Tucsonans tend their home gardens with help from food bank

2014-03-02T00:00:00Z Tucsonans tend their home gardens with help from food bankErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

When they lived in Nicaragua, Christian Ortiz and her husband, Yasbin Herrera, learned to garden where too much water was a problem. Now living in Tucson, her hometown, their problem is exactly the opposite.

But the couple, parents of two tots, have planted a small garden in the backyard of their east-side home and become part of a growing number of home gardeners in Tucson.

“It’s healthy and sustainable,” said Ortiz, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, where she met her husband. “Also, we can teach the children where food comes from, how it grows and how we can take care of it.”

The new gardeners have been helped by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Through its home-gardening program, Ortiz and Herrera received free plants, seeds, irrigation lines and the hands-on advice of Luis Herrera, the program coordinator.

A week ago, Herrera, no relation to Yasbin, visited their home near Sahuaro High School, helped the couple dig out a 3-by-20-foot plot, add soil amendments, string out thin, black water lines, and plant an array of vegetables and more.

“I wanted watermelon,” said Yasbin Herrera.

They selected a local variety, a Tohono O’odham watermelon, which has yellow-orange flesh and is called Gepi in O’odham. It suits our dry, summer heat. In addition, the novice gardeners planted squash, tomatoes, jalepeño and serrano chiles, sweet peppers, cucumbers, eqgplant, basil and sunflowers.

“They wanted a little bit of everything,” said Luis Herrera, who has been a home-garden consultant for five years.

While gardening in Tucson may seem a huge challenge to many because of our tough soil, scarce rain and blazing sun, it doesn’t have to be, said Jared R. McKinley, an urban gardener and associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona, a magazine devoted to local sustainable food and gardening.

Gardening can be successful but gardeners will make mistakes and even fail, he said. Even the best gardeners make mistakes, McKinley added. It’s a matter of talking to other gardeners and taking classes to learn what grows best and when, he said.

“The more you keep on it the better it’s going to be,” McKinley said.

In the Community Food Bank home-garden program, the participants agree to attend a minimum of three gardening classes and assist other home gardeners in creating their backyard plots, in exchange for the plants, seeds and help, said Herrera, the program coordinator. The Food Bank has about 1,500 families in its home-garden program, said Herrera. However, it is limited in the number of families it can assist each growing season, he added.

“There is a waiting list,” he said.

At the Ortiz-Herrera house, their newly tilled plot faces the south. Some trees will give partial shade to the western sky, brutal during the summer. If the sun proves to be too hostile, the gardeners plan to cover the plot with a sun shade.

McKinley, a self-described plant nerd, suggested gardeners use straw or some mulch to encourage the garden to retain moisture. He also recommended home gardeners start a composting bin, which reduces waste and creates compost for the garden. Home gardening need not be expensive, said McKinley.

When he began gardening, he began raising chickens and turkeys to use their droppings for manure. And when he worked at a downtown restaurant, he took home unused fish from the kitchen, blended it into fish emulsion and fed his plants with it.

If space is a problem, there are always pots in which to grow vegetables and fruits.

McKinley said that he finds more and more people turning over the soil in their yards. “Nowadays it’s all kinds of people,” he said.

Now that Ortiz and her family are on their way to gardening, they’ll look forward to seeing their plants grow, or not. But Ortiz said they’ll keep at it because of its benefits and because it’s fun.

And after they harvest their veggies and watermelons, they’ll consider their next project.

Chickens and water harvesting.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@azstarnet.com or at 573-4187.

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

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