Gardening Q & A with a Local: Meet Melissa from the Community Food Bank’s Learning Garden

Welcome to Garden Q & A, where locals dig-in and answer some of our questions...and show off their lovely gardens!

Melissa has a small sunken bed and container garden at her home on the southwest side of town and she also oversees the quarter acre Learning Garden at the main Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona facility at 3003 Country Club. The Learning Garden is a beautiful demonstration of an abundant desert garden ecosystem that is tended by many people.  Please stop by and visit to check out all of their interesting experiments weekday and Saturday mornings. Or you can contact Melissa directly,, 520-882-3303.

When did you first discover your green thumb?

Away at college, I started marigolds and snap peas on a windowsill in a north facing window in Minnesota.  The plants, of course, were leggy and sad, but it gave me that feeling of wonder and hope watching them germinate and grow day after day.  I took them home with me at the end of the semester and they actually survived and did quite well once planted in the garden at home in Montana.

What is your favorite time of year (season) to garden?

I love early spring (late January to early March).  The days are getting longer, the flowers are blooming, the birds and the bugs are reproducing, we can plant a really wide assortment of veggies.  There’s just a lot of activity and excitement before the really hot, dry days set in.

What is your biggest gardening success?

When I was very pregnant with my son I was struggling with the bending and reaching to get my winter garden planted.  So I invented the “mixing bowl garden” in which I mixed all the seeds I wanted to plant (carrot, lettuce, spinach, beets, calendula, radishes, cilantro, dill, wheat, and more) together in a big bowl, broadcast and raked them in all together.  It was very easy, with no bending or planning or measuring and it was a beautiful, productive, jungle scavenger hunt of a garden.  I’ve repeated it for winter gardens since (I think the summer veggies wouldn’t do well with this technique, space wise) and they’re always fun, abundant surprises.

What is your biggest gardening flop?

I am really resistant to watering very much so I usually let my spring garden crispy fry in June and then replant with monsoons.  At the Learning Garden we have predominately low water use cover crop in this time of year so we can water as little as possible while still feeding our soil.

Do you grow from seed or starts?

Both!  We grow out starts at the Learning Garden to use and sell so it’s also interesting to learn about greenhouse best practices.  My favorite though is letting plants drop seed and “plant themselves.”   Less work for me and the plants will germinate and flourish where the conditions are just right for them.

Favorite recipe for your harvest?

As a working mom, I keep it simple and fresh garden veggies have so much delicious flavor- many things I just lightly steam then add yummy butter or olive oil, some sea salt and maybe a dash of good balsamic vinegar.

What special challenges do you face gardening in the desert?

I think being a good steward of our water resources is the hardest part.  Sometimes that means giving up on a variety that I really want, because it’s just too much of a water hog.   I think we shouldn’t be trying to adapt our desert gardens to our perceptions of what a veggie garden should be, but adapting ourselves and our expectations about what we can grow and eat to match what our ecosystem does well.  That probably looks like giving up the quest for the perfect beefsteak tomato and sharing our recipes for nopales, amaranth, mesquite and purslane.

What are you growing now? And what are you getting ready to plant?

Right now, I’m doing a lot of seed saving off the winter veggies (lettuce, fennel, wheat, calendula, cilantro), harvesting loads of cherry tomatoes and with monsoons I’ll plant zucchini, butternuts and cucumbers.  And probably some other weird squash varieties- always have to try something new!

Planting dates - do follow religiously or do you tempt fate and experiment with when to plant?

Well, I think our planting dates are changing so a lot of experimentation and adaptation is needed.  We’ve had early warm springs, late hot falls, sparse monsoons, constant surprises.  I think it always pays to gamble a bit and especially do succession planting (where you start the same thing over the course of a few weeks) to have the biggest chance for success.

What is your most indispensable garden tool?

Digging fork- I use it for soil prep, in the compost, raking in seeds, spreading mulch, harvesting root veggies, weeding, exploring the worm bin- they’re great!

What are some of your favorite gardening books?

Teaming With Microbes

Growing Food in A Hotter, Drier Land

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond

If you were a plant, what plant would you be and why?

I love snow peas- their determined climbing, their delicious crunch, that they fix nitrogen in the soil.

Are you a seed saver?

Absolutely! Seed saving is sometimes more fun than harvesting the veggies.  It’s such an interesting, magical process.