Katerina Encinas from Phoenix, AZ
Tell me a little about your urban farm.
Our farm still doesn’t have a name! I thought about this a lot after going to one of Greg’s classes and still haven’t come up with anything. I guess we’re still working on it. We have about a quarter acre in central Phoenix. When we bought this house 5 years ago, the yard was bare, but we didn’t really know what was going on. The yard was essentially a feral cat litter box, except for the side bed with a dying mulberry tree and a field of cholla and rock, delicately covering a bed rich in roofing shingles, huge pieces of concrete and rusty nails. I should also mention south-facing and with zero shade. Perfect.
To be fair, the previous owners had just planted an apricot, a lemon tree and an odd patch of sod. Both trees died, as did the sod. I was determined to grow food. We started by planting a fig, an avocado and passionfruit. Unsurprisingly, the avocado didn’t make it. Neither did a number of other things. We’ve since planted 5 shade trees which are slowly helping shade the southern exposure a bit. Five years later, we have a fig, a plum, a raspberry, passionfruit vine, a lemon, a lime, a blackberry bush, a clementine, 3 goji bushes, an apricot, 2 grapevines, 2 cherry bushes, a guava, and 4 peach trees, all in various states of maturity. Most were planted this past spring in a moment of brilliant insanity, but six of them are going on 3-5 years. We’ve harvested a lot of figs, peaches and passionfruit in the couple of years and it looks like we’ll finally be getting some clementines! My real goal is to have to buy little produce but eventually I’m going to create a microclimate where I can successfully grow an avocado and a mango tree.
We also have 2 good size garden beds and depending on the season grow as much variety as will grow: carrots, chard, beets, collards, kale, rapini, snap and snow peas, tomatoes, radishes, loofa, beans, herbs, flowers, strawberries, okra, etc. and several different types of each usually. We haven’t had much luck with cabbage or cauliflower but I do have one napa cabbage that is looking amazingly good. And we’re trying squash, watermelons, cantaloupe and cucumbers again after a few years of being deterred by a previous squash bug issue.
What initially got you interested in urban farming?
I think I’d always been interested in growing plants and flowers. Before I moved to Phoenix, I’d had a pretty successful simple garden in a completely different climate. Turns out, it’s incredibly easy to grow food in Columbus, Ohio. Phoenix takes some work!
Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods? Explain.
We try to use biodynamic principles in our yard and we use organic and heirloom seeds, compost and natural fertilizers. Although I’m sure we need to fertilize far more often than we do. One of my favorite books is John Jeavon’s How to Grow more Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. I like to use companion planting to deter pests and increase yields by interplanting veggies to get the most out of small gardens, for example planting carrots in the spaces surrounding veggies that need bigger spaces like greens, or planting sage with cabbage to keep pests away. The chickens also do a great job of helping control bugs.
Do you use compost?
We’ve bought compost but we also have 2 areas where we make our own.
Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?
We have 8 very spoiled chickens whose copious poop becomes a part of the compost as well. I’ve even made them a dried herb mix to put in their nests to help keep mites and critters away. I hope to never have to deal with any gross conditions with their vents or feet, so I do things like make fancy dried herb mix and clean their coops and run daily. They also get any bird- or grasshopper-pecked leaf or any seedlings I’m thinning, organic feed, fresh picked weeds and we even both buy them special treats every once a in a while because they are so adorable when they’re excited about food. They go nuts for watermelon, cantaloupe, cabbage, and especially blueberries. They might even eat more of the garden than we do. In return they give us 4-6 eggs a day.
What do you do with the food you grow?
We eat approximately half of what we grow in the garden. Somehow the birds, grasshoppers and chickens seem to get more than their fair share. We get enough eggs and veggies that we get to share them with people we like.
What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?
Keeping everything watered appropriately is probably the greatest challenge. We don’t have irrigation or timers or anything fancy. We water with 3 hoses. It’s a bit high-maintenance, even with mulch. That and the lack of shade which is slowly but surely growing.
What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?
Being able to eat it fresh out of the garden!
Why do you think urban farming is important?
Aside from eating tasty food and knowing exactly how it was grown, I feel like we’re doing our own tiny part in countering the heat island, we’re indirectly cooling our home and making our backyard a place we want to spend time in.
Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?
Sure, why not? It seems more people are interested in self-sustainability and a change of course.
Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?
Be patient and persistent. In my experience in Arizona, it takes a lot to really get a garden going, but once you get past a certain point, it seems to progress exponentially.