The exasperated gardener. Jeau Allen of Aravaipa Heirlooms can spot one at the farmers’ market from a mile away. “They approach the table and they’ve already got their hands in the air, and you can see the frustration through their body language.”
No one ever said gardening in Baja Arizona was going to be easy. The blistering sun and heat of summer, the long weeks and months without meaningful rainfall, those winter nights when the temperature drops below freezing. The challenges of desert gardening vex novice-to-experienced gardeners.
“People say ‘I want something that works,’” Allen says. “They say ‘I tried before, it was a disaster. I never want to grow another tomato again.’ But there they are with hope in their eyes.”
In an industry dominated by regional nurseries and big-box home improvement stores, small, independently owned garden stores and nurseries are filling a niche in the market by offering locally grown or locally tested starts and seeds, unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables (some of which are rare or endangered), a hands-on approach to educating fellow gardeners, and a deep appreciation of what makes Baja Arizona such a wonderful, yet sometimes frustrating place to grow food.
“People put enormous resources into their gardens,” says Allen. While her seeds may come from other parts of the country, Allen selects varieties she believes will do well in the desert. Then she puts them to the test, by growing them in her own nursery before she offers the plant starts to the public.
“It’s really important that plants be tested in the same microclimate,” Allen says. Locally grown plants, she says, are hardier. “They’re more resilient to the specific pests and diseases that we have here. They’re more resilient climatically. They’re known to thrive here.”
Today she grows and sells as many as 150 species of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and vegetables, depending on the season. She calls tomatoes a “gateway” vegetable, a way to introduce newcomers to desert gardening. As for peppers, they’re an icon of Baja Arizona gastronomy.
Her passion comes out of a concern over the shrinking diversity in crops and seeds. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 90 percent of farm crops once grown around the world have disappeared since the beginning of the 20th century.
She tells the story of the Cherokee Purple tomato, one of the most popular varieties in the country. Only 30 years ago it was on the verge of extinction—until it was saved by a dedicated gardener in North Carolina.
“I love to get people excited about diversity,” she says. “I love to get them excited about the idea that, in their backyard garden, no bigger than five feet by five feet, they can save something from extinction. One person can’t save polar bears, but one person can save a variety.”
Like Allen, Lorien Tersey believes locally grown starts make a huge difference in the garden. “By growing them outdoors here, they’re getting the sun that we get, the wind that we get, the water, and they’re getting exposed to some of the pests and bugs,” says Tersey. “My starts don’t look perfect, they’re not going to be as pretty as the ones you can buy elsewhere. But they’re more likely to survive because they’ve been experiencing the same weather we have.”
Tersey says she’s been a gardener for longer than she can remember. “My mother started me before I could walk,” Tersey says. “She dragged me out into the garden when I was a baby.” The love of growing followed her from California to Oregon and eventually to Tucson where she began selling plant starts from her backyard garden at local farmers’ markets. “They started encouraging me to come with more plants if I had more. That was about eight or nine years ago,” she says.
Since then, her backyard has grown into Dreamflower Garden, a full acre of starts, landscape plants, and flowers that she sells at the Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market.
Developing a truly robust variety takes time. Seeds from the best plants of the season are saved and replanted. With each succeeding generation, the hardiness, the drought tolerance, and the resilience improves.
“I save seeds from the tomatoes that produced in the heat of summer,” Tersey says, “not just the ones that were good in the spring or the fall. I’m saving seeds from that kale that survived two summers. Every generation becomes better adapted to local conditions.”
From Gates Pass, the road curves down the western flanks of the Tucson Mountains and opens to an expansive view of Avra Valley. Beginning with the familiar saguaro, mesquite and palo verde, the landscape slowly dissolves into a broad plain of creosote, bursage, and thornscrub on the valley floor.
Tucked away in the bush and scrub off Sandario Road is Nighthawk Natives Nursery, a two-acre garden Berni Jilka and her husband began a little more than a decade ago.
