Category Archives: Gardening

Sensational plant

Szechuan Button
For the past year and a half I’ve worked at a large greenhouse in Phoenix. Our one commercial tenant grows microgreens destined for farmer’s markets and restaurants. The two charismatic young men who run this company attract many fans to the greenhouse, from pretty women who shop at farmer’s markets to visionary chefs seeking the latest in flavors to spice up their creations.

The other day Joseph came up to me cradling a small yellow blossom in his palm. “Want to try something wild?” he asked. Microgreens are grown from many flavorful greens including basil, radish and mustard, so I’m used to such requests. But I hadn’t seen the yellow flowers before.

“Sure. What is it?” I asked the question at the same time I popped the whole bud in my mouth. From the first bite the sensation was intense, and I watched a grin spread across Joseph’s face while mine twisted in surprise.

“It’s called a buzz button,” he said. “Or a Szechuan button.”

The Latin name is Spilanthes acmella and the plant is a member of the sunflower family. An intense uproar was going on in my mouth. The feeling on my gums was progressing from fizzing to electrifying, and my tongue was going numb. I swallowed the bud and felt a cool menthol rush in my throat.

Joseph told me that a couple of chefs requested the buzz buttons. Ever in search of something new, innovative chefs use just a few petals of the tiny flowers in sauces and soups to create layers of flavor and sensation. The petals are also used in syrups, cocktails and desserts.

The plant has long been used for its medicinal qualities in South America, North Africa and Asia where it is prescribed for stomach distress, toothaches, stammering, and to ward off parasites. The alkaloid Spilanthol gives the plant its electrifying effect.

I imagine Szechuan buttons create quite a buzz when offered as samples at the microgreens table at the farmer’s market.


Why Worm Compost is Best

Worm bins at greenhouse

Worm bins at greenhouse

Ok, time for a tolerance test. We embrace nature in all her glory, right? We understand the interconnectedness of the natural world and honor even the tiniest contributors to the grand scheme. We realize that even the house fly has a mysterious purpose.
I’d like to invite you, loyal readers, to embrace worms. Let me explain.

I’ve recently been given the responsibility of caring for approximately one hundred red wrigglers at the greenhouse. They were delivered to me in a rather snazzy white bag that claimed to contain one pound of worms.

I deposited them, half and half, in two worm bins prepared with homemade bedding. Worm bedding is shredded paper, peat moss and vermiculite with a trowel full of soil tossed in to get the microbes simmering. The bedding is kept nice and moist because worms like things wet. They are clammy little beings, with skin slime that performs important duties, such as lubricating the passage of the worm through the soil, and sealing the walls of the worm’s burrows as it goes.

Red wriggler worms help at home by eat rotting stuff. Kitchen throw aways like potato peels, egg shells, coffee grinds and apple cores are tucked into the worm bin along with the bedding. Microorganisms on these food wastes are swallowed by the worms and take up temporary residence inside their guts. In the digestion process nutrients are released by the bacteria and taken into the worm’s bloodstream for energy.

Red wrigglers are of the classification epigeic, worms that live near the surface where there is the most microbial activity. The microbes that aid their digestion pass through the worm alive and are excreted in tiny dark pellets called castings. Worm castings are packed with nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that feed life.

If you feel the need to wash your hands, just reading these words, I think that’s normal. Our society worries about germs and wants to wipe them out forever. But microorganisms are everywhere and they aid many aspects of life. Worm castings are a critical link in the lifecycle of healthy soils and make terrific compost.

So, people keep worm bins under their kitchen sink. There in the warmth and dark of the cozy kitchen, the worms live happily, munching away on food scraps and paper. Meanwhile, the home garden thrives with the addition of worm cast compost.

Technical information abounds online about how to keep worms and how to harvest the compost. Progressive cities across the nation supply homeowners with worm bins or information on how to make one. California even has an online interactive game to teach residents about vermiculture, called The Adventures of Vermi the Worm.

Let’s wrap up with a few fascinating worm facts:
Worms have no need for eyes, ears, teeth or limbs. They do have a mouth, a lip and taste cells.
Worm bodies are divided into segments called somites. Each segment is heavily muscled and lined with tiny bristles called setae. The bristles are used to pull the worm through soil, or to hold it in place when a bird tries to tug it up for a meal.
A worm’s actions are directed by a brain made up of sensitive nerve cells that detect light, moisture and vibrations and coordinate muscle movement.

