Featured Farmer: Steve Bayless
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 farm is named Amado Gardens and it is on a 1/8 acre plot (which includes our house). We are growing tomatoes, kale, green leaf lettuce, Serrano peppers, banana peppers, snow peas, watermelon, butternut squash, sunflowers, onions, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, cilantro and bell peppers. Our herb garden contains oregano, peppermint, spearmint, basil, parsley thyme, lemongrass and stevia. We have boysenberries, black, flame and Crimson grapes, goji berries and blueberries. We also grow peaches, plums, nectarines, almonds, lime, lemon, Valencia and mandarin oranges, Anna apples and gala apples, and moringa. We are in a low desert climate.
What initially got you interested in urban farming?
My dad used to keep a garden and as I grew up I started growing things too. Nearly everything I planted produced and I loved it. So when I finally bought a house I started growing my own produce. I love the taste of homegrown produce and since I grow it I know what is in it and on it.
Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods? Explain.
We grow all our plants organically (we are not certified organic because we do not sell any of our produce). We employ the principles of permaculture, using ironwood trees for shade and nitrogen. We also grow a number of native and other desert plants along with our produce. Most of our plants are grown in raised beds due to the heavy clay in our soil.
Do you use compost? Where do you get it and how does it help your plants grow?
I let my chickens do the composting. They are so good at mixing and shredding the plant parts! I built a compost pile in the middle of the chicken run and we rake the run daily and water the pile. The compost is very rich due to the included chicken droppings so a little can really have a big impact on our plants.
Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?
We have 13 chickens: Rhode Island Red, barred rock and black sex link. We are currently averaging 10 eggs a day.
What do you do with the food you grow?
We eat it! Due to our small plot size and large family we eat most everything we grow. Sometimes the kids graze on it before I can get out to harvest it.
What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?
Weather is definitely the greatest challenge in farming. Damaging winds rip young fruit off of trees and sometimes take entire branches down. Freezing temperatures and scorching summer heat shorten the growing time for many plants.
What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?
I find gardening very relaxing and calming. There is just something about digging your hands into the soil and working it. I love getting fresh organic fruits and vegetables to eat as well.
Why do you think urban farming is important?
Urban farming is important because no matter how small your space you can always grow something that will reward you for your efforts. It teaches us to slow down and patiently wait for fruition.
Do you think this is a growing movement? Is urban farming the future of agriculture?
I hope it is a growing movement and that it will become the future of agriculture. With so many genetically modified foods and pesticide-coated produce, urban farming is a healthy solution to commercial agriculture. I have given each of my children a plot in my garden and I’m passing on the principles of permaculture to them as they grow their own food. They get so excited when we harvest something they have grown.
Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?
Just do it! Start small and expand as you can. Grow the produce you like to eat and grow as much from native seed as you possibly can! Good soil is key – don’t skimp on it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The best way to teach others about urban farming is to share some of your produce with them. Once they see it growing and taste the goodness, you will have planted the seed of farming in their hearts.
This is an outstanding article/interview. It’s interesting to me for two reasons, (1) I live up the road in North Phoenix so I’m always very interested in how others in the region address the challenges of growing in the low desert, and (2) I always feel like I need more room to grow more stuff, but when I saw how much Steve was growing on 1/8 acre I know I just need to be resourceful and think it through. I really admire Steve for making the most of his property.
The only thing I disagree with Steve on is the use of raised beds due to heavy clay soil. A lot of people I talk to about vegetable gardening in the low desert say they use raised beds for the same reasons but to me it’s counter-intuitive. Raised beds are best in wet areas of the country where your soil may not be sufficiently dry in time for spring planting. In the desert however, they’ll quickly dry out in our heat and you’ll need 2x-3x as much irrigation to keep your plants healthy, and of course water is always a concern in this environment. Also building raised beds is generally more expensive than just working the soil, and they can limit the size of your rows/beds since you mostly have to work them by hand (no tillers). In contrast I make extensive use of dryland cover crops like medic, sudan grass, Ameristad alfalfa bred for Yuma, etc., and incorporate the covers directly into the soil. I also used copious amounts of steer manure when I first worked the soil since I needed organic matter right away since it takes a couple of seasons before the green manures improve the soil. All my wide rows are slightly above ground level due to the additional organic matter the green manures add, but in reality slight depressions would be better since they’ll retain moisture longer than flat ground, and especially more so than raised ground. The cover crops not only build the soil structure but also buffer the pH quite a bit and reduce the alkalinity as well as reduce the salt content which is something we really need here. I know cover crops are most beneficial for covering larger areas, but they’ll work well on small areas too; you can just incorporate them by hand with a shovel rather than mechanically. With very small planting areas I probably wouldn’t go the cover crop route and would just incorporate animal manures and compost but whichever method I chose I would definitely not build raised beds. That’s just me though and if raised beds work for Steve then he’s probably figured out a way to make them work to his advantage.
I think Steve’s production might increase and he’d probably use less water without the raised beds, but other than that I really have to take my hat off to him. Anyone that can successfully raise food crops in the desert is my idol, and Steve’s doing all that and more on a residential lot. I completely admire anyone making the best use of their land the way Steve is doing. I don’t have chickens yet but I’m working on getting them and bees. Outstanding job Steve – keep up the great work and I wish you all the best!
When I moved to Scottsdale in the late 60’s, I was terribly frustrated by the soil & heat. I had gardened all my life starting in Nebraska, where I was born, and then in southern California. But in Scottsdale, I could not seem to get anything to grow in my small yard. I was fortunate to be working at Scottsdale Community College when a community garden was started there. I started with one plot and expanded to 4 in a year or two. Mark Miller, who started the project, taught classes and was my inspiration. We used basin beds and I think they really work well since they are below the level of the pathways around them and they do retain the water and do not dry out as quickly as raised beds. One of the ‘secrets’ to successful gardening in the desert is learning when to plant and learning the varieties that like our heat.
While I really like the basin bed technique, I now use raised beds since I cannot get ‘down and dirty’ so I had to bring the garden up to me.
Urban gardeners, find a garden club and get to know some ‘old timers’ and you can successfully have wonderful, fresh veggies all year long.