Arizona Homeowner Grows Beautiful and Productive Edible Landscaping: Interview with Jake Mace of Longevity Gardens (Phoenix, AZ)
You have an amazing farm and beautiful edible landscaping. How did you get started?
I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I really made a ton of mistakes. So basically, two years ago, I got smart and kinda started at square one again, and really, things started to grow very fast. So I wanted to grow my own food. That’s the only reason why I wanted to start doing this.
Cuz I lived in a townhome for five years in Phoenix and just had a concrete patio, and I had a little kumquat tree in a pot, that one right there. And I tried to grow a garden in the perimeter of dirt around the concrete patio, but there wasn’t enough light.
So nothing ever grew. But when my wife, Pam, and I bought this house, we bought it because it had a really unusually large backyard for the neighborhood. So the house is small, the front yard is totally normal, but the backyard is about five times the size of my neighbor’s backyard.
How Jake Started His Edible Landscaping
And so I said hey this is great. I always liked this movie growing up, it’s a Tom Cruise movie and Nicole Kidman where they get the land, I think it’s called Far and Away, something like that. And Tom Cruise, he wants his land, give me my land. And I thought this was cool, I got some land in Tempe. So it had some bougainvillea bushes and it had an amoeba lawn of weeds. And so I just stopped watering the weeds and my desert tortoise ate the rest of those weeds.
I pulled out all the bougainvillea because they’re a plant that’s from Satan himself. [LAUGH] And everybody that I know has bougainvillea gets cut up bleeding when they trim them and…
Yeah, and they flower, it gets in your pool, it goes everywhere.
Yeah, they’re only nice to look at from the freeway when you’re driving at 80 miles an hour…So I tore out the bougainvillea and I planted a peach tree, a pomegranate tree, and a fig tree. And I really neglect them, I didn’t do any wood chips, I planted then right in the clay. I was having to water them every day, which was flushing nutrients away from the roots of the trees.
Soil Challenges in Jake’s Edible Landscaping
Since there was just clay in there they would dry out a day later, so they would wilt. So I almost killed everything. And about a year into it I started listening to people that were using mulch. And I put mulch and wood chips down. That really helped a lot and now we’ve gone crazy with mulch and wood chips. We brought in a thousand cubic yards of wood chips here in the last two or three years.
That’s a lot.
And now we have over 150 edible fruit and or nut trees. And the, maybe one or two, trees that are not edible, they’re high in flower production, so they attract all the bees. And they’re pollinator attractors for all my pollinator insects.
Jake’s Edible Landscaping Tips
What edible landscaping tips can you share with desert gardeners? You’ve already shared about the wood chips so I definitely want you to talk a little bit more about that. And then if you have anything else to share about edible landscaping, because it’s middle of July and this is astounding.
You know, how do you do it? [LAUGH] I was telling my wife the other day that, I really wanted to be an Olympic athlete growing up. And so, if I’m not going to be in the Olympics, I’m gonna at least make gardening my Olympic gold event you know what I mean. [LAUGH]
So I attack gardening kinda like an athlete, where I really go at it intensely. But my whole purpose, my whole goal that motivates me is I wanna grow my own food. I really want so that I never have to go to the grocery store again.
I still go to the grocery store for rice, and for cereal, and for almond milk, and stuff like that. But I don’t go to the grocery store for produce, because I have all of it I need here. So that was my goal is to grow all the peppers, egg plants, greens, fruits that I can grow and it just kind of became a little bit of an addiction.
How Jake Learned to Grow Food
I would find other gardeners in town that’d be growing something and be like hey they’re growing this kind of fig, hey they’re growing a Barbados cherry. Hey, they’re growing a loquat, I want to do that. If they can do it, I can do it. And I just started doing it.
