Backyard gardens, indoor gardens, and in-home food systems are a great way to reconnect with nature and grow some food at home. Best of all, it’s a fun, healthy project that you can do with the whole family.

To get you started, the Arizona Sustainability Alliance is spotlighting local backyard gardeners to show how you can have a thriving garden, even in Arizona.

Onnie Shekerjian, a former Tempe City Council member and her engineer husband Brian have lived and gardened in Tempe more than 30 years. In fact, room for a backyard garden was one of the must-haves for the new house they designed. Although she’s retired now, she helps teach her grandkids during their online schooling. But for Onnie, gardening has always been a way to relieve stress and learn valuable life lessons.

Her interest was first sparked in the 1970s when she heard evidence that we were entering a mini ice age. The potential damage for the food supply was very high, so she started looking into growing her own food at home as a way to provide for her family. This mirrors the “victory garden” concept from World War II., When the COVID-19 first hit, people started panic-buying everything. Shelves were empty and supply chains were strained. Onnie  was glad to have the skills and knowledge to grow their own food at home.

About one quarter of her backyard is sectioned off for their garden. There’s a nice fence and mesh covering that provides the perfect amount of shade for her crops. She has three raised beds, and some lattice on her wall for vines. Each season she lets one bed rest so her grandkids can play and experiment in it. One of her citrus trees in  her backyard provides shade for a cute little bench where she watches her grandkids play. How fun is that!

Onnie advises having an irrigation system hooked up to an automatic timer, making upkeep super easy. 

Arizona has had several record-breaking heat days and very little rain during the monsoon season, so gardens aren’t the easiest maintain. As a result of the heat, her crops were limited. Right now, though, she’s growing mint, asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, and she has a couple citrus trees. Happily, she reports that they all seem to be holding up in this heat. I even got to try a very small variety of tomato right off the vine. Although I typically only like tomatoes in sauce form, this was surprisingly good.

Onnie was happy to shed some sunlight (so to speak) on life lessons that gardening has taught her. 

Timing comes first. Crops need to be planted at the right time, so they don’t freeze or die from the heat. Then they need to be harvested at the right time when the crops are ripe. 

Next: Planning and preparation. Just as in life, it’s good to have a “growth plan” including exactly where you’ll plant, and when you need to prepare the soil. In addition, you’ll need to plan for how much water the plants will need.

Onnie drew a fascinating comparison between gardening and raising children. Kids are like seeds, she says. The potential for them to grow is there — they just need the right ingredients to make it happen. And as a practical matter, having a garden also teaches kids the value and rewards of work since they can now see where their food comes from and the “fruits” of their own labor.

The advice she gives for beginners is simple:  Do your research, ask questions, experiment, be observant and take risks. It’s also important to keep a journal to track the progress of your garden. Grow the easy stuff first to build your skills, then move into the more difficult plants. 

Oh, and read Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening

At first, starting a garden might seem like a lot. As with any project, beginning is often the hardest part, but it doesn’t have to be a monumental task. We’re all micro consumers and If we each make a micro effort to become self-sufficient, we can make a macro impact. 

Onnie Shekerjian



Written by Tim Taylor for the Arizona Sustainability Alliance