Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lessons from the Phoenix Summer

I know it's not even mid-summer yet, but since the thermometer is reaching far over 100, the garden has started to feel like summer.

As temperatures go up, Phoenix gardeners have to deal with a whole new array of pests, diseases, and issues. Our reward, however, is all the delicious warm season crops that people can't get enough of. Now that the garden is into it's second summer, we've learned a bit about what grows well and what dries out in Phoenix's notorious heat.

ArtichokeAbove is our first artichoke plant. We'll have five more if our most recent transplants survive. It's not really all that exciting...which is why we like it. Artichokes are consistent perennial producers and we haven't had issues with pests, diseases, or anything. Basically, this is a veggie you can plant and ignore until you see a tasty looking artichoke head to snip off.

Our bean plants have had an interesting year. Here are our scarlet runner beans:
That fence is about 7 feet high so it looks as though they are doing quite well. The only strange part is that the plants have not produced a single bean.

On the other hand, these are our yard-long beans:
These small, but mighty plants have been growing well since the temperatures hit the 100s. Not only have they been growing, but they have been producing a lot of very tasty beans. Very tasty and very strange. Yard long beans look like you would expect, yard long green beans (technically, we have not gotten any over two feet, but we have high hopes).

For those of you who find new veggies intimidating, I have good news. Yard long beans are delicious. They taste similar to a green bean but with just a little more asparagus-y goodness. I would highly suggest planting a number of these in your garden. They don't take up much space and they love the summer heat.

ChardAfter the onslaught of greens we had in the garden over winter, I don't really have an urge for more. However, for those of you needing your greens fix all year long, chard is your best (only) option. All of our other greens have either bolted or dried to a crisp, but chard is still producing.

We decided to try a bed of sweet corn at the garden. The good news is that our sweet corn grew nice and tall. The bad news is that we tried to squeeze three rows into a 4 foot by 8 foot bed. In the beginning the corn looked just a little crowded. Now, it looks like the corn is imitating a three stooges skit.
Ideally, sweet corn requires a lot of plants to get good ear growth and you don't get that much from an individual plant. Because of this, I would discourage anyone from growing sweet corn in their yard unless they have a LOT of extra space that they need to fill.

In the spring, I had heard that cucumbers did not grow that well in Phoenix, so we only planted one seedling in the garden.
I am beginning to regret that mistake. As far as individual plants go, this cucumber has been producing more than any other in our garden. On average, I have been pulling one cucumber per day from this plant for the last two weeks.

Our melon seedlings started so slowly that I worried that we were going to miss out on all the cantaloupe and watermelons this season. Fortunately, the plants have turned around quickly and we've already harvested five watermelons with many more on the way.We are fortunate to have many different melon seeds to try growing. I am becoming a huge fan of the smaller ones. They mature faster, their vines are smaller, and you are more likely to get multiple harvests from them.

Being a huge part of the native foodways and Arizona cuisine, I should have guessed that peppers would grow well around here.
They sure are growing well! We've been having a hard time keeping our plants picked. The food bank is giving away multiple pounds of peppers per day.
The one hint I have for those of you looking to grow a few pepper plants is to start small. Don't start trying to grow gigantic bell peppers, that is the one variety we have had no success with. (Ours turn out the size of golf balls.) What you should start out growing is jalapenos, habaneros, or (for those of you who aren't into spicy food) anaheim peppers. In general, plants with smaller peppers will grow faster and you will grow a lot more peppers.

Here, one of our container sized varieties. The plant is smaller but you don't lose much of your harvest.
In the Midwest, summer squash has a reputation for producing a LOT. They can produce so much that not only do the gardeners get tired of summer squash, but all of the gardeners' neighbors grow tired of it as well.

Fortunately for us, we have lot of neighbors and our summer squash are growing well. We only have 6 plants, but they are growing quickly and we still have not seen much of our arch-nemesis: the squash bug.

Our current method for repelling the squash but is to coat our plants with diotomaceous earth. This organic dust feels like tiny rasor blades and irritates any insects that walk on it. However, it is completely harmless to more thick-skinned organisms (like plants and people!). We have seen a squash bug walk around in it, but we don't think it was enjoying itself.

