Welcome to the Urban Farm Revolution

Featured Farmer: Aggie from Sam's Farm Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer:
Aggie from Sam’s Farm



Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is your farm’s name? Size? What are you growing? What kind of climate are you growing in?

Our urban farm is really a garden that we started for fun at first. We have four garden areas and 10 fruit trees in the yard. The name of our farm is Sam's Farm, which stands for our first name initials- Samie, Aggie, Michael. We are growing a variety of veggies and fruit—specifically, beets, carrots (fall), zucchini, tomatoes, sweet peas, grapes, pumpkins, watermelon, cantaloupe, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cabbage, kale, lettuce, spices (dill, cilantro, mint, basil), potatoes and sometimes cucumbers. The fruit trees we have are grapefruit, tangelo, orange, lemon, tangerine, pomegranate, fig, peach, apple and apricot. We have it all right here in Phoenix, AZ, so it’s a desert climate. We adjusted the growing of certain things depending on the season.

What initially got you interested in urban farming?

At first we really did a small section just for fun, mainly tomatoes and cucumbers. I wanted the kids to know where the food comes from and have it more organic, healthy and tasting better. We noticed that tomatoes taste and smell so much better when they are grown in the garden vs from the store which pretty much are tasteless.

Recently, we expanded into larger garden areas and planted more fruit trees. I love to have a green yard but I didn't want to waste water and my work on something that doesn't bring any benefit. I can spend as much work and water (ok, maybe a little more), have a green yard and have a benefit of fresh veggies and fruit.

Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods? Explain.

We use purely organic method. We have excellent soil that I've developed over the years. We also have our own compost. We do not use any chemicals at all to grow or fight pests. I change the types of plants I use from season to season, plant marigolds around to keep pests away, try to combine certain things and I'm getting ready to have chickens.

Do you use compost? Where do you get it and how does it help your plants grow?

I do use my own compost when I have it. When I don't, I buy from local nursery and make sure it's organic. I mix it with the soil when I tilt it and prepare for the next planting. Once I have chickens, I plan to use the waste for fertilizer. I think compost is awesome! The soil needs the organic matter and compost helps everything grow. It also invites things like worms.

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?

I would love to have bees but will wait until my retirement. My grandma had bees and I loved watching her work with them. I am planning on having chickens very soon.

What do you do with the food you grow?

We eat it, of course! :) When we have a lot (like beets or tomatoes), I share with family and friends. We pickle extra cucumbers.

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?

Not enough time! I would love to spend more time in the garden but with full time work and kids it's hard. The weather is also a challenge. I modified what I grow and when to accommodate for the heat. I also created shaded areas to help with the sun. The challenge in AZ is, of course, water. I try to water in the early morning so the soil and plants soak it up instead of the sun.

What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?

At first, it was seeing my kids' faces when we got pumpkins! It was so fun watching them having so much fun with it and carving it was more fun because it was our very own pumpkin. When we swim in the pool, the kids love to pick and eat tomatoes right from the plant.

I love spending time in the garden. It's cooler; it's greener; it's relaxing. You can forget about the whole world and all the world's problems when you're in the garden. I don't even mind getting my hands dirty and feeling the dirt between my fingers.

The fact that I know where my food comes from, what is really in it, and what my kids eat (or don't eat) is really important to me. I don't want pesticides, I don't want chemicals and I can be in total control of it. I just don't trust the food industry.

Why do you think urban farming is important?

Same as above – I don't trust the food industry. There are only a handful of large companies that control all of our food. That's really scary since all they care about is profits. Organic and healthy food is expensive and even that food I don't fully trust. What is organic? I remember eating apples and other fruit when growing up in Poland – you had to check for every bite since sometimes there were little worms in the apples. That's organic!

Everyone should know where their food comes from and what's in it! That's why urban farming is important. Also, what would we do if we didn't get the trucks with food to our city? People don't know anything about growing their own food and they should! It's healthy and good for their soul! It's also much cheaper therapy than Prozac. :)

Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?

Yes! I have seen a ton of farmers markets pop up everywhere. Chickens are beginning to be popular. You hear of little farms and gardens popping up. When talking to people or on social media, many people are starting this in their own yards. I think it's great!

Is it the future? Maybe in years to come. But, I do hope that it is. So many farmers had to close their farms, the government is encouraging them not to grow certain things, and big corporations have taken over the farming and food processing. And, food processing is bigger than farming. It's so sad and not good for anyone! I hope people will wake up, start urban farming and change the culture!

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

It's easy so just do it! People think it's expensive and hard and they have to have a degree in agriculture, but it's so easy! And, it's really not expensive to start! All you need is a tiny spot with good soil, some sun and water. That's it! Just do it! Not succeeding? Ask for help!

Anything else you’d like to add?

I wish I started sooner!

Our Elemental Connection to Seeds Subscribe Email Print

Our Elemental Connection to Seeds
By Carla Woody

Twenty years ago I was first introduced to indigenous traditions through the Native teachings of Peru, and then over the years to Maya, Hopi and a number of others in the US and elsewhere. One of the primary attractions for me is the innate understanding these lifeways hold toward connection to the elements—earth, air, fire and water—each interacting with the other to nourish life. Not long after my first encounter, I had the overwhelming desire to get my fingers in dirt. At the time I lived in an inner city Ohio neighborhood, far removed from nature. Nevertheless, I dug up a third of my back yard and began to experiment, planting medicinal plants and herbs, using them for my own purposes. Only then did I begin to feel like a hole was being filled.

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico ©2012 Carla Woody

Apab’yan Tew is an Ajq'ij, or Day Keeper of the K’iche’ Maya tradition from the village of Nawalja' in the Guatemalan highlands. His people come to him for advice and ceremonies in regard to the Tzolk’in calendar, still used today in relation to cultivation and optimal timing for individual or community needs. He described to me knowledge that came to him years ago:

“I entered the fields with full comprehension of what I was doing. The ceremonies, respect to the Earth, the Sky, the seed, my body. I understood about interconnection. Not in the New Age way. But that I was part of the construction of the Universe. There’s a saying. When you have your seed and you sow it, you help it to grow, then you have your first meal [from the seed], it makes you a real being. It happens when you are a child or maybe a teenager. That’s the moment you realize you must not waste anything! You must treat everything with respect. You must not complain about anything, let’s say the weather…what the Sky is doing…what the Earth is doing in the growing of things. When you eat the first food you prepared yourself from the beginning, then you are a real person, a winaq.

The seeds Apab’yan’s people plant have been cultivated with careful attention and ritual over centuries, and bred into their very identity as Maya. Unlike many places, they don’t have a problem with maintaining the purity of their seeds, largely due to isolation. Others aren’t so fortunate in that regard but wish to retain and plant heirloom seeds, without questions of safety and health relating to genetically modified strains. As a result, in pockets around the world, a grassroots movement is afoot—seed preservation to protect biodiversity. Individuals and organizations are quietly taking measures to save seeds in their original form like Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Navdanya in India, the NSW Seedbank in Australia and 1,000 more.

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico ©2012 Carla Woody

Flordemayo is an esteemed member of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. This group of female elders has been welcomed to audience by the Dalai Lama and awarded the 2013 Pfeffer Peace Award for their work for peace through prayer, education, and the preservation of diverse cultures. As part of her personal mission, Flordemayo was called to found the Seed Temple, a seed bank. Located on forty acres in Estancia, New Mexico, this volunteer-run project includes an underground seed vault, a classroom to teach seed saving and ceremonial spaces on the land in the Native tradition. She relayed the importance of this work, “The seed has a spirit, but it doesn't have a voice. We are giving the seeds a voice!” For the last year, Flordemayo and her volunteers have been receiving seeds from Native elders and heirloom gardeners for cataloging and storing in the underground vault. Seeds are “lent” in the sense that individuals may obtain a portion of the seed stock, grow in accordance with proper practices and return a portion of the seed produced to the project.

Apab’yan Tew ended our conversation with a final statement on the Maya worldview: “We cannot be who we must be without the land. Another principle is that the body we have is not really ours. It is lent from the Mother Earth herself. So if you create any kind of danger to your body, you are also hurting the Mother Earth. What the Earth produces and what we produce is part of the same cycle, the same system. We are not separated from the Earth, and the Earth is not to be thought of as just a provider of goods. The term that is used in the West is ‘natural resources’ as something to be taken, something to be transformed. For us, we don’t use this term. We use the term ‘elements of life.’ It is our life! It is not a resource.”

Every one of us has the opportunity to maintain this connection to the elements in whichever ways we can. For some years, it has a no longer been feasible for me to attempt a garden due to the amount of travel I undertake. However, I take comfort in the rural area I now live in, the wildlife that wanders through—and the organic farm down the road that provides produce in their on-your-honor stand.


Carla Woody, author of Portals to the Vision Serpent and Standing Stark, sponsors spiritual travel programs with indigenous leaders in Hopi, Peru, Mexico and Guatemala. She founded Kenosis in 1999 to serve human potential and guide the vision: One tribe, one world. In 2007, she established Kenosis Spirit Keepers as a nonprofit extension to help preserve Native traditions threatened with decimation. Carla makes her home near Prescott, Arizona. Visit her websites: KenosisKenosis Spirit Keepers and blog. 

Why Use Biocompatible Soap? Subscribe Email Print

Why Use Biocompatible Soap?

By Maura Yates

Essential to life, our water is a precious resource and we often forget how important it is to use it wisely.

