Forty-six years ago, growing food organically, in Tucson and elsewhere in the country, was seen as something that hippies did, when they weren’t twirling to the music of the Grateful Dead in their signature tie-dye and Birkenstocks. What was wrong, their shocked elders countered, with processed and packaged food, like those tidy aluminum-encased frozen TV dinners?
In other words, being green in 1971 was to be an outlier—and pioneer—in a society that celebrated “better living through chemistry,” the message DuPont had promulgated since 1935. Tucson Organic Gardeners was born in 1971. Still going strong, its founders not only bucked the system, their flower child blossomed and thrived without a drop of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers made from petroleum by-products.
The nonprofit group’s mission never wavered: homegrown healthy food is available to anyone willing to get their hands pristinely dirty. All that is needed to succeed is what Tucson Organic Gardeners has steadfastly provided—knowledge through education, notably through its speaker series.
Held monthly between September and April at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in midtown Tucson, the free, open-to-the-public series “is the backbone of what we do,” says the group’s outgoing president, Bridget Barber. Experts in green gardening are a mainstay of the roster and include bug experts (not all insects are bad for the garden), soil scientists, composting and sustainability gurus, local urban farmers, and representatives from such groups as the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Native Seeds/SEARCH. The incoming board, led by Mohyeddin Abdulaziz, is solidifying the 2017-2018 program; visit TucsonOrganicGardeners.org for the schedule.
“There is something for everyone,” says Barber. “Local experts are introducing even longtime gardeners to innovative new methods.”
The group’s education effort is about best practices, shared by speakers and also attendees, who spend the first 30 minutes of the evening in rousing give-and-take Q&A sessions. Problems with pests? Bring in a bug on a plant cutting and someone will no doubt identify it. Looking for the best manure? Ditto, a fellow gardener comes to the rescue.
“Joining the group has provided great discoveries, a new family, and most beneficially the chance to learn from people’s successes,” says Abdulaziz, a member for six years and an organic gardener before he joined. “You can trust what they tell you.”
Now numbering 90, members pay $15 annually to help fund the speaker series and other educational efforts, including spring and fall garden fairs and downloadable information posted online.
As is true of most members, Abdulaziz is not from Tucson originally, which means he was faced with the realities and eccentricities of gardening in the Sonoran Desert. In his case, home is Palestine. “The climates are completely different,” he says. “There, the climate is more moderate. Here, there are extremes of heat and winter freezes.” A sense of our place—and how to adapt to it—is what Tucson Organic Gardeners cultivates. Some, like Abdulaziz, turn to container gardening, rather than digging into our hardscrabble soil; others use raised beds.
Whatever ground suits you best, Tucson Organic Gardeners is there to advise, particularly on the crucial questions of what to plant and when.
“Interest in our planting guide is huge,” says five-year member Charlotte Weltjen. “I grew up in the South and it’s been an experience learning to garden here,” she says. It can be done, of course, with adaptations, including the use of shade cloths that filter the summer sun.
What gardeners here do discover, with glee: multiple growing seasons. Abdulaziz was enjoying tomatoes in late spring from a crop planted in the fall and coaxed into a false dormancy over the winter. “They didn’t freeze and die, they became more vigorous,” he proudly reports.
Tucson Organic Gardeners is a trailblazer in sustainable living, down to its long-standing advocacy for composting.
In the 1980s, with funds from a state grant, the group worked with Tucson Botanical Gardens to create a compost site on the botanical garden grounds. It remains a linchpin in the group’s mission to advocate for people and the environment. Composting adds nutrients to the soil and helps retain precious moisture. Healthy soil is a carbon sink of sorts, because it more efficiently captures and stores atmospheric carbon dioxide.
“We’re providing an important link in sustainability,” says Mary Jane Schumacher, a 25-year member who has seen the increased interest in the group’s work. “People are more focused and determined to protect the environment.”
Moving forward, Tucson Organic Gardeners is nurturing a third generation of healthy Tucsonans through a scholarship fund to encourage more gardening programs at local schools. The scholarship and information on how to apply will be announced on Sept. 20.
For Abdulaziz, gardening is not just a personal pleasure; it is one he shares with his grandchildren. “It’s nice to see them appreciate what they’re eating,” he says. Case in point: his youngest, Jacob, 18 months, wasn’t fooled when confronted with the choice between organic strawberries from the store and tomatoes still on the vine. He went straight for the tomatoes. “He likes to pick his own,” explains the charmed Abdulaziz.
Visit TucsonOrganicGardeners.org for more information on programs and membership and to download guides on planting and compost. ✜
Tucson-based writer Karen Peterson has written extensively on issues of sustainability and climate change adaptations.