Cradle to Grave for Burmuda Grass

Xeriscape demonstration garden at Glendale Public Library

Xeriscape demonstration garden at Glendale Public Library

A lawn in the Southwest is a guilty pleasure. Green turf is soft underfoot and comfortingly cool….especially on 110 degree days. Burmuda grass thrives in the heat, and many homeowners maintain a patch for the kids, for the dog, for the sanity a little green brings to the desert. Burmuda grass flourishes in school yards and parks across the Southwest, going dormant during the cooler months and greening up again come spring.

A lawn stays green and comforting only when watered copiously…and of course, water is a rare commodity around here. According to University of Arizona County Extension, 50-75% of the water used on a landscape can be saved by removing a lawn.

What many folks don’t consider when they opt for a patch of green, is that trusty, reliable Burmuda grass is very difficult to eliminate. If at some point in the future you decide you want a garden, or a low-water-use landscape instead of that thirsty lawn, you are facing a big chore.

According to the Maricopa County Extension, there are two methods for getting rid of this plant. Bermuda can be poisoned with one to several applications of the herbicide glyphosate (Round Up and other brand names), or it can be solarized.

Solarization involves covering the entirety of the lawn with black plastic for the summer months. The grass is suffocated and baked. Even still, what remains when the plastic is finally drawn back must be removed from the landscape, or it will re-root.

I spoke recently to Greg Peterson local expert at He claims Burmuda grass can be eliminated by cutting and removing the sod to a depth of two to three inches. The area is then watered to stimulate growth of the remaining rootlets so they can be raked out. All of these processes hint at the necessity of continued vigilance against re-emergence.

Gyphosate manufacturers state that the herbicide becomes inert when it contacts soil organisms. However, it does seem ironic that in order to plant gardens, fruit trees or native plants in areas where lawn grows, putting down poison is the “logical” first step.

According to Jack Kelly, Assistant Agent of Agriculture in Pima County office Cooperative Extension, glyphosate kills most plants when it is absorbed by green leaf tissue. The herbicide travels through the plant to new roots, shoots and developing fruits. The plant must be growing actively for the poison to work, so glyphosate should be applied to fresh growth in spring or in fall when the daytime temperatures are still in the 80’s.

Use a coarse spray to minimize drift and shield nearby plants. Do not water for 24 hours while the Burmuda grass takes in the herbicide. Then resume watering so the plants stay active while the effects take place, for 7-14 more days. Taper water over that time until the plot is brown.

A power rake should then be employed to remove dead grass. Kelly recommends also removing the top 2 inches of soil so mulch can be added to the new landscape without overflowing sidewalks and driveways.

Sound like a chore to you? That’s why I’m proposing that the sustainability concept of cradle to grave be applied to the planting of Burmuda grass. Cradle to grave planning means that manufacturers of products must provide for an end of life use, or sustainable recycling method for said product. Then all those disposables that litter our landscape and clog our seas would cost enough to give us pause before purchasing. And maybe a cradle to grave approach to Burmuda grass would make us think twice about putting that seed down in the first place.

Converting Turf to a Xeriscape Landscape by Jack Kelly is a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension publication AZ1371

Big Rains Bring Bugs

See the bee in bottom left

See the bee in bottom left

Garden pipevine caterpillar

Garden pipevine caterpillar

Record amounts of rain create a big impact in an arid region, and not just in freeway underpasses and basements. The familiar trail where I walk was positively lush. Some plants I hardly recognized, so dressed were they in profusions of green. Seldom seen grasses grew in clumps on the desert floor, thrusting up and setting out seed heads in a water-fueled rush.

Insect eating birds – primarily black-tailed gnat catchers and verdins, worked busily among the foliage. Looking across the wash that dominates South Mountain’s Desert Classic Trail, I saw bugs massing above the green trees, backlit by the rising sun. Rain equals life, and near the bottom of the food chain, rain equals bugs.

A western spotted orb weaver spider hung her web from a block wall just above a hedge of Ruellia that buzzed with bees. The large moth trussed and motionless in her trap seemed to be looking out through the silken wrappings at me. A bee was also caught, with a leg tangled in the sticky web. It struggled vigorously, but in vain. The spider reached out and plucked at the web, which quivered along its length. Would she quickly wrap the bee as well? But she only strummed at her web until the bee broke free.

