Category Archives: Gardening

A Beautiful Day in the “Agri-Hood”

Phoenix suburbs may conjure up images of golf courses and swimming pools. But at Agritopia in Gilbert, southeast of Phoenix, it’s all about gardens and front porches.

Agritopia is a suburban development built around a citrus grove and urban farm. The  neighborhoods foster a strong sense of community. –7,000 square-foot houses next to 1,800-square-foot ones. Most are built in craftsmen style so you barely see the difference in size.

American flags and welcome signs abound.

Plus, there’s a farm-to-table restaurant that’s been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, family garden plots, a tractor shed turned into a coffee shop, a farm store with payment on the honor system, a Christian school, retirement home, a dog park, a winery.

The aptly-named development is a version of “utopia” created by Joe Johnston, whose family bought the land and began farming cotton and wheat there in 1960. The farm is in Gilbert, a suburb east of Phoenix once known as the “hay capital of the world.”

The restaurant, Joe’s Farm Grill, was originally the Johnston’s family home. Built in 1967, the restaurant serves burgers and other casual fare in a diner-style interior with plenty of shaded picnic-style seating outside. Trees look like they would be great for climbing until you see the “risk of scorpion stings” sign. I got a tasty gouda bacon cheeseburger with a milkshake made with Medjool dates grown in the area. The soft drink options weren’t Coke or Pepsi but drinks from the upstart Tractor Soda from Idaho.

Joe's Farm Grill
Joe’s Farm Grill has been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives

I’ve read that Joe Johnston is often seen tooling around the 166-acre Agritopia on his Vespa motor scooter.

No Johnston or Vespas were seen on the day I was there. But it was fun strolling across the street from the grill and along the  grapevine-covered Agritopia Community Garden Trail to the community garden area. Families pay $250 a year, which gets you a 20×20 plot, access to water and compost. I saw everything from sugar cane to sugar snap peas with each plot decorated to reflect the personality of the owners. More acreage is devoted to Agritopia’s certified organic garden, which supplies Joe’s Farm Grill.

Grapevines drape the trail to the community garden area.

The Johnston family has an intriguing past. Joe Johnston’s great-grandfather was an engineer with Hobart Manufacturing, which developed the early-stage Kitchen-Aid food processor. The ingenuity continues at Agritopia. A converted Quonset hut houses several crafts including a brewery, letterpress print shop and Johnston’s own company that prototypes new cooking tools.

Agritopia has been listed as one of the top “agrihoods” in the country. It’s also part of Arizona’s Fresh Foodie Trail, a collection of agriculture and food manufacturing ventures in the Phoenix-Mesa-Gilbert area.




Are You Arugula or Collards?

I’m not normally a cold weather gardener, but a couple of years ago I planted some butter crunch lettuce and it did well. Last year, I tried arugula. It did well too so I planted it again this year.

I like the peppery bite of arugula–added to other salad greens or eaten on its own with a simple mixture of olive oil, lemon juice and a little parmesan cheese.

My husband and I have different tastes in greens. He loves collards. and planted a beautiful winter crop s a couple of years ago. I don’t like them and wouldn’t eat them. (He ended up eating very little as his low-carb diet didn’t allow for the cornbread to accompany them).

At least we had a pretty view out the back window on dreary winter days.

I don’t like like  mustard greens or turnip greens either. Hubby accuses me of being snooty with my greens because I do eat spinach and arugula.

But I counter by reminding him that I do not eat kale, despite its trendiness.

I’ve liked arugula ever since it started appearing in restaurants everywhere and was glad to discover how easy it is to grow. I  just planted a packet of seeds in the garden in late September, thinned the plants after a few weeks and started harvesting in early December.

I wish I had covered them during recent cold snap with temperatures dipping to 19 in our area.  I lost a few plants. I may try to get another crop in for spring before it gets too warm. Arugula does best in cool weather.

Here’s a guide to growing arugula from Bonnie Plants.

Hubby doesn’t eat arugula–not even in salads. And he certainly doesn’t think it’s a suitable pizza topping as it has become at those upscale pizzerias

So I eat my arugula alone. My favorite  way is the method pictured in the header photo for this blog: top naan bread with fresh mozzarella and red grapes and bake until the mozzarella browns. Remove, add arugula and freshly cracked black pepper.

Another is  this simple salad that I found at Gimme Some Oven blog.

The picture below is an arugula topped omelet at Brennan’s in New Orleans.

