Phoenix, the fifth largest — and second-fastest growing — city in America gets a bad rap. On top of its infamous sprawl, there’s the “brown cloud” problem (pollution trapped by the mountains that ring the city), the 193 businesses that produce air pollution, and 2,569 that produce hazardous waste. Doesn’t seem like a hospitable environment for living off the land.

But that didn’t stop Greg Peterson from transforming his patch of suburbia into a kind of natural supermarket. Peterson calls his ¾ of an acre an urban farm, on which he coaxes to blossom some 44 fruit trees (including Anna apple, apricot and a desert-friendly variety called the low chill cherry), as well as broccoli, sweet peas, arugula, nasturtium and many other veggies.

How is this different than, you know, a garden? In some ways it’s not — my Mom’s got plenty of edible goodies growing in her own ¾ of an acre in western Massachusetts. But his farm is both a laboratory — what works there can be replicated by other desert gardeners, gleaning tips from Peterson’s site — and a classroom. Peterson offers tours of his home (see the rainwater-catching cistern, or the outdoor shower, rigged to water the fig trees) and free classes in permaculture — a kind of sustainable gardening — to interested parties. Show up with a trowel and a willingness to work, and he’ll even put you up.

His goal is to make edible yards a standard for Phoenicians, well trained to ignore the natural environment (so many lawns and golf courses, brown and dry and begging for rain). And that means making such bucolism mainstream and palatable to the masses, wresting it from the hands of hippies. Sort of. “There are still hippies,” he said when I stopped by yesterday. “They just look like me.” (Read: clean cut with designer jeans and flip-flops.)

Will Peterson’s vision for permaculture Phoenix catch on? He’s been doing it for 17 years, and so far most of his neighbors are going the traditional grass-watering, non-edible lawn route. But he says attendance at courses has exploded. With all that traffic and smog, maybe folks will start edible yards just to steer clear of the brown cloud. For more information about the farm, visit the web site

This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008