One way to take care of our water supply is to install greywater harvesting systems in our homes. Having an effective greywater system requires using the right soaps to ensure that when the components break down they are not harmful to plants. Learning to distinguish between biodegradable and biocompatible soaps will help you decide which detergent to buy.

Cleaning agents labeled eco-friendly, natural, or biodegradable often are not good for the garden. Biodegradable refers to something that breaks down naturally into individual components. However, those elements can sometimes be toxic to plants and water systems. Most laundry detergents and some dishwashing liquids, including some green detergents, are synthesized from a less-costly detergent named nonyl-phenol ethoxylate that is toxic and slow to biodegrade.

Only detergents labeled biocompatible are okay to use on your plants in your greywater-irrigation system because they are made from linear alcohol ethoxylate that is not toxic. Biocompatible means that as the components break down in the greywater system they will actually benefit the environment and provide nutrients for the soil and plants. Biocompatible soaps are ideal for use in homes with greywater and septic systems or backwoods camping.

Also, avoid powdered soaps and detergents because they often contain sodium that can build up in your soil. Liquid soaps generally contain less salt because they are made from potassium-based lye whereas powdered soaps are made from sodium-based (salts) lye.

Unfortunately, most detergents are not labeled very well and it is difficult to know if you are buying a biocompatible or biodegradable soap. One excellent source we have found is a company named Bio-Pac’s special line, Oasis, which features biocompatible laundry detergent and dishwashing soap.

Using biocompatible soap translates to being kind to the environment and your health as well as ensuring the wise use of our precious water supply.  For more in-depth information in greywater detergents, check out Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands website.



Greywater Turned Green Subscribe Email Print

Greywater Turned Green

By Maura Yates

Chances are you have heard the term "greywater" but may not be quite sure what it means. Greywater is the water that goes down any drain in your home, excluding your toilet and kitchen sink water. Picture a color scale with white on the left and black on the right: if white represents fresh drinking water and black represents dirty waste water (toilet water or black water), greywater is in the middle because it's not clean enough to drink, but it certainly isn't polluted enough to flush down the drain. Because of its unique makeup greywater offers many versatile options for use in outdoor landscaping.

Greywater has a smaller concentration of pollutants than black water, which makes it a good source for irrigating via a simple system that connects your indoor and outdoor greywater sources with your exterior irrigation needs. Anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of residential wastewater is suitable for watering your landscape. As a result, using greywater will noticeably decrease your freshwater consumption and help lower your water bills.  Essentially you are using a resource twice that you paid for once.  Why waste fresh drinking water on irrigating your outdoor plants when they LOVE reused greywater?!

The big thing to know is that you have to be very careful about what you now put down the drain as ‘away’ now constitutes into your yard. If you use a biocompatible soap, which turns itself into fertilizer, you'll really see your landscape flourish.

Greywater has a lower concentration of nitrogen and harmful pathogens while retaining a healthy amount of compost material that the plants adore. The less harmful pollutants found in greywater decompose faster and therefore stabilize more quickly and reduce the risk of water pollution. However, it is important to be mindful of the products you use in your greywater sources and make sure that they are environmentally friendly because they will be watering your plants once they make their way through the pipes.

Detergents are the most important consideration because they contain chemicals that don't break down easily and can be harmful to the plant. By changing your detergents, you can decrease the amount of chemical pollution in water.  For more in-depth information in greywater detergents, check out the Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands website.

You will need to consider several variables as you select the type of greywater system that will best fit the needs of your home. But, before you begin this process, take inventory of your greywater sources including the washing machine, bathroom sinks and shower. If you are not sure how much each appliance or fixture uses, check out the chart at the end of this article for an approximation of gallon usage.

Once you have determined the how much greywater your home generates, be sure to check with your local government regarding any special concerns or regulations they may have regarding the placement of a greywater system. In Arizona, if you follow the Department of Environmental Quality guidelines you are not required to get a permit for your greywater system. (See document here.)

For specific designs that suite your needs, use Oasis Designs™ guidelines for selecting your system in the book Create an Oasis with Greywater.

Not only does a greywater system save you money—it helps conserve energy by decreasing the amount of wastewater that needs to be pumped from your house to the treatment plant. The additional bonus is that greywater helps to recharge the groundwater and lessens the strain on your municipal treatment plant or septic system.

Although it may seem daunting at first, using a greywater system will create a thriving landscape AND ease your conscience when you accidentally leave the sink running while you brush your teeth or when you take a relaxing shower that might be a bit longer than planned!



Time to Water the Garden (and We are in a Drought) Subscribe Email Print

Time to Water the Garden

(and We Are in a Drought)

By Greg Peterson

This time of the year I get a lot of questions about how to best water our yards. Short of standing with the hose or installing a sprinkler system (both of which are significantly water wasteful), what can we do?

Some of my favorite solutions include rain water harvesting, greywater harvesting and drip tape systems.  All three of these methods require some forethought and planning. Over the next few weeks we are going to explore these options.  Each of them are defined as:

  • Rainwater - is any water that falls on your property
  • Greywater - is any water that goes down any drain in your home except your kitchen sink and toilet.
  • Drip Tape systems - an innovative watering system that distributes water very selectively and is quite water efficient.

For the longest time after I went to my first permaculture class in 1991 I understood the notion of water harvesting to be one where I had to collect and store the water in some kind of container which is the very expensive way of installing water harvesting systems.  The part that I missed was that there is a perfect storage container for the water that is FREE...it's the ground around my home.  Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, says to plant your water first then plant the landscape around it. 

Plant your water first is very wise advice and will save you a bucket load of money on storage containers.  That's right—don't build tanks, put gutters in place and direct the water in the ground where you need it.

Plus, the biggest problem with storing greywater is that it becomes blackwater very quickly and smells.  You don’t want to stick your nose in a greywater tank after a few days of storage - plus cleaning them out is quite a bear. 

This week's article, called Greywater Turned Green, explores the many aspects of greywater. But before you go there, here are some quick greywater answers.

  • Greywater is the water that goes down your shower, washer and sink (not including the kitchen.)
  • Blackwater, which is not usable in our landscape, is the water that goes down the toilet and kitchen sink.
  • Don't ever store greywater, as it begins to smell very quickly.
  • Greywater is legal in some states. Check with your local municipality for the regulations in your area.
  • To see Arizona's regulations click here

We also have two fantastic books on the topic. Create an Oasis with Greywater gives you the inside scoop on irrigating with household wash water while relieving septic tank strain and doing it all chemical free! Plus Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands Vol. 1 shows you how to select, place, size, construct, and plant your chosen water harvesting "earthworks".  Most of all, have fun with your greywater.  Have a great green day.

Urban Livestock: To Raise Meat or Eggs? Subscribe Email Print

Urban Livestock:

To Raise Meat or Eggs?
By Greg Peterson


In pondering urban livestock, the difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs.  The pig is committed and the chicken is involved. 

So my question for you is: Are you interested in being involved or committed?  For me it comes down to my ethic and has been a process that has spanned almost four decades.  Do I raise animals and take the products that they offer (eggs, honey and milk) or raise animals for the meat that they have to offer? Hmmmm.

In the mid ‘70s I was a fisherman with a fishing permit and was raising tilapia to eat.  In both cases the fish were caught and used for meat—a fairly easy process as there wasn’t anything warm and fuzzy about fish.

Then in 1999 I was gifted three laying hens from my friend Robert because he got tired of me talking about raising hens and not doing anything about it.  Well, hens are easy: provide them with a nice place to roost at night and lay during the day, some food and water and my job became collecting the bounty eggs.  Easy and not at all confronting. 

Animals that make product are generally pretty easy to handle and include: poultry (chickens, ducks and quail for eggs), bees for honey and goats and cows for milk. All of these are about nurturing the animal so they produce an abundance.

One meal completely out of the yard of the Urban Farm:
two eggs, two kinds of squash, two kinds of greens and some edible flowers (Nasturtiums).

Fast forward to 2011 or so.  I began pondering the fact that I am not a vegetarian—primarily I eat poultry, rarely fish and never red meat—and began the process of considering raising my own chickens…for meat.  Up to this point I had always considered my flock of hens as pets and they got to live out their entire life in my backyard with no consideration of ending their life early…until now.  What better way to learn the process and connect back to the source of my food than raising birds for meat? So, I collected my nerve and ordered 6 “Jumbo Cornish x Rocks” meat birds. 

They arrived as pretty little day old peepers which had an expiration date on them of about 12 weeks out.  Which meant that I would need to be harvesting them by then or…well they would become so heavy that they would literally become to big that they would not be able to walk any longer.  And grow they did - they were non stop eaters and by the time they were 10 weeks old I would guess they were 3 to 4 pounds each. 

The day arrived and I collected my nerve, invited Kenny over to show me and I proceeded to prep the birds for my plate. Up to this point in my life I had never had to take the life of anything warm and fuzzy and it was quite the challenge for me, but I prevailed and ended up eating the birds that I raised. This didn’t turn me off to raising meat birds, so I decided to do it two more times, adding four meat turkeys along the way. Really, the most challenging part of this process for me is taking the life of another and, since my last grow out and butchering process in 2013 I have decided that:

1.  OK, now I know how to do this I don’t have to do it again,

2.  I am much more of a vegetarian, and

3.  I am willing to pay the higher prices for organic, naturally raised birds when I do decide to eat them.

This has been quite the learning process for me and it still continues.  Do I hold ill will against anyone that chooses to harvest their own meat? Absolutely not—I actually highly respect them as it take as lot of commitment to go through the process. Plus, not wanting to be a hypocrite, being mostly a vegetarian still means I eat a bit of meat here and there. 

