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Urban Gardening Offers a Sense of Serenity in Trying Times

In this time of economic and social uncertainty, more and more people are turning to growing their own food.

Millions of people are on lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate. Purchasing for seeds has nearly doubled. A growing interest in people choosing to grow their own food at home is starting to take root. As photos of empty shelves continue to dominate the social media and media landscape, people are wanting to take more control of the food they can grow themselves—without having to rely on their local grocery market.

Local expert Greg Peterson of The Urban Farm has responded to this growing interest in gardening food at home by offering free daily online classes on everything from beekeeping to organic produce and soil cultivation to flower farming. These free classes are the Urban Farm’s way of using their expertise to give back to the community and help ease stress in this time of uncertainty and social distancing.

We asked Greg for his take on how this global pandemic is inspiring Arizonans to get their hands dirty in their own gardens.


Phoenix Home & Garden: Why are people more interested in growing their own food right now?

Greg Peterson: Whenever there is a downturn in consumer confidence in our systems, people get a lot more interested in where their food comes from. I saw this to a small degree during the dot-com bust of the late 90s and even more so with the downturn of 2009. For example, a typical class that I regularly give at Changing Hands Bookstore attracts about 30 people.  In 2009, this same class attracted 267 people before we lost track of how many were arriving. When our culture gets uncomfortable, we get serious about figuring out where our food comes from.

All this said, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the number of people expressing interest in growing food is unprecedented.  I think that a major reason for this is the severe uncertainty around whether or not our food system can withstand what is happening.  On one hand, people are lining up for hours to get food boxes. On the other hand, farmers are tilling in bean crops rather than harvesting them and dumping millions of gallons of milk because we lack the infrastructure to move healthy food options to the market.  We don’t have a lack of food issue; we have a food distribution issue that we need to address.

PHG: What is the number one thing you want to teach people about growing produce in their own backyards?

GP: Growing your own food is easy. If you think you have a brown thumb, it is only because you don’t know the rules of growing food for your area. There are three simple things to consider when you begin pondering your new garden.

1. Garden placement. In the desert, an eastern or southern exposure is generally best for a garden. With an eastern exposure, your garden will get sun from sun-up until noon and then afternoon shade. With a southern exposure, where you get the sun by late afternoon, there are possibilities for shade. A western exposure that gets sun from noon until sundown is typically too hot and a northern exposure gets little to no sun.

2. Building your soil is the most important thing that you can do for the success of your garden and the health of your harvest.  The super simple solution is to add lots of organic material, compost and planting bed mix. These additions promote microbial life and the soil’s ability to percolate water and grow healthy plants.  Check out HealthySoilHacked.com for an educational video series about soil building.

3. Planting the right plant in the right season.  You cannot trust nurseries and big box stores to carry the right plant in the correct season.  I have seen broccoli for sale in the spring and squash in the fall, which is setting you up for failure. You have to do a little research to get the right seasonal groceries in the ground for the low desert. Visit PlantingCalendar.org for a low desert seasonal calendar.

PHG: Do you think people are finding produce gardening therapeutic and empowering in such an uncertain time?

GP: In times of trouble, I have seen a huge spike in interest in getting back to the garden. Not unlike past downturns, when people get in an uncomfortable spot, they look to their pantries and refrigerators for sustenance. When the store shelves are bare and we are wondering if there will be enough to feed the family, our interest in growing food skyrockets. The interest is much more about food security and less about food nutrition. The bonus of growing your own food is that you can choose to grow it organically, which makes it a lot more healthy. Plus, when you have your own garden you are picking your produce at its peak of ripeness, making your food more nutrient-packed than what you find in the grocery store. Through all this, getting in the dirt and growing our own food gets us back to nature, connects us with the wildlife and edible weeds in our garden, and brings a sense of sanity and peace to our lives.

PHG: What kind of online classes are you offering and where can people go to find them?

GP: We have been offering in-person classes for over 30 years, and in 2014 we started Urban Farm U, an online “plantform” to share gardening tips and classes to empower people to grow their own. When the pandemic started, we looked at what we could offer to quell the angst of what was happening. We realized that we had the resources and infrastructure in place to offer online gardening- and sustainability-related classes, so we decided to offer free classes daily Monday through Friday at 5pm.  We offer one-off classes like, Vermicomposting, Patio Farming, Fruit Tree Care, Solar Cooking, Edible Weeds, Growing Herbs, Growing from Seed, Keeping Chickens and so much more. Plus, we offer multi-session courses including Growing Food the Basics, Aquaponics Revealed, Backyard Livestock, Permaculture Basics and Jump Start Your Urban Farm.  Start at IWantToGarden.com to get into the daily flow of gardening and sustainability related classes.

PHG: Are you working with other members of the local community on these classes? 

I have an incredible team of people that consists of Janis Norton, our Urban Farm Manager, Tayler Jenkins, our communications and operations manager, Renée Fourie, our social media manager, and Katie Fiori and Ken Kingsbouro, who manage the production of our podcast plus various teachers from our local community and beyond.

One of our head teachers is Kari Spencer, local gardening expert and author of the book City Farming. We’ve also featured classes from seed expert Bill McDorman, wicking bed specialist Raymond Jess, vermicomposter Hassena Kasim, aquaponics expert Chad Hudspeth, soil researcher Dr. Elaine Ingham, straw bale gardener Joel Karsten, and many more.

Our team and teachers are passionate about the grow food movement and have been working overtime to make these classes widely available so that people can learn these skills to feel more empowered, grounded and self-sufficient.

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