The sun was well up when I walked past again on my way home, and the spider and her meal cast a black shadow on the block wall. She crouched over the still form, feeding avidly.

In the garden I pushed aside a branch of Sonoran pipevine that snakes along the ground and discovered a large black caterpillar with red tubercles. This is the larval stage of the pipevine swallowtail. It feeds only on pipevine plants. The cautionary colors of black and red warn predators of powerful toxins that that the caterpillars ingest from the vine.

In early spring the adult swallowtail breaks out of the chrysalis as a large iridescent butterfly in shades of ebony and sapphire. Woe to birds that try to eat the butterfly; for all its changes in appearance, the swallowtail still harbors the toxins that the caterpillar recieved from its larval food plant. The butterfly is a dazzling visitor to gardens and roadsides where it pollinates many desert plants.

Read more about the pipevine swallowtail at Onelookout from March 2012.


"Fields" of greens inside the greenhouse

“Fields” of greens inside the greenhouse



I’m in such a salad rut. I eat a salad every day, either for lunch or dinner, or sometimes both. Eating lots of vegetables makes me feel good, and oh so virtuous. Although I enjoy eating salads; buying and washing the ingredients and doing the chopping and slicing does get a little tiresome.

So I’ve been happy to discover a new ingredient that is super nutritious and offers exciting textures and flavors. I’m talking about microgreens, and I learned of them through Arizona Microgreens who are partners in and supporters of the Brooks Community School in South Phoenix.

Co-owner David Redwood visited with me about the benefits of his product. He pointed out that microgreens are grown in soil or coconut coir and take nutrients from those mediums. The little plants are allowed to go through photosynthesis and pick up phytonutrients from that process. Studies have shown that microgreens have more nutrients per bite than adult plants.

Other, dynamic aspects of this food make it a darling of chefs. Microgreens are beautiful! They contribute crunchy succulence and a variety of textures to a salad or a sandwich. In culinary creations they provide a visual presence, body and bursts of unique flavor.

Microgreens are different than sprouts. Sprouts have suffered some bad press due to bacteria outbreaks. Cultivated in water with no natural sunlight, sprouts miss out on some of the nutrient qualities of microgreens.

Arizona Microgreens features more than a dozen different plant varieties. Some customer favorites are sunflower, arugula, cilantro, broccoli, curled cress, radish, pea shoot and wheat grass. The company sells to restaurants and individuals at farmers markets. David says people buy a four ounce baggie of sprouts one week and come back the next raving about how their kids loved them, how they found them less perishable than other greens and how they enjoyed the flavors.

One of the benefits of my job at the greenhouse is taste testing. Every so often I get called on to sample a new crop. Radish microgreens are peppery and crunchy, sunflower microgreens fill your mouth with succulent, mild flavor and oriental mustard? Wow! It tastes like smooth, high-quality wasabi.

Arizona Microgreens are grown organically in flats of premium soil and allowed to get just a couple of inches tall before they are snipped off in harvest. They are tender and delectable and require no slicing, dicing or chopping. They will be coming soon to these farmers markets: Carefree Sundial, North Central Phoenix, Old Town Scottsdale and Ahwatukee’s Sunday Market. Check Arizona Microgreens website for dates and times.

Hornworms and the Web of Life

Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworm caterpillar

Sphinx moth

Every so often Nature pulls a stunt that gets everyone’s attention. Some examples come to mind: deluges in the desert, crimson and gold fall foliage, and sometimes big hatches of insects. Last Saturday Lexie and I went out for our walk and stepped into a sea of creeping caterpillars. Large green hornworms crawled everywhere across the desert floor.

Hornworms hatch as tiny non-descript caterpillars and continue to shed their skins and grow, trading up to ever larger sizes and brighter colors. They eat and expand until variances in light, moisture and temperature trigger a change. When this happens the caterpillars march in a mass dispersal like we witnessed last week. Reaching a suitable place with soft soil, the hornworms dig. Their grand miracle takes place as they lay underground.

