Growing Edible Plant Scene In Phoenix Brings Native Fruits To Transplants

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, March 25, 2016 - 9:44am
Audio icon Download mp3 (5.79 MB)
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Jacq Davis of Tempe shows off her fruiting banana plant.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Don Olson stands in the property where he keeps hundreds of fruit trees.
(Photo by Jacq Davis)
A white sapote Davis grew in her edible garden.

To grow edible trees in the desert, you need to know the rules on what you can plant. And, as many Phoenicians are discovering, you can grow almost any fruit here — not just the occasional orange tree but things like jujubes, loquats and mangos. In some cases, those tropical fruits can give a Valley transplant a taste of home.

Tucked away in a Tempe neighborhood, Jacq Davis shows off her 10-foot-tall banana plant, heavy with a huge purple flower and little banana fingers.

“I don’t just use the banana fruit I actually use the flower," she said, touching the bulbous blossom. "I will harvest the flower and use the center to make a Thai salad.”

It’s the crown jewel of her expertly manicured garden, planted almost exclusively with edible plants like sugar cane, peaches and a papaya Davis can’t wait to try.

"Sometimes call it the Taiwanese national drink, it’s basically papaya milk smoothie," she said. "And it’s really good and I hope I can make that at home when I have the papayas going."

Davis was born in Taiwan, moved to Tempe and began gardening four years ago. 

"We had to decide whether to buy a lawn mower because we had grass in the front yard," Davis said. "And we decided, no, we don’t want to waste water on the grass we want to grow something we actually can eat."

She wanted tropical plants native to her home that would work in the Arizona climate. And, it turns out most of them could.

Now, she’s been bit by the fruit-tree bug.

"Some of the first trees I've gotten was mango tree, white sapote tree, lychee tree, stuff like that," she said. "And then it kinda started growing. I think I have an addiction with buying fruit trees."

And Davis is one of many in the Valley looking for ways to grow fruit in their backyard.

Facebook, Classes Bring Fruit Tree Community Together

At Uptown Farmers Market in north Phoenix, Jake Mace shares his gardening obsession to a small class.

“Hello, my name is Jake, and I’m an addict — of mulberry trees,” he said.

Mace jokes about addiction, but mentions that his father had real problems with drug and alcohol. To avoid that lifestyle, he turns his energy toward more fruitful endeavors — like 200 fruit trees on his third of an acre property.

At the market, Mace gives gardening tips and directs them to his Facebook group that acts as 24/7 advice when someone needs help with their planting.

And nearby urban gardener Greg Peterson hanging around the plants for sale at market. He’s grown fruit trees in Phoenix for the last 40 years.

"Fifteen years ago when I started talking about fruit trees people were doing it a little bit," he said. "Now they're doing it a lot." 

He thinks the Valley has seen a surge in growing edible trees because of the local food movement and people becoming more aware of how their food is sourced, even if growing food in the dry Valley seems daunting.

"Yeah, growing food in the desert is different. But it’s really easy. You just have to know the rules," Peterson said.

The rules are: how to water, when to plant and what to plant.

When she started digging into gardening in Tempe, Davis sourced her trees from Don Olson in Glendale, who goes by Shamus O’Leary on the web. Olson said the Phoenix Fruit Growers Facebook group is one way to connect and share knowledge with the growing community. 

"With YouTube and Facebook and Instagram, people are seeing what can be done and giving them inspiration," Olson said. "We follow that up with guidance, education. It used to be people said you couldn't grow this in the desert and now we’re showing you can do it, and people are excited about that."

Olson said his tree business attracts people from all over, and of all nationalities. Indian, Phillipines and Latin American, to name a few. 

The property he recently bought came with water rights for irrigation because it used to be farmland. But, for a backyard gardener like Davis, watering can become a problem because too much means a steep water bill.

Davis said after taking out the pool that came with her house and switching from grass to mulch and wood chips , the water bill hasn’t changed much — it just all goes to her plants.

"This is pink guava," she said, finishing a tour of her myriad garden. "When I was in Taiwan, we have white guava, and that's what we normally eat. We eat it with a plum powder. It's a sour, sugary powder that you put on fruit. I’m like salivating just thinking about it."

She said all the effort is worth a little taste of Taiwan in her Arizona backyard.

EDITOR'S NOTE (3/25/2016): This story has been updated to reflect that Greg Peterson has grown fruit trees for 40 years.

If you like this story, Donate Now!

Like Arizona Science Desk on Facebook