What started as a way to reconnect with his past has led Abraham James to connect with his Central Phoenix community in ways he never imagined.
James started gardening in a small corner of his back yard about four years ago as a way to reconnect with his Southern roots. He grew up surrounded by gardens and tended one of his own as a teenager growing up in rural Georgia. After high school, however, Jones’ focus shifted to architecture. He left home to attend school in Lafayette, LA; later beginning his architectural career in Dallas, TX. He moved to Phoenix in 1986, and purchased his home in 1988. He has lived there since, except for a two-year stint to attend graduate school in Los Angeles. During his time in Phoenix, James has worked on many architectural projects throughout the Valley, including Amsterdam and Crowbar in the Downtown Phoenix core.
About four years ago, his mind turned back to his youth and his family gardens. Despite being thousands of miles from Georgia, James looked around his yard and saw the potential to plant a garden like the ones he had growing up. He found that his home was ideally situated for a garden. Its western exposure and plenty of neighboring trees help to mitigate the summer heat. In addition, his neighborhood is flood irrigated by the Salt River Project (SRP), giving his garden a free and reliable supply of water.
James first planted a few vegetables that he loved to eat in a small corner of his back yard. His first crops consisted mainly of Southern staples, such as okra, black-eyed peas, collared greens and sugar cane. Each season, however, James got a bit more adventurous and his garden continued to grow in size and variety. Today, it envelopes his entire back yard and most of the front, and his bounty now includes a wide range of produce, including onions, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, citrus and fruit trees, grapes, lemongrass and various herbs. Currently, about 20% of his diet comes from things grown in his garden — he eats something from his garden every day. This definitely helps with his grocery bills, especially in these tough economic times. While he still buys many of his seeds, James’ goal is to develop a self-sustaining gardening, using reseeding vegetables and cuttings from existing plants.
As his garden has grown and evolved, so has James’ relationship with it. In addition to the food it supplies, he sees several other benefits to being an urban gardener. He finds contentment in working in the garden, as it enables him to reconnect with nature and the seasons. The organic nature of gardening also functions as a nice counterpoint to his work with the built environment as an architect.
In gardening, James has also gained a new appreciation for his adopted city. He notes that Phoenix was founded because of farming, and much of what is now Central Phoenix was once farm fields and citrus groves, including his neighborhood of Green Gables, near 24th and Oak streets.
James has always been an active member of his community, serving on the Encanto Village Planning Committee, the city’s Development Services Ad Hoc Task Force and the Phoenix Public Library Advisory Board. His garden, however, has given him an opportunity to connect more directly with his immediate neighborhood — this is one of the reasons he began gardening in his front yard. Through his garden, James has built close connections with his neighbors, many of whom have become great friends. He enjoys sharing his bounty with other neighborhood gardeners in exchange for things he doesn’t produce, such as eggs and watermelons.
For readers interested in starting a garden of their own, James has three words of advice: Go for it! He feels that despite popular sentiment, much of Central Phoenix is a great place for urban farming, given its Sunbelt climate and neighborhoods with irrigated lots. Moreover, with the current economic climate and shift towards more sustainable living, the time couldn’t be better. James suggests starting small and growing food you love to eat, as this will give you with the incentive to make the considerable effort successful gardening requires. For help, he recommends getting in touch with the Maricopa County Extension Office, as well as local nurseries, including his favorite, Baker’s Nursery.