Build Gardens

Written by Mike McMahon, Founder of Urban Farming Education

In 1990 I founded Agave Environmental Contracting, Inc. We are a landscaping company that started out salvaging native trees and cacti, but expanded to build entire communities, freeway landscapes, golf courses, and commercial and high-end residential properties. By the late 1990s we also had a large maintenance division, and by 2007 we grew to be the largest landscaping company in Arizona, with over 700 employees and an office in San Diego. In 2015, we were presented with an opportunity to lease 17 acres in central Phoenix, and decided to build Agave Farms Community Garden. It was a new and expensive challenge that has changed in scope and purpose many times. Today, it is a community space with a nursery, an urban farm and event space — part garden and part park.

In 2019, we started a nonprofit called Urban Farming Education with the purpose of building community gardens for other nonprofits on their properties throughout Maricopa County. The idea is to grow foodscapes for nonprofits who have kitchens and a chef and a group of people who could eat the food they grow. The purpose of these gardens is to provide sustenance, ecotherapy, and education, as well as a long list of other positive social impacts, as well as to help create a sense of community. Our focus is on domestic violence shelters, schools, facilities for people with disabilities, homeless shelters, and homes for the elderly. Building small-scale, ¼-acre to 20-acre community gardens is certainly in our wheelhouse, and we have relied on our past expertise in order to build them. The urban garden can have many looks, from park to farm and from big to small, depending on the purpose and the constraints of the organization we are building it for. The garden can incorporate: traditional or commercial farming, vertical or rooftop gardening, hydroponics, substrates and the Ready Go Garden System, trees, and vines (orchard/vineyard), and can have containers and greenhouses for growing seedlings, mushrooms and microgreens.

Growing directly in the soil is traditional farming. It is more complex than growing in substrates; to use the soil on site, the gardener needs to have a familiarity and experience with the existing soil or should have it tested. Soils differ in porosity, alkalinity, organic material, macronutrients, and micronutrients. Every site has history from the users before — is it contaminated? Are amendments needed? Is there an insidious weed or grass problem? Does the site require weed abatement? Should you do that organically or with harsh chemicals? At a minimum, the farmer needs to turn the soil so it will accept seeds and water, and till it to create wind rows and furrows for drainage. All that before you can even start growing! Later comes planting, fertilization and harvesting. We always do some form of traditional farming because if space allows, we like to plant citrus and stone fruit trees and vineyards. These require more years of growth but provide substantial and tasty seasonal produce. Sometimes we have the luxury of space, and with vineyards and orchards you can take up space and provide shade with minimal maintenance. We will often use traditional raised planters for deeper rooted vegetables, herbs, and perennial plantings.

Vertical gardening is a way to grow food in limited spaces, both indoors and out. This type of urban gardening maximizes output where space is a premium and has the global benefit of reducing the impact of transporting food (by burning fossil fuels), and with widespread adoption it could limit deforestation in developing countries.

Vertical gardening utilizes supports (such as fences, trellises, walls or hanging mechanisms from ceilings and even pallets) either to train plants to grow upright or to hold containers of plants above the ground. You can use string, plant tape or pipe cleaners to attach plants to these structures, and plant in any container that will hold soil and tolerate exposure to water. Arbors, arches, and pergolas work well in larger gardens where you can grow vines, and they become attractive aesthetic features as well.

Weeds are less likely to grow in vertical gardens because you start with a sterile soil or growing medium, and the only weeds come from what the wind blows in. Also, as with other forms of substrate gardening in planters or bags, you generally plant more densely, making it harder for weeds to compete. Another benefit, similar to our bag system when we grow using tables, is that vertical gardening cuts down on bending and back strain.

You can plant many types of produce in a vertical garden, but some are more suited for it than others. For instance, you can use vining tomatoes or varieties that do well in hanging baskets. Many plants including strawberries do well due to the shallow depth of their roots.

One feature of each of our projects is our Ready Go Bag System, a foolproof tool that ensures success for novice gardeners and was developed with help from large-scale farmers, agronomists, and microbiologists to achieve ultimate growth and nutrition. We feel this is the ideal tool for growing High Rotation Crops. It was specifically developed to be an easy way to grow nutritious, fresh food for those that would not otherwise receive it. This system can be planted anywhere, including small spaces with access to a water spigot. No green thumb required! Anyone can plan and grow in the smallest spaces, such as a balcony, patio, or rooftop, and even on hard surfaces like concrete driveways.

The irrigation system that comes with our bag is low-pressure and highly efficient, watering only where the plants are to conserve water. There is no hand-watering involved, and the irrigation can be adjusted to the specific needs of the plants you grow. You also don’t need to know how to manage soil conditions; just set the timer to keep the appropriate level of moisture. Very little weeding is necessary, saving many back-breaking hours.

The soil we use is organic and composted on a 9-month cycle to remove pathogens. Through constant testing, we feel we have created the best substrate on the planet. We also designed and developed a table to place the bags on to make gardening easier and to eliminate the need for bending and kneeling in the dirt. This is especially important for those that are physically challenged, giving them the opportunity to garden for themselves. This table also reduces the risk of attracting small animals and thus introducing pathogens into your garden.

In my career as a landscaper I have installed a few rooftop gardens and living walls. The original premise of these systems was to save energy and reduce noise inside a building by providing a layer of insulation and shade. To install a system like this, I find it is better to design the building structurally to handle its weight and drainage needs. Whether the building is new or remodeled, the rooftop garden requires removing or covering composite roof materials and mechanical equipment with living habitats that take in water rather than shedding it and absorb rather than reflect heat with the intention of supporting life. Creating the living wall typically is as easy as growing vines either on the wall surface itself or on a trellis placed on or in front of the wall. We have also been experimenting with building living vegetable walls by using planter boxes and half-pipes filled with our composted substrate and integrating irrigation and drainage. These walls have to be built with access for planting and harvesting in mind.

Green roofs should be structurally sound, and it is advisable to consult with an engineer and architect. Green roofs are either intensive or extensive. Extensive roofs typically have 6” of soil (or lightweight substrate blends) and typically support succulents and groundcovers. Intensive green roofs have 6”-24” of soil and can host a wider variety of plant material including eatables. Waterproofing and structural enhancements are required to use either system. Drainage in the planting medium is also essential. These systems can be designed and built, or ordered as manufactured products. Plants can be installed directly into the media or grown in cells, trays, planters, or in our case using our Ready Go Garden system.