The Fruitvale Community Garden sought to test the viability of erecting a shade structure to protect plants and plant tenders from the harsh Arizona sun.
In a Tucson summer, the temperatures can reach upwards of 115 degrees F., scorching gardens and gardeners alike. To guard against the sun, the members of the community garden tested whether a shade structure would provide adequate protection from the sun and still allow the plants to mature and produce.
The participants sketched a blueprint of the garden, including beds, fences, trees and nearby structures, overlaying it with details of the pipe frame and shade cloth, rated at 63%. The structure was built by volunteer members of the Fruitvale Community Garden, although its size was altered to fit standard pipe lengths of 21 feet, which precluded threading and saved money. Finished in mid July, the structure comprises six sections, each 21 feet by 10 feet, or a whole structure size of 63 feet by 21 feet.
The shade cloth served its purpose in protecting the garden workers. It also proved attractive, adding to the aesthetics of the neighborhood and the garden. But sun-loving plants fared poorly under the shade. A week after the cloth was fashioned over the pipe structure in mid July, plants became dormant and died.
“We believe the shock of the 63% shade made the plants think it was fall,” says Patricia Vigil, the project coordinator. “Our yellow squash and zucchini plants stopped producing and died very quickly. The pumpkins turned orange before getting bigger than a cantaloupe. The tomato plants would bloom but not produce tomatoes.”
Vigil says they did harvest tomatoes but in small quantities. And old seed may have stunted the corn’s performance.
On the other hand, the shade cloth reduced water consumption by half, although lower water applications may also have been the culprit in poor tomato and corn performance and squash death. The gardeners will continue to experiment with water applications.
Despite the negative effects, the gardeners report it’s nicer working in the shade. For the fall and winter crop, the shade cloth will remain in place to measure its effects on the crops. Another reason for leaving it up is that it’s cumbersome to thread the many cloth sections onto the pipe frame.
“If our crop does poorly during this time (fall and winter),” says Vigil, “we will consider taking it off next year.”
Gardeners are now less reluctant to visit and work in the shade-cooled garden, which allows for more enjoyable gardening. In addition, the shade cools the ground, reducing water consumption, which, in turn, reduces costs.
“The structure was constructed out of viable material with an eye toward aesthetics,” says Vigil. “It makes for a beautiful garden, adding to our desire to make our garden creative and a relaxing, fun place.”
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
New technologies and production methods will be tested during a full season under the protective shade, which may provide information that others in a similar situation could emulate.
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
The initial plans for the shade structure had to be altered because it was determined that the materials would not provide enough support. Revising the plan required obtaining materials from out of town and crafting certain parts of the structure, both of which raised the costs. Vigil advises that others considering such a structure research the materials more thoroughly, starting first with the cloth manufacturer.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Four to six members of the community garden gathered every Saturday to build the frame and thread the cloth, and eight to 12 members were involved planting, weeding and harvesting. In addition, two articles were published about the project, one about the initial grant award in a local newsletter, the other as a column in the Tucson Citizen.
Members of the Fruitvale Community Garden volunteered their time and labor to construct the shade cover and tend the garden.