A couple of weeks ago I found a hornworm inching along the floor of the greenhouse. This tomato hornworm was as big as my thumb and bright green, with stripes of white across his back like slashes of butter cream frosting. I put the caterpillar in an empty cottage cheese container and took it home.

At home I put leaves and sticks in a quart jar designed for seed sprouting, with a perforated plastic lid. I. added a trowel full of soil and then the hornworm. My caterpillar immediately started burrowing under the pile of soil in the jar. Within seconds he was invisible.

Flash forward twelve days. Marc and I are sitting outside after dinner watching bats swoop through the dusk. They’re snagging bugs that rise from the yard. The dog noses at the caterpillar jar on the table nearby. Something’s going on. I pick up the jar and see the large white-lined sphinx moth, clinging inside the lid. Metamorphosis!

It’s time for the changeling to fly free. Marc says take a picture, but it’s nearly dark and I want the moth to go, to be free. I unscrew the lid and the moth sails right out and up, into the darkening night.

Bam! She’s hit immediately, nabbed from the sky by a plummeting bat.

Sphinx moths are prime food for bats, an important source of nutrition for their fall migration. They have the ability to pick up on the echo location calls of hunting bats, and employ evasive moves. But this poor moth was tossed straight into the jaws of fate.

Made me feel like an ignoramus, unthinking of the life cycles and dramas going on around me. The doings of bugs seem a quaint reflection, nostalgic reminders of a time before we fell into the thrall of technology, before the world became quite so big and complicated. Yet, it is the cycles of insects and plants and that actually support our lives, not the latest and greatest devices.

Gardener Extraordinaire

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

I arrived at Desert Botanical Gardens about 6:15 pm. The evening air cast a cool grace over the gardens. I was there to soak up the wisdom offered by a genuine, true-blue gardener. Pam Perry put her hands in the soil with the intention to grow plants when she was just three years old. Years of observing the performance of different varieties of plants in different soils and microclimates grant life-long gardeners a feel for growing that’s hard to get from books.

Pam’s stayed closely tuned to her passion all these years. For her, varieties of plants have unique characteristics, even personalities. She describes the Rosa Bianca eggplant: “An elegant girl, nice to have in the garden, beautiful really, but be aware she might give you just four eggplants all season”.

Here is someone you would love to have at your elbow as you confront the big seed display at the nursery. Pam offered a perspective on the performance of crops depending on the type of seed purchased. Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been in cultivation from 50 years to more than 3,000 years. Hybrid seeds come from plants that have been carefully bred to be disease resistant and to produce in a short growing season. These plants are trialed all over the country to ensure reliability and vigor.

Seed producers market seed based on the moods of the time. In the twenties, carnations were a favorite flower for funerals, durable and uplifting with their spicy colors and scent. But carnations fell from favor when people began to associate the smell of the blooms with death. Even today carnations are bred to be odorless.

The class covered the secrets and tips to be found in the study of seed catalogs. Pam orders a number of favorite catalogs every year and lines them up to compare offerings for specific plants. Ordering in January allows her to get first dibs on what might be limited seed for popular or newly introduced novelty crops. We learned the ins and outs of saving seed from plants we grow in our own gardens, and how long they last with careful storage.

Seed libraries are sprouting up (sorry) all over the country, and in Phoenix the Permaculture Alliance offers heirloom seed for free, asking only that you save seed from a few of the plants you grow, to renew the library’s supply. Local seed exchanges can be found online.

Master Gardener Pam Perry manages the demonstration vegetable gardens and the native plantings around the Maricopa County Extension offices at 4341 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix. It’s worth the time to stop by and see what’s going on in the garden.

The Potential in a Single Seed

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

I’ve been working a lot with seeds lately. It’s my job at my new position with the Roosevelt School District. A seed is a miracle. Place a kernel under the soil, add moisture and warmth, and life bursts forth. The first sign of germination is an eruption from the soil, as the plant pushes toward that next requirement, sunlight.

In a similar birthing, a large greenhouse has appeared on the campus of the Brooks Community School in south Phoenix. When the Brooks School was closed due to low enrollment, the buildings and playgrounds sat empty and uncared for, an eyesore in this humble neighborhood.

Then a visionary from the district came along and planted a seed of hope on the campus. He proposed that the shuttered school be reopened as a community center populated with non-profits offering resources to the people. The seed packet for this harvest would read Community Revitalization and Sustainability.

