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.
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.
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.
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.
A few days later, I had the opportunity to visit with a long-time colleague, Greg Peterson of Urbanfarm.org. 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 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.
Urbanfarm.org 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.
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.
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.