All Your Phoenix Fall Gardening Questions Answered by Tomato Pro Suzanne Vilardi

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Today we're introducing a new feature on Chow Bella, Now Growing, in which Kate Crowley talks to local gardeners about what's in the ground at the moment. Have a topic you'd like to see covered? Leave word in the comments section.

See Also: - Phoenix Gets Its First Seed Library - Urban Farming 101 - Ten Favorite Metro Phoenix Farmer's Markets

Suzanne Vilardi of Vilardi Gardens has loved gardening since she planted her first seed at just four years old. About a decade ago she started researching herb and transplant growing businesses, and began growing tomato plants under specially designed lights and donating the plants to charity.

And then, at 55, she found herself laid off from a corporate job and decided to start Vilardi Gardens. It grew, to say the least

So in February 2011 she took about 1,500 tomato plants to Slow Food's Tomatofest at The Farm at South Mountain and sold most of them. In February 2012, the team at Root Phoenix invited her to lease some growing space at The Urban Farm Nursery, where she grew more than 8,000 tomato plants for the spring season. She continues to serve several local nurseries and organic farmers as a wholesale supplier of edible transplants.

Chow Bella: What should Valley residents be planting now?

Suzanne Vilardi: Even though it still seems like summer outside, now is the time to plant fall gardens of Cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale), every kind of leafy green, most all the root crops (carrots, beets, turnips), onions, shallots and garlic and many types of ornamental and edible flowers. Really it is easier to list what we don't grow now, and with changes in weather patterns, many dedicated gardeners will take extra measures to protect plants from both high and low temperature extremes so they can extend both the fall and spring season.

Two of my favorite gardening calendars specific to Maricopa County are available for free on the internet: The University of Arizona's Extension Office and the Urban Farm's guide.

Both of these calendars are simply guides and every seasoned gardener has a story about the Zucchini that survived two winters, the tomato that produced fruit in August or the Swiss chard that grew all summer long, defying all calendar recommendations.

CB: What is the easiest thing to grow this fall?

SV: Leafy greens are easy to start from seed and have shallow root systems so they do well in containers. This means anyone with a few hours of patio sun can have a pot or two of their favorite fresh herbs or leafy greens at the ready.

CB: Do you recommend first time vegetable gardeners start with start plants or seeds?

SV: It depends on the crop. Certain edibles, like carrots, beans and corn do not transplant well and should be started from seed. Other crops, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are very difficult to direct sow and most people buy transplants. A first time gardener would do well to look over the gardening calendars and pick a few season-appropriate crops to start to learn with. Also there are many reasonably priced "Beginning Gardening" classes around town that help new gardeners learn about gardening in Arizona, which is very different from most other parts of the country. When people ask me "What should I grow?" I ask them "What do you like to eat?" For me, choosing what to plant is all about what tastes good!

CB: What's the biggest challenge facing urban gardeners?

SV: I can't answer for all the urban gardeners out there but the biggest challenge I see is preserving what is left of our heritage heirloom seed lines and keeping GMOs (genetically modified organisms) out of our food supply.

It is up to all of us to make informed decisions about the food we eat and grow. Fortunately there are some great seed-saving non-profit organizations like Native Seed Search and Seedsavers.org doing their best to education and inform, and great seed companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seed and Botanical Interests (and many others) working hard to preserve strains of rare and special seed.

CB: What do you recommend for fertilizer, assuming you want to keep your garden natural and organic?

SV: For the nursery plants, I use two different fish and seaweed based Organic fertilizers depending on the application. One is a liquid concentrate available from different manufacturers commonly labeled "Fish Fertilizer" but more widely referred to as "Fish Emulsion" and the other is a water-soluble pellet that melts into the soil called Bio-Flora Dry Crumbles.

I especially like Bio-Flora not only for the fantastic results it produces but also because the company that makes it is based in Goodyear, Arizona.

For my own garden I use the above mentioned solutions but also tinker with different types of "compost tea," humic acid, worm castings and good old fashioned chicken poop. I always say gardening is part art and part science. New gardeners are always looking for a guaranteed path to success in the garden but even with proper fertilizing, you have to learn to observe the plants and let them tell you what they need in the way of water, sun and food.

CB: What are some tricks for fighting pests?

SV: Pests can run the gambit from insects to all kinds of four-legged critters or pesky birds, but preventative measures is key when following all natural, pesticide and chemical-free practices. Keeping everything clean in the first place is important. Make sure you don't have places where pests like to breed or nest. If you have a problem, diagnose before you prescribe, i.e. know what you are dealing with by doing your research. The Extension Office is a good place to start. Talk to other gardeners, or bring a photo or a sample of your problem to your favorite locally-owned nursery. Baker Nursery, Harper Nursery and The Urban Farm Nursery all have experts eager to help you tackle your problem.

Personally, I use a wide array of natural solutions including beneficial insects like predatory wasps, special traps with a scent that flies find irresistible, beneficial bacteria like Streptomyces found in products like Actinovate, capsicum (hot pepper) mixed with dish soap and water, and even something simple like using the water sprayer hose every morning (for aphids) can work well. Lastly, if a plant is stressed it is a much easier target for insects so fertilizing and watering properly will help prevent problems.

CB: What are your favorite things to grow, for use in the kitchen?

SV: In the spring, tomatoes from my garden, in the summer, basil, squash and eggplant, and in the fall all the great greens we can finally enjoy. I grow containers full of butter lettuces, old school Romaine varieties like Paris Island Cos and Cracoviensis (a variety mentioned by Vilmorin in his 1885 book, "The Vegetable Garden"), gorgeous Italian lettuces like Lollo Rosso and Lollo Bionda, Mesclun mixes, a mess of different bok choy/pak choy varieties plus lots of spicy stuff like arugula, Thai mustard and mizuna. I am always trying new greens!

CB: When you're not eating out of your own garden- where do you like to shop for food and/or dine?

My own garden is small because I just moved recently, so thank goodness I have farmers for clients to keep me stocked in locally grown fruits and vegetables until I re-establish my garden. I love Sprouts for what I can't grow or buy from the Farmer's Market farmers.

As for dining locally, I really don't get out much since my days start so early. A happy hour favorite is The Rokerij, and I love Pete's Thai at Cactus and Cave Creek, and Carolina's across from Pete's. I know there are more exciting dining choices out there, but most of the time, I just want something homemade and simple from my own kitchen and garden. In my past (career) life, I traveled nearly every week on business and spent so much time eating in restaurants, I've lost the thrill of anticipating a Kaiseki dinner at Sugiyama in midtown Manhattan or a giant Ribeye served from the secret kitchen at Stephen Pyle's in Dallas.

I know there is exciting stuff happening on the Phoenix area food scene, but I'm more comfortable coming through the back kitchen door with a giant basket of 10 kinds of basil for the chef than through the front restaurant door for a cozy corner table and a power lunch. That was then, this is now.

CB: What's next for Vilardi Gardens?

SV: Right now, I am heads down planting, planting, planting at the moment, trying to balance this crazy heat with the need to get all the cool weather crops started. Root Phoenix has gone to a first and third Saturday Plant Bazaar schedule, and these events have been hugely popular so we need all the time in between to prepare for the events. This new schedule also allows me more time to cater to the specific needs of my other local clients. Also, spring planting season for tomatoes and peppers actually starts December 1, so I'm already planning what to grow and checking seed supplies.

A longer term goal is to develop a team of like-minded individuals to team up to look at the feasibility of developing a "Growers Cooperative" for edible crop producers to help support them through education, seed preservation, vendor development and volume buying opportunities and networking.

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