Pila, Ramon, and Ernesto Lopez tend to their garden every Saturday morning as a family, for the past five years they have watched it grow and progress; providing them with delicious vegetables such as pumpkins, squash, watermelon, chilies, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, and eggplants.

A Family Grows Together in the Garden

By Tasha Silverhorn
Au-Authm Action News

On the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a family of three enjoys each other’s company each Saturday morning as they wake up with the sun to tend to their garden. Ernesto, Pila and their son Ramon Lopez began gardening about five years ago, starting with simple things like squash, watermelon and garlic.

“This year we planted O’odham yellow watermelon; we also planted it about five years ago. It was one of the first things we [planted] when we first started gardening,” said Ernesto. “This year we also planted the O’odham 60-day corn.

When we planted it before we just did one row of it, and later we found out we needed to plant more rows because it’s self-pollinating.”

The Lopez family’s garden has yielded a bountiful harvest of produce, knowledge and enjoyment over the years. “Every year it just gets better,” said Pila. “Every year we learn something; it has been a learning process as we go on. This year we’ve had our best garden so far.”

This year the family will try to plant for two seasons; they usually plant for one.

“This year we grew pumpkins, O’odham yellow watermelon, corn, chiles, zucchini, tomatoes, Mexican squash, cucumbers, gourds and eggplant,” said Ramon.

“In February we planted watermelon, squash, corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, and now those are all gone. In April we got our chile plants in, and that will go until the end of the year. Now we’re going to plant more squash, and pumpkins for Halloween,” explained Ernesto.

The Lopez family can be found in their garden every Saturday morning, but they take some time out during the week to manage it as well.

“We are out there every weekend, all three of us as a family,” said Ernesto. “During the week when we go back to work or school, we go out a couple of times to water and pull a few weeds. When the fruits or vegetables start coming in, we have to go out there every day and pick the ripe ones. You can’t just let [the fruits and vegetables] grow really big, because they can become bitter and won’t be that good.”

A Growing Inspiration
Ernesto and Pila both had parents who were into gardening.
“My mom and my stepdad got me into it when I was about 8 years old, and Pila’s dad was always into gardening,” said Ernesto.

“Ever since I was young my dad always had a garden. He worked at the elementary schools here in Salt River and in Gila River and at a juvenile detention center where he [planted] gardens,” said Pila. “He gave us the inspiration to grow our own garden, because every year he would bring us chile and tomato plants. I think my dad is proud of us for doing this and feels good that we are using what he always showed us.”

The Benefits of a Garden
The benefits of keeping a home fruit and vegetable garden include better nutrition and saving money. The Lopez family haven’t calculated how much they have saved over the years on fruits and vegetables, but they estimate it’s probably $100-$200 a month.

“I’m going to have to guess that squash is probably about $1.29 a pound and tomatoes $2.99 a pound. That’s just regular vegetables—if you want to buy organic, you add a dollar or two more,” said Ernesto. “Not only are the fruits and vegetables we grow here in our garden organic, where we don’t use pesticides or any chemicals, it’s better for us health-wise; it’s good for the body.”

Pila explained, “[Having a garden] is good because it makes us eat these vegetables. We’re always saying, ‘We have to eat these before they go bad.’ It’s just a good feeling overall, like when we first started going out there in the garden [and saw plants coming up] it was so exciting. It forces us to eat the vegetables because we actually put our hard work into [growing them].”

The size of the Lopez garden can probably feed up to five families for one season.

How a Garden Can Come Together
The Lopezes had help creating their garden from several people, including Pila’s brother Stetson Mendoza, who is a Community Garden technician. The Community Garden staff is available to Community members who are interested in planting a home garden. They can provide advice, help source seeds, and break the ground and build rows for planting. Gardens should be prepared in January and February before planting begins in the spring.

Some of the seeds for the Lopez garden came from stores like Wal-Mart, and from Pila’s dad and brother.

“My dad has a greenhouse and he starts his plants in the winter. He gives us some of his small plants for our garden,” said Pila. “He has given us tomato, eggplant and chile plants. We also have started to save the seeds from our own watermelons and other things to plant in the future.”

“Stetson helped us with the ground preparation—he came out with the tractor and cultivated the ground for us, made burrows, and gave us seeds and advice,” explained Ernesto.

He encourages Community members to take advantage of the Community Garden program to start their own gardens.

“They (Community Garden Staff) helped out a lot; if it wasn’t for their help and motivation, we would probably have had a smaller garden, or probably would have planted late,” said Ernesto. “If that service is there, why not take advantage of it? It’s going to benefit everyone who uses it.”

In their garden, the Lopezes also use planting materials from Singh Farms, a small business located on the Community at Thomas and the Loop 101 Freeway.

“Ken Singh provides the mulch and compost. That stuff is good—it helps a lot, especially if your ground has poor soil. It enriches the soil and gets better, more healthy plants out of it,” said Ernesto.

The Lopezes have also started to do their own composting, building a compost pile where they throw their leftover fruits, vegetables, eggshells, flowers, weeds and other organic matter.

Gardening Leads to Saving and Preserving
As mentioned before, the family has started to save their own seeds for the next growing season. Ramon sat and enjoyed a slice of watermelon during the interview with Au-Authm Action News. It came natural to him to save his watermelon seeds off to the side, and when he finished he rinsed them off and placed them on a plate to dry out.

“You want to rinse them off, then put them on a plate and let them dry out, then put them in a paper bag,” Ernesto explained. “[At first] I put them in a plastic bag, but they got moldy from the moisture. Putting them in a paper bag works better.”
Last year was the first year the Lopezes made and canned their own spaghetti sauce and salsa using tomatoes and other vegetables in their garden.

“We canned about four cases of the spaghetti sauce and salsa,” said Ernesto. “We used that during the winter, and into this year we are still eating it. It’s good to preserve if you get a lot of [produce] out of your garden [so it doesn’t go to waste]. This year we are going to [can] again and try do the jalapeño chiles.”
The family also has a small chicken coop with seven chickens that provide the family with eggs.

“We haven’t bought eggs in a long time,” said Pila.

Some Gardening Advice
“Start small,” advised Pila about starting a garden. “My sister-in-law wants to start one, and I told her to try a few plants now, and then maybe next year plant some more if she likes it. That way every year it will get better. It’s fun just to get outside; it grows on you.”

“Try to get your family members out there and make it a fun thing, not something you have to do. Make [working in the garden] a fun [activity] and maybe have some food afterward,” said Ernesto.

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