Various organizations and community non-profits are already operating out of the Brooks School, providing benefits to the greater neighborhood, including parenting classes, a medical clinic, job training, motivational speakers, and community service and volunteer opportunities.

The large greenhouse crouching on land that once swarmed with kids on recess represents a window for students to peer through, an opportunity to learn about the production of food. Field trips to the greenhouse will highlight the sciences of hydroponics, aquaponics and vermiculture; showing vegetables growing in water, fish and prawns thriving in indoor tanks and worms digesting table scraps and paper to produce nitrogen rich fertilizer. These closed loop systems conserve resources while maximizing nutritional yields

Gathering these sustainability practices together under one roof will allow students to explore a range of urban food production. Plans are underway for more education opportunities on the land outside the greenhouse including butterfly and hummingbird gardens, raised beds and native plant landscaping.

Just a few generations ago, children commonly helped with chores in their family gardens. They were part of planting, harvesting and preserving food. Now most kids think food comes from grocery stores and restaurants. Bringing edible gardening into the school environment addresses this disconnect.

Right now the greenhouse is in disarray as everyone is working to get their growing operations up and running. By early October there will be more news to report. If this seed fulfills its potential, the plant is sure to bear fruit

Paloverde promise

The spring pageantry continues in the desert. Glorious clouds of yellow sit upon the paloverde trees, those bland legumes, often short on leaves and charisma. The humble trees have moved to center stage and flame like beacons across the desert.
Bees drawn to the nectar and pollen create an undulating hum that creates a force field around the trees. All along my walks I hear bees buzzing to, from and about the big pollen party.
Growing up in the Northwest, in the shadow of towering Douglas fir and cedar trees, I didn’t recognize at first the status of the sprawling trees of the desert. But the ubiquitous paloverde and ironwood trees anchor life here.

These leguminous species attract beneficial bacteria to the soil around their roots, and this nitrogen rich zone is a magnet for other plant species such as saguaros that grow up in the shelter of their branches. Their yellow flowers feed bees and chuckwalla lizards, while mammals such as rock squirrels and cottontail rabbits browse the leaves and stems.
The flowers are replaced by a robust crop of seed pods. Already tender green crescents dangle like earrings from the trees. Protein rich seeds will develop inside the pods that will fuel life in birds, squirrels and other small mammals.
The natives are called foothill paloverdes. They are thorny. When we looked for a tree for our front yard, we settled on a desert museum paloverde. It has the same glossy green bark and a crown that opens to the sky like arms reaching towards heaven. Since we too are humble desert inhabitants and given to pruning our own trees, we decided this thornless hybrid allowed us the best of both worlds. Verdins still hunt insects along the desert museum’s branches and whiptail lizards scoop up bugs beneath its canopy.




April in Arizona is Water Awareness Month. It’s good timing, as the outside temps are rising and the sunlight is starting to take on that knife’s edge of intensity. This is when our yards get thirsty. Approximately 75% of residential water use is outdoors.
There is a website of course: Check out the nifty calendar featuring daily water tips. Tabs offer resources, events and more ways to save on water. Find rebates for lowering your outdoor water usage, learn about rainwater harvesting, see lists of low water plants and more.
Az residents are challenged to set a goal of less than 100 gallons of water per person per day. With the two of us in our home, that would mean less than 6000 gallons a month. Still seems like a lot! I looked our water bill and in the last billing period we did use just under that. But usually we’re higher.

In 2013 we took out about a third of our lawn, paring down to just what we see out the family room window, and enough for the dog. We also purchased a rain tank. I don’t really miss the lawn, and I love the tank! It’s positioned under a scupper on the back of the house and one hundred gallons are “harvested” when just one inch of rain falls. For the past five months I’ve had rain water to put on my potted plants and to soak into my vegetable garden, leaching out the salts that our city water contains. The plants look great and the veggies are going nuts. I could use another tank.
The one we got was a Cubo from Oasis Rainwater Harvesting. It’s made of heavy duty plastic and comes in a variety of colors. It has a screened top to keep out debris, an overflow valve, which we’ve needed and a fixture to attach the hose.
I’m hoping to come up with more ways to cut down on water use. What about you? Send a comment and let me know how you’re saving water.