Tina Femeyer is the general manager at the farm-to-table restaurant Proper in downtown Tucson. Brandon Iker holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the UA’s Soil, Water and Environmental Science department and is an active intern in the UA’s Community Garden Program and works with staff and students at Manzo Elementary. Tina and Brandon maintain their backyard urban garden and homestead and document their experiences on their blog.
How long have you been growing edible plants?
Brandon: Since I was able to walk.I grew up on a six-acre farm in Ohio. But I have only about two years of experience in the desert, which is really different.
Tina: For me intensive gardening is more recent; I’ve been growing about four years.
Brandon: We learn a lot from working together. She will often ask, “Why do you do that?” and I will stop and think, “Why do I do that?” Since a lot of my experience comes from another climate, it helps me evaluate whether or not my garden practices are appropriate for this climate.
What plant is a staple in your garden?
Brandon: Oh we are both tomato plant freaks! We love heirloom tomatoes and seem to do really well with them. And we really prefer the old French style of gardening which aims to produce high quality vegetable heirlooms.
Which of your crops has the biggest influence on your kitchen?
Tina: Probably the greens. Obviously we grow and preserve a lot of tomatoes, which is pretty straightforward, but the greens require more planning and are more of a challenge to not waste.
Brandon: But we keep doing it, and really like to grow the greens because there is nothing like eating greens picked minutes before they are eaten. The nutritional qualities and flavors—there is no way you could get those other than growing your own [greens] in your backyard.
Tina: We are definitely specific about what we are going to grow based on what we are going to do with each crop in the kitchen. We find this is opposite to what most people seem to do, which is grow stuff and try to figure out what to do with it. Our kitchen determines what we do.
Do you have a new or current obsession in your garden?
Tina: Mexican sour gherkins. They are so good, they don’t even make it into the kitchen.
Brandon: I have artichokes in my veins right now—artichokes and their cousins, cardoons. I recently discovered that you can eat the buds of cardoons, too. So if artichokes are the lobster of the vegetable world, the cardoon is the crayfish. The flavors are just out of this world.
Besides gardening, what other homesteading projects have you experimented with?
Tina: Beekeeping, chickens, adobe brick building—we have a backyard bread oven—canning and preserving, furniture building, beer and yogurt making, solar drying, smoking in flowerpots. Brandon and I both love to cook. We make lots of jams, relishes, chutneys, pickles. Most of our tomatoes are blanched, peeled, and frozen. We dry most of the herbs and make bulk batches of pesto. Asian greens like komatsuna and spinach we blanch and freeze as well. Artichoke or cardoon dip is one of the easiest things to make and later pull from the freezer to take to a party. ✜