But really things began to take off for me when I started using mulch and wood chips on top of the soil. Because then what you’re doing is you’re improving the bug and microbial life beneath the soil and you’re also helping to retain water. And I think that every gardener who’s gonna plant a tree, definitely mulch on top with leaves, grass, wood chips like crazy. And take all your food scraps from the house and use them as mulch as well.
Yeah, especially here. I don’t think a lot of people realize how important that soil preparation and then protecting the soil really is, because a lot of us have gardened in other places where the environment kind of does that for us. But here our soil is extremely deficient or organic matter so we’ve really got to amend a lot. Now how often do you add more wood chips, how often do you compost?
I compost all the time. I have two giant compost tumblers that I use for composting all my food scraps. And I add wood shavings, chicken manure and wood chips to the tumblers. But I add wood chips to my landscape, I would say about two times or three times a season. So you’re thinking nine times a year or so. But in the beginning, I added like ten landscape truckloads really quick.
So we started with ten truckloads, and we really covered everything with wood chips. And now the upkeep, cuz it does break down which is exciting, when you put a two feet of wood chips underneath the tree. And then in a month, it’s gone. And you’re like, where did it go?
Well, the tree ate all that.
[LAUGH] Yeah, right, it just disappears somehow. It just ends up in the soil, though, mostly.
Exactly. And then when you do that, you get more, more grapes and you get more peaches, and you get more pecans and more mulberries and more apples.
Eating Out of Your Yard
So that you eat more out of your yard. And that’s the whole goal. I want to be successful at providing food for me and my wife, Pam locally, at our house.
Yeah, and you hit the nail on the head. That’s actually why, that’s the real reason why I started this. I wanted to be vegan, and I also wanted to eat a lot of produce. Plus, I was teaching martial arts for a living and so I was working out full workouts, four times a day.
Jake’s Challenge with Being Vegan and an Athlete
So after my fourth hour of workout a day, I mean, I’m getting skinny because I just can’t keep myself fed enough, and my food bill is $1,500 a month. And I’m like, the economy is crashing, I’m 28 years old, so I’m like the epitome of the millennial generation.
I’m trying to make it, and everybody’s out of a job, and I just can’t afford to eat. So really my goal was to invest a year of growing food at home in order to have free food later. And so it’s 2015 now and I’m finally starting to get food for free because the garden is reseeding itself every season.
And so I’m basically laundering money here. I’m printing my own eggplants and they’re free.
Yeah, I love that aspect of gardening. Gardening can be very pricey, or it can actually be a money making scheme if you do it right.
Startup is the Most Expensive Part of Edible Landscaping
Yeah, I think if you give up, then it’s pricey cuz you never get to reap the benefits of your infrastructure.
Right, cuz setup is the most expensive part of it. Yeah, and then learning how to do it where you don’t have to buy seeds every year. You don’t have to truck in soil. You can make your own compost if you can get free wood chips from a landscaper, from a tree business.
If you can learn to collect your own seed or just grow things that will reseed, and those kinds of things can help to actually make the garden make you money. Because you don’t have to go to the grocery store. And also this wood chips are holding in a lot of moisture so you don’t have to water as much.
And it’s a little bit cooler here in the summer than if you were to go to the Taco Bell parking lot down the road. You know what I mean? It’s about 15 degrees cooler in my yard than it is on the street
Yeah, and if everybody had something, maybe not to this extent but a few more trees and a few more green things, I think our city would really benefit from that.
Jake’s Edible Landscaping Challenge
And everybody listening to this, I challenge them. Somebody beat me, somebody grow more trees than me on a smaller plate cuz I love being inspired by people like you and Greg Peterson and Shamus O’Leary and Susan Vilardi and all these people. So I want people to make my garden look like crap, because their gardens are so good.
I’ve only been gardening for a couple of years. There’s gotta be people out there that want to make a beautiful, edible landscape that have more money than me, that have more skills than me, so go for it. Just make it Garden of Eden in your backyard.
You Can Do It!
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m a martial artist golfer.
You didn’t start out as a gardener, you weren’t a horticulture student at U of A, right?
