Gardener Q&A: Martha Retallick

Victory Garden on a Shoestring

May 9, 2015

Homestead Q&AIssue 12: May/June 2015
The modern victory gardener, Martha Retallick.

The modern victory gardener, Martha Retallick.

Eating well on a thin budget with just a small plot of land can call for some artistry.

Martha Retallick has achieved just that, for a decade, on a small property on Seneca Street that offered a lot of caliche, room for one large mesquite tree, and not much else. She had to be creative, and frugal, at every step. In a garden strip barely bigger than a sidewalk, she clips a leaf of lettuce or two, a near-perfect head of broccoli, a cherry tomato. Enough.

If something is keeping you from doing likewise, listen to Martha talk solutions for a few minutes.

Soil problems?

When Martha first looked at the thick layer of caliche in her yard in El Cortez Heights, just east of Mansfield Park, she knew she needed to bring in richer soil. But there was another challenge.

No car?

Martha lives without one. So she hitched a tiny trailer to her black mountain bike and hauled in the soil from a friend who had bought way too much.

No space?

Martha found a strip west of her house 28 feet long and 9 feet wide that catches the afternoon sun. Just enough herbs and veggies to supply her soups and stir fries.

No containers?

Martha looked along the streets, and found plenty of planters of all descriptions. Boxes, cans, pottery. A request posted on Craigslist turned up a Mexican strawberry pot, ideal for herbs like cilantro and mustard.

Her Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce is growing in a reclaimed wooden grape crate. “It’s got great drainage,” Retallick says. She spotted it at one of recycling sites run by the city’s Brush and Bulky Program. “It’s a treasure trove,” she says.

And seeds?

She acquires seeds from the Pima County Library seed stock and the seed exchange run by Tucson Backyard Gardening, or TBG, a group of more than 4,000 locals. Last May, TBG members offered her a variety of workable pots along with seeds that included red Russian kale.

And water?

Martha designed her front yard as a collecting area. She invited in a Watershed Management Group team to advise her on the water catchment design for the mesquite, which was supplied by Trees for Tucson, at $5.

Martha’s five-gallon mesquite soon became a giant, tall as her house, yielding pods that can be ground into gallons of mesquite flour. “Now it’s my number one food producer,” says Retallick, who is a freelance scientific and technical copywriter.

Even the soul of Martha’s garden seems recycled, from a great-grandmother, who was also a Martha, also a Celtic woman of hearty West Cornwall stock, who gardened so productively in her World War 2 Victory Garden in Buffalo that she fed eight people from it.

So did many Americans in those days, in window boxes, along railroad tracks, in cans on rooftops. The war left millions of Americans short of rationed food and suddenly needing to garden where they could; collectively, 20 million gardens were producing tons of fruit and vegetables from 1943 to the war’s end in 1945, in amounts said to equal commercial U.S. production.

What Martha Retallick has accomplished is nothing short of a modern Victory Garden, and a way of life, the simple life.

The harvest is just a leaf here, a cherry tomato there. A bit of Swiss chard.

In just over 10 years, she’s become a serious urban gardener.

“I get three jugs of flour a year from the mesquite,” she says. That’s about three gallons, enough for a lot of mesquite bread, her favorite, and a few batches of cookies.

At one end of her strip garden, rosemary bushes are woven in among the ocotillo. In season, when the ocotillo flowers open, their mild nectar flavors a delicate ocotillo punch.

Among the prickly pear grow tall, skinny chiltepins and a few scraggly okra that looked all but lost to the hard winter freeze. But we looked closer. There were fresh sprigs beginning to poke out along the thin green stems. Like Retallick, this okra is proving itself a survivor in this big field of caliche.

The chiltepins, from her batch of 2012 seeds, are now up to four feet tall. “And they are murderously hot,” she says, looking affectionately at her source of the tiny round chiles. “Put a little of that in your stir fry, or in the scrambled eggs. But just a little.”

Nearby, a collection of tiny pots reclaimed from the streets hold some of her young cherry tomatoes, still getting started the day we visited.

Carrots and beets grow under a network of sticks and branches that let in the sunlight but keep out the interloping cats.

“My carrots have impressive tails,” she said, sighing, “but the carrot you’re going to get is like this,” she said, holding up a little finger. “It’s still great in a stir fry. It keeps me going.”

The day we visited, Retallick was making a fresh stock of mesquite granola. She blogs entertainingly, sometimes dramatically, about her gardening at, with messages about, and sometimes for, the plants.

When she bought the house in 2004, a friend looked at the empty, barren yard and told Martha, “This is your palette.”

And that, she says, is exactly what it has turned out to be.


Ford Burkhart has called Tucson home for going on 70 years; his 1917 bungalow has a tree he planted in 1947.

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