A new piece of learning arrived recently when I was gifted a beautiful 500-gallon upright pond that I fully intended to turn into an aquaponics setup.  Aquaponics is a hybrid of aquaculture and hydroponics where the fish water feeds the plants and the plants clean the fish water—pretty cool setup, actually. 

So, I started the conversation with my sweetie Heidi, and she reminded me of the part where I have to harvest the meat. She asked me if I would be willing to and I answered in the way that I often answer my students: it depends.  Would I if I had to? Absolutely. Would I just for the fun of it? Probably not.  I am still sitting on the fence, but leaning toward “no.” 

As you can see, I am all about experimenting, especially when it comes to raising food.  Does your level of experimenting need to be harvesting your own meat? No, but I highly recommend experimenting in general as it adds to the richness of our knowledge and a further connection to our food.

Perhaps your experimenting is simply planting watermelons or broccoli for the first time, planting a fruit tree or getting a laying hen.  Whatever it may be, just jump in and do it! I have found that that food that I raised myself always tastes better.  The bottom line is for me to be able to grow healthy, nutrient-dense food that tastes good.

Why are All the Bees Vanishing? Subscribe Email Print

Why are All the Bees Vanishing?

 By Tayler Jenkins

Over the past few years, beekeepers and scientists alike have been puzzling over a strange phenomenon in which entire colonies of bees all over Europe and North America inexplicably disappear from their hives, never to return. Most of the time, the bodies are nowhere to be found.

No matter how much we appreciate or despise bees, one thing’s for sure: We can’t live without them. Bees are major pollinators of the crops that we eat (one-third, actually), including apples, cucumbers, broccoli, almonds, avocados, carrots, pumpkins, onions, and more.  No bees means no food.

Since bees are so vital to our food security, it’s no wonder scientists are desperately trying to determine the culprit of this issue, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). What could possibly cause so many bees to just completely disappear? There is no shortage of theories: everything from GMOs to cell phone towers to aliens has been proposed. But what does the science say?

The most compelling finding I’ve come across traces CCD back to multiple factors, beginning with one interesting fact about bees: bees have naturally low immunity to diseases and chemicals. They are able to improve this immunity by eating honey or bee bread, the foods they make from pollen, which has detoxifying and immunizing compounds. Since many bees are fed supplements of sugar or corn syrup, they are lacking sufficient pollen in their diets to build their immunity. On top of that, they are being exposed to increased amounts of insecticides, particularly miticides, which are sprayed in hives to kill mites. Inadequate supply of food also means that bees are feeding on less nutritious options—in two strange cases, bees were found to be making red honey after feeding from a Maraschino cherry factory and another hives made blue honey after feeding on waste from an M&M factory. All of the above factors contribute to decreased immunity in bees, rendering them less equipped to handle pathogens and parasites.

Luckily, we aren’t worried that bees will go extinct—CCD is only happening to commercial hives, not wild bees. But what can we do to mitigate the losses and promote bee health? If you have a garden, plant something that bees love (here is a list of what bees pollinate).  Additionally, support your local beekeeper and learn about his or her practices.

This is only a brief overview of an extremely complex, multi-faceted problem. If interested in more in-depth information about this compelling issue, I urge you to keep reading!

Sources (also great for further reading):





Corner Cottage: A Lifelong Journey in Farming Subscribe Email Print

Corner Cottage: 
A Lifelong Journey in Farming

By Deb Goff

Editor's Note: Deb Goff is The Urban Farm's featured farmer for this month. Read our Q&A with Deb here

One always wonders how they got to where they are from where they began.  There are certainly many directions a person goes from one beginning, but there are threads that have no breaks.  I can see a connection to the Earth and animals from the very beginning—from Avra Valley to Tempe to Casa Grande, AZ to Sultan, WA and back to Tempe.

I grew up in Avra Valley, outside dawn to dusk, rabbits, chickens, cows, horses and always a garden.  My goal in life was to own a farm. After this amazing childhood I went to university at ASU.   Even during this time I see a connection in my summer job.  I flagged cropdusters for Fye and Mosely Aviation out of Casa Grande.  While I now know how bad pesticides can be for our produce all I knew then was that I was being paid to be outside.  I loved piling into the back of a pick-up truck at 3 am and being dropped in a cantaloupe or watermelon field in the middle of nowhere with my flag and chains.  I would sit and watch the sun rise, feel the wind fall and watch the insects awaken.  Suddenly, the drone of the plane would catch my attention and I would place the chains and wave the flag wildly as the plane aimed itself at me. Like some huge drunken dragonfly, at the very last moment, with the plane closing in on me, I would run like crazy to the end of the chain and wait to do it again.

After university and as a young person of the 60s and 70s I was definitely a part of the natural foods movement.  I was a member of Gentle Strength co-op from the very beginning, always concerned about health, natural foods.  My husband and I moved to Laveen, AZ in the early 70s.  We had a little farm with goats for milk, a cow for a pet and a garden.  It was into this environment that our first son was born and we decided we wanted to really go whole hog and live off the land.  We sold everything we owned (really everything), got into an old pick-up truck and drove north in December.  Originally our plan was Idaho, however there was snow in Idaho in December.  We decided to instead head west to Washington.  We ended up in Sultan, Washington with 10 acres of land on the Snohomish/Skykomish Rivers.  We had a little house with no T.V, computers, or radios.  We did by now have two little boys.  Ours was a life of pumpkin patches, strawberry fields, chickens and playing outside dawn to dusk--just like I did as a child.  This was very hard work and we did eventually, after 3 years, decide we wanted our boys to know their aunts, uncles, cousins and grandma.  Once again we sold everything and moved back to Arizona.

It was at this time we purchased Corner Cottage, an old house with an irrigated lot and an established garden from the 1940s.  This sweet little corner of the world was a place the boys could climb trees, raise tadpoles, and make tree forts and walk to the neighborhood school.  We did maintain a garden of sorts and always had dogs and cats for the boys, but these were the years of careers and boy raising and the desire to raise animals and veggies had to be on the back burner.  

The birth of my first grandson 6 years ago put me in gear to begin a renaissance for Corner Cottage, and I began clearing out old oleanders and reinvigorating the old garden.  I guess there is something about the birth of a child that makes me want to recreate a beautiful golden childhood of farm animals and gardens!  Three years ago I was able to retire and had the time I needed to get this project off the ground; coincidentally, my second grandson was born at this time.

One of the first things I did was go on Greg Peterson's home tour.  I started watching my yard to see how I could best use it—watching was the best advice I got from Greg.   I ended with a large, very shaded chicken yard and coop at the back of my property, I fenced this and made the garden adjacent with a gate between the two areas.  The gate allows me to keep the chickens out of the garden (they eat everything) when it is active and it allows them in to fertilize, compost and aerate the garden between seasons.  I decided I needed to create many small garden spaces within the big garden.  This made the work load more manageable.  I did not want to use and 'new' materials to create the garden spaces.  So, the scavenging began—all of the brick and concrete were gleaned from the alley.  Recently, I scored some great garden boxes; they have been placed and will be used this year as another part of the garden.  

Here at Corner Cottage Chicken Emporium and Garden we have 4 hens, an alley garden for the neighborhood, the main garden, an herb garden on the south side of the house and an experimental raised garden made from scavenged bricks at the front of the house.  I think gardening is about the joy of time. It is about slowing to the pace of nature—waiting and watching for the ground to warm, for the seed to sprout, for the blossom to bloom, for the fruit to ripen—and then beginning again.  Every season is a new canvas with endless possibilities, over and over again, each season unique and yet the same.  Urban farming is good for humans, animals and especially this beautiful place we live, Earth.  

Story Book Garden on Wheels Subscribe Email Print

Gardening at School:
How to Build a 
Story Book Garden on Wheels

By Randy Mann

Dirt, security, and educational relevance are three problems many school garden enthusiasts have to overcome when they start thinking about planting a garden at their school.  The Story Book Garden on Wheels will address these three issues and hopefully help you get your garden growing on campus.

In order to create this garden on wheels you will need a half whiskey barrel (plastic or wood), a sturdy wheeled plant stand, a small 3-foot wooden trellis, bolts and screws, potting soil, plants, a good children’s picture book about gardening, and a bungee cord.

First, make sure your barrel has proper drainage by drilling a couple of holes in the bottom.  Second, attach your sturdy wheeled plant stand to your barrel with bolts or screws. Your garden on wheels is going to see a lot of movement so make sure the stand is attached securely.  Next, attach the wooden trellis to the inside of the barrel so that it sticks about 2 1/2 feet above the rim.  Fill the barrel up with potting soil and your barrel is ready to roll.

There are many picture books that have gardening themes.  One of my favorites is Chicks and Salsa by Aaron Reynolds. I have my students create a salsa garden in their Story Book Garden on Wheels and wheel the garden to different rooms and read Chicks and Salsa with another class.  When the garden on wheels is not in the classroom, it can be left out in the courtyard with the book attached to the trellis with the bungee cord in case some student would like to sit for a while and read.  Securing the garden after school hours is as easy as wheeling it into a room for the night.  

What Food Looks Like Subscribe Email Print

What Food Looks Like
By Catherine Slye


Click on the photos to learn more about them


In January 2015 I started a new project I named “What Food Looks Like” through which I am investigating and photo-documenting our local food community. I decided to dedicated one full year to this project.

As an artist and photographer I set out to create a project that was centered on a social issue, one that would allow me to examine my community and my role in it. I asked myself: What can I do? How can I make change using the skills and talents I have? How can I affect my community?

