Growing produce in Phoenix has become a hot topic of late — this summer, Twitter was, well, atwitter with local farmers and foodies battling over the relative merits of trying to grow anything here in the dog days. Meanwhile, the Valley of the Sun is lapping up the idea of eating local, and every week, it seems, a new farmers market emerges.
So just how tough is it to get your garden to grow here in Phoenix? We asked the kind folks at the Roosevelt Growhouse to explain. Three years ago, local artists Kenny Barrett and Kelly Placke were living in a large but shabby house on the corner of Garfield and Sixth streets, in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood. For years, the home had been run down by previous owners, and the yard that surrounded it was used as a parking lot.
Barrett and Placke had other plans for the barren corner lot. "We just started digging," Barrett recalls. "We came out here every Sunday, we picked a day and it was Sunday, 10 to 2, to come out here, friends started joining us, volunteers started joining us and we just started working the ground little by little."
"The great thing about Phoenix soil, desert soil, is that this soil in particular holds water really well," Barrett says. "However, it lacks any type of organic matter which you need — you need that nitrogen to feed your plants."
The Roosevelt farmers combined the absorbent desert dirt with composted manure and — voilá — it was time to plant.
Since 2008, the Growhouse has experimented with growing different varieties of lettuce, beets, chard, kale, cauliflower, arugula, carrots, spinach, broccoli, corn, watermelon, and wheat. While the operation started out small at the front of the house, it's taken over the entire front, back, and side yards in subsequent years — even the patches of earth nestled between the sidewalk and the road.
The growing cycle usually begins in August, when the volunteers come together to fertilize the soil, then use a ditch planting method for the seeds.
Harvesting begins as early as mid-October and continues throughout the winter, especially with leafy plants like lettuce and chard that will keep sprouting new shoots.
As the year wears on and temperatures climb, the gardening begins to wind down. The last crop to be planted to grow through the summer is corn, which adds some much- appreciated greenery to the Roosevelt Row landscape and fares well even in the heat. The soil has to be watered continuously even through the summer months and covered with mulch to maintain its moisture and protect the delicate microorganisms that begin to flourish from the fertilizer.
The garden has grown — and spread, as Barrett and Co. are working with Roosevelt Row to encourage others in the area to plant community gardens. As for the Growhouse, they've bought a tiller — and they know what to do with it. Another plan in the works: vermicomposting, a big bag full of compost and worms through which a watering tube is fed and which can then be thrown anywhere; seeds are planted right into the bag and need no contact with external soil to grow.
Look for Growhouse produce at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market.