Green thumbs for hire-vei

2014-07-19T11:00:00Z Green thumbs for hire-veiBy Elena Acoba Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tucson gardener Leslie Bowman wasn’t reaching her goal of feeding her family something from her garden every day.

Not only that, gardening had become stressful for her, even after reading books, searching the Internet and taking classes to learn how to coax edibles to thrive. “I still had a million questions,” Bowman recalls.

Then she hired Brandon Merchant, co-owner with his wife, Amber, of Southwest Victory Gardens. Bowman figured he could work by her side, giving her answers and guidance right when she needed them.

Merchant reconditioned Bowman’s garden soil, coached her on organic gardening methods and taught her how to select the right varieties for Sonoran Desert conditions.

“I was choosing things not meant for this environment or not meant for the season,” she recalls.

Now about a year later, she’s had bounties of seasonal crops, including things she didn’t know could grow here, including lettuce and brussels sprouts.

This summer’s garden is crowded with eggplant, native onions, several varieties of squash and four varieties of tomatoes.

Not only can she now add these and more to her meals every day, but she has plenty to share with friends.

And gardening is more fun. “I worry less because I know what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “That makes it much more pleasurable for me.”

People new to gardening or new to gardening in the Sonoran Desert are increasingly turning to services like Southwest Victory Gardens to get a good start.

“A lot of my clients are those that have gardened before but haven’t been able to do it in Arizona,” says Merchant, who started his business last year. “A lot are brand new to gardening. They want to have a good start but not have to go through that learning curve.”

Southwest Victory Gardens offers to design and build in-ground and raised-bed gardens, setups for raising chickens and compost bins. Merchant, who started growing vegetables in Yuma as a child, coaches people and helps regularly maintain gardens, including when residents are away.

He sees Tucsonans following a national trend of increased food production in backyard gardens and community small farms.

More people want fresh, organic produce as concerns over genetically modified crops and processed foods grow. “These are becoming more mainstream issues,” Merchant says.

Michael Ismail also sees a growing market for edible-gardening services. Information about food safety and sustainable agriculture “is more and more on people’s minds,” he says. And they want to do something about it by growing their own food.

Ismail, a Vail business consultant and real estate investor, launched Thrive and Grow Gardens this year. He designs and builds raised-bed, hydroponic and aquaponic gardens; chicken coops; and rainwater-collection systems. He’ll condition soil, install plants, coach and help maintain gardens.

Ismail taps into his gardening skills built over a lifetime. He started as a child working in the family’s private garden and orchard in Benson.

“People have to start somewhere,” Ismail says, “and not everyone is as fortunate as I am that have a natural experience and knowledge of gardening.”

That was the case for semiretired Green Valley resident Liz Meekin. A garden dabbler over the years, she wanted to spend more time at it, but didn’t know how to build the raised bed that she wanted.

“Originally I had thought I would do it myself,” Meekin says, maybe buying a kit or ready-to-use model.

“Reality set in,” she adds. Realizing that she couldn’t do it herself, she hired Ismail instead. “This was a nice option for me.”

Ismail built the bed and added amended soil. By the time Meekin is ready to plant in the fall, the soil will be at its peak for growing.

Meekin plans to take over the planting and maintenance of the garden, but she says she’s reassured that she can call on Ismail for advice.

“Any way I can get people gardening is a good thing,” Ismail says. “Whatever capacity I need to fill, I’m super-pleased.”

Merchant echoes that sentiment, the reason each man got into this business.

“It’s not a problem for (clients) to contact me for any little thing. I really try to keep people positive about gardening.”

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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