How do you like your arugula?

Roasted Jalapeno Hummus From Minimalist Baker

I’m finally getting some jalapenos on the one plant in my garden. Last year I planted half a dozen jalapeno plants, and I had 127,661 jalapenos. Or so it seemed.

How many jalapeno poppers can I eat?

“Plenty” is really the answer, But since I’m cutting back on cheese-stuffed anything, that includes poppers. I scaled back on the jalapeno plants and looked for healthier ways to use the ones on my lone plant.

There’s nothing really special about backyard jalapenos.  Supermarket ones are totally fine. But jalapenos are easy to grow. That gives a novice gardener like me more confidence.

Really, I like just about anything with jalapenos. When I scarfed down the green jalapeno peanut brittle I bought in the Texas Hill Country a few years ago, my eyes were opened to the possibilities jalapenos could bring to many other things.

Here’s a good selection of jalapeno recipes assembled by The Huffington Post a few years ago. I’m interested in trying the Grilled Mascarpone and Roasted Jalapeno Pistachio Pesto Cheese Sandwich–now that’s a mouthful!

I was over at the Minimalist Baker blog one day and noticed this roasted jalapeno hummus recipe. Since tubs of Sabra’s hummus are becoming almost as common as ketchup bottles at our house, I figured I would try making my own with my backyard jalapenos.

This was easy as Minimalist Baker usually has recipes of 10 ingredients or less. The only baking here is roasting the jalapenos and garlic. At first, that intimidated me, but I forged ahead and loved the smell of both jalapenos and garlic roasting in my oven.

Recipe: Roasted Jalapeno Hummus from The Minimalist Baker

Weight Watchers SmartPoints: 2 per two Tablespoon serving

You can easily adjust the heat in the recipe by adjusting the amount of jalapenos. I used two and left just a few seeds in because I like a little kick.

Let Us Talk About Lettuce

I’ve become so interested in growing lettuce that I recently took a trip to Doodley Dee’s, a USDA certified organic aquaponics produce farm in Harrison County, Texas, just over the state line from Shreveport.

You can find their romaine lettuce in salads at Shreveport’s Wine Country, but most all of their produce goes to public school cafeterias in a Texas Farms to School program. Doodley Dee’s does not  operate a farm stand, but they expect to sell their lettuce to Whole Foods when it opens in Shreveport this fall. I intend to buy some.

Farmer Kevin Schmidt explains aquaponics farming
Farmer Kevin Schmidt explains aquaponics farming

Aquaponics is a system of raising fish  — koi in the case of Doodley Dee’s — and using its waste to fertilize the plants, which are grown in water rather than in the field. Farmer Kevin Schmidt, who operates Doodley Dee’s, says aquaponics is eight times more efficient than growing produce in the field.

I’m not getting into aquaponics or commercial production, but I was looking for ideas on growing more lettuce and creating a small rain barrel system. (Doodley Dee’s has an elaborate setup of water wheels, ponds, canals and barrels to capture just about every inch of rain that falls on its property).

Romaine lettuce at Doodley Dee's
Romaine lettuce at Doodley Dee’s

You don’t see much lettuce at the farmer’s market (doesn’t grow well in the summer around here). But with the cooler weather this week, I’m getting itchy to plant the organic lettuce seeds that I bought recently. After consulting with the LSU AgCenter, I’ll wait until next month.

My seeds are ready for planting, but I'll wait until September
My seeds are ready for planting, but I’ll wait until September

We removed our withered tomato plants over the weekend, and the garden spot is bare save for a few herbs and pepper plants. Last winter, I had good luck growing arugula and butter crunch lettuce, so I’m going to give them a try again this fall.

We eat a lot of salads so I’ll use all of what I grow in the garden, buy more at the store and get some Doodley Dee’s when Whole Foods opens (a Mississippi company called Salad Days has a nice assortment of lettuce in the Jackson WF).

I’m glad to discover that lettuce can be grown locally, in a commercial operation like Doodley Dee’s or even in my own backyard garden.

Doodley Dee’s Farm website.  Tomatoes and other vegetables are also grown on the farm, and a food forest with fruit trees is also under development.  There’s an event venue for meetings, weddings, etc. Check out his YouTube videos on the aquaponics process.

Want to grow your own lettuce? Here’s some helpful information.

LSU AgCenter article on growing lettuce

LSU AgCenter video on growing and how to harvest lettuce

Southern Living article on growing lettuce