Desert gardening

It’s spring! Well, at least it’s starting to feel a lot like it here in Arizona. We’ve had an unseasonably warm winter thus far.

And so, my partner and I have decided to FINALLY break open the boxes of raised beds I had bought several years ago, shovel out some of our compost dirt that I’d been working on (ongoing) for at least three years, buy some good organic dirt from a local nursery, and finally plant some organic food and herb seeds I’d had lying around the house for years.

My dream of a garden has been held off for so long, because I have been trying my luck with small projects first. But my first few projects did not bode well. My first ivy houseplant died due to an infestation of spider mites (which, I’ve learned, they’re prone to here in the desert). The subsequent ivy also died… mysteriously. My first tomato plant and pepper plant I bought just withered before my eyes once the scorching summer hit. My first two potted seed-start experiments were utter disasters.

It looked hopeless.

But about six months ago, my partner and I bought each other houseplants as housewarming gifts. Those two houseplants have grown to six (and counting!) and are thriving! So, my dream of being able to play in the dirt and dote like a proud mother on strong green plants may soon be a dream come true. I hope to be able to share with you the triumphant stories of my harvests in the next few months.

We planted spinach, tomatillos, beefsteak tomatoes, and cucumbers in one of the raised beds, and herbs in the other such as cilantro, chives, basil, rosemary, catnip, sage, parsley, and lemon balm.

And to think, it all started with a compost bin and some horse manure – and a dream.

Keep posted, as I provide updates on the pitfalls and prideful successes this new adventure in gardening provides! Eat clean, locally, and well, everyone.

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Want to start your own compost? Here are some basic tips.

Composting basics

Gardens are a great way to help lower your grocery bill, get you moving around for some physical exercise, and provide a sense of pride that, “Hey, I grew that!” It’s simply satisfying. And one way to ensure that a garden grows to its fullest potential is to fertilize it with a layer of composted dirt. Want to start a compost bin of your own? Here are some tips.

Compost being spread over dirt in a raised bed.
Compost being spread over dirt in a raised bed.

What to put into your compost:
– Fruit and veggie scraps, peels and rinds
– Coffee grounds and filters
– Tea bags and tea leaves
– Used paper napkins, plates (no waxy coating) and paper towels
– Newspaper and other non-colored paper with only black print (no colors!)
– Plain cooked pasta or rice
– Stale cereal, bread, and crackers
– Olive pits, nut shells (not walnuts)
– Wine corks
– Toothpicks and bamboo skewers
– Shells (eggs and crustacean)

What NOT to put into your compost:
– Meat or fish
– Bone
– Dairy products
– Grease
– Animal/human waste
– Weeds, diseased plants, roots
– Charcoal ash
– Plastic or glass

It doesn’t hurt to mix organic dirt or organically produced livestock manure for a good base as you build the rest of your compost. And it’s helpful to have a nice balance of wet (veggies, plants) with dry (coffee grounds, paper) materials.

Good luck, and enjoy your fresh dirt and future gardens!

Teaching people to feed themselves

Gardens – while my black thumb has been a major hurdle personally trying to get one up and running, I’m passionate about them. From the schoolyard young to the mature and elderly, it is never too late to share the magic of tending and growing their own garden for food.

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By Linda Bartlett (Photographer)

Why do I feel this is a vital part of our society? Well, growing gardens fosters a sense of community, first of all. What I mean by that is, how many of you gardeners have grown a type of food and ended up with so much of it come harvest time, that it seemed a waste to let it wither on the vine? What do we do at that point? We’re offering to unload all of this food to anyone willing to take it: Neighbors, co-workers, friends, family. Now imagine for a second that one out of five people in the US had a garden. I’m not even talking everyone, just one out of five. Imagine how much food would be flowing through your neighborhood. Food deserts, what is that? Hunger, what is that? Food insecurity? We could create a lot more community by getting to talk to your neighbor and trade food, sharing, and assisting those in need. And eventually, it could potentially lead to seeds swaps where you are trading seeds with your neighbor for a variety of lettuce or tomato you’ve never grown before.