I’m not a master gardener at all or anything, I’m like you. But I do want to produce a healthy garden and I also am hardcore vegan, and so my goal is to eat the plant.
If You Grow It, Eat It!
That’s the other thing I wanted to say is that I see a lot of people around town, I won’t use any names, but they have amazing gardens. But they don’t eat the food out of it, they just have the garden then they go and get food at Burger King still.
And I’m like why are you not eating out of your garden? So if you are growing stuff, it is your job to eat everything in your garden. [LAUGH]
Absolutely, otherwise it’s just ornamental.
Yeah, exactly, like. And then if you do have, some of my eggplants overripe so that they become the compost for the eggplants of the future.
Animals in the Edible Landscape
Sure, and you have a few chickens here, right, that might eat some and you have a tortoise. So they can eat some of that overripe produce as well, right?
Yeah and they benefit. I’m sure they absolutely love it. And then I imagine the chickens probably give you some waste back for your compost.
They do, they produce waste for the compost, they produce eggs, all that kind of stuff.
Yep it’s a win-win situation for everybody. They’ve got a nice place to live too. I’ve been back there. It’s nice and shady and cool and look at all this stuff they have to go around and pick bugs out of, and eat.
Exactly, and they get to go out under the guidance, under the threat of a Super Soaker, because if they get in trouble, I spray them.
Right, you can just leave them unsupervised, right? Because they will eat everything.
They’ll eat everything and they go into every tree and they dig all the mulch out of every tree. And so, I do, the chickens have a really nice run, a really nice coop, but they get to come under the supervision of the host. Because when they hear that squirting sound town of the hose, that’s not my area. [LAUGH]
They’re highly trainable.
Jake’s Philosophy on Adopting Animals
How highly intelligent, they’re so cute and we adopt them. We don’t mail order them, we just adopt them from families who can no longer keep them. We try to be humane to the animals.
Right, give them a nice home. That’s a wonderful thing. Okay, anything else that you want to share with gardeners and urban farmers about edible landscaping?
Passionate Edible Landscaping
…Jake Mace’s tips for gardening is get passionate about growing your own food. Cuz if you just want to garden, like my mom she just wants to garden and she was my inspiration for gardening. In the summer she gets disgruntled because it’s so hot that she looks at a tomato plant and she’s like, I’m done, this is too frustrating. But if you really wanna eat the food out of your garden, you’ll find a way.
You’ll find a way to do it, and you’ll grow foods that are good for that season, like Egyptian spinach, really good for the summer. Also, use wood chips and mulch, definitely use that and all your trees. I even covered the top of my of my soil in my raised beds with wood chips and mulch.
Get Some Animals
I would say definitely gets some chicken because if you’re adopting chickens from families who no longer keep them, and they’re providing pest control. They’re eating all the scorpions, they’re pooping in your landscape. They’re giving eggs, it’s a great addition to your landscape. Get some dogs for self-defense except they’re adopted dogs.
And get a dessert cicada African tortoise because they will eat everything including every weed in your house. So you’ll never have weed or grass if you have a tortoise. And I would say if you do those things gardening is pretty fun and there’s nothing more fun than seeing a plant, kind of a like a child that you nursed into full maturity, then you get to the eat fruits off it. But you can’t eat the fruits off your child so…
No but you can enjoy them. Yeah I got one over here. I love having grown kids, they’re a lot of fun.
There you go.
I can’t say it enough, this is just astounding and amazing. And I really appreciate you letting me come out and pick your brain a little bit.
Well it’s great to have you out and it’s been great knowing you over the years. And what you do is excellent too with all of your education and your garden as well. And I would say people that want to check out more that can’t be here in person, go to your YouTube channel, the Kari Spencer. And go to my channel at vegan athlete and check us out on YouTube (You can find Jake on his YouTube channels at VeganAthlete and LongevityGarden.)
Awesome, thanks Jake.