Jeff McWhorter is the managing librarian at El Rio Library and part of the Seed Library Team, opens a new window. We checked in with him about all things gardening, including his most indispensable garden tool and what plant he'd like to be. Enjoy!
When did you first discover your green thumb?
My thumb isn’t always green! Sometimes it is quite the opposite. But ever since I was small I always enjoyed romping around outside, tending the garden with my parents or grandparents, and watching the life cycles of plants.
Some people have a perception that the desert is a difficult place to grow food, but it was actually after moving to Tucson that I really learned about small-scale food production in one’s home garden. This region is a great place to grow some of what you eat year-round. The resources provided by the Seed Library at PCPL definitely helped facilitate my development as a gardener - my greenish thumb.
What is your favorite time of year (season) to garden?
In Tucson my favorite time of year to garden is the winter, without a doubt. It’s a much easier proposition than gardening in the summer and you can grow such a variety of delicious food for soups, stews, and other nourishing cold weather recipes. It’s also a treat to plant your favorite seasonal greens (chard, arugula, spinach, kale, and collards) and be able to walk out each evening and harvest your dinner salad.
Biggest gardening success? Biggest gardening flop?
They both occurred on the same day. One summer I grew a bunch of Tohono O'odham Yellow-Meated Watermelon. On a hot afternoon I was very excited to offer some to my nephew as a snack. A particular kid, he proceeded to become very upset with the fact that the watermelon wasn’t pink on the inside and insisted that I was playing some kind of trick on him. Flop. Calmly, I took him outside to the garden and explained to him the provenance of the melon in question. With hesitancy, he ultimately agreed to take a bite. He smiled big and claimed that the yellow watermelon was even tastier than the pink variety! Success!
Do you grow from seed or starts?
Seed. I know that starts have their benefits, but there’s something I prefer about putting the seeds directly into the garden soil with my fingers and then letting the magic happen without too much control over the process. More technical gardeners might scoff, but starts cheat me out of a part of the experience of growing plants that I enjoy. I learn more about the necessary water, light, seed depth/distance, etc. by watching what and how a plant grows, or doesn’t, right there out of the seeded garden bed.
Favorite recipe for your harvest?
For many years now, I have made roasted spaghetti squash dishes, opens a new window to share with friends and family over the winter holidays. Savory or sweet, it rarely disappoints.
What special challenges do you face gardening in the desert?
The summer weather can be a challenge. Lots of the seeds we have access to from the PCPL Seed Library are adapted to Tucson’s summer climate, but they still require a level of consideration in their care that can be demanding. You have to be consistent, especially with water, and aware of your garden’s needs throughout the season.
What are you growing now?
The newest things I’m trying my hand at growing are more of my own herbs to use in my kitchen like basil, oregano, and mint.
Planting dates, do follow religiously or do you tempt fate and experiment with when to plant?
I mostly follow what it says on the seed packets that I receive from the library. The Now Sowing Archive, opens a new window on the website is an excellent resource for guidance on when to plant your seeds. If I get busy though and miss the suggested planting window by a few weeks or so, it’s just another learning experience. And plants will surprise you. In the raised beds at the Quincie Douglas Library we had a broccoli plant that would miraculously grow all year!
Hot tip: If you're searching the catalog for which seeds the library recommends planting in say, January, opens a new window, just type "seeds january" or "seed library january" into the search box and search by keyword. All of the available seeds that you can plant in January will show up right there in your search.
Most indispensable garden tool?
I’ve dug or helped others dig a lot of new garden beds. In Tucson, a good pick is essential.
What’s your favorite gardening book?
It’s not a gardening book but Gary Nabhan’s The Desert Smells Like Rain, opens a new window was an important introduction for me to the foodways of the Tohono O’odham. This in turn with reading Raj Patel’s Food Rebellions, opens a new window very much altered my thinking about my relationship to food and gardening.
If you were a plant, what plant would you be and why?
I’d be a Cottonwood tree. I’d grow tall alongside my friends, get to laze next to a river or creek providing shade, and there would be lots of life to observe and nurture.
Are you a seed saver?
Yes. It’s easier than you think and a great way to keep our seed library stocked and evolving.