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Members of the Community Gardens of Tucson have green thumbs year-round

As outdoor temperatures drop, certain activities are popular. Skiing at Mount Lemmon? Yes. Snowboarding in Pinetop? Sure.

Gardening in Tucson? Absolutely.

For people used to frozen ground, it may come as a pleasant revelation that, in the desert Southwest, you don't have to pack away your gardening gloves—ever. This fact is well-known by members of Community Gardens of Tucson, an all-volunteer nonprofit in its 20th year.

I met with CGT members George Brookbank, Darlene Schacht and Gene Zonge on a chilly December morning at the Benedictine Monastery community garden on Country Club Road.

Both Brookbank and Schacht have been members since 1979. "I was working as a (UA Cooperative) Extension agent," recalls Brookbank. "Part of that program involved a number of volunteers. ... In addition to doing their education work, they wanted to grow vegetables themselves.

"I had a friend with a piece of ground on First Avenue, and it was too much for her to organize. ... She had about eight to 10 acres. She offered the land to us. ... As in all operations, we don't pay any money for the land."

Brookbank and crew started with 50-foot plots but then divided them in half because they were too large. As the UA Cooperative Extension students dropped out, empty plots were taken over by residents in the neighborhood.

Today, there are nine community gardens around town—four at private homes, three at churches and two at schools.

Schacht explains how the process works: "The homeowner calls us, and they say, 'I have a piece of property, and I would like to have a community garden in my backyard.' The first thing I ask them is, 'How many people in your neighborhood are interested in making this happen?' If we don't have six very eager, champing-at-the-bit gardeners, we just say, 'Not until you get the gardeners.'"

The minimum size for a garden is 70 feet by 70 feet. Each plot is 3 feet by 20 feet. "You need a certain number of people for the enthusiasm and the physical labor of keeping the site," says Zonge. "We think 16 plots is about the right size." He suggests gardeners tend to their plots between once and three times a week, depending on the season and crops.

Once the property is given the green light to become a community garden, the plots are prepared, and Zonge puts a water meter on the homeowner's water line. The amount of water used is recorded, and a check for water usage is sent to the site owner.

Joining CGT requires a $25 refundable deposit, and $15 per month. This pays for a bimonthly newsletter, irrigation maintenance and water. All tools are provided. Brookbank says a plot produces enough food for one person, a couple or a couple with two children.

Digging in requires adequate soil preparation. In other parts of the country, people "can throw seeds over their shoulder, and they will sprout, so they are surprised at the work that goes into preparing the soil (here)," says Schacht. "We teach them how to do that. The ones that do it produce like crazy. The ones that don't, (they) don't have as much to eat."

The second key to successful desert gardening is to disregard the planting schedules on seed packets.

"We have six (planting) seasons," explains Zonge. "Early winter, late winter, spring, summer, monsoon and fall. We encourage the gardeners to garden with the season; otherwise, it's so much more work."

There are 219 plots in the nine gardens, with about 20 open at the New Spirit garden near Camino Seco and Old Spanish Trail. Other gardens have a few plots left or have waiting lists. New sites are being looked at, including plots on the northwest and south parts of town.

Schacht has seen interest in community gardening increase in recent years. As reported in the Denver Post, Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Gardening Association, says there are more than 30 million community gardens in the United States.

Brookbank assures me that any vegetable can be grown here. If you require proof, a smorgasbord of vegetables is visible at the Benedictine Monastery garden, including cauliflower, artichokes, sugar-snap peas, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes and fava beans.

So yes, Virginia, a garden can grow in the desert—even in December.


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