Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

Growing Fruit and Urban Homesteading in the Arizona Desert

Recently, I had the oppor­tu­nity to explore a world of fruit grow­ing very dif­fer­ent from my usual north­ern Michi­gan venue, while on a trip to Ari­zona. One of the first things I noticed was how ubiq­ui­tous the cit­rus trees were, see­ing at least one in almost every yard. The fra­grant smell of the blos­soms was intox­i­cat­ing. The fresh, sweet grape­fruit we ate at almost every break­fast was a won­der­ful treat! I love grape­fruit, but alas, the tree does not like my north­ern climate.

I was taken by how diverse the veg­e­ta­tion and ter­rain was just an hour or two either north or south of Phoenix, which we had flown into. For some unknown rea­son, I had the stereo­typic vision of desert—sand, sand, and more sand. I should know bet­ter. I was aware that areas of the High Plains and desert South­west are impacted by caliche (pro­nounced ka-lee’-chee), a layer of cement-like, alka­line soil that is bound together by lime. Man­ag­ing a fruit gar­den in this quite imper­vi­ous soil can be chal­leng­ing, but it is pos­si­ble. You can find more infor­ma­tion here. There was far less organic mat­ter vis­i­ble in the native soils. Between lim­ited plant mate­r­ial to decay and high tem­per­a­tures that are not favor­able to the decay process, this was no surprise.

Young olive trees shade a picnic area

Young olive trees shade a pic­nic area

Our first week­end in Phoenix, my hus­band and I played tourist and curi­ous farmer/gardener at the same time. We vis­ited Queen Creek Olive Mill, an agri-tourism venue founded by, of all things, some other Michi­gan­ders, the Rea fam­ily from the Detroit area. Their 100 acre grove includes olive vari­eties such as Koreneiki, Mis­sion, and Fran­toio that thrive locally.



Olive buds

Olive buds

We were a bit early for the olive bloom, which occurs in April and obvi­ously out of sea­son for har­vest, which occurs from mid-October through mid-December. Although we were not able to actu­ally tour the main olive grove due to road con­struc­tion, we did enjoy a tour of the olive pro­cess­ing facil­ity and learned some­thing new.




Old-fashioned olive mill grind stones

Old-fashioned olive mill grind stones

Modern olive oil press

Mod­ern olive oil press








At har­vest, the olives are actu­ally quite bit­ter, not some­thing you want to eat straight from the tree. That is why they are brined before becom­ing the edi­ble prod­uct you find on the store shelves. Olives that are pressed into oil are, like­wise, bit­ter. How­ever, a chem­i­cal within the olive pit neu­tral­izes the bit­ter­ness when the olives, pit and all, are ground and then pressed into oil. Pomace from the press­ing process was recy­cled and com­posted for spread­ing as organic mat­ter in the groves or, due to the resid­ual oils, used for sus­tain­able dust con­trol on the farm lanes.

Home fruit gardening in Arizona

Home fruit gar­den­ing in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona

A few days later, I had the oppor­tu­nity to visit with a long-time col­league, Greg Peter­son of Greg has made it his mis­sion to inspire peo­ple to live a greener lifestyle. That includes grow­ing your own food and eat­ing more locally. I was priv­i­leged to have Greg give me a tour of the won­der­ful urban farm he has cre­ated, right in the heart of Phoenix. I saw every­thing from a front yard hedge of over a dozen cit­rus trees that did dou­ble duty screen­ing out traf­fic and road noise. Apple trees and grapes (mostly Con­cord, which sur­prised me) served as a friendly prop­erty bound­ary between neighbors.

Sweet cherries shaded from the Arizona sun

Sweet cher­ries shaded from the Ari­zona sun

Sweet cher­ries are a chal­lenge to grow in the desert cli­mate of Ari­zona, but Greg was suc­ceed­ing by choos­ing appro­pri­ate low chill vari­eties Min­nie Royal and Royal Lee. In the hot months of the Ari­zona sum­mer the trees are offered some respite in the from of shade from a porch over­hang of his house. Peach trees were com­ing out of shuck split and already sport­ing thumb-tip sized fruitlets. In northen Michi­gan, we are a good 4 to 6 weeks away from see­ing that yet.

Greg’s gar­den sits on prop­erty that was once a larger farm, so he is for­tu­nate that the prop­erty came with flood irri­ga­tion rights. To sup­ple­ment this peri­odic irri­ga­tion, Greg also built a large rain­wa­ter har­vest and stor­age sys­tem that col­lects roof run-off in the win­ter and spring. He uses that to sup­ple­ment his garden’s need. To con­serve mois­ture and help build organic mat­ter, six inches of wood chip mulch is spread around plants. That was also some­thing dif­fer­ent from what I am used to. We have plenty of green mat­ter to com­post and use in the gar­den. No more than an inch or so of chip mulch is used here in our own gar­den. Weed and bug con­trol is han­dled by Greg’s small flock of chickens.

When he’s not busy with his gar­den, Greg has many other irons in the fire. The day after my visit, was dis­tri­b­u­tion day for a large cit­rus tree order pro­gram that Greg has orga­nized. He showed me the won­der­ful vari­ety of high qual­ity trees that he was offer­ing. Decid­u­ous fruit trees had already been dis­trib­uted in Jan­u­ary, when it is most appro­pri­ate to be plant­ing them. also offers pod­casts, classes, and webi­nars focused on edi­ble gar­den­ing. Stay tuned, I hope to do a pod­cast with Greg soon and pos­si­bly col­lab­o­rate on other gar­den learn­ing resources as well.

Quince blossoms in Tucson, Arizona

Quince blos­soms in Tuc­son, Arizona

Fig fruitlets in a desert garden in March

Fig fruitlets in a desert gar­den in March

To wrap up the trip, we headed fur­ther south. In Tuc­son, we enjoyed the annual U of A book fair. It offered many inter­est­ing sem­i­nars, includ­ing one high­light­ing what is being done to fos­ter the indige­nous and local food move­ment. Edi­ble Baja Ari­zona is play­ing a great part and, as he has for a long time, Gary Nab­han had many impor­tant ideas to share. It was a thrill for me to be able to recon­nect with Gary after his long age visit to the old home­steads at our near-by national park. We also made sure to visit the Sonora Desert Museum. There was plenty to see and do for the day. Lo and behold, the quince was in bloom and the fig was already set­ting fruit in the pol­li­na­tor gar­den. I even cap­tured a leaf-footed bug on the prowl with my cam­era. There are many species of these bugs and they are found in my neck of the woods as well.

Leaf-footed bug on quince

Leaf-footed bug on quince

It was a great expe­ri­ence that left us with a bushel bas­ket of ideas for a future return trip. Who know, maybe we’ll jug­gle a win­ter and spring desert fruit gar­den and a sum­mer fall north­ern Michi­gan back­yard orchard in our retirement.