Green Thumbs: How Arizona Gardeners Contribute To Science

Published: Friday, December 23, 2016 - 5:00am
Updated: Monday, December 26, 2016 - 3:44pm

(Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)
Jerry Jackson stands under a tree on his two-and-a-half-acre property which he calls “Los Arboles."
(Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)
Jerry Jackson and his dog stand in front of the treehouse he built for his grandchildren.
(Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)
Jerry Jackson’s aquaponics system.
(Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)
Master Gardener Coordinator Janine Lane stands to the right of Nancy Meister, a Master Gardener, in the Robert J. Moody Demonstration Garden behind the University of Arizona Extension in Yuma.

Babies are born natural scientists, exploring the world and discovering how things work. But few grow up to be scientists. In our five-part citizen science series, we look at how everyday citizens are contributing to science with the help of trained professionals.


How to create a backyard oasis is the focus of a community program in Yuma. What began as an effort to help home gardeners has become a scientific resource for the community.

Jerry Jackson lives in his own personal garden, farm and forest in the middle of South Yuma County. Surrounded by agricultural fields and citrus, his two-and-a-half-acre property is teeming with life.

“It — it looks like a jungle,” Jackson said.

A self-contained ecosystem, Jackson calls his home “Los Arboles,” Spanish for “the trees.” As he crosses his property in a golf cart, the pride in his work is evident. There are over 300 trees on the property, Jack said. "That's the conservative estimate."

Jackson retired from the Arizona Department of Transportation in 2000. Since then, he has worked to create a space for his family, especially his grandchildren, to enjoy nature and eat natural-grown foods.

Jackson uses unusual techniques to achieve this goal — for one thing, he raises fish to fertilize his plants with water containing their fecal matter.

“So it’s symbiotic," Jackson said. "It’s a system that recirculates, so it doesn’t use a lot of water.”

Years ago, Jackson began taking a series of community courses with the University of Arizona Yuma Extension to learn how to grow his backyard forest.

Most participants in the Master Gardener Program are like Jackson: untrained in science but thirsty for knowledge and happy to share it. He does that by reporting what works and what doesn’t to the program.

Coordinator Janine Lane, who has a degree in agricultural systems management, said Jackson, like many other master gardeners, is engaged in real scientific inquiry.

“Gardening is a science in many, many different ways, from soil chemistry — the clay and the sand react different to nutrient levels and they react differently to the plants," Lane said. "Then you’ve got the science of planting at the correct time. And then — well, the water we have here is very salty. You check the electric conductivity of the water and that tells you how many salts — how many dissolved salts you have in there.”

These considerations set master gardeners apart from the “garden variety” green-thumbed. They research. They experiment. And they share their results with one another. That’s how Jerry Jackson at Los Arboles came up with the “aquaponics," or fish feces fertilization, idea.

“I read an article. They were doing it in Africa and other places," Jackson said. "And then I started going on YouTube and seeing how people in Australia and Europe and everything were doing it. I went ahead and made my own little system, kind of borrowed little bits from different people around the world.”

The Master Gardener Program educates up to 25 people per year and gives them access to experts on various gardening-related topics. The program includes more than 50 gardeners who continue to be involved in these classes.

Nancy Meister, a master gardener since 2011, said many of these Master Gardeners become authorities in their own right.

“Janine had somebody call about roses," Meister said. "I know nothing about roses! But there are other people in the class who are rose experts.”

Rose experts, cactus experts, insect experts and even fish-feces experts all intersect in the program.

Meister said sharing information about what works in their yards is a master gardener goal.

“We are expected to go out into the community and spread the knowledge and help people with whatever problems they might have in their yard," Meister said.

The information they gather, from their own backyards and from the University of Arizona, helps expand knowledge for all gardeners in Yuma County.

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