A Desert Garden is a Chef’s Oasis

The Sonoran desert calls to mind many attributes: captivating vistas, Southwestern style, stunning sunsets. Agriculture, though, doesn’t jump to the top of the list. Yet at Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa, agriculture is one of the most unusual attractions. On this expansive 80-acre property—home to 241 guest rooms, including a suite with a private outdoor freshwater hot tub; three sparkling pools; and a spa offering personal indulgences like desert stone massages, blue corn scrubs, and Ayurvedic treatments—over an acre of land is set aside for a chef’s garden. That’s in addition to the two herb gardens—one by the dining room and one by the spa, where guests can choose their own herbs for treatments—and the various fruit trees scattered across the grounds. Those include pomegranate trees and “about the only two fruit-bearing avocado trees in Tucson,” says the director of food and beverage Morgan Puffenbarger. That magic is thanks to a man Puffenbarger calls “the plant whisperer”—grounds manager Raymundo Ocampo, who grew up in a gardening family in southern Mexico and has been with Westward Look for 30 years.

Ocampo grows 40 to 50 items throughout the year, including lettuces, Swiss chard, beets, Chinese cabbage, turnips, carrots, onions, broccoli, and cauliflower. “We replant about every quarter, something good for that time period,” Puffenbarger says. “February, we’ll be finishing the winter. March is the beginning of the new spring planting season, so we’ll start tomatoes and peppers so that the seeds can germinate. We’re always doing heirloom tomatoes in February and March.”

The on-site produce features prominently in the resort’s two dining destinations, the Gold Restaurant and the Lookout Bar & Grille. Right before planting season, Ocampo and executive chef Antonio Rodriguez discuss what’s being planted, and then the chef designs the menu around the crop as much as possible. There are daily changing garden salads with seasonal offerings like pomegranate vinaigrettes; Asian pear, baby green, and radicchio salads; and English pea risotto with fresh-picked leeks and chard. “We maybe do 40 to 50 covers a night in our Gold Restaurant,” Puffenbarger says. “We can change the items daily and weekly. We do nightly specials as well.”

Of course, the desert environment does present specific challenges. “The good news is that we don’t [experience freezing temperatures] a whole lot here,” Puffenbarger says. “We try to plant seasonal things that can handle the freeze; we don’t cover when it freezes.” They also plant near pools and walls to utilize the humidity and heat, respectively, that they retain. While the summer is hot, Puffenbarger explains that the area experiences a monsoon season in late summer, with almost nightly rain that meets the plants’ needs. They plant shorter crop cycles as well and are looking into building cisterns to capture rainwater.

The produce is popular with guests interested in organic eating, and the plants themselves are also a big hit. “As guests walk from the main building to their rooms, they pass a few trees bearing fruit,” Puffenbarger says. “People love that.”

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Sustainability

The Modern Botanicals Garden recognizes sustainability as a holistic process that encompasses environmental, social, and economic performance. The Garden strives to apply these principles by supporting growth in sustainable thinking and actions among our visitors and the surrounding community.

The plants that live in the Garden’s desert environment are specially adapted to thrive in extreme conditions; however, slight changes in conditions can impact the health of plants and other living organisms. It is the Garden’s intention that inspiration through positive examples and education within the Garden’s boundaries and beyond will preserve the desert environment for generations to come.

Sustainability Initiatives Task Force

A team of Garden representatives strives to bring sustainability principles and thinking to the forefront of Garden decisions and actions. This team, known as the Sustainability Initiatives Task Force (SIT), meets monthly to ensure that the Garden is inspiring staff, volunteers, visitors, and the community to preserve the natural world by being an innovative advocate and resource for sustainability.

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The Desert Botanical Garden and SIT are supported by the American Public Garden Association (APGA) and their efforts to advance public gardens as a force for positive change within communities. Below are examples of our partnership.

PUBLIC GARDEN SUSTAINABILITY INDEX

APGA provides public gardens with documents to support their sustainability initiatives. The Sustainability Index v1.0 and Proven Practice Workbook v1.0 provide guidelines and examples that promote sustainable actions and thinking specific to the needs of public garden staff, volunteers, visitors, and communities.

Sustainability in Action

BOTTLE FILLING STATIONS

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To reduce disposable plastic water bottle usage, the Garden is installing bottle filling stations throughout the Garden. We call them Hydration Stations. We currently have three Hydration Stations with more to come in the near future. Locations of the hydration stations are marked in the trail guide so that you can find them on your next visit. Don’t forget to bring a reusable water bottle!

 CANAL PROJECT

In the summer of 2013, the Garden completed construction on a new pumping system that allows us to draw non-potable water directly from the neighboring SRP Canal. A split water system irrigates our plants using nutrient-rich, non-potable water while using treated water from the City of Phoenix for buildings and water fountains, reducing water costs by roughly $75,000 annually. This project was made possible with assistance from SRP and with funding through an innovative loan program from the Arizona Community Foundation.

REUSE AND RECYCLE

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The Garden encounters a large variety of people on a daily basis as staff, volunteers, and visitors convene inside buildings and on the trails. At the Garden, we are growing the ways in which all people who share our space can reuse or recycle waste materials. Here are some of our efforts and ways you can join us:

  • Visit one of our newest waste/recycling receptacles near the admissions area or the Marshall Butterfly Pavilion. All recycling collection areas are commingled so you can put plastic, glass, and paper together in one bin!
  • Tab-less wristbands help to reduce litter while a recycling message on the bands reminds you to leave the used wristbands with a staff member as you exit. The collected bands are sent to a specific recycling facility for Tyvek material.
  • Cardboard is collected Garden-wide and bundled for recycling on a regular basis.
  • Used batteries are collected monthly from staff and volunteers for proper recycling.
  • Staff and volunteers also give a variety of materials to a children’s education program that sends reusable materials to schools for a standards-based art and science curriculum.

RAINWATER HARVESTING

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Rainwater is a precious commodity in the Sonoran Desert. In order to best utilize this resource, dedicated Garden staff are building bio-retention basins in the parking lot medians. These basins direct the rainwater to plants and at the same time filter out debris and pollution. This also means that puddles will be reduced in parking spaces when it rains! Our team will keep improving the drain structures in parking lots over the next several months to reduce flooding and increase rainwater collection.

For more information, see this Rainwater Harvesting Guide from the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

Sustainability at Home

If you have young people in your life, sustainability is a topic worth exploring. There are many definitions that exist, but it’s really about seeing the connections between healthy people, environments, and economies. Put simply, making responsible decisions. It can be a daunting subject when you think about teaching a young person these concepts, but sustainability doesn’t have to be so complicated. The best way to engage kids in sustainability is to be a model for them in your daily lives.

Here are a few ideas and discussion items for setting a great example:

  • Plant an edible with your children in a pot or in the yard. Let them choose the plant, care for it, harvest the produce and even help you prepare it in a