At the beginning of the year, I moved into a new home. I’ve been a homeowner, but now I rent, and I admit it takes a special sort of landlord to open up their home to me. I don’t see the yard as just some place where one occasionally fires up a grill. I’ve already dug up and have begun cultivating several garden beds and brought in many chickens and a colony of bees. I am fighting the urge to get a peacock because I know that would probably try my neighbors’ patience (so far, they’ve been appreciative of the eccentricity of the neighborhood farmer).
Some years ago, I had a less tolerant landlord who started to get uncomfortable when I brought in a colony of bees, asking: “Why don’t you just buy honey from the market?” At the time, I scoffed at this question, but after I thought about it, I realized: It is a fair question. Why, indeed, should I go through all the trouble of gardening and raising animals and bees? One might say I was ignoring the progress made by technology and streamlined processing by reverting back to farm chores.
I have a few answers to that question. First of all, when you get everything you eat from the grocery store, you are limited to what the supermarket buyers will allow on the shelf, and that usually has to do with the convenience of that product: its shelf life and its marketability. When you grow some of your own food, the variety suddenly opens up to whatever you can grow in your backyard. I love cardoon, but I have almost never seen cardoon for sale in Tucson. And then there’s taste—we all know the difference between a homegrown tomato and one that’s store-bought. The varieties available for you to grow in your garden are selected for taste, not for shelf life. Some of them must be eaten the day they are picked. That is not convenient for a business.
Yes, there is work involved, not just in the gardening itself, but also in managing the garden’s bounty. I have to not only grow the stuff, but also try to make sure I don’t waste it. You never just get one little squash at a time; you get 14 at a time. This has forced me to research preservation methods, and guess what else it’s taught me? Amazing recipes! Who knew that dehydrated summer squash could be so savory and delicious? Who knew that dill flowers had their own flavor (apart from the seeds or the leaves), or that you can preserve them in vinegar? Who knew there were so many other exotic, stimulating flavors native to our own region that thrive in our gardens? When we lived closer to our foods, we knew how to make the most of what we had, and how to be creative and do without. When we put the job of managing our dietary needs into the hands of others, we are at their mercy, subject to consume what they put in front of us.
Certainly, the rise of farmers’ markets and small, local markets is helping improve the diversity of food on the shelves. Even national chains like Sprouts and Whole Foods have responded to the rise in a desire for diversity. But when you grow for yourself, you are subject to your own devices and a wider range of deliciousness that wares sourced at markets can only add to.
I also love going out each morning and seeing how my younger chickens are growing, or watching bee balm flowers develop on a variety I haven’t grown before. Every morning I spend just a little bit of time watching the laws of nature. Some days, I find a plant that has been decimated by harvester ants. Sometimes, I find that a plant I had tried to grow just isn’t going to grow in Tucson. But every day I learn more. If you can look past the work, and the occasional failures, you come to find that when you nurture whatever tiny plot of land you might have at your disposal, you nurture yourself and the people in your life. The cliché that gardening heals isn’t just a feel-good sentiment. It’s true.
I know: It’s hot. The early summer has extinguished even the most enthusiastic gardeners’ zeal. The spring was so magical. You felt like you could grow anything. Then that first week with several days of triple digit temperatures arrives and wreaks havoc on your garden. Your efforts suddenly triple, and the end results are sometimes survival, at best. Many tomatoes and even peppers will slow down production or cease altogether. Leaves of many crops yellow and burn on the edges. Plants are wilted in the afternoon, not being able to draw water quickly enough from the ground to stay turgid.
There are some things you can do to help your garden survive:
The sun may be intense, but believe it or not, most plants actually love it. The amount of light is not what makes plants suffer; it is the dry heat that challenges them. Prepare your soil by mixing in a good amount of organic material in the upper layers, and finish with a layer of top dressing (we call it mulch) around the base of each plant. In my garden, I use compost to enrich the soil, and a few inches of straw as the top layer. When you vary the texture of the soil, it slows down evaporation. Plant roots can develop better and thus be equipped to draw water fast enough to enable cooling—plants cool themselves by letting water run through their stems and evaporating out the leaves. The compost also enriches the soil; plants that are better nourished perform better. The compost should be dark brown like the color of bittersweet chocolate; it’s available at most local plant nurseries and local hardware stores, or can be made in your own backyard. The top dressing or mulch can technically be compost too, but it should be somewhat coarser. I use straw because it eventually breaks down and can be incorporated into your soil, and it is fairly easy to get from your local feed store.
