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A Garden Grows in El Barrio:
Always More Than A Garden

Logan Phillips is turning his backyard into an urban farming paradise.

September 14, 2015

A Garden Grows in El Barrio

Always More Than a Garden
August 2015 • Logan Phillips

The garden is always more than a garden,
as the house is always more than box of walls.

The garden is a cactus wren nest, woven into cholla.
The garden, tangle of metaphor,
a way of understanding everything else.

The garden produces food almost as afterthought.
The work is not work, the work is sweat meditation,
delirium sonorenses, heat before monsoon.

I build the garden, the garden builds me.
I dig the earth, the earth digs me, dig?

A mentor said concentrate on building the soil,
and the plants will just happen:
a natural springing forth, like a fist
smashing through compacted injustice.

The garden is always more than a garden,
cuidarle a la tierra es un acto revolucionario,
el hecho de echar raíz en un mundo transitorio.

Before sweat is the contemplation,
before seeds is the pickaxe,
before fertility is the shovel,
still so many months before the blooming.

The garden is always more than a garden,
the blooming a natural result of sweat hitting dust.

Earlier this summer, I found myself hunched over the ground, digging out a small swale with my bare hands. This happens to me: I find myself working in the yard without intending to, sand under the fingernails of one hand, coffee mug in the fingers of the other. But this particular day, a flashback hit me almost as déjà vu, a memory from a childhood spent outside, running and digging in the mesquite scrub grasslands below the Huachuca Mountains of Cochise County, Arizona. A friend and I had dragged the hose out from my mother’s flower garden to a sloped area next to the driveway. We opened the tap on the hose, full blast and watched how the water carved through the dirt, the birth of a small riverbed, the gouging of a new canyon. Shortly my dad came around the side of the house and instantly scolded us, turned off the hose, handed us shovels, and told us to repair the erosion.

At 32 years old, squatting down on the small square of land that I’ve come to own, the sun burning my back at 8am, café in hand, I realize I’ve been preparing my whole life for this.

My parents used to watch me play in creeks across the Southwest, building dams and diversions and waterworks. They would joke about how I was training for a fine career with the Army Corps of Engineers. Being the environmentalists that they were, they of course would never want to see me grow up to be a industrial-scale dam builder, and I never wanted that either. It didn’t occur to me that there was another way of relating to water and the earth that holds it, a way in which human intervention can reinforce and invigorate natural systems rather than interrupting them. After all, these were the first years of the 1990’s––if the word permaculture existed, we hadn’t heard it yet.

The garden is always more than a garden,
honoring the childhood curiosity I still hold,
with the shovel, budget and biceps of an adult.

Through an unexpected chain of events and years of calculated desire, my partner and I were finally able to buy a house this year. Even more unexpected and dreamy, the casa is an adobe dating from 1910 in Barrio Viejo, Tucson, on a 10,000 sq. ft. lot. Ending up in this situation is a mix of a blessing, a stroke of luck, and a whole lot of privilege.

My professional life as a writer, teacher, performer and DJ has always been marked by a dedication to social justice, both here in the borderlands and in Mexico. Homeownership isn’t inherently problematic, but in a context of intense class stratification, consolidation of capital and racial inequality, being a homeowner does raise a whole tangle of questions for me.

Feeling guilty for privilege isn’t healthy or productive. Rather, privilege brings with it responsibility, which among other things involves increasing access for others who may not be in the same position that I am.

While the details are a bit outside the scope of this blog, I mention privilege and access because they are on my mind when my pick axe strikes the earth, when I consider rainwater harvesting and organic food. To my way of thinking, gardening is not only an ecological act, but a social act as well.

I owe this piece of land my conscious stewardship. I owe this community my awake participation. This blog, as a manner of sharing what I learn during this earthworking process, is one piece of both.

You can follow Logan’s journey as he builds an urban farm in downtown Tucson. See where his journey began with some before pictures of the garden, below.

Starting Out

Read other posts in the “A Garden Grows In El Barrio” series:

1) Notes on Beginning an Urban Farm in the Santa Cruz River Valley
3) Planting the Water Before the Seeds: Part I, Earthworks

logan-phillipsLogan Phillips is a writer, performer, educator, and DJ based in Tucson. His debut book of poems Sonoran Strange (West End Press, 2015) is available at

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