more resilient plants and you’re really going to encourage deep roots, and that helps buffer against the heat and dryness,” Thompson said. 

Another helpful watering tip is to establish a watering schedule specific for your plants. 

Groth said the best way to determine if your plants are thirsty is to feel the top few inches of the soil a day after watering. If the soil is still wet, wait until it starts to dry before watering again. 

“There’s not a rule on how often to water. You’ve got to water according to the temperatures, the weather and according to the wind,” Groth said. “Winds can be just as drying to a plant as a hundred-degree day can be.”

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4. Give Your Plants Some Friendly Neighbors

Step up your gardening game by doing some companion planting. Planting certain plants next to each other can form a symbiotic network of plants that will help to ward off pests, Thompson said. 

For example, tomatoes and basil make excellent neighbors, Groth said. The basil benefits from the shade of the tomatoes and the tomatoes get infused with flavor from the basil, making it a win-win situation. 

5. Use Local Seeds

Pay attention to the seeds you select for your garden. Thompson suggests using heirloom or landrace seeds, which can be found on the Native Seed/Search website

Landrace variety seeds have been collected in a specific area over generations, which means they’ve adapted to the region’s climate and seasons, according to Thompson.

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6. Get Creative!

Just because your garden may be confined to containers doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

“Container gardening can be absolutely gorgeous,” Groth said. “You can do combinations of things, you can do combo gardens or you can do what I would call specimen gardens.”

For example, you could plant verbena and butterfly bush together to attract butterflies to your yard, Groth said. You could also focus on one specific specimen and make that the center of your garden. 

Another low-maintenance, drought-resistant option is to create an entire garden out of cacti and succulents. 

“It’s always fun to combine pots of fluffy, leafy things with pots of spiky, structured plants,” Groth said. “It really gives you a lot of texture, so you could make a whole garden on a terrace or a deck out of just pots.”

7. Beat the Heat

It’s understandable if you’re worried about your plants getting burned to a crisp by the scorching Arizona sun. However, Thompson and Groth both have some tips on how to avoid this. 

Design your garden so that the plants receive both morning sun and afternoon shade, Thompson said. During the hottest months of the year, using a shade cloth can also help protect plants.

If you are container gardening, one useful tip is to “top dress” your plants. Once you’ve planted your containers, cover the soil with about an inch of material, such as decorative rock or mulch, Groth said.

According to Groth, this does three things. 

“It keeps the root cooler from the top, it holds the weeds down in that pot and it keeps the moisture in because if it’s just the soil, you’ll find that the moisture evaporates much more quickly.”

If you’re still feeling a little unsure about your gardening abilities, check out the Tucson Backyard Gardening Facebook page, which is full of helpful advice from local gardeners. You can also head over to the Tucson Botanical Gardens for some beautiful plant inspiration.


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