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TGN Interview: The 5 Essential Components of Healthy Soil

TGN Talks Healthy Soil, Garden Design, and Fruit Trees With Greg Peterson of the Urban Farm

Nominee: Greg Peterson

Home Digs: Phoenix, AZ

Company: The Urban Farm

Website: UrbanFarm.orgUrbanFarmPodcast.com, GreatAmericanSeedUp.org

Follow On Social Media At: The Urban Farm (Facebook)

Fast Facts: Greg Peterson’s Urban Farm (as it is lovingly named) sits on a plot that measures 80 feet by 160 feet in the heart of residential Phoenix. Since digging his first garden at age 14 (over 40 years ago!), Greg has shared sustainability practices with his fellow city dwellers, ranging from apartment renters to homeowners. To date, he has educated tens of thousands on the art and science of permaculture and the “edible landscape.” Greg shares his mantra of working with the natural world rather than against it through a prolific series of training classes, webinars, e-courses, podcasts, and blog posts. His latest obsessions? Promoting his annual Urban Farm Fruit Tree Program and co-sponsoring the Great American Seed Up.

Nominated by: Beva C. | Phoenix, AZ

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Why do you advocate for city dwellers to name their urban gardens?

I say that becoming an urban farmer is really a change in how we think. It’s true that most farmers sell their food, but I say that you can also grow food that you share with others AND still call yourself a farmer. So, the first two steps in becoming an urban farmer are to grow food and share it. Step three, then, is to name your farm. By doing so, you are expanding the local food conversation. Imagine you are talking with someone who asks you what you do, and you say, I am a farmer! Wow—the places we can go with that. Then, while you’re at it, you share your farm name, like Wish We Had Acres, Three Fat Cats’ Apartment Garden, Jack’s Bean Stalk, or The Urban Farm. All of these places exist and are known among friends because someone started calling them that.

My job (self-appointed as it may be) is to teach these skills to others, so they can grow and deliver fresh food to their families and neighbors. I feel that every community of faith should start developing its own food source for its members. One of my favorite places to teach is the market at Creative Living Fellowship, the church I attend. They provide a wonderful space for me to teach in and are deeply committed to the transformation of our food system.

In selecting and designing a garden plot, what are the main factors to consider?

Planting your garden in the appropriate spot is imperative for your success. The biggest factor is placing it where it will get enough sun, but not too much. Hmm . . . what the heck does that mean? For those of us in the desert southwest, we need to plan for shade during the hottest part of the day from May to October. So, that means we avoid western exposure, which gets sun directly on the garden from noon to sundown. This space however, may be the perfect place for a winter garden. In the northern hemisphere, the southern exposure gets sun all day, which in my area requires some shade. An eastern exposure gets sun from sunup ‘til noon, making it a very advantageous place to plant here in the desert. Northern exposure gets little to no sun and is typically a hard place to grow, but, if that is all you have, give it a shot.

I often tell people that gardening is one great, big experiment—so experiment away, and when you find that something works, do more of it! Gardening placement requires planting something to see how it will work. So, here is your permission to jump in and play.

What can growers do to ensure maximum soil health?

Maximum soil health . . . that is a process. Your most important job as a grower is to build healthy soil. Let’s break down the 5 components of healthy soil, so you can begin to understand the process.

Typically, what we all start with is dirt. That is the hard-packed stuff that is primarily made of broken-down rock and, while it is a very important feature of healthy soil (it has lots of micronutrients), plants generally can’t use it as it stands.

Next, there is the air space needed in healthy soil. This allows the soil to breathe and lets water (the third component) percolate in. Animals (such as gophers) and bugs (such as ants) can help aerate the soil, but I prefer for the plants’ roots to do most of the soil breakup for me. So, whenever I have plants left at the end of the season, rather than pulling them up, I cut them off and let the roots rot in the ground, adding compost directly to the soil.