Secondly, it just makes sense to teach people to grow their own food because it is cheaper in the end! So many times, I have mused to my partner, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be snacky and just go out into the backyard and snag a fruit from one of our trees, or grab just enough cilantro for my salad instead of a huge bunch at the store that sometimes goes to waste?” The only investment you make is time.

Thirdly, it negates the worry about GMOs and pesticides in our foods if we are buying and trading organic seeds. If you have a home garden, you have so much more control over how your food is grown. You can rest assured that the food your kids pick from the garden in between bouts of throwing the football or biking around the neighborhood is nutritious, natural, and healthy for them.

Now that I have said my piece, I wanted to share some information from the Community Food Banks of Southern Arizona about garden grants with deadlines coming up.

There are three grants – one for schools, one for any charitable or educational nonprofit program in the US, and another that can be put toward any number of garden projects for schools, 501c3s, food banks, community gardens, colleges, libraries, prisons, senior programs, etc.

If any of these speak to you, check out these links, and see if you can start a food revolution for your community!

Muhammad Ali Center Peace Garden Grant
Award: $500 in garden supplies, plants, compost, etc.
Due Date: Jan. 17, 2014

Award: $300 cash + ~$200 in other garden perks
Due Date: Jan. 5, 2014
Award: Rototiller (pictured right) – $350 value
Due Date: March 7, 2014

A locavore’s holiday: National Farmer’s Market Week

In case you didn’t know, this coming week August 5 – 11 is National Farmer’s Market Week. All hail the mighty American farmer! Locavores, unite!

Believe me when I tell you, farmers don’t do what they do for the money. Well, they try to. But for smaller farms, it’s becoming harder and harder to break even these days. It’s almost the American dream to be able to make an honest day’s work simply tilling the land, and reaping the fruits of your labor as they ripen. It may seem easy – throw a few seeds in the ground, watch them grow, sell the results.

But it’s the overhead: Cost of land, paying workers, buying equipment, cost of water, and your yields being at the mercy of the elements that makes farming a tough trade to make a living. Many ranchers and farmers have to take second jobs just to make ends meet.

That’s where we, the consumers, come in! With health and wellness concerns taking hold of our modern-day culture, it makes sense that “locavore” is making its way into the community vocabulary. Especially in a dwindling national economy, buying locally grown produce has put Arizona “you-pick” or CSA-certified farms on the map of modern-day shoppers, urban and rural alike.

Why? There are several fantastic reasons.

First of all, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Food that is locally grown spends less time in the back of a truck; causing less damage to the food. When food is stored for long periods of time, the cells in the fruit begin to break down, causing wilting or bruising and the loss of nutrients. The sugars in the food also turn to starch, which makes the food tougher, and not as flavorful” (Sue Baic, British Dietetic Association, 2007).

So, that means two things: Despite the healthier aspect, when farmers sell directly to consumers, they cut out “the middleman,” so to speak, and get the full value for their produce upfront, which also weighs a little lighter on the consumer’s coin purse, as well. Secondly, it cuts down on emissions from fewer trucks taking produce to long-distance locales. So you’re paying the farmer directly, from the vine to your hand, instead of the high dollar signs at the market due to costs of transportation and related constantly fluctuating gas prices. Consequently without much effort, you’re doing your part in living a little ‘greener.’

Thirdly, paying the local farmer helps keep that money circulating at the community level. It helps support local jobs on the farm, or other related, regional costs the farmer needs to pay.

Wow, right? Why haven’t we always been doing this?

Don’t know where there are any local farmer’s markets? No problem! (And no excuses 😉 ). The Arizona Farm Bureau and the USDA have a wealth of information about the schedule and locations of markets in the state of Arizona, as well as a great graph on the USDA site about growing seasons and what produce is harvested when.

In this modern world, we’ve become so removed from where real food comes from. So this week, do yourself (and food growers!) a favor: Shop local, fresher, healthier, greener, and cheaper, all in one place – at the food source. Win-win for everybody, and is a great big thank you to the hard work our farmers go through to get that food on our tables.

Happy Farmer’s Market Week, everyone!

Don’t always have time to make it out to an area farmer’s market? Do the next best thing! Buy produce at the stores grown locally. Every time I’m at the market, for example, I pick up these sprouts, grown and shipped from only the next town over. Shop local this week! Show your support for food growers in your area.