Raymond Jess from Phoenix, AZ
Tell me a little about your urban farm. What is its name? Size?
I’m not sure I can call my small backyard an urban farm. I haven’t named it, although a friend of my wife’s dubbed it “The Garden of Eden” several years ago. My primary growing plots are two 4 X 8 foot raised wicking beds (Read Raymond’s article on wicking beds here). Additionally, I use a variety of global buckets, earth boxes and various sizes of planting pots. My yard is approximately 50 wide and 30 feet deep with a pool which is 30 feet long by 15 feet wide located mostly to one side of the yard.
What are you growing?
Along the walls of my yard I have three citrus trees, a bay leaf bush, grape vine, three dwarf peach trees, three Japanese Privet trees, a small flower/herb garden and a wall of white Lady Banks roses. Located on my extended patio in pots are blue berries, a loquat tree, a kumquat tree, tomato plants, basil, chives, a caper bush and various flowers. Currently in the wicking beds are various varieties of tomatoes, summer squashes, bush beans, dwarf kale, cucumbers, celery, parsley and green onions. When I look at my yard, I don’t think I am growing that much but when I write it down, I am surprised because, to me, it sounds like a lot.
What kind of climate are you growing in?
My home is located close to the Sonoran Mountain Preserve in the northern part of Phoenix, Arizona. Our climate is warm to hot most of the time. Our average annual rain fall is less than 7 inches and the humidity levels are quite low. Most of the country considers us a desert but I think it is closer to paradise.
What initially got you interested in urban farming?
I grew up in the San Francisco bay area and my father always seemed to have a garden in our yard. I guess knowing what nutritious, ripe fruits and vegetables tasted like made me want the same thing for my family.
Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic or other methods? Explain.
Everything I grow is organic. Nature has been kind enough to provide us with all we need to control weeds, harmful insects and feed the soil. I was military for a good part of my life and I thought everything in the garden needed to be neat, orderly and in rows. After I attended a Permaculture Design Course, I looked at nature a little differently. Nothing in nature is neat, orderly or in rows. I have adapted much of my gardening practice to adhere to the principles of permaculture and it seems to be working very well. I look on my wicking garden beds as a hybrid planter since the moisture comes from the bottom up.
Do you use compost? Where do you get it and how does it help your plants?
I find compost to be an indispensable part of gardening. After all, what does one do with the refuge left behind from all that is growing? I have three types of composting. First, I have a rotating compost barrel which takes care of the growing matter. Second, I use a Bokashi compost system on everything except my wicking garden and grow buckets and that takes care of most of my kitchen scraps. The last component of my composting system is my worm bin. I believe compost returns nutrients to the soil and keeps it healthy. It is the soil that feeds our plants and gives us bountiful nutrient rich fruit and vegetables.
Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?
Living in an HOA controlled community prevents me from having chickens or bees. I have set out housing for Mason bees however, no residents as of yet.
What do you do with the food you grow?
First, the food I grow is for my family. Teaching my children and grandchildren how nature provides us with different foods throughout the year has been exciting. At first, it was difficult for them to understand why our garden didn’t look like the produce shelves at the grocery store. With time, patience and experimentation they learned about how nature gives us different foods throughout the year. What we do not eat fresh from the garden is either canned, dried or given to our neighbors. Our neighbors are thankful to get garden fresh fruit and produce straight from a garden they know.
What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?
My biggest challenge has been learning how to grow the food I love in the heat of Phoenix Arizona. The desert is a very different climate from where I grew up in central California. Not only did my gardening techniques have to change but so did the expectation of what I could grow.
What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?
I think one of the things I enjoy most about growing my own food is watching the wonder of nature. Once a seed is planted, watching it break the surface of the soil, then growing into a mature plant and finally harvesting the bounty provided is exciting. Watching the food ripen on the plant and knowing it is full of the nutrients our body needs and enjoying the taste is incredibly rewarding.
Why do you think urban farming is important?
I think people need a connection to the earth and growing one’s food, even a small part of it, is part of that connection. When food is brought in from around the world, it is picked “green” and it has not developed the nutrients and taste food should have. Growing your own makes a world of difference in taste of the meals you prepare for your family. I love the fact I can go out my back door and pick the herbs that enhance the flavor of the food I prepare.