Organic matter is the next and most important piece of the puzzle to be added to your soil. In fact, this is what really solves your soil woes. Add organic matter. For the short-term success of your gardens, add only planting mixes and compost. What I typically do is add 6 inches or so of compost/planting mix to the top layer of my garden and plant—letting the roots do the digging for me.

Read More: “The #1 Tool for Organic Growers”

And, number 5 (drumroll, please), you need everything that is alive in the soil. Microbes, bacteria, viruses, fungi, bugs, and so much more. This arrives with the organic matter. So, the good news is that the fix for unhealthy soil in just about every case is to add organic matter.

Can you explain the basics of rainwater collection for garden irrigation? Do you recommend harvesting gray water—and which crops is it safe to use on?

I don’t use rainwater on my gardens, because it comes off of an asphalt roof and, here in the desert, would only give me a few inches a year. I do, however, teach that every drop of rain that falls on your property needs to be directed (not necessarily collected) to an appropriate place in your yard. I promote not collecting rainwater in tanks, as they are expensive. Rather, I design my rainwater systems here at The Urban Farm so the water is directed to a spot in my yard, and then I plant perennials in these rain gardens.

You’re a huge proponent of planting fruit trees in urban spaces. Why is that, and can you share the names of some of your preferred tree picks for arid climates?

My favorite thing to plant is a fruit tree, because you plant it once and then get food for decades. My 3 favorite varieties for the desert are Desert Gold Peach, Katy Apricot, and Anna Apple. Plus, any and every kind of citrus.

How does tending a garden differ from caring for fruit trees?

The nice thing about fruit trees as compared to gardens is that the trees require much less tending each year, and you can eat off of them indefinitely. A little fertilizer here and some pruning there and, in year 3 or 4, you can start picking. Additionally, gardens require watering more often—here in the desert, often every day—whereas fruit trees need long, deep watering that is done a couple times per month.

Fruit trees and gardens don’t mesh very well together for another big reason. Fruit trees like a woodier, forest mulch–type soil, whereas garden beds require a soil mix that is much more broken down. Generally, I plant fruit trees and veggies away from each other. That being said, though, there are some veggies that work well with trees, and one of them is the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes thrive under the canopy of a tree, provide a very nice shade cover for the ground, help build long-term soil fertility, and provide food.

Say I live in an apartment, but would still love to grow my own meals. Please share some tips for making the most of a container garden.

One of my favorite tools for a budding gardener is the Tower Garden. I own one, and I love it for growing greens. We activate it here in the desert in October and start harvesting lettuce, kale, chard, arugula, mint, and basil within about 30 days.

A less expensive alternative is to grow veggies in pots. I have had great luck with growing flowers as edibles and pollinators, greens of many kinds, herbs, tomatoes, and peppers. The two big caveats are to make sure you use a nice planting mix to grow in and (for hotter climates) shade the pots from the extreme heat. Pots can get expensive, so for a really cool garden hack, use metal trash cans with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. This is an inexpensive way to get going fast.

What resources would you recommend for those interested in planting their first produce garden or fruit tree orchard?

The Urban Farm offers many free resources for getting your garden started. We host monthly classes both online and in person (in the Phoenix area), with topics including “Jump Start Your Urban Farm,” “Seed Saving,” “Right Plant, Right Place, Right Time,” “The Great American Seed Up,” “So You Want to Grow a Fruit Tree,” and “Three Ways to Kill Your Fruit Trees.” Check out the Urban Farm Events page for our full list.

We also offer a full line of online courses that take you deeper into specific topics. They all start with a free introductory webinar here. Courses include “The Aquaponics Revolution,” “Chickens, Goats, and More,” “Seed Saving Hacked,” and “Ecological Abundance for Your Life.” Our free webinar on getting your garden started is called “Gardening Unearthed,” and our Urban Farm Podcast is an incredible resource for the gardener. Over the course of more than 400 episodes, we have talked with some of the most amazing people—from backyard gardeners to well-known rock stars in the field. Finally, you can find a free desert planting calendar here.

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This post was written by The Grow Network

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