You could say the average Southern Nevada home gardener has a tough row to hoe.
Except, of course, that most home gardeners here would be happy to have anything to hoe after the valley's extreme temperatures, bad soil and lack of water have done their worst.
And then there's Don Fabbi, a third-generation Nevadan who has mastered the intricacies of desert gardening as well as anyone. In raised plant beds in his yard, Fabbi grows not only the usual veggies -- tomatoes and peppers and the like -- but such exotic-for-here crops as blueberries, peanuts, sugar cane and, even, cotton.
No doubt about it: Gardening in the desert is tricky. But it becomes less tricky if gardeners understand a few basic principles.
Maybe it's the economy, and the chance to stretch the family's food budget with a few home-grown favorites. Maybe, after recent food scares over spinach and tomatoes, it's a desire to make sure the produce we're eating is pure. But, whatever the reason, Southern Nevadans are taking to gardening like a tomato hornworm to an Early Girl.
"Our class attendance has almost tripled, and people are starting to want to go back to, if you will, the green, wanting to produce their own," says Linn Mills, Review-Journal gardening columnist and a horticulturist for the Las Vegas Valley Water District at the Springs Preserve.
Angela O'Callaghan, area extension specialist for social horticulture for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, says more than 50 people have signed up for a class she's teaching later this month on basic patio vegetable gardening.
"I was expecting 15 or 20," she says. "It's something people have really grabbed on to."
But gardening here isn't like gardening elsewhere. First, there is what, to many newcomers, would seem to be off-kilter seasons. For instance, gardening season here actually began weeks ago, and harvest time generally will come earlier than newcomers would expect.
"In their mind, they don't have to go out and garden until it's Mother's Day or the first of June," Mills says. "And right now is the ideal time to be planting things like tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers."
On the upside, there's still time for newbies to venture into their yards.
"Anytime in March is good," says Frank Rauscher, staff horticulturist for Star Nurseries. "Some Marches we freeze up to mid-March. This has been a nice warm one.
"So, hopefully, if you plant in March, you can pretty much plant anything. Then, as you get into April, you're going to want plants that are more heat-hardy or make sure your microclimates (in the yard) are more favorable."
Speaking of which: That extreme, 100 degree-plus heat we get in the summer does nothing, animal or vegetable, much good. So, gardeners here have to pay attention to where and when their yards are sunny and shady and plan their gardens accordingly.
It's vital, O'Callaghan says, to "pay attention to the direction your light comes from, and when you get direct light, and if you ever get direct light. If you do, you can grow certain things. If you don't, you can only grow other things."
Rauscher adds that microclimates -- zones of temperature, sun and shade -- can vary throughout a single yard.
In addition to that relentless sun and heat, Southern Nevada gardeners must deal with not-so-abundant water.
"We have to be really frugal (with water), so we try not to grow things that would be horrifically water-wasting," O'Callaghan says. "But tomatoes will not forgive you if you don't water them regularly. Peppers will not forgive you."
One trick is to use a soil that contains a good mix of organic matter. A good fertilizer mix with good compost will hold water but won't drown a plant.
And here's a desert gardening weirdness: Rauscher suspects most plants here fail not because of lack of water, but because of overwatering.
O'Callaghan likes to use "this analogy of a well-wrung sponge. That's what people want their soil, or their compost to feel like. They want it to have that consistency."
And, Rauscher recommends that home gardeners buy "a little six-dollar moisture meter" which, with a bit of knowledge about how to use it, can save water, save plants and "probably quadruple success."
About our soil: It is, Mills says, "virtually dead."
So, in-ground gardens must be tended and prepared carefully. Or, an easier, and controllable option: Use prepared soil in either raised garden beds or containers.
Mills notes that container gardening is perfect for condos, small yards or anywhere else where space is at a premium.
"There are a lot of vegetables that look good in containers," Fabbi says, among them tomatoes and strawberries, and even citrus trees with small root systems such as lemons.
An added benefit of container gardening is that the containers can be moved to maximize or minimize the sunlight plants in them receive.
Container or raised beds also offer beginning gardeners a fairly inexpensive, usually high-success way to dip a toe into horticultural waters. So, O'Callaghan says, can a few potted herbs grown on a patio or on a kitchen windowsill.
From there, a beginner might experiment with kale and lettuce -- "Make it a leaf lettuce. You don't want to try to grow iceberg lettuce here. There's little flavor and no nutrition. Why would you bother?" -- and, "if you're patient," some tomatoes from seedlings.
Most of all, take it slowly and don't panic. Southern Nevada gardeners are blessed with multiple educational resources, including Nevada Cooperative Extension (the booklet, "Becoming a Desert Gardener," includes a planting guide for an entire crop of veggies) to the Springs Preserve (as well as Mills' R-J columns), to the Las Vegas Valley Water District and local nurseries.
The most important thing is to just give it a shot.
"What's the worst that can happen to you?" O'Callaghan says. "The worst is that, you have a plant. The best you can hope for is that you have a plant that is going to feed you."
Besides, she adds, "what's more terrific than a hobby where you can actually eat the end product?"
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.