I spent several weeks thinking about and examining what I think is important and which of those things are happening here and now in Phoenix. I chose to focus on food. I believe photography can be inspiring, enlightening, timely and relevant. I believe art has the power to change us. I thought that if I could document what is and what isn’t happening in our community and get these images out there—well then, almost anything could happen, couldn’t it?

When I came up with the name “What Food Looks Like” for the project, the whole idea coalesced. I would seek out and photograph the growing of food and the lack of food instances in the form of urban community gardens, farmers and farms, organizations and groups that are working to eliminate food deserts and food insecurity. Plus, individuals, entrepreneurs, specialty food growers, ranchers and more.

So far, in the first quarter of 2015 I’ve visited 19 places. I’ve started a Google Map to track them. They are: Mesa Urban Garden, The Urban GardenThe Micro Farm Project, Growhouse, Gilbert Farmer’s Market, Recycled City CompostArizona Microgreens, The Orchard Community Learning CenterPHX Renews, Garfield Community Garden, Hayden Flour MillsHope House FarmsSt. Mary’s FoodbankThe Simple FarmSt. Vincent de Paul, plus several private home garden and chicken set ups.

Right now I’m photographing the eight neighborhoods in City Central South. In 2011, Phoenix Revitalization Corporation had a study done through the ASU School of Sustainability on quality food access in City Central South. I’m using the study as a mapping tool to photograph the stores, gardens and what is not in the neighborhoods. This is big part of the picture of food - the lack of it. The lack of access to quality food options. We need to fix that.

There’s still so much that I have yet to see and photograph. I am looking to connect with people and places—livestock and milk production, schools with garden/learning components, foodshelfs, shelters and kitchens that feed those in need, large farms/farmers that sell at farmer’s markets and additional community gardens. My goal is at the end of the one year to display the best of the images in an art show and publish them in a book format. Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like to discuss my project or you want to use my images for your organization, business or personal use.


Catherine Slye is a photographer and mixed media artist. Catherine works with photography, paper, fabric, thread, pencil and stitches, both hand and machine made. 

Catherine has made Phoenix, AZ her home since 2007. All of her mixed media work revolves around the city and the built environment. Her artwork and photography has been shown and published locally in 2010, '12, '14 and '15. In early 2015 she embarked on a year-long project, What Food Looks Like, to photo-document food access and systems here in the Valley. 

During 9-5 Catherine works for an online art & design college, producing content and visual information. In the rest of her time, she's working on her art and photography projects.

Some have called her "wild and effervescent", but that could be only when she's discussing her projects.  

For images and more: www.catslye.com

Featured Farmer: Deb from Corner Cottage Chicken Emporium and Garden Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer: Deb from
Corner Cottage Chicken Emporium and Garden

Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is your farm’s name? Size? What are you growing? What kind of climate are you growing in?

Corner Cottage Chicken Emporium and Garden

This is a little irrigated corner lot a block south of ASU and Gammage Auditorium.  The very back of the lot is the chicken yard/garden.  There is a gate between the garden and the chicken yard.  The chickens are only allowed into the garden from July to September.  This is the time for the girls to weed, fertilize, compost and aerate the soil to get it ready for the next planting.  The garden is about 400 square feet although not all is given over to veggies.

At the side of the house is a  approximately 100 sq. foot herb garden.  Right now there is:  lavender, many different mints, lemon verbena, thyme and rosemary.

At the front of the house there are two little gardens (experiments) both about 10 sq. feet.  I am experimenting with tomatoes, basil, parsley, cucumber, chives and lavender.  It is an odd space and the sun is difficult to manage because there are so many large trees, but I have been watching the space (thanks Greg) and I think there will be enough sun.

Behind the garden proper and bordering our alley I have gotten rid of some oleanders and planted a lemon and orange tree as well as:  onions, artichokes, tomatoes, pepper, broccoli, hollyhock, and nasturtium.  This is for the homeless in the neighborhood.  In the past they have asked to pick food,  I always say yes, but they are uncomfortable walking up the driveway, and opening the gate.  This way they can just walk by and pick what they need.

As I said we do have irrigation but I supplement plants in raised beds and pots as well as the Alley garden.

What initially got you interested in urban farming?

I have always been interested in gardening.  I was raised in the middle of nowhere in Avra Valley Arizona.  We had gardens, rabbits, cows, pigs, chickens and horses.  A farm has always felt like home.  As an adult and young mother we had a little farm in Laveen and then sold everything we had and moved to Washington State to "live off the land."  (It was REALLY hard!)  We lasted 3 years and returned to Arizona and our families.  We kept a garden at our home only minimumly while keeping up with careers and little/big children.  When I retired I was determined to dedicate my time to growing as much food as possible.  I took Greg Peterson's home tour and was hooked.

Do you use compost?

I do use compost. When I first began I used truckloads of compost from Singh's Farm. Now I make my own from hay, chicken poop and leaves/grassclippings.

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?

I have four hens.  Elvira and Esmeralda are Rhode Island Reds, Pearl is a Barred Rock and Madeline-Rose is an Ameraucana.  Maddie was rescued from the Humane Society 3 years ago and has never laid an egg.  She does, however, keep all the other Zen Hens in line.

What do you do with the food you grow?

We eat most of the food we grow and some we share with friends and neighbors.  This year I have tomatoes, peppers, onions, artichokes, cauliflower, broccoli, swiss chard and many herbs.

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?

For me the greatest challenge is summer,  I have a tendency to throw up my hands in July and give the garden over to the ministrations of the chickens!  I also find it difficult to lose a hen.  I have lost two so far despite vet intervention and doing all I could to help.

What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?

I love being outside (even when it is hot hot hot).  I like sweating and getting dirty, it makes me feel like a little girl.  I love how the garden, looks, feels and smells.  I love the sounds of the hens chortling and the wind passing through the wisteria vines.  It makes me happy to care for these things.  I feel urban gardening is good for a human being.  It exercises us, it causes us to slow down and to notice how nature gets the job done in an unhurried way.  It is healthy!!  Eating your own freshly picking veggies and fruit is not only more nutritious but causes us to appreciate how much goes into a meal.  In gardening we get a connection to the Earth, the sun and even the moon.  We come to appreciate how plants and animals sustain us.  Just as (or more) important is that, the effort we make to garden helps our beautiful beautiful planet.  Less moving food from here to there using fossil fuels lessenssome pollution.  I gives us a safer more diverse food chain.  It is good for every body, with the exception of chemical companies and agri-business.

Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?

I certainly hope urban and local gardening is the future, if we are smart it will be.  I have no idea--humans are frail and illogical at times.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

My advice.  Go small at first (don't move to Washington and buy 10 acres!).  Take little steps a small planter or raised garden.  As for chickens, always talk to your neighbors first even if it is ok in the neighborhood in which you live.  I occasionally give the neighbors a 1/2 dozen eggs and they love it.

There is nothing like sitting in your garden in the evening watching the chickens settle in, the butterflies flutter drunkenly to where ever they go in the evening, the smell of herbs and flowers wafting around your shoulders to make you want to do this labor of love over and over again.

Featured Farmer: Catherine from The Cohen Kibutz Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer:

Catherine from The Cohen Kibutz


Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is your farm’s name?

The Cohen Kibutz. Although no one else works it.


We are on an acre, but use very little of it because we are not fenced in. We have 8 trees, 7 we planted this year and a fig tree we planted in 2006 from a twig. We also have a moringa tree in a pot (it’s new), 2 barrels with herbs and our favorite, a keyhole garden with tomatoes.

What are you growing?

Herbs and tomatoes for now. We are building another keyhole garden for eggplants and peppers.  

What kind of climate are you growing in?


What initially got you interested in urban farming?

My parents always had a vegetable garden in the yard in our house in Queens, NY as did all the neighbors. When I moved to Long Island, I continued growing, but I knew nothing about organics and safe growing practices. We moved to Arizona in 1996 and it hasn’t been easy to farm out here because we are not fenced in and have all kinds of critters coming through the yard. Javelina, rabbits, coyotes and the occasional snake.

Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods? Explain.

We have 2 compost bins that we use for kitchen scraps. We only eat organic or pesticide- and GMO-free food, so it is great compost. Anything else we use in the yard is organic. Our main crop are tomatoes. We grow them in a keyhole garden and they grow much bigger and better than when we just had them in the ground. A keyhole is a circular raised bed about 3 ½ feet high to keep javelina out. It is 6 feet in diameter with a cutout or keyhole (pie slice) on one side so you can reach the whole thing. At the pie slice point we put a tube made of chicken wire. Into that we throw kitchen scraps and the whole thing self-fertilizes.

Do you use compost? 

We start with compost dirt from Singh Farms in Mesa. We also compost in a compost bin (2 of them) and the keyhole garden is self-composting. Our tomatoes don’t need fertilizer or even bug spray. They are super healthy and strong. Everyone wants our seeds!

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?

Hoping for chickens one day. Our neighbors had some but the local bobcat had them for dinner. So we have to plan a really excellent fencing system.

What do you do with the food you grow?

We can the tomatoes, eat them in salad or just pop them in our mouths. They also make a great caprese salad and we use the basil from our yard as well.

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?


What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?

It gives us a sense of accomplishment. Makes us grateful for the food we grow and for the food we buy.

Why do you think urban farming is important?

The more we grow, the more of a sense of control of our lives we have. Our health, our spending, our environment are now controlled by us. The more food we grow, the more independent we become. Not in a doomsday sort of way. But just a sense of security that if I grow it, I know it.

Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?

Yes I think this is a growing movement. Groceries are expensive. Even if you can grow your own herbs, you save a lot of money. It’s really easy.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

Start small and you don’t have to be traditional. We did much better with our raised beds than with traditional in-ground gardening.

Summer Pests: We've All Got 'Em Subscribe Email Print

Summer Pests:

We’ve All Got ’Em

By Greg Peterson

Garden pests … we’ve all got ’em. The question is, what do we do about them?

Over and over I have found two things that make the whole bugaboo less of a concern: soil and balance.

First, build healthy soil. Healthy soil grows happy plants and happy plants are less susceptible to pests of all kinds. Healthy soil is composed of five important components and when one of them is missing … well, gardening is a huge challenge and is not fun.

Dirt and organic material are the basis for good soil and perhaps the two most obvious ingredients. Dirt is decomposed rock that contains many of the micronutrients and minerals that plants need to thrive, while organic material is made up of sticks, leaves, compost and mulch. Organic material breaks down very quickly in our desert soils and needs to be added often.

Air space and water are the next two items that contribute to the success of the garden. Highly compacted soil (dirt without air spaces) leaves no place for roots to venture, giving them no place to grow. Water, for obvious reasons, makes the whole process go. One caveat: Roots do not travel to find water—the water needs to come to them.

So what else could there be in healthy soil? In my humble opinion, the most important component for a successful garden is all of the living things that occupy the space … worms, bugs and a plethora of valuable microorganisms whose names I cannot pronounce and without which our gardens cannot thrive. This is where adding a chemical of any kind shortchanges the growing process.

This leads to our next big issue … keeping your garden in balance. Nature brings a certain order and balance to our gardens. When we nurture this process, the success of our plantings is much greater. By adding harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we are throwing nature off balance, making the environment more vulnerable to pests and other varmints. Adding lots of compost, which is rich in microbial life, supplementing with organic fertilizer and using only natural pest controls will take you a long way toward keeping your garden in balance.

So, you have been working on all this and you still get bugs … it happens. It’s only natural to want to repel those pesky predators that buzz around your head on a warm, sunny day, munch your tomatoes and/or sneak around the darkest corners of your home and garden.

Unfortunately, most pest-control products on the market contain toxic chemicals. While they are highly effective at repelling insects, some doctors have recommended against exposing yourself or your children to them. Further, when pests bug your plants, spraying them with toxins leads to the possibility of ingesting those chemicals yourself later as you enjoy your garden salad. Plus, your children can absorb the toxins through their skin when they play in the yard or even indoors, where crawling toddlers are especially vulnerable to pesticides.

Home and garden pests are numerous. Here are the most common ones I have encountered in my garden and my suggestions for dealing with them.

Aphids and other sucking bugs puncture the skin of your plants and suck on the juices. The first line of defense against this type of bug is spraying it off the plant with a strong burst of water. If it continues to appear, mix one teaspoon of natural dishwashing soap with a quart of water and spray it on the plants. Warning: Don’t use the antibacterial soaps, as agents in these soaps can kill the life in your soil.

Caterpillars can also cause me fits in my garden. The simplest control method is to watch for the telltale signs of leaves being eaten, then look under the damaged leaf and pluck the caterpillars off. I then send them sailing to the coop, where the chickens get a morsel to fight over. If the caterpillars get really out of control, most nurseries sell a natural nontoxic bacteria called BT, which can be sprayed or dusted onto the plants and is very effective.

Roaches and ants also pose a pesky problem both indoors and out. The most effective natural cockroach deterrent is boric acid, found at drug and hardware stores in the form of a powder. Mixing the boric acid with something the bugs like, such as honey, will attract them. They then consume the bait, take it back to their nests and the problem just seems to handle itself. I use bottle caps to mix this concoction in and then set them in corners of the yard and house and wait for them to work.

Mixing garden-grade diatomaceous earth (which is unpolished) with boric acid and spreading it around your problem areas is also very effective. Diatomaceous earth is a fine powder with very sharp edges, which essentially cuts the bugs. Then the boric acid helps finish the job. Both of these substances are naturally occurring and, in the quantities you will use, are nontoxic to humans and animals.

Birds are always an interesting pest to deal with in our gardens. Mostly they like to dig up the sprouting seeds of corn, beans and other large-seeded plants. The solution is to bury the seed farther down. I use my index finger to poke a hole (about three inches) into the ground and drop the seed in. The big seeds of corn and beans have no trouble getting through the soil and are hardier for their travels. 

Additionally I save the old bed sheets and use them as a top mulch for the newly seeded garden beds.  Plant your seeds spread the sheet with rocks on each corner.  Then for the first 3 to 5 weeks water the sheet.  The plants will let you know when it is time to remove it.  This handles two issues - mulch and bird protection - in permaculture we call this “stacking functions.”

Mosquitoes pose a pesky problem with few options for controlling them. The first thing to do is to peruse hidden areas in the yard for abandoned cups, buckets or toys that might accumulate water. Also change out your pet dishes frequently and dump those planter bottoms. All these areas collect enough water for mosquitoes to breed in.

If you are barbequing, throw some sage and rosemary on the coals to repel mosquitoes. There is also a great mosquito repellant from All-terrain called Herbal Armor. It is free of DEET and other chemicals, uses only natural ingredients and comes as lotion with SPF in it.

Pests come in many forms and this is by no means an all-inclusive list. The trick to managing them is to pay attention to what is going on in your garden. Experiment with these and some of the many other natural controls that are out there. 

What is a "Featured" Farmer? Subscribe Email Print

What is a “Featured” Farmer?

By Tayler Jenkins

If you’ve been receiving our newsletter, you have probably noticed the introduction of a monthly “featured farmer.” Featured farmer—that sounds so official, doesn’t it? What makes somebody a farmer, let alone a featured farmer?

Here’s a hint—it doesn’t matter if you’re growing herbs on your windowsill, keeping chickens in your backyard, or experimenting with your first tomatoes. If you grow and share your food, even just with your family or neighbors, you are already a farmer!

We introduced the featured farmer column because we are so inspired by what you guys are doing and want to spread this enthusiasm. No two farms are the same, and it’s incredible to see the diverse methods each of you are using to grow, as well as the various fruits and vegetables each of you are growing.

So far, we’ve featured a tropical plant pioneer, a dynamic duo, a beekeeper, an aquaponics aficionado, a health-conscious mom, a practical new farmer, an organic food advocate, and a lifelong self-proclaimed Garden Guru.

What are you growing? As Farmer Greg has said, “You can be a balcony gardener, a backyard farmer, a tower garden aficionado… does not matter to us as long as you are growing food.” So, no matter what “homegrown” entails to you, know that when you take control of your food in this way you are a part of the revolution and are making a difference for yourself and the world around you.

Interested in sharing your urban farming endeavors with us? If you are passionate about urban farming and would like to write a related article to be published on our blog and newsletter, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: A Q&A with Carol Deppe Subscribe Email Print

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening:

A Q&A with Carol Deppe

Groundbreaking garden writer Carol Deppe (The Resilient GardenerBreed Your Own Vegetable Varietieshas done it again with her latest book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. Called a “vegetable gardener’s treasury” by Booklist, this new guide focuses on some of the most popular home garden vegetables and through them illustrates the key principles and practices that beginner and experienced gardeners alike need to know to successfully plant and grow just about any food crop.

In The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Deppe introduces her innovative “Eat-All Greens Garden” which could be the easiest, most space-saving, and labor-efficient way of growing greens. With this method, a family can raise all their summer greens as well as freeze and dry enough for the winter months with even a tiny plot—a perfect approach for small-scale and urban gardeners.

For more specifics about the “Eat-All Greens Garden,” read this interview with Carol Deppe.

A no-labor garden. Really? It seems too good to be true. Can you give us a little background on how you came to develop this Eat-All Greens Garden?

CD: My first eat-all greens garden came about mostly by accident. At the time I only had three small garden beds. I was never able to grow as many greens as I wanted with my tiny garden. One spring I had a large pile of compost delivered and dumped on the concrete driveway. I wasn’t going to need the compost for a couple of months. Or the driveway.  If the compost was spread on the driveway, I thought, it would almost double my gardening space…at least for that couple of months. I decided to try it. What could I grow in a couple months? Since it was mid-March in Oregon, a full two months before our average last freeze in spring, I needed something that could handle freezes and grow fast in cool weather. And I craved greens above all else. So I chose ‘Green Wave’ mustard. It’s a mustard with erect plant form and blazingly hot flavor raw, but a rich succulent, non-hot flavor when cooked even only briefly.

A few minutes of work with a hoe gave me a shallow bed of compost about six inches deep over most of the driveway. It was the work of another three minutes to sprinkle the seeds on the newly formed bed and to bounce a leaf rake across the bed lightly to disturb the surface of the bed enough to cover the seeds. That was it. I never weeded. And since we get regular rains in early spring, I never watered either. Once the bed was formed, I did no work at all beyond sowing the seeds and harvesting. And the crop grew in an unusual way that made harvesting and handling in the kitchen much easier and faster and the yield much higher than I had ever experienced growing any greens.

After that, of course, I tried to repeat the experience to no avail initially. I happened to have chosen what turned out to be the very best mustard variety for growing as eat-all greens. And just by accident, I had managed to sow at the perfect density for an eat-all ‘Green Wave’ mustard crop. It was a few years before I could successfully repeat that first eat-all ‘Green Wave’ mustard patch reliably. And it was the work of another two decades of testing many varieties of different greens crops before I developed a repertoire of, at this point, eleven different basic greens crops from five plant families that work as eat-all greens crops.