If you are still watering by hand, you should save yourself time and energy and invest in an irrigation system. Hose watering is inefficient. Even if you shape the beds so that they fill nicely, water comes out of a hose too fast. A slow drip soaks the ground thoroughly and evenly. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can get a timer that runs on a battery and that easily attaches to your hose bib. You can run tubing to the garden and add emitter tubing where the water goes. It really isn’t difficult—if you can manage playing with Legos you can handle assembling drip irrigation. Let one of the local irrigation companies help you get all the parts you need. The efficiency of watering will improve, your valuable time will be preserved, and you can spend the time outside enjoying happy plants rather than desperately trying to get water into the ground.
Many great gardeners cast a light shade over some of their garden during the summer. I myself do not, finding that mulching really fixes most problems caused by the sun. But this isn’t to say it’s a bad idea. A little bit of shade can take the edge off the blaze that hammers our gardens. However, I advise being careful to not to cast too much shade on most of your edible plants. While plants might brighten up just a bit with some break from our intense sun, too much shade can cause weak plant growth and make them susceptible to insect infestation. Aphids and whitefly, in particular, love to suckle upon the soft, tender foliage caused by over-shading. One shading practice I do love is shading roots. This is especially useful for vining plants like winter squash, melon, or cucumber. If roots are shaded but the rest of the plant is free to collect sunlight, plants can show great vigor even during the hottest part of the day.
I just discovered a new beneficial insect: the assassin bug. It feeds upon many insects— aphids, young caterpillars, mealybug, thrips, whitefly, and others. In the garden I am fond of the generalist defenders. And I enjoy introducing more biology to the garden to keep pests in check. Assassin bugs tend to hang out as long as there are bugs to eat (and in any garden, if things are right and you haven’t been bombing your beds with pesticides, there are always bugs to eat). They ambush, capture, and kill prey by piercing them and injecting a digestive enzyme, which means they can take on insects larger than you would expect. Assassin bugs arrive as eggs, and it may take a week to 10 days before they hatch. They eat as nymphs and adults, and at their second instar (after they have shed their exoskeletons twice), they develop a sticky resin on their legs that entraps small pests. Visit Arbico Organics (Arbico-Organics.com).
During the dry part of the summer, plant: cantaloupe, melon, Armenian cucumber, watermelon, basil, okra, gourds, sweet potatoes, devil’s claw, tobacco, amaranth, and potatoes. When the monsoon rains arrive, it is a great time to plant seeds of tepary, pole bean, corn, panic grass, epazote, squash (excluding the long-season varieties), pumpkin, cowpea, sunflower, and cucumber. You can also set out plants of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant for a second flush of fruits. You can plant almost any perennial herb, fruit tree, or vine. Just make sure you keep new plants well-watered, daily when you first plant them.
Guarijio “Nescafe” okra
Okra is a misunderstood vegetable. Well, technically it’s a fruit. All too often people lament the intolerable mucilaginous texture of okra. I would argue that their experience is related to improperly prepared fruits. There are a bazillion methods that you can find online, but one simple way to enjoy a nonslimy okra is to cut the tops off, slice fruits in half lengthwise, brush with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe even some chile powder, and roast in a 375-degree oven for about 35 minutes. They will come out crispy and delicious.
Okra is a sturdy plant. Plants aren’t picky about soil—regular old garden soil is great—and are generally not needy. When you can almost hear the laments of all other plants in the garden, cursing you for making them carry on through summer, okra just keeps growing like it’s still spring.
The Guarijio “Nescafe” variety is special. The fruits, used conventionally, should be picked when they are young and tender. Plants grow large and by the end of the growing season, may tower with matured, dry fruits, almost resembling the persistent pods you see on a yucca plant. The dried fruits are decorative, and the seeds can be roasted and ground up into a powder as a coffee substitute or additive similar to chicory. You can find seed for this variety at Native Seeds/SEARCH at NativeSeeds.org. Visit their retail shop in Tucson at 3061 N. Campbell Ave. ✜
Jared R. McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.