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For The Garden

Soil Secrets

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: January, 2010, Page 63
Photography by Charles Mann

A welded iron gate commissioned from Tucson-based Studio Madera leads to the spacious front courtyard at the home of Tom Pew. The homeowner says he doesn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers on his plants.
Tucson Gardener Tom Pew Dishes About Dirt

Tucson gardener Tom Pew is fascinated by teeming life-forms that he can’t even see—at least not without the aid of a microscope. “When I started studying beneficial soil microbes and fungi a few years ago, it transformed my skills as a gardener,” he declares.

That statement surprises folks who reap the benefits of Pew’s lifelong passion for gardening. For almost four decades, he has grown most of the fruits and vegetables for his family’s table and shared his abundant harvests with others. “I received accolades for my green thumb, although I sometimes felt like a charlatan,” he admits. “I didn’t really understand what was taking place between plants and soil. I strived to garden organically, but if something went wrong, I resorted to chemical pesticides or fertilizers to solve the immediate problem. However, chemicals didn’t help my garden flourish in the long run.”
Tom Pew has been gardening on his Tucson property since 1973.
Pew credits Teaming With Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 2006) for piquing his interest in the complex relationships between plants, soil and soil-dwelling creatures that comprise the soil food web. “Healthy soil is alive,” Pew explains enthusiastically. “A teaspoon of good garden soil contains as much as a billion bacteria, several yards of fungi, several thousand protozoa and a few dozen beneficial nematodes.” These microorganisms serve as Mother Nature’s recycling crew, breaking down organic waste into elements that plants may absorb.

As Pew began implementing the book’s ideas, including brewing compost tea (loaded with microorganisms) to add to his soil, he noticed improvements. His plants were healthier, suffered fewer pest outbreaks, and perhaps most noteworthy for a desert dweller, his garden used less water.

Aloe blossoms draw hummingbirds to a garden bed augmented by brittlebush and a pair of Indian fig prickly pears. 
Keys to Success

Pew has gardened on the same property for almost 37 years. In 1973, he and wife Laurie were house-hunting. As Pew describes it, “We were totally lucky” to purchase a Southwestern gem designed by noted Tucson architect Josias Joesler situated on 10.5 acres of Sonoran Desert. Pew started a small vegetable garden and quickly became hooked on cacti and succulents. He cultivates a half-acre surrounding the home and leaves the rest as native desert.
“The fact that cacti don’t provide lengthy bloom seasons is a negative to some people, but for me it’s a plus,” the gardener comments. “These plants nurture their energy to be able to burst into spectacular bloom for a few days. Sometimes we are fortunate to enjoy over a hundred blooms on a Cereus cactus.

“Fifty percent of my plants came from trading and sharing cacti cuttings and agave and aloe pups, which are easy to grow from cuttings and offshoots,” Pew notes. “The key to success for agaves is shielding them from direct sun until they establish.”

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