SunflowersLooking at it from a purely food growing perspective, sunflowers are not worth growing in a garden. But if your goal is to make a 3rd grader stop in his tracks and say "whoa!" then the sunflower is the plant for you.Sunflowers seem to grow quite well in the Valley and have really brightened up our garden. The uses for sunflowers will not fade after the flower is gone either. We have planted climbing beans at the base of our sunflowers so that they can use the flower stalk as a trellis.

This year, we planted about 50 tomato plants in the garden. Now that the summer has set in, it feels like we have 50 new tomato issues every day. The dry heat is not treating our tomatoes well.
As you can tell from the picture, we do have a lot of nice green tomatoes. My hope is that our plants can hold on for long enough to turn those green tomatoes into red ones. Even if they do, I would hesitate to plant many tomatoes next year. We've had to invest a lot of time into trellising the tomatoes and keeping them healthy. It would be much easier to plant more low maintenance squash and peppers.

Phew! That's all for now from the garden. I think I need to head back out to pick our okra. Did I mention that okra grows quickly around here?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tempe's Food Desert

There is a hot new term that is being used for those of us interested in food, culture, and cities. This term is "food deserts." It has become so common that there is now a Food Desert Awareness Month. Food deserts are defined as areas in the country where there is a shortage in healthy and affordable food sources such as grocery stores and supermarkets. Below is a dramatized and somewhat hilarious depiction of a food desert.
In reality, food deserts are much harder to identify. The first studies to discover this issue researched neighborhoods where families had to do their grocery shopping at a gas station or corner store where they could only buy highly processed or preserved food. Because of this lack of healthy food , these families are more likely to have nutritional issues such as diabetes or hypertension.

In the last year, the USDA has acknowledged the importance of food deserts and has started multiple programs to improve food access in low income areas. In order to properly target food deserts, the USDA has created a definition for a food desert. Beware, government jargon incoming:
"Food deserts" are defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as low-income and low-access census tracts:
  • To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area's median family income;
  • To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).
So basically, food deserts are defined as having a shortage of local food options and also lacking the money to drive to farther food resources (gas is expensive).

This all sounds simple enough, so I decided to look up Tempe. Interestingly, there is only one food desert in Tempe and the garden is in the dead center of it.

My apologies about the poor map quality. The desert covers everything inside McClintock, University, Apache, and the canal border with Mesa. The red dot is the garden.

Now, I'm not going to object to any government money that the USDA wants to throw at us, but I feel that the Escalante neighborhood actually has quite a few food resources. Additionally, our neighborhood has the advantage of multiple bus lines, the free Mercury Orbit line, and also the light rail line. So even if you don't own a car, traveling a mile or two to larger grocery stores won't set you back more than a few dollars.

I do not want to argue that there are not food security and health issues in our neighborhood, but I do want to argue that the USDA overlooked some very important "food oasis" in Tempe's food desert:

Haji-Baba International Food
I'm not sure how the USDA missed this place. Located on the south side of Escalante Neighborhood, Haji-Baba is a warehouse of food primarily for nearby restaurants, but the front also acts as a large grocery store. Although this store does not currently have a full produce aisle, I have do doubt that a family could use this store as their primary grocery store.

El Pueblo Meat MarketRight down Apache Dr. from Haji-Baba is El Pueblo. This tiny market is a modern throwback to the all purpose country stores that used to be the backbone of rural areas. Along with having a little of everything, El Pueblo also has a (very) small but relatively diverse and affordable produce section. It's not huge, but the store owners are doing their best with a building about the size of a Wal-Mart checkout aisle.

Bill's Market
Bill's is one of the oldest businesses in the area and has been used by locals for longer than I've been alive. The store has a reasonable selection and is good for anyone in the neighborhood who forgot one or two ingredients. Also, although the USDA would not define it as healthy, the chorizo at Bill's is amazing. The chorizo alone makes Bill's worth visiting.

The India Plaza
Although not exactly inside Escalante Neighborhood, the India Plaza is still right in the middle of food desert. Equipped with a fairly large produce section, the India Plaza is definitely a potential place to get groceries.
It seems that the USDA missed these small, independently run food sources in their census. In defense of the USDA, running a survey of food resources for the whole country is a difficult task and each of these businesses could not feed the neighborhood alone. However, it seems unfair to label a neighborhood serviced by many small independently run businesses as a "food desert." Especially when the alternative is a single large corporate run supermarket that everyone will have to drive to.