Do you think this is a growing movement?
I hope urban farming is a growing movement. I frequently associate with people who have the same passion I do about gardening, food, and health. What I can’t see is how many of those people talk with their friends, who have not yet embraced the idea of growing their own food. Word of mouth is the best advertisement. One never knows the ramifications of sharing food you have grown.
I have a friend who was at my home for dinner one evening; I asked her to step out to my garden with me. We pulled an onion of all things and after cleaning it, I asked her to bite into it. Of course she was used to the pungent taste of store bought onions and thought I was crazy. She was surprised at how sweet and flavorful it was. That one act of sharing and experiencing home grown food influenced her. She now has her own garden and obtained her degree in Sustainability. She works to spread the word of just how wonderfully rewarding urban farming is. A young friend of the family, who we share food with, has an almost two-year old. The little girl loves her “cold-rabi” (kohlrabi) raw from our garden. Her mom gives her sticks from the refrigerator. A tour of the garden is a must every visit. Her latest discovery was how soft baby peaches are.
Is urban farming the future of agriculture?
My greatest hope is there will be a garden in every household. This was a reality one or two generations ago. Victory Gardens of World War II were normal and expected. I think people believe they are too busy to spend time growing any of their own food. They go to a drive through restaurant, out to eat or get pre-prepared food at the grocery store and believe it is good and healthy. Convenience and the media have made many people believe fast or easy is the way their lives should be. I believe anything good is worth putting effort into, including the food we eat.
Do you have any advice for someone that’s just getting started?
Most people are fairly busy in their day to day lives, if you start with just a planter or two and grow something you like to eat, it’s a start. You may find you like the fruits of your labor and want to expand when time and money allow. Don’t expect your garden to be perfect. Successes and failures happen, even to experienced gardeners. Embrace the failures and learn; celebrate the success and rejoice. Gardening should be enjoyable and relaxing not something to stress over. Take time out of your day and get back to the feeling of playing in the dirt, like when you were a child.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The more I learn about and experience gardening, the more questions I generate. Thank goodness for other gardeners, books, classes and the internet to give a me variety of answers. Sometimes the answers from these sources differ, so don’t be afraid to try something which was suggested. If it works fine, if not…try something else. Don’t be afraid to change your gardening technique based on the knowledge you have gained. Above all have fun, enjoy what you have grown and share.
I am so happy urban farmers are being featured again! There stories are such an inspiration and help to spur us on. I appreciate all the advice!
Love learning about what people are growing and new ways to grow them! Ray and I met at Master Gardener class and he’s the nicest, most helpful guy I’ve met in a long time. Thanks for all the great info!
I’ve researched a lot about how to buil a wicking bed for my Austin Texas dry climate and your tutorials are the best! One question; I assume the bulkhead is to drain the water completely out of the bed from the bottom? I only have rainwater for my house and garden and do not have access to city or well water so I don’t expect to have to drain out my water due to salt buildup. I’m not sure what purpose the bulkhead fitting serves and how do you properly seal the fitting so it doesn’t leak. I understand it comes with parts but I’m wondering if you also use a sealant caulk? Do you recommend lava rock as the gravel or crushed granite or pea pebble? Oppps – that was way more than o e question! 🙂
Thank you for the kind words about my article. Without a doubt, rain water is the best and congratulations on harvesting enough of it to thrive on your property. The bulkhead fitting serves three purposes. Yes, the first one is to drain the bed occasionally but the second purpose is to determine the level of the water reservoir by the length of the tube you attach to the bulkhead fitting and the third purpose is to act as an over-flow port so your garden bed does not get too saturated or flooded. After installing the bulkhead fitting, I do put a layer of sealant around the fitting nut and where it attaches to the pond liner; I would hate to remove the soil and rock after the bed was filled because it was leaking.
As for the rock used as the reservoir, lava rock is exceptional because of it’s porosity however I tend to shy away from using it because of the sharp edges. In my mind, sharp edges and soft plastic liner are not a good combination. I have used ½ – ¾ river rock on one bed and for my second bed I used ¼ inch pea gravel which seemed to work better for wicking.
If I may be of any further assistance, please feel free to add another question to this article. The more questions asked makes for a clearer understanding of any project.