DESERT LOCAVORE: Gardening for super-local food - The Explorer: El Sol

DESERT LOCAVORE: Gardening for super-local food

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Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 12:00 am | Updated: 8:03 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

When I first learned that the Community Food Bank offers gardening classes, I thought, “What will they put forth next? Pastry art?”

At that time, I thought of gardening as a hobby for the well-off or retired — a project you start if you have leisure time to kill. Not a way to ensure your dinner.

Now I see gardening as a basic element of any resilient community — a means of meeting people’s needs no matter what’s happening to, say, refrigerated produce trucks along Interstate 10.

The food bank sees it that way, too. Through its Community Food Security Center, it goes beyond feeding just Tucsonans who happen to be hungry at this very hour. It also works to build a regional food system that could carry on if part of the nation’s food network shut down.

Part of that work involves free classes for the greater community — in composting, chicken raising, solar oven building and gardening.

My class this past summer, Gardening Basics 1, taught me everything a Tucsonan needs to know to start a garden. It taught me where to put it, how to prepare the soil and how to put seeds in the ground and make them grow. In keeping with the spirit of community food banks everywhere, it focused on doing it all on the cheap.

The class started with a lesson about location.

Three instructors — a young and enthusiastic bunch — gathered us into a circle on the grounds of the food bank’s Nuestra Tierra garden and directed our attention to a tiny Lego house surrounded by a tiny Lego yard that, presumably, one of them had built.

As we gazed into the center of our circle, one instructor passed a small foam ball over the house twice to demonstrate how the sun travels during summer and winter.

After we satisfied our curiosity about the movement of celestial bodies — I, for one, had never been able to visualize the seasonal change before — we broke into groups and each received a Velcro board.

The boards had cutouts of houses, fences and cars affixed, and we had to figure out how to work with the givens of our particular properties to find good places for gardens. To make things harder, the instructors next passed out envelopes containing unexpected issues — a poisonous oleander here, a drainage problem there — and told us to rethink our plans.

Still, all of us managed to come up with arrangements that the instructors praised, which illustrated the point that non-ideal yards don’t prevent you from having a garden — that you can grow a fair quantity of vegetables just in pots.

After a third variation on the location theme, during which we drew blueprints of our own properties and chose spots for gardens, it was time for a lesson on dirt.

Our instructors led us to a composting area on the Nuestra Tierra garden site and showed us how to create good soil at low cost — or for free, if you use the chicken wire and wooden pallets provided by the food bank, though the agency does ask for donations.

I listened as an energetic instructor demystified the process of turning dinner scraps into plant food.

One system — a big, plastic trash can with the lid put on upside down — struck me as truly inventive. Through a small hole in the middle of the lid, the system collects the rainwater it needs for composting. And when it’s time to toss the decomposing salad, you simply put the lid on the trash can the right way, turn the thing on its side and roll.

The capstone lesson of Gardening Basics 1 took place in the garden. There, we watched an instructor dig deep to remove concrete-like caliche, create furrows, push seeds into the soil and turn on the soaker hose.

As the instructors taught, I looked out at the fruits of their labor — tall corn stalks, leafy squash — and felt inspired. Despite the low-money, back-to-basics approach to gardening, or maybe because of it, the food bank’s garden looked great.

After class, we were all invited inside to check out the food bank’s free and cheap materials for setting up gardens. Each family gets six vegetable seed packets and six herb seed packets a season, we learned, and you can’t beat the prices on shade cloth, bird netting, floating row covers and earthworm castings.

I selected my seeds and made a donation because I can. Then I set off for home with my free Tucson-area monthly planting guide, a list of books and resources specific to Tucson’s climate and the security that comes from knowing I can grow my own dinner.

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