PVC and screening provides shade to keep plants out of the direct desert sun. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

It’s hard to believe three months have passed since I started my journey into pandemic-induced vegetable gardening.

I was never someone that thought about growing my own food before COVID-19 came to town, but that changed after the first couple of months. There was a lot of talk early on about possible food shortages and that’s where this experiment took shape.

There have been successes and failures along the way. If it’s possible to both drown and burn a plant at the same time, I accomplished it.

But after making several adjustments I can finally say I have a few vegetables taking shape — four baby tomatoes to be precise.

Not exactly the bounty I had hoped for, but after so many ups and downs, the fact that a vegetable has formed and not shriveled back into the ground is a major accomplishment.

Denise Rodriguez, Texas Agrilife Extension director, said it’s not uncommon for beginners to face struggles.

“It’s not as simple as people think,” Rodriguez said. “If it’s not water, it’s the sun, if it’s not the sun it’s the pests and it compounds, and I think people become discouraged by everything and just walk away from it and that’s what we don’t want people to do.”

Rodriguez said the hope is that people challenge themselves and fine-tune things instead of giving up.

Early disasters

Fine-tuning was a bit of an understatement in my case.

I needed a complete overhaul after seven out of the 10 plants I started with died. I originally planted tomatoes, yellow pepper, yellow squash, cucumber and radishes in May.

A first attempt to grow yellow squash ended in failure. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

Three weeks later, leaves began to yellow then turn crisp, sprouts shriveled back into the ground. Within a few more weeks, my first yellow pepper plant disintegrated.

I reached out to the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, which has a wealth of resources including the option to “Ask the Help Desk.” I submitted an online form with questions and photos and a master gardener responded.

“How we pandemic” is a series from El Paso Matters about unique ways El Pasoans are dealing with life during COVID-19. If you have a story suggestion, email it to news@elpasomatters.org.

I committed crucial mistakes, including choosing the wrong soil for raised garden beds, overwatering and too much sun exposure.

Instead of giving up at that point I decided to reconfigure the operation.

A new approach 

I built a raised bed with concrete cinder blocks, acquired the proper soil and a couple of new tomato and pepper transplants and planted new cucumber and radish seeds. In the process I repotted the original yellow squash since they were overcrowded.

A yellow squash grown from seed has begun to sprout. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

I also shaded the garden since the temperatures were above 100 degrees. I wasn’t 100 percent sold that the garden would need shade until I noticed the leaves of my new pepper plant would be upright in the morning, wilted in the afternoon and then upright in the evening.

I didn’t want to take chances, so I used a shade tent that I purchased several years ago that had gone unused.

The tent became problematic however, with the high wind toppling it several times.

When my father came to visit from Arizona, we built a PVC pipe shade structure that has held up quite nicely.

At the advice of the master gardener I started watering in the mornings before 10 a.m. when needed if the top two inches of soil are dry, not twice a day every day like I did with my first round of plants.

So far this updated method seems to be working well and everything but my original yellow squash plants and radishes have survived.

Prepping for fall

Rodriguez said August is the time to plant the crops that grow in the fall and winter months.

Since I started this adventure a little later than usual for spring planting, I wanted to be better prepared for the next growing season.

Rodriguez recommended using the home vegetable gardening planting calendar for El Paso County that the AgriLife Extension provides.

I shopped the calendar for vegetables I like that need to be planted in August and planted seeds for turnips, Swiss chard and kale.

Four tomatoes are growing in a backyard garden after a rough start. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

If all goes well and my experiment works I may be able to expand this operation next spring, but first things first — keep these plants alive and healthy.

In the meantime I have also joined some Facebook groups that are gardening related, which has been helpful to see what other people are up to in their garden adventures.

Here are the Facebook groups I joined to see what other El Pasoans are up to:

El Paso Master Gardeners

El Paso/ Las Cruces Backyard Gardening & Planting Ideas 

Food Gardens of El Paso TX 

Cover photo: PVC and screening provides shade to keep plants out of the direct desert sun. (Elida S. Perez/El Paso Matters)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...