No one ever said gardening in Baja Arizona was going to be easy.
While they primarily grow landscape and restoration plants, a section of the nursery is set aside for trees and other plants that bear edible fruit. Here you’ll find wild grape, Mexican elderberry, mesquite, figs, and pomegranates. Then there are the more exotic varieties, such as jujube, which produces a stone fruit that tastes like a date, and the loquat that bears a yellow plum-size fruit. Perhaps the most exotic of all is the moringa, sometimes called the “tree of life,” she says, because the entire tree, from the leaves to pods, bark, and root, is edible.
As with the other growers, Jilka is a plant detective. “I’m trying to find something that people will be excited about and want to plant because it’s so tough here,” she says. She often turns to friends and neighbors for cuttings. “If someone’s bragging about their fruit then it’s worth checking out,” Jilka says.
The idea is that a plant that thrives in one person’s garden is likely to thrive nearby in another person’s garden. “You find a fruit you want, but is it going to be hardy here? You won’t know it until you get a cold winter and that may be two or three years. A lot of things are trial and error and it takes time to figure it out.”
Gardeners interested in unusual varieties and some help figuring things out may also find what they’re looking for at Honey Lane Organics in the small town of Amado.
Less than two years ago, Honey Lane owner Lynsey Lampkins was a stay-at-home mom selling seeds on eBay. She’s still at home, but today home includes a building for seedlings, three gardens, and a greenhouse made from recycled materials donated by friends and neighbors. Honey Lane Organics grew from what she and her husband saw as an unmet need for organic and heirloom varieties in their community.
Depending on the season, her inventory may include tomatoes, berries, and peppers in spring and summer, as well as broccoli, cabbage, and greens in the fall. Lampkins also specializes in tropical fruit such as papaya, kiwi, and bananas she received from a friend in Arivaca. “I’ve always loved the banana plant,” says Lampkins.“They have beautiful leaves. They love the monsoon rains.” Even these exotics can do well in the desert, says Lampkins, if you keep them warm during winter.
“Seeds are magic. If you’ve never grown anything from seed you should try it at least once.”
If the idea of growing bananas in the desert turns on the light bulb in your head, then you’ve discovered another advantage of buying from local growers. It’s the opportunity to learn about new varieties that bigger nurseries may not sell as well as hands-on instruction on how to succeed.
Turn to Lampkins for help and what often follows is a gardener’s version of 20 Questions. She’ll ask about where a customer wants to grow something, what side of the house will be used for planting, and how much time the customer has to water the plant.
For novices, she’ll recommend easy-to-manage varieties to build their skills. For more advanced gardeners she may suggest unusual varieties they’ve never tried before. “There’s not a lot of knowledge passed down anymore from generations,” she says. “People will say, ‘My uncle or dad grew the greatest tomatoes and I don’t know how he did it.’ I think our customers come in for the education and the confidence it brings.”
While these growers primarily sell plant starts, they also admit to having a special affinity for seeds. “Seeds are magic,” says Tersey of Dreamflower Garden. “If you’ve never grown anything from seed you should try it at least once. To see the plant grow, bloom, and produce seed, and to plant that seed again, is an incredible experience.”
Reggie Smith would agree. She began selling seeds in Tucson nearly 40 years ago, first at farmers’ markets and more recently exclusively online through her business Westwind Seeds. What motivated her to get started were the changes she saw at seed stores.
“I noticed I was having trouble getting the varieties I loved. They were hybridizing everything,” Smith recalls.
She went to the library to find farmers who were growing the kind of seeds she wanted to use in her own garden and bought from them in bulk. Starting with two-dozen varieties in 1980, Westwind Seeds now offers more than 225 kinds of vegetables and herbs, all open pollinated and heirloom varieties.
It’s a business built on relationships. Smith still buys from the same farm families that she did four decades ago. “I don’t think I’d have the success that I had without that connection with people who really care about what they do,” she says.
