Beth from Phoenix, AZ
Tell me a little about your urban farm. What’s its name? Size?
We have a 0.8 acre irrigated lot in Central Phoenix. We haven’t named it. We bought the property in 2006. At the time it had a gravel front yard with a few cacti, and Bermuda grass in the large back yard area, along with a few citrus trees, two pomegranates, and a huge fig that had been completely cut down (the trunk was at least a foot and a half in diameter) but was resprouting from the ground.
I had taken a design-your-own landscape class at the DBG and designed the front yard at our old house, and then became interested in permaculture. So I consulted with Greg Peterson and with Don Titmus, and designed the garden here. For the front yard, we got the irrigation to flow out there once again, and I planted seeds from the native mesquites in Granada Park, and scattered dichondra seed to make a no-mow “lawn.” For the back yard, I hired Life’s a Garden to do Bermuda eradication in the front half, between the house and the pool, and they built a low wall to keep the Bermuda in the far back. I put in garden beds outlined by river rock, mulched with wood chips, and for the far back, planted lots of fruit trees – Anna apple, Katy apricot, Mid-pride peach, a plum, a pear and an Asian pear.
What are you growing?
I grow a little of everything – vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit trees, grape vines, berries… The past few years I’ve gotten interested in perennial vegetables so I am experimenting with asparagus, hyacinth beans, Malabar spinach, garlic chives, nopales, chayote, oca, Livingstone potato, Jerusalem artichokes, and some baby winged beans – I hope they make it!
What kind of climate are you growing in?
Phoenix is hot and dry, but having the irrigated lot really helps.
What initially got you interested in urban farming?
I think it was genetic. My grandmother loved to garden, mostly flowers, and my mom has a Master’s in botany. I was doing my residency in Family Medicine when I got the gardening bug, and suddenly really needed to garden. Only we happened to be living in an apartment at the time. But I found out there was a community garden just down the street from us (this was in Washington, DC) so that was my first little garden plot, and it was very therapeutic. Later we moved to Seattle, and I had a plot in the Picardo Farm P-Patch community garden, and then we moved here and it took me probably 10 years to figure out how to grow things in the desert.
Do you use any organic, permaculture, hydroponic, biodynamic, or other methods? Explain.
Yes, I only use organic fertilizer and no chemical sprays, and I’ve read books on permaculture, so I try to use those principles when I garden. I’ve done sheet mulching to make some of the garden beds, I have a modified keyhole garden bed, and I am now trying to do polyculture and crop rotation. In the bed south of the pool, I have kale and cabbage on their way out (this is in June); lettuce, fennel, and mache going to seed; spaghetti squash, butternut squash and Armenian cukes just forming, and bachelor buttons to attract bees, all mixed up with each other. Each of the squash/cuke varieties is a different species, so I should be able to save the seeds from all of them.
Do you use compost? Where do you get it and how does it help your plants?
I mostly make my own. I recently read Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening and he has a whole chapter called “Compost Like You Mean it.” I purchased an Eco-Shredder, so now we export very little biomass from the property, and when I prune the trees or clear the dead plants (sunflowers, bachelor buttens and larkspur), I chip them and make a big compost pile. I put it on the garden beds and it is really helping the fertility.
Do you have any urban livestock? Chickens? Bees?
We used to keep chickens at our old house, but I developed an egg sensitivity, so no more chickens, sadly. At one point we had bees in the boarded up window of an old shed on the property, so I had a bee guy come and move them to a hive. We had some really great honey from that, and lots of vegetables that year due to the good pollination, but I think the queen may have been injured in the move, and over the next year the hive dwindled and eventually became overrun with wax moths. I’d love to have bees again at some point, but I really don’t know enough about bee care yet.
What do you do with the food you grow?
Eat it! We have 5 kids, so we eat most of it. When we have extras, I can, freeze or dehydrate it, and the extra fruit I bring in to church to share with everyone. Recently, I started bringing some extra fruit to the farmer’s market to sell at the Community Exchange, and I’m going to donate the money I get from that to refugee families.
What is your greatest challenge in your farming endeavors?
The climate here in Phoenix. There are very different growing seasons from the rest of the country, with the heat and low humidity; the soil is poor, so you have to work hard to build it up, and the birds are good at finding fruits, berries, new seedlings and just about anything edible. This spring I saw in a gardening supply magazine a cloche made of chicken wire to protect seedlings from birds and animals – for $29 each! So I made my own chicken wire teepees for pennies, and I’ve been using them for seedlings I plant out so the birds don’t eat them. They work quite well.
What do you enjoy the most about farming/growing food?
I just love being outside every day, the creative process of garden design and planning, and knowing that the food our family eats is fresh and healthy, without chemicals in it.
I think it helps people feel independent to be able to provide for themselves, it greens up the city (which will decrease temperatures and pollution), and increases health.
Do you think this is a growing movement?
I hope so!
Is urban farming the future of agriculture?
Well, the population is not decreasing, so we should make the most of all the land available to provide tasty, healthy food for as many people as possible.
Do you have any advice for someone that’s just getting started?
Start small – pick one project or one garden bed, read up on the subjects that interest you, and experiment. It takes time to learn how to do it and what works, especially in an environment as difficult to grow in as Phoenix, so just keep trying!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Nope, I think I’ve gone on too long already!