The eat-all greens do fine on pure compost. But any good fertile garden soil will do. A good eat-all variety must grow fast enough to overgrow and shade out weeds. The harvesting and handling in the kitchen involves unusually low labor because there are no weeds or dead leaves that need to be sorted. Everything you harvest is edible.

ST: You mention that this garden has the potential to feed families—even in small, urban gardens. Just how much can you grow in a season?

CD: I once planted a 5-foot square eat-all patch of leaf radishes. (Leaf radishes are bred for the leaves rather than the roots, and are widely used in China, Korea, and Japan for greens for stir fries, soups, and pickled vegetables.) This patch was just 25 square feet of gardening space. I harvested 13.3 pounds of greens a mere forty-one days later. This represented a yield of 0.53 pounds per square foot. Considering I can grow leaf radishes about seven months in the year, I would be able to grow five eat-all leaf radish crops per year for a yield of 2.6 lbs. per square foot per season.

Sometimes eat-all greens crops don’t take any space at all, because they occupy garden space during times that it would otherwise be wasted. Eat-all greens are the ideal catch crops. I like to plant eat-all greens in beds in between the rows of big-vined squash, for example. I can grow and harvest an entire eat-all greens crop before the squash vines need the space. And I can grow and harvest an eat-all crop of greens in the tomato patch in spring before it’s time to set out the tomato transplants. I also plant small eat-all greens patches in gaps in other plantings wherever the main planting failed to come up.

ST: Does it work well in all climates? Is it possible to adapt the variety selections to different growing zones/regions?

CD: Many of the good eat-all varieties I’ve discovered are varieties that are already widely adapted. ‘Green Wave’ mustard, for example, was developed in the Southeast, but also does well everywhere else. The Indian spinach ‘Red Aztec Huazontle’ is a relative of quinoa that is a Mexican heirloom, but it is also happy in the maritime Northwest. I think it will probably grow just about anywhere. Leaf-bred radishes are also widely adapted. The particular varieties of leafy amaranths that do best for me, might well be different from the ones that do best for you if you live in another region. But you can probably find some leafy amaranth that will grow fast enough in your climate to work as an eat-all crop if you do a little exploring. Gai Lohn, aka Chinese broccoli, is also widely adapted.

If you live in a region with much hotter summers than mine, you may shift your growing of eat-all greens to spring and fall instead of growing them straight through the summer. Or you may even grow them in winter. In regions with much shorter summers, you might want to use a cloche or greenhouse so as to extend your harvest season and get as many crops as possible per year. Since a small patch of eat-all greens is so high yielding, it’s much more practical to use season altering methods than it is when using standard greens growing methods.

ST: What about growing eat-all greens in containers? Or on rooftop gardens?

CD: Practically speaking, my very first accidental eat-all crop of ‘Green Wave’ mustard was container grown, since it was just a six inch (15 cm) deep layer of compost spread on a solid concrete driveway. That was basically a wide shallow container. I think eat-all greens should work much better in containers than other edibles. That’s in part because the yields are so high and growth is so fast that you can plant multiple successions. But it’s also because you don’t need very deep soil to grow eat-all greens since they aren’t in the ground very long. In addition, greens are generally shade tolerant. That’s ideal for containers on porches, balconies or in window boxes where there is inevitably partial shade.

I think the eat-all greens garden method also has potential to allow serious production of edible greens on rooftop gardens. 




Featured Farmer: Diane from Nickle Family Urban Farm Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer:

Diane from Nickle Family Urban Farm

 We are excited to announce our March featured farmer, Diane from Nickle Family Urban Farm in Tempe, AZ. She is doing some amazing things on her urban farm and even coaches others in their gardening endeavors. Check out her website, Garden Guru.  Also, we have a new feature - check out our first podcast with Diane:

Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is your farm’s name? Size?

Nickle Family Urban Farm, about 1/8 acre. We have a 25’ tangelo shrub on the north east corner of our property that gives us amazing fruit to share every year.  We plant directly in the ground, containers, and above ground beds.  There are a variety of herbs—some we include in meals and others are used as companion plants to keep unwanted pests away.  Some of the herbs we grow include chives, lemon verbena, oregano, cilantro, rue and basil, just to name a few.  Vegetables, like herbs, are dependent on the season.  This winter we enjoyed yummy broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, and lots of celery. The fava beans and peas are just blooming; they were planted a little late.  We had an abundance of sweet gypsy red peppers and eggplant until the last multiple-night freeze.  The plants did not freeze back completely and are already full of new growth.  I have a variety of starts waiting to be planted such as heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers, zucchini, squash and cucumbers.  We grow perennials like bee balm, chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), an array of salvias, rain lilies and penstemon.  I have to mention nasturtium.  This time every year our back gardens are invaded with them.  Once you plant one it will reseed and can multiply into what seems like thousands the next season!  Many of the plants we grow attract hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and praying mantis, all of which are beneficial to a garden. 

What kind of climate are you growing in?

There are many microclimates around our urban farm.  Living in the low desert gives many opportunities for gardening year long.  Selecting the right location for a particular plant depends on the season, sun exposure, structures that can shade and act as heat sinks, and the secondary vegetation including trees.

What initially got you interested in urban farming?

I grew up in a small town in southeast Missouri where my mother and I gardened together.  We canned much of our food and I found it enjoyable as well as very tasty.  After that I found myself always digging in the soil no matter where I lived. 

Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods?

I am an organic gardener incorporating aspects of permaculture.  I have learned that a healthy plant wards off being attacked so organic gardening is what our urban farm is all about. 

Do you use compost?

Yes, composting is one thing my husband solely takes care of.  We use old vegetable garden boxes as our compost bins.  Having multiple areas to compost in allows us to rotate as the compost becomes ready for incorporating in our garden beds.  I have a small worm factory or vermaculture farm which produces black gold for our plants.  It has rotating trays filled with red wigglers that eat our garbage.  It takes about 30 days for the worms to transform kitchen scraps into usable compost.

Where do you get it and how does it help your plants grow? 

It takes time for all of our kitchen scraps and yard waste to decompose into usable material but it is well worth the wait.  I have seen how our gardens thrive and benefit from using the compost we make as a mulch, top dressing.  Adding compost creates a soil rich in micronutrients that help plants naturally resist disease and pests.

Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?

No, but there is interest in bees and chickens—just no time at this point in our lives.

What do you do with the food you grow?

Mostly my husband and I eat many of the veggies we grow; however, there have been many occasions where we have had such an abundance that I take some of the excess to the Escalante food donation center in Tempe or share with family and neighbors.

What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?

Microclimates, the temperature variations and the intensity of the sun make each area of our property unique.  I am always thinking ahead so that I may harvest as long as possible from any given plant.  Water needs are also greatly affected by microclimates.  It is difficult to have all plants on the same watering system so I make sure plants with the same water needs are on the same drip system.

What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?

The satisfaction of knowing where my food comes from is important and of course the tastes and aromas of what I feed my family.  I really enjoy being outdoors.   I have always loved and respected our mother earth. There is a connection that goes beyond words; for me that is spiritual.

Why do you think urban farming is important? 

On a local level there is the satisfaction of eating things you’ve grown yourself, sustainability at a local level, food miles, and seasonal availability of all types of food.  Globally, communities and society that learn to feed themselves help social issues of hunger and poverty.  Right now only a few countries feed the world. If people have the tools to feed themselves you change that dynamic—feed a man a fish and he eats one day; teach a man to fish and he eats for life.

Do you think this is a growing movement?

It is encouraging to see the thousands of people all over the world sharing their stories on social media.  Occasionally you might hear an inspiring story about urban farming on local media.  Choices for local and organic options at the grocery stores and restaurants have increased enormously, as well as the number of farmers markets around the country.  

Is urban farming the future of agriculture? 

Urban farming will definitely play a role in agriculture.  People are becoming more aware of what they are eating and as the choices change, the industry will need to evolve as well.  Diversifying the sources for food supply increases our ability to rebound from adverse weather and environmental disasters.  Think of Victory Gardens during World War II.           

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

Start small.  First, find out what plants grow during which season in the valley of the sun.  After determining the season select what you would like to add to your meals from the list.  It is important that you feel excited by your first harvest.  Find a local grower to get your plants or seed from and be consistent with watering.  Don’t let your plants get stressed out with too little or too much watering.  You can always call Garden Guru AZ for a consultation.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Once I graduated from Arizona State with a science degree emphasizing in urban horticulture, I decided to start a business to share my knowledge of gardening in the valley.  I have lived and gardened here for 27 years and through success and failure I have learned how to eat from my property year round.

Interested in learning more about gardening from Diane? Check out her website at GardenGuruAZ.com.

The New Urban Farm: Chicken Taj Mahal Made with Politicians in Mind Subscribe Email Print

The New Urban Farm:

Chicken Taj Mahal

Made with Politicians in Mind
By Greg Peterson

I added my first flock of chickens to the Urban Farm in 1999 after almost two years of lamenting to my friend Robert, who finally got tired of listening to me so brought me 3 hens and said deal with it.  I learned quickly how easy and fun chickens are to keep. 