In her search for what to buy, Smith zeros in on varieties that can handle the extremes of the desert and still taste good. But she doesn’t sell anything without testing it. “I grow every single variety I carry,” says Smith. “If it does well for me I’m confident and will buy more.”
Her tenure in the seed business gives Smith a chance to think about the trends she experienced, and what the future holds. She says a new generation, people in their 20s, are starting to think about what’s in their food—and what’s not in their food—and in the process are getting turned on to gardening. “Growing your own food connects us back to what food should be. Going outside, digging in the dirt, watering it and watching it come up requires patience. It takes you back.”
Walking into the seed bank at the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson is also like stepping back in time. Here, in a room-sized refrigerator, is a collection of more than 1,900 varieties of seeds native to the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico, as well as non-native varieties that have adapted to the region. Many are rare or endangered.
“It’s really important that plants be tested in the same microclimate. They’re more resilient to the specific pests and diseases that we have here.”
“There’s 4,000 years of history in there,” says conservation program manager Nicholas Garber. Moving past the shelves, Garber points out a wild tepary bean found on the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s a bean high in nutrition and so drought tolerant that Garber says, “It’s almost allergic to water.”
Such a bean might come in handy if the predictions of a hotter and drier future for the Southwest come true.
Native Seeds/SEARCH was founded more than three decades ago to preserve the region’s traditional seeds for their genetic diversity, and the role they play in our cultural and gastronomic heritage. Looking for traditional Native American beans, corn, and squash for your garden? You’ll find them here, as well as locally adapted broccoli, carrots, and lettuce. About 500 varieties from the seed bank are available online or at the retail store on Campbell Avenue.
Executive director Joy Hought says it’s not realistic to think that everyone will want to grow their own food or have a garden. But those who do, she says, often find joy and passion. “I think it’s wanting to connect with the self determination that maybe our grandparents had,” says Hought. “To provide something for ourselves that we don’t often get the opportunity to do, and to take back a little bit of that control for ourselves.”
There is hope for the exasperated gardeners of Baja Arizona. Desert gardening has as many advantages as it does challenges. The key, these growers will tell you, is some education, a little persistence, and preparation.
“Tucson is a great place for plants,” says Jilka. “We can grow citrus, pomegranates. We can grow such a wide variety, even apples. It’s such a fun climate for growing.”
“We have a really great growing season all winter long,” adds Lampkins, “with the cabbage, carrots, broccoli and all the cold crops. As long as we provide irrigation and shade, most plants will make it through the tough part of the year.”
As Tersey reminds us, “Having your hands in the dirt feels good. We have so few things anymore that are hobbies where you’re actually doing something. It’s so easy to watch TV or sit at the computer. Gardening is visceral. It hits people in their hearts.”
“I always suggest to people, just do it,” says Allen. “Just dig in, don’t be afraid, don’t let fear stop you. Just do it and you’ll get better as you go.” ✜
For more information:
Aravaipa Heirlooms’ Allen sells her starts at the Sunday Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park. Visit Aravaipa.com or call 520.477.7637.
Look for Dreamflower Garden’s Tersey at the Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market and at the Tucson Organic Gardeners plant sales in spring and fall. Call 520.591.2432.
Nighthawk Native Nursery doesn’t sell directly to the public, but Jilka’s figs, pomegranates, and other edible trees can be purchased through Trees for Tucson. TreesForTucson.org.
Honey Lane Organics is at 28674 S. Honey Lane in Amado, online at HoneyLaneOrganics.com, or call 520.870.7576.
Westwind Seeds can be purchased online at WestwindSeeds.com. Call 520.603.9925.
To purchase seeds and gardening supplies from Native Seeds/SEARCH, visit the retail store at 3061 N. Campbell Ave. Visit NativeSeeds.org or call 520.622.0830.
Dennis Newman is a freelance writer in Tucson who has written extensively about farming and how crops become food and beverages.