Learn to be Passionate About Produce
Following a move to the East Valley, one gardener rediscovers her love of backyard horticulture.
By Lori A. Johnson | Photography By Art Holeman
The lists are long: Apples, apricots, grapefruit, lemons, oranges, peaches, plums, pomegranates and strawberries make up most of the fruit selection.
Vegetables include everything from cabbage and cucumbers, squash and sweet potatoes, to 12 varieties of peppers and 14 types of tomatoes. Adding even more flavor are such herbs as cilantro, dill, mint, sage and thyme. Judging by the veritable smorgasbord of crops growing in one Mesa backyard, it would be easy to assume the homeowner was a lifelong gardener, but Angela Judd has only been gardening extensively for the past few years.
Though she has fond childhood memories of helping her grandmother plant flowers in Idaho and had tried her green thumb at home gardening throughout the early years of her marriage, Angela had never given horticulture a serious thought until her family moved back to Arizona in 2008. From then on, her casual hobby became a passion.
The Judds chose their current property for its relatively large quarter-acre lot, on which Angela planned to create a backyard garden. Initially, she simply wanted to learn to grow fruits and vegetables, so she enrolled in a square-foot gardening class at a local nursery. She installed her first garden bed—a 4-foot-square raised one—on the yard’s west side, which was just rocks. After experiencing initial success, she kept expanding. Today, she has 11 raised beds of various sizes for growing produce, plus several flower beds. She’s also added seven citrus trees and seven additional fruit trees, as well as many other specimens throughout the yard.
A Family Affair
The Judd’s five children—one daughter and four sons who range in age from 10 to 25—all enjoy gardening to varying degrees. The youngest has virtually grown up in the garden and loves eating freshly pulled carrots and picking apricots and peaches right off the tree. “He helps water, plant seeds and pull weeds alongside me,” the proud mom says.
One of Angela’s favorite aspects of gardening is being able to cook with fresh ingredients harvested from her own backyard. “I’ve been trying to learn more about the vegetables I grow and finding new ways to cook and incorporate them into my family’s diet,” she says. She loves trying new recipes, and a running family joke is to ask whether a meal’s ingredients adhere to the current trend of “locally sourced and organic.”
When selecting what to grow, Angela’s criteria is quite simple: The family has to like it. “I grew beets and none of us liked them, so that was a waste for us,” she says. “It also can’t be too high-maintenance. I’m not great at growing plants such as grapes, blueberries or avocados. I’ll give most things a try or two, and if we like it, I will continue to plant it.”
Tricks of the Trade
Gardening in the low desert is not without its challenges. Angela’s best advice for aspiring gardeners is to use a reliable planting guide, such as the one provided by the Maricopa County Extension Office, which can be found online. She also recommends cultivating short-season varieties and those native to Arizona, which perform well in hot weather. “I’ve enjoyed growing Hopi yellow watermelon, Chimayo melons, asparagus beans and I’itoi onions, all of which thrive here and handle our summers well,” Angela says. “Native Seed Search’s website is a great resource for desert-adapted seeds.”
Angela also advises gardeners to take advantage of the fall/winter growing season, when many vegetables flourish, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, lettuces, peas, spinach and more. “At the end of the cooler season, I like interplanting melons, cucumbers and beans with spinach, broccoli and kale. The cooler-season vegetables will be gone when the warmer season plants begin needing more room,” she says. Above all, Angela stresses that aspiring gardeners should learn to appreciate the varieties that do well in the desert, such as citrus, and forget about those that don’t. She also recommends keeping a notebook containing planting dates and a list of successes versus failures to help plan for the next year.
Angela credits square-foot gardening with raised beds, drip irrigation and composting as the keys to her success. “I built my raised beds from boards cut for me by the hardware store,” she notes. “I added automatic watering systems to all the beds. Irrigation is crucial, especially for the summer season. If you forget to water even one day, all your hard work can die. Drip systems are the most effective and are easily installed with a hose and battery-powered timer.” And while her early efforts at composting were unsuccessful, with a little education through the Maricopa County Master Gardeners program, she finally succeeded at home. “The City of Mesa offers compost bins for $5,” she notes. “I have six of them and am a regular feature at my local Starbucks—even though I don’t drink coffee—popping in to see if they have used coffee grounds I can mix into my compost.”
Eventually, Angela hopes she can start a gardening blog to dispense all her hard-earned advice to other gardeners, and in turn to be inspired by their stories and successes. She also plans on expanding her little suburban farm in the near future to include more beds and orchards, so she can continue to sow the seeds of her fruitful passion throughout her property.