Creating a Sustainable Desert Metropolis

Artists have long appreciated the desert for its otherworldly landscape. Painter Georgia O'Keefe devoted much of her late career to capturing the distinct elements of the American Southwest, and architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright felt a strong connection to the desert – a place, he said, which inspired its own singular style of architecture. Environmental artist Joan Baron is no different in her appreciation of the desert's unique attributes and the creative opportunities they present. Such opportunities are the subject of Baron's ongoing urban landscape installation, The Edible Landscape Project – a unique rental property for those who crave the hands-on approach to their food source.

The Homeowner

In 1980, Baron bought and renovated a house on the same street as her property with the goal of creating a functional desert living space far different than your typical track house. The rental home offers her tenants a completely edible landscape and the opportunity to collaborate with her art and environmental sensibilities in a garden setting.

Baron bounces ideas off her tenants to try to answer the question that drives her art: what is it that sustains us?

"Respecting the land and what it can provide for us, living in purpose, growing one’s food and spending time outdoors with nature all contribute to best practices for sustained happiness and well-being," Baron says. "This is the making of a sustainable desert metropolis."

The Tenants

Midwest transplants, Melissa and Ben Beresford left their native Chicago to begin their respective graduate programs in Tempe. Disappointed by the sterile apartment landscape of the Phoenix metro area, they took a chance on a less traditional rental agreement when they found Baron’s project.

"We liked the emphasis on sustainability, and we both come from a family of gardeners, so it was perfect," says Melissa, who added that she and Ben had limited knowledge of how to garden in a climate with six growing seasons. Shortly after moving in, they started reaping the benefits.

Both successful harvests and failed attempts have taught them a great deal.

The Lessons

Baron and her tenants have learned the importance of strategically planning and planting for the best sun orientation. Fruit trees can handle more sun exposure, so south-side planting tends to work best. Plants that need a bit more shade can still be planted on the south side as long as some shading is provided.

They have learned that raised plant beds allow for companion planting—spatial relationships that are mutually beneficial—such as tomatoes with pole beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and dill.

"Mint and chives help to repel bugs and aphids, while spinach provides a living mulch for garlic," Baron says. "Marigold and oregano provide overall protection."

Raised beds also offer an element of flexibility. They can be custom designed to fit a space, and in the summer months if the raised beds need more shading, shade screen tents can be added. The beds also make it practical to use locally produced mulch and soil as well as fish oil and other nutrients.

"The beds allow me to provide my own soil mix rather than rely on the hard-dirt soil found on most properties," Baron says.

Finally, they have learned to focus their gardening energy on lesser known foods rather than the ubiquitous types of produce they can get cheaply from their local grocer.

"I encourage people to try different varieties of greens, such as microgreens or different varieties of basils or mints," Baron says. "When you go into a grocery store you will find one basic choice for your basil."

The Edible Landscape currently produces three varieties of plums, Anna apples, Desert Gold peaches, figs, pomegranates, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, Mexican limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, society garlic, six varieties of peppers, artichokes, Armenian cucumbers, rosemary, oregano, sage, fennel, dill, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, lavender, thyme, mint and lettuces.

"Joan taught us about some of the native medicinal plants of the desert," Ben says. "We have creosote growing along with senna, agaves, aloe, globe mallow calendula and Navajo tea." Cresote, a prevalent desert shrub, helps cure sore throats and congestion, while senna, in small quantities, can help treat digestive problems.

Re-imagining Desert Space

Growing food makes up only half of the equation, Baron says. The other half is how to use space and materials efficiently—a key idea to developing a sustainable desert metropolis.

"The Edible Landscape Project is a look at a different kind of system," Baron says.

For example, Baron collects the desert's most precious resource with a rain gutter that guides rainwater into a 400-gallon cistern she created from a section of metal culvert. She also stripped the driveway of concrete to reduce heat island and improve water absorption. She created more opportunities for natural cooling by planting five mesquite trees that are now fully grown and provide up to 40 feet of shade in the front garden. Using limbs of the native ocotillo, Baron constructed a living fence to help create a communal space for the tenants in the front garden as opposed to the back. Baron sees the frequent non-use of homes’ front space as a lost opportunity.

"We live in a backyard culture, and often the front spaces are dismissed and not considered as viable active areas," Baron says. "The ocotillo provides a lovely sculptural element to the landscape of the front space. It’s private yet welcoming."

Baron also planted a row of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the back alleyway of her studio. The gardening tactic has community implications as well: to make a shared space, solely reserved for the discarding of trash, more welcoming to the community that shares it.

If the focus of the Edible Landscape Project is how to live more sustainably in the desert, then its underlying theme is community stewardship. Baron and her tenants break the mold of the traditional owner-renter relationship, in that they must work together to care for the property and make the project grow—literally. The sense of community the project cultivates is what ultimately leads to further success.

When it comes to creating a sustainable desert metropolis, Baron reminds us that we’re all stewards, and we can all share in the bounties of nature.

Contributor's Biography:

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.

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