Over the years I have had many different ‘houses’ for the hens and occasional rooster (don’t tell anyone). From using a standard 4’ x 8’ box with a roof and two sides (the one I had for more than a decade) to chicken tractors or just letting them actually roost in the trees, I never spent a lot of time thinking about how to build them a house. Until now…

Two things led to the decision to actually build an official chicken coop.  The first was that my sweetie Heidi and I decided to add more hens to our flock, so we needed a secure place for them to grow.  The problem this presented was that we now have a feral cat that lives here at the Urban Farm and she will take out any small bird including our new chicks.  In the past, I have raised chicks in a cardboard box then moved them to a run that was not secure.

The second relates to the cost of feed.  Without an enclosed chicken coop the chickens eat outside along with all the pigeons and other birds that gladly will show up by the hundreds to munch on our nice organic feed.  I even purchased a trundle feeder to solve this (it has a platform that the chickens have to stand on to open the feed door), but the pigeons figured out that if two or three of them landed on the platform the door would open and dinner would be served.

So the process began.  I am a big fan of reusing as many of the bits of cultural detritus as possible, so when I think of building a new chicken coop I naturally think of old political signs.  They make great siding and literally last for decades.  This little tidbit has not gone unnoticed as evidenced by this hilarious tidbit that ran in Phoenix Magazine right after the fall elections.  I especially like the part about me being the “Election Day pilot fish, nibbling dead bits of flesh off of the body politic.”  I cannot stop laughing about this one.


Anyway, I digress—back to the coop de Taj Mahal.  Step one was to determine the size and shape of the new digs.  We designed a 5’x9’ coop and during the process realized that we could actually make it 6 feet wide in the front, so we created a 1-foot-wide pop-out for the front part of the coop, which magically created an upper space to add a brooder.  So, within a few days in January we had the main structure, roof, walls and brooder installed and ready for chicks and chickens.

Until…we tried to fit in 10 hens onto the roosting bars and 10 rapidly-growing chicks into the brooder and we realized that we were going to quickly run out of room.  Above is the original coop and below the original brooder.

It quickly became clear that we needed to expand our chicken digs and do it now as the chicks were growing very quickly.  So, I hatched yet another plant to add another 5’x 8’ extension to the west side. With my buddies Forrest and Jeff we were able to bang it out in a mere 2 days.  This new extension will be the housing for the new chicks until they are old enough to be integrated into the main flock and not be hunted by our feral cat.

Take note that on the picture below we have removed a piece of the back wall of the brooder and added a bale of hay so the chickens have access to their brooder and the 40 square feet of ground space.  Once I integrate the new chicks into the flock to remove the brooder and wall between the two coops, my intent is to make it one large indoor coop, making my now almost-finished Coop de Taj Mahal almost 100 square feet. 


We have plans for built-in nesting boxes and a new brooder area for next time we have to raise chicks.

Before we talk about the cost of feed, though, I want to share two other money saving tips that I use in my chicken area—a feeder and nesting boxes.

We were challenged with where in the coop to put the feeder.  There were two issues: how much ground space it takes up and the fact that chickens love to get in the feeder and spread food all over the place (thus wasting a LOT of it). So, we put on our brainstorming hat and decided to try using a metal gutter.  I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am with the value of this one.  Hens can’t get on top of it, plus it is outside of the floor space and is working well.  Total cost—about $10.  I plan on putting another one in the new section when we open it to all the hens.

Years ago I dreamed this one up and it is very easy and cheap!  I take two 15-gallon tree tubs and one piece of scrap wood and screw them together, add some hay to the bottom and voila! I have the perfect place for the hens to lay.

And for the cost of the feed: In Phoenix (and now Tucson) we participate in a local organic animal food co-op run by Scott Brown.  We love what he does. The feed is reasonably priced, comes in 50–pound bags and is manufactured by a small mill, unlike other organic feed that comes from ‘the big guys’ in 40 pound bags that are $5 more expensive.

Here is what I have noticed: two months into feeding our hens inside and not letting the other birds at the food, we are saving an extreme amount of food.  Last year we were spending $65 per month on feed; now it looks like we have at least cut that cost in half.  I don’t have specifics as of yet but as this process develops over the next few months I will be documenting it and letting you know.

As you can see, we take our hens very seriously here at the urban farm.  We love them because they eat a lot of our food scraps, fertilize and till our soil and provide a nice almost daily deposit of eggs to eat for breakfast and share with our community (the sharing often includes selling organic, free range eggs). I believe that if you have a backyard or even rooftop (in cooler climates than Phoenix) everyone should keep 3 or 4 hens...for the work they do and for the fun they bring into your life.  

DIY Zero Waste Kit Subscribe Email Print

DIY Zero Waste Kit
By Tayler Jenkins

As the immense amount of waste generated by modern society becomes an increasingly alarming and urgent issue, many of us ponder what we as individuals can do to lessen our own contribution to this problem. Creating your own toolkit of “zero waste” items can help you to reduce the amount of items you throw away in your daily life, particularly when you’re out and about and tempted to reach for convenient single-use objects. Building your zero waste kit is also a fun way to explore how you can make a difference with just minor alterations to your daily lifestyle and it makes a great gift for your environmentally conscious friends or relatives.

A zero waste kit might sound like an oxymoron—why would you want to obtain more things if you’re trying to reduce waste? Hear me out: how many plastic bags, water bottles, utensils, paper towels, or coffee cups do you go through in a day? Week? Year? It might not feel like much, but think about that applied to your whole lifetime, and the lifetimes of the multitudes of others in the world who live the way you do. A zero waste kit will help you reduce or eliminate use of these notorious items that end up in landfills and oceans by the multitudes.

Did you know that 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away in the U.S. every hour?1 Or that 3,000 tons of paper towels end up in landfills every day in the U.S. alone?2 Coffee lovers, your daily Starbucks run creates 23 pounds of disposable cup waste per year, and Americans throw out 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups (which is around 75 per person) annually, which cannot be recycled and are not biodegradable.2,3

There are all kinds of reasons this is problematic: All that waste decomposing in landfills emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Plastic bags take 1000 years to decompose, and their presence is hazardous for wildlife. Styrofoam doesn’t decompose, taking up space in landfills and killing still more wildlife.3 Marine life in particular is harmed by the 45,000 tons of plastic waste that end up dumped in oceans each year.4

These alarming statistics could go on and on, but rather than focus on the negative I’d like to inspire you to be a part of the solution by showing you how to build your own zero waste kit. I obtained my first kit as part of a project undertaken by my university’s sustainability program to help students on the go reduce their waste. Beginning there, I have developed the following recipe for creating a zero waste kit:

Reusable Grocery Bag

The reusable grocery bag is where it all begins. Think about your last trip to the store or farmer’s market—how many plastic bags did it take to get your food home? In the US, we go through 100 billion plastic shopping bags per year. When you consistently bring your own bags to the store, you’re preventing that many plastic bags from getting into landfills, polluting oceans, or being consumed by unsuspecting wildlife.

Water Bottle

If you do not already own a glass or stainless steel water bottle, let me use this opportunity to convince you why it should be the next thing you obtain, even if you do not make a zero waste kit:

  1. Plastic bottles waste water: It takes 3 liters of water to produce every liter of bottled water5.
  2. Plastic bottles pollute: Every square mile of the ocean has 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it6, and plastics don’t biodegrade—they merely photodegrade, or break down into smaller pieces, absorbing toxins and contaminating water, land, and animals that may eat them.
  3. Plastic bottles contribute to greenhouse gas emissions: It has been estimated that it takes over 50 million barrels of oil to “pump, process, transport, and refrigerate” bottled water7
  4. Buying bottled water is expensive: Bottled water can cost 1,000 times what tap water costs, and don’t let the images of mountain springs fool you into thinking you’re getting something better—in many cases, you are just paying premium price for tap water marketed as something else8
  5. Bottled water is not necessarily better for you than tap water: Tap water is more strictly regulated than bottled water and, based on a study by the NRDC, 22 percent of tested bottled water exceeded state health limits for contaminants. Additionally, when bottled water is stored for longer periods of time, phthalates from the plastic have been found to leach into the water7. Yikes!


I know it’s a vice, but who doesn’t love the electrifying feeling of caffeine rushing through their veins? If you enjoy coffee (or tea) as much as I do and cannot resist grabbing a cup on your way to school or work, I’ll let you in on a secret—not only does bringing your own tumbler or mug get you a discount in many coffee shops, but if you get an insulated one it will keep your hot beverages hot and iced beverages cold for hours. It’s a win-win for you and for the environment. Personally, I’m obsessed with my Klean Kanteen tumbler but if you’re on a budget you can find well-priced quality tumblers at a variety of stores.

Small Towel

Bathrooms frequently offer only paper towels for hand drying, and let’s be real—when they offer both air hand dryers and paper towels, it’s easy to get lazy and just reach for the paper towel.  If you carry your own small towel with you—in your bag, purse, pocket, backpack, whatever—you can use it to dry your hands instead of wasting paper every single time.  Or do what Farmer Greg does and use your pants.

Spork or Mini Utensil Set

There are few things handier than a well-designed spork. Use it in place of single-use plastic utensils to eat, to scare away people you don’t want to talk to, or anytime you want to scratch those hard-to-reach places (just kidding, but not really). My own personal spork has a spoon on one side, fork on the other, and notches on the side of the fork to act as a knife. It fits in my tumbler when I’m not using it, or just loose in my bag.

Armed with this toolkit, you are well on your way to significantly reducing your environmental impact. Of course, these are only a few ideas to help you begin thinking about reducing waste—don’t stop here! Let this be a starting point for your own journey in transitioning to a waste-free lifestyle. Think about what you throw away on a daily basis and brainstorm what you could cut back on or, better yet, eliminate altogether. What other items would you include in your own zero waste kit? Do you have any personal tips for reducing waste? Share in the comments.


  1. http://www.carryyourcup.org/get-the-facts
  2. http://blog.goinggreentoday.com/11-facts-about-paper-waste/
  3. http://www.sustainablelafayette.org/archive/resources/waste-2/waste/
  4. http://www.green-networld.com/facts/waste.htm
  5. http://thewaterproject.org/bottled_water_wasteful
  6. http://www.reuseit.com/facts-and-myths/use-and-toss-plastic-bottle-facts.htm
  7. http://homeguides.sfgate.com/water-bottle-pollution-79179.html
  8. http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/bottled/bottled-water-bad-for-people-and-the-environment/


Tayler is a passionate undergraduate honors student in Barrett, studying Sustainability. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Tayler tries to embody in herself the changes she hopes the world will embrace. She is a self-proclaimed “real foodie” and an activist in a student organization on hermschool’s campus whose purpose is to bring more healthy and local food to the university. In the summer of 2013, she spent two months on a permaculture farm in Nepal and conducted research on conservation farming. Tayler is currently the editor of The Urban Farm Lifestyle newsletter and hopes to use it as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming. Tayler can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Featured Farmer: Sylvia Bernstein from The Aquaponic Source Subscribe Email Print

Featured Farmer: Sylvia Bernstein

from The Aquaponic Source

Tell me a little about your aquaponic system. What is its name? Size? What kinds of fish and plants are you raising?

My personal aquaponic systems were actually all moved to our business facility when we moved in July, 2013.  There we now have eight large AquaBundance style systems and twelve AquaMini and AquaDesigner countertop systems totaling approximately 1500 gallons of water.  They are powered by a wide variety of fish, from betas, guppies and goldfish to tilapia, catfish, bass and bluegill.  There is even more variety with the plants we grow, with just about everything you can imagine thriving in our showroom and grow lab.  Over the past few years we’ve successfully grown dwarf fruit trees, orchids, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, and a variety of herbs, greens, houseplants, and more.

What initially got you interested in aquaponics?

I first learned about aquaponics when I was the VP of Product Development for AeroGrow International, the makers of the AeroGarden countertop hydroponic system.  For years we had been trying to figure out how to offer an organic nutrient for the AeroGarden, but organics is difficult to do in small hydroponic systems because there is typically insufficient microbial activity to mineralize the organic matter and make it bio-available to the plants.  The result was generally either poor growth and/or a horrible smell, or when it did work the nutrients were extremely expensive.  But in 2008 I read an article about aquaponics and, while I was highly skeptical at first, the thriving basement system set up by a co-worker, followed by my own first system convinced me that aquaponics is a viable, sustainable way to grow organic hydroponic crops.

Do you use worms or compost? What do they do for your system?

We add composting red worms to all of our media beds.  Their role is to help process the fish solid waste and plant debris within the grow media.

What do you do with the plants you grow? The fish?

They are a great employee and store visitor benefit!

What is your greatest challenge in your aquaponics endeavors?

Battling some of the misinformation that is out there on the internet.  Anyone can call themselves an expert these days, and everyone has an online voice now.  I have heard some crazy things about aquaponics that simply aren’t true, like you can’t successfully grow fruiting plants in aquaponics.  We do it every day!

What do you enjoy the most about raising fish and food?

I enjoy the solid conviction of knowing exactly how this food was raised and, with regard to the fish, what it was fed and the conditions under which it was raised and harvested.  I also enjoy the huge variety of produce that becomes accessible when you grow your own herbs and vegetables from seed.  Instead of just a green bean you would get from the grocery store, for example, I now have access to ten varieties of green beans if I grow my own. 

Why do you think urban farming and aquaponics are important?

In 2007 we went from living on a primarily rural planet to a primarily urban one, so to me the need for urban farming and aquaponics is a matter of simple math.  Global population levels are rising at the same time as a higher percent of that population are living in urban centers.  According to the UN FAO, we can only clear about 20% of the remaining land on earth for farming – the rest is unsuitable.  This takes us to 48% total of the total earth’s surface available for farming.  That is it.  We will increasingly have no choice but to turn to urban agriculture to feed ourselves.

Do you think this is a growing movement? Are aquaponics going to play a large role in the future of agriculture? 

I do, for two reasons.  First, I believe aquaculture will continue to play a significant role in growing our food – it already provides over 50% of the fish consumed globally.  And aquaponics takes the costly waste byproduct of aquaculture and transforms it into a beneficial input into another growing system.  A cost center becomes a profit center.  Second, because aquaponic systems recirculate their system water they use far less water than any other form of agriculture.  As population growth and climate change combine to put increasing pressure on our water supply, we will turn to aquaponics more and more as a water-wise way to grow our food.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

Yes!  Seek out reputable sources of educational material rather than just doing an internet search and reading whatever free material comes up first in the search engines.  The small amount that you pay for a high quality book, DVD or online course will be made up for many times in avoided costly mistakes down the road.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Aquaponics can be done on a wide range of scales – from small desktop systems to huge commercial farms.  I hope that everyone reading this is compelled to start an aquaponic system on some level that interests them.  I think you will find creating your own aquaponic ecosystem is both fascinating and rewarding.  Give it a try!


*Photo from The Aquaponic Source

Sylvia Bernstein
President, The Aquaponic Source - Try Aquaponics - TheAquaponicSource.com
Author, Aquaponic Gardening: A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together-http://aquaponicgardening.com/
Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/TheAquaponicSource
Twitter - @aquapon

GMO, Hybrid & Heirloom Seeds - Just What is the Difference? Subscribe Email Print

GMO, Hybrid & Heirloom Seeds—

Just What is the Difference?

By Greg Peterson

Often, people ask me if the Urban Farm trees and plants are genetically modified (GM), or how they can know if a plant or seed they are buying is genetically modified.  Generally speaking, small farmers and home gardeners are immune to the marketing of GM seeds and plants because the companies that do the work to genetically engineer plants and seeds are not interested in selling to such a small market.  Yay for us…for now.  Here is the most current list of GM crops on the market.  

In an effort to clear up any seeds of confusion I am dedicating this column to distinguishing the three distinct “types” of seeds: open pollinated (or heirloom), hybrids and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  Heirloom seeds are left just as Mother Nature intended, while the hybrids and GMOs involve some level of human intervention.

Open pollinated or heirloom seeds as they are sometimes called, are seeds that have been passed from generation to generation and have stayed true to their ancestral roots by consistently producing the same offspring.  This results in plants that genetically are hundreds, or thousands of years old, each developing a resistance to the diseases and pests with which it evolved.  When this type of seed is planted and allowed to grow and go to seed again, it will always produce the same plant.

Seed banks serve a vital role in the preservation of the genetic diversity embodied in the open pollinated species.  Organizations such as The Southern Seed Legacy, Seed Savers International and Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance have created systems and methods to preserve open pollinated seeds and cultivars.  Of particular interest to me is the way Cornell University in Geneva, New York maintains an incredibly diverse collection of apple and grape plants, boasting over 2,500 apple cultivars and 1,300 grape cultivars.

Hybrid seeds have their own magic. I find that most people are familiar with the term hybrid, which is similar to the process that occurs in nature called natural selection.  The process is simple: plant A cross-pollinates with plant B, together creating plant C.  In essence this is how plants and animals slowly evolve.  Here is where it gets interesting -- about 150 years ago a gentleman named Gregor Mendel discovered that different pea plants (Pisum sativum) carried different traits and that by selectively breeding these plants he could bring out or, conversely, suppress these different traits.  The value in this method is that the “positive” traits in a plant or animal can be brought out, while the “negative” traits can be suppressed. 

So now onto real life…a farmer has a really sweet watermelon (A) but it has a lot of seeds, and watermelon B has a great shelf life.  By selectively breeding these two plants the farmer finds that the resulting watermelon magically doesn’t have seeds, and he gets a sweet fruit with a long shelf life.  The unfortunate part of this process is that hybridized plants often make seeds that are not necessarily viable for future generations.  So, saving seeds can be somewhat futile or, of course, impossible with “seedless watermelons.”  That being said, magic can happen in saving hybrid seeds, so if you want to experiment with them, go for it and see what you produce.

I also want to clear up some internet mistruths that are being spread.  Hybrids are NOT genetically modified.  It has been stated that humans have been genetically modifying seeds for hundreds of years, but this is simply not true.  Hybrids cross pollinate with only those plants that they are sexually compatible with.  Period!

Genetic modification or transgenic is a process by which a gene is taken from one species such as a fish and transported, typically with a virus, to another species such as a tomato.  This is a process that does NOT exist in nature and only happens in a laboratory.  For a great primer on this topic, see the book Genetically Engineered Food:  Changing the Nature of Nature, by Martin Teitel & Kimberly Wilson.

Another term you may have seen applied to seeds is organic.  Simply put, organic seeds are those that have been grown in a manner that is consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Standards.  There are organically grown heirloom and hybrid seeds.  However, under the current organic guidelines you will not see organically grown GMO seeds because by definition they are excluded.

All this being said, my go to for seeds is the open pollinated seed.  This gives me the long term effect of essentially free plants growing year after year in the yard here at the Urban Farm.  I let nature spread the seeds and then, next year and for many years to come, I have a nice crop of plants growing with little effort on my part.  Some people call them weeds—I call them volunteers that lighten my workload.  Yay for the lazy gardener in me

Where to get Good Seeds!