For Greg Brownell, one of the great moments in life is a child’s first carrot.
“A fresh potato or carrot doesn’t taste like the potato or carrot you get from a grocery store,” said Brownell, director of sustainability and community relations at The Farm at South Mountain.
“And when a kid eats the first carrot that comes out of a garden, straight from the garden, the look on their face is amazing. Because it’s so cute, it’s so different. … That person will be looking for that flavor for the rest of their life.”
Whether it’s taking advantage of the opportunity to grow food at home or taking up a hobby, some Arizona residents have embraced gardening.
It’s not realistic to suddenly switch to growing your entire food supply. Pam Perry, a volunteer master gardener at Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, says she should look at a home garden as an addition.
“It’s a nice addition to have something that you can go out and pick, but we still have good sources that our local farmers produce, and we also still have the statewide and international sources in our grocery stores,” she said.
Still, Ryan Jerrell, who owns Dig It Gardens in Phoenix with his wife Jessica, has seen a surge in people making an effort to learn the basics.
“It’s definitely, via email anyway, I can confirm that from that vantage point we’ve seen more questions: How do we get started?” he said.
While gardening is something anyone can take on, there are a number of factors to consider, especially in a climate like Arizona’s.
Jerrell is quick to realize that there are many ways to approach garden scenarios, so one-size-fits-all advice doesn’t always exist. Still, there are some general guidelines that first-time gardeners can consult.
First things first: soil selection
Before you get to the plants, if you’re starting from scratch, you need to start with the soil. There are many options for premixed soil, but Jerrell says choosing to spend a few months on soil and composting can still produce more now.
“If you have good soil, you don’t have to worry about the seed germinating or the plants growing?” he said.
And while that can take longer, it can also be more cost-effective in the long run and result in a fuller harvest.
In any case, check your drain for watering. Plants in the ground also benefit from insulation there. If you plant in a border or in pots, make sure that water can also escape.
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“It’s never too late to plant some‘
There’s certainly plenty of sun for gardening in Arizona, so the bigger problem is making use of it. The sun from the east is usually best, while the sun from the west can be harsher and hotter.
This can be more difficult in apartment complexes with limited space and lighting options. Jerrell recalls speaking to a retirees association where this was a factor. It doesn’t rule out the possibility of growing, it just means gardeners need to understand which plants perform best in each light situation.
The Maricopa County Extension Office provides resources on native planting materials and calendar guidelines for seed planting and starting. Perry, who has volunteered at the office for about 20 years, says the calendar becomes especially important here, as gardeners can quickly check which plants will thrive.
“We can plant and harvest 365 days a year,” Perry said. “It’s never too late to plant some. You have to plant the right thing.”
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Which plants are good for beginners?
For many people, choosing plants is fun. Depending on the season, you can use seeds or starters. Jerrell said seeds can lead to “so much more learning” for kids because they see the entire life cycle of a plant.
Some plants do better than others in Arizona. Jerrell notes that Mediterranean herbs like basil and rosemary thrive here as they naturally grow in a warmer climate.
“I tell people I’ve stopped growing tomatoes other than sun-golden tomatoes,” he said.
Tomatoes’ ability to handle heat is a plus, but Jerrell has also seen firsthand the educational opportunities they offer to children.
“It’s really easy for kids to tell when they’re ready to eat,” he said. “Our 2½ year old knows. He can go and check and he knows which ones to take off and which ones to leave there.”
Peppers can be tricky, says Jerrell, while joking that cucumbers can give you more than you need for a family of four. Perry cites Armenian cucumbers as one that can do well this time of year.
With vegetables, it’s important to remember how quickly they shrink in volume once you start cooking. Foods like spinach and kale can quickly flag when chopping.
By looking at the back of a seed packet, you can check maturity to know how long it will take from planting to harvest, whether that’s 30 days or 150 days. Seed packs should also note spacing requirements for planting. Kale is an example of a fast ripening rate.
Brownell has seen soybeans do well in workshops with young children, and Perry says peanuts are fun. If you decide to jump to fruit, Jerrell says fig trees are a good option.
“Start humble, start small”
For those who want to work on long-term ground but are also looking for some faster results, there are ways to work on two lanes. Jerrell suggests microgreens as “a good middle ground.”
Planting a few pots or trays of microgreens in prepared soil can be a quick way to get started; Meanwhile, new gardeners can prepare the soil in a bed or larger container. For potted plants, the material matters, as the Arizona sun can be stronger. A ceramic pot can retain more heat on days when it hits triple digits.
One thing Jerrell, Perry, and Brownell all emphasize is patience. Even with quick start kits, it can take a while for things to grow. Jerrell says it can lead to plants, but also to patience. Dig It Gardens and Maricopa County Extension Office both have help lines for questions, but it helps temper expectations.
“Start humble, start small,” Perry said. “You don’t have to do 40 mornings.”
Even on a much smaller scale, gardening can be a good hobby for now.
“And after that, I hope,” Jerrell said. “Maybe it will resonate with, say, 5% of the general population to shift their thought process from where we get all our food to to what the supply chain actually looks like. … When things are going down and you’re in a bad situation, do you know how to grow something essential?”
Details: Dig It Gardens, 3015 N. 16th St., Phoenix. 602-812-7476, digphx.com. The Farm at South Mountain, 6106 S 32nd St, Phoenix. 602-276-6360, thefarmatsouthmountain.com. Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, 4341 E Broadway Rd, Phoenix. 602-827-8200, extension.arizona.edu/maricopa.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 480-356-6407. Follow her on Twitter @ kfitz134.
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