These and other questions will be tackled at the 2014 Sonoran Desert Master Gardener Conference Sept. 11 and 12. It’s organized by the master gardeners of the Pima County Cooperative Extension.

While the conference at Casino del Sol is the second one organized by the Pima County group, it’s the first one in which the public can attend. Last year’s meeting was open only to Arizona master gardeners.

“We got a lot of requests last time to attend by people who weren’t master gardeners,” says Laura Mellow, one of this year’s conference organizers.

Master gardeners are volunteer gardening educators trained through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. That’s a community outreach arm of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Every Arizona county has a UA cooperative extension office and a group of master gardeners, who learn research-based information and share that with the public.


Thursday, Sept. 11, is devoted to tours of UA plant-related attractions, including the extension’s demonstration gardens maintained by master gardeners.

The 15 demonstration gardens range from organic edibles to xeriscape and small-space landscapes.

“People can see all the different options available for the desert area,” says Mellow, a master gardener in charge of plant propagation for the group.

Friday, Sept. 12, focuses on presentations divided into four tracks: trees, eco-design, gardening techniques and entomology. Extension faculty, business owners and recognized experts will lead the sessions.

Mellow says the talks are meant to educate master gardeners on issues and techniques they may not know about, as well as provide tips for the public.


At the conference, Kelly Young wants to dispel the notion that organic gardening is all about buying natural pesticides and fertilizers.

“There’s a big market for organic products to use in your garden,” says Young, Maricopa County Cooperative Extension’s assistant agent in agroecology.

But buying products could be harmful in other ways, she suggests. For instance, fish emulsion, a popular organic fertilizer, requires commercial fishing that depletes populations and a process that includes transporting the product many miles.

Instead, organic gardeners should try to recycle what they already have, such as creating a compost pile of their own food and landscape waste, she says.

“It’s about minimizing off-farm inputs,” says Young.

Gardeners should know when to plant the right type of crop to control pests, she adds.

The goal is to “choose the least toxic method of managing a problem,” says Young.


When Kris Coates moved from Texas to Sun City near Phoenix, she realized buying a cistern to harvest rainwater wasn’t financially smart.

“We got a lot less rain, so it didn’t make sense,” says Coates, a master gardener and certified arborist and desert landscaper.

Coates will talk at the conference about a less costly way to gather rainwater: land contouring.

That’s a method of keeping rainwater in the landscape by building berms, shaping land into swales and digging retention basins.

“You can gather gallons of rainwater that will sink into your soil and store it,” says Coates, “instead of letting it all run down to the sewer system.”


Ursula Schuch, an extension specialist in environmental horticulture, will reveal at the conference the results of a four-year study on irrigating trees.

Researchers planted nine species of typical landscape trees—Sonoran Desert natives, plus arid-adapted and other non-natives—in a Maricopa County field.

Over the years they adjusted how often each tree was irrigated and how moist the soil around each tree was kept.

“We wanted to find out how little water can you get away with and still have a tree be functional,” says Schuch.

The study will be completed at the end of this year.

Schuch says she won’t talk about irrigation systems. “I’ll be talking more about how much water does the plant needs and how little water they will need to survive well.”


In two workshops lasting two hours each, Peter Warren, who writes a gardening column for the Arizona Daily Star, and Stacey Bealmear-Jones will help participants learn how to identify insects using microscopes.

Warren, a Pima County associate agent of urban agriculture, and Bealmear-Jones, his counterpart in Yuma County, have special interests in entomology.

“I’ll bring a variety of insects that I have in my office,” says Warren.

Participants, the number of which will be limited, can also bring insects for identification.


Jeffrey C. Silvertooth, associate dean and director of the UA Cooperative Extension, will deliver the keynote address. He’ll talk about the relationship of the master gardener program to the cooperative extension program, which this year is celebrating 100 years of existence.

A seed exchange among participants will include packets from the Pima County Public Library’s seed library.

Trees for Tucson will bring seedlings, and the UA Bookstore will have gardening books for sale. Other companies will have booths.

Each county’s cooperative extension office will have information about its respective program.

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writer Elena Acoba at