Green Thumbs and Backyard Jungles: How Gardeners Contribute to Science

Dec 23, 2016

How to create a backyard oasis is the focus of a community program in Yuma. What began as an effort to help home gardeners has become a scientific resource for the community.

Maya Springhawk Robnett of the Arizona Science Desk reports…

Jerry Jackson lives in his own personal garden, farm, and forest in the middle of South Yuma County; surrounded by agricultural fields and citrus, his 2-and-a-half-acre property is teeming with life.  In fact, he says, “It looks like a jungle."

"It looks like a jungle."

A self-contained ecosystem, Jackson calls his home “Los Arboles,” Spanish for “the trees.” As he crosses his property in a golf cart, the pride in his work is evident.  About how many trees does he think he has on his property?  “Oh, about three to four hundred," he says with satisfaction. "That’s the conservative estimate.”

Jackson retired from the Arizona Department of Transportation in 2000. Since then, he has worked to create a space for his family, especially his grandchildren, to enjoy nature and eat natural-grown foods.

Jackson uses unusual techniques to achieve this goal—for one thing, he raises fish to fertilize his plants with water containing their fecal matter.

“So it’s symbiotic. It’s a system that recirculates, so it doesn’t use a lot of water,” Jackson says.

Years ago, Jackson began taking a series of community courses with the University of Arizona Yuma Extension to learn about how to grow his backyard forest.

Most participants in the Master Gardener Program are like Jackson: untrained in science but thirsty for knowledge and happy to share it. He does that by reporting what works and what doesn’t to the program.
Master Gardener Coordinator Janine Lane, who has a degree in agricultural systems management, says Jackson, like many other Master Gardeners, is engaged in real scientific inquiry.

“Gardening is a science in many, many different ways, from soil chemistry—the clay and the sand react different to nutrient levels and they react differently to the plants," Lane explains, sitting in her office at the University of Arizona Yuma Extension. "Then you’ve got the science of planting at the correct time. And then—well, the water we have here is very salty. You check the electric conductivity of the water and that tells you how many salts—how many dissolved salts you have in there.”

These considerations set Master Gardeners apart from the “garden variety” green-thumbed. They research. They experiment. And they share their results with one another. That’s how Jerry Jackson at Los Arboles came up with the “aquaponics”—or fish feces fertilization—idea.

"They were doing it like in Africa and other places. And then I started going on YouTube and seeing how people in Australia and Europe and everything were doing it. I went ahead and made my own little system."

“I read an article. They were doing it like in Africa and other places. And then I started going on YouTube and seeing how people in Australia and Europe and everything were doing it. I went ahead and made my own little system," he gestures to the buckets, pipes, and lines running water to and from the plants, "[I] kind of borrowed little bits from different people around the world.”

The Master Gardener Program educates up to 25 people per year and gives them access to experts on various gardening-related topics. The program includes more than fifty gardeners who continue to be involved in these classes.

Sitting in Janine Lane's office, Nancy Meister, a Master Gardener since 2011, says many of these Master Gardeners become authorities in their own right.  “Janine had somebody call about roses," Meister turns to Lane and laughs, "I know nothing about roses! But there are other people in the class who are rose experts.”

Rose experts, cactus experts, insect experts, and even fish-feces experts all intersect in the program. Sharing information about what works in their yards is a Master Gardener goal.

“We are expected to go out into the community and spread the knowledge," Meister says, "and help people with whatever problems they might have in their yard.”

The information they gather, from their own backyards and from the University of Arizona, helps expand knowledge for all gardeners in Yuma County.