Stop 9: Sustainable Foods Garden

Flourishing garden of lettuce and other vegetables, with clay pots in the soil
We use “olla pot” irrigation to water some garden plants. This ancient technique uses ceramic clay pots to water nearby plants. As the soil gets drier, the ollas’ porous walls allow just enough water to seep out to fulfill the plants’ needs.

The goal of sustainable gardening is to produce crops with minimal impact to the environment. Sustainable gardens typically use organic fertilizer to grow locally native plants. Water is harvested from the sky. Purposeful garden design is used to conserve water. Seeds are gathered from the garden plants and stored for future use.

The DRLC garden is watered using drip-irrigation lines and olla (“oh-yah”) pots. The irrigation lines emit water at the base of the plants, so the soil can absorb it directly. This helps prevent water loss to evaporation. Olla pots, made of porous clay, allow water to be released only as needed. When the surrounding soil dries, the roots of water-seeking plants create suction that pulls water out of the olla. This method of watering has significantly reduced the amount of water needed for the garden.

Seeds for this garden were provided by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson-based non-profit seed conservation organization. Our staff harvests new seeds from each crop for future use in this garden and for distribution to visitors. If you are interested in obtaining seeds, please ask our staff.

Plants grown in summer (Late April–August) include melons, squash, corn, beans, and chilies. Ancient Sonoran Desert people planted corn, beans, and squash together. Not only did the plants help each other grow, but together, they were the basis of a balanced, healthy diet. The tall corn stalks provide a support for the beans. Large squash leaves protect the soil from losing moisture through evaporation. The beans fix nitrogen to help fertilize the soil.

Many herbs, greens, and wheat were introduced to the Americas after Europeans arrived. Although they are not necessarily native, they are climate-adapted and provide extra foods during this lean time of the year. Many of these plants are continuously harvested throughout the season. Swiss chard, mustard greens, dill, and broccoli are just some of the crops that have fed staff and organizations who work with the Desert Research Learning Center.

  • Garden with native desert plants, which require less water than non-natives.
  • Harvest any seeds you have and share them with your community.
  • Ask one of our staff members if there are currently any seeds available for public distribution.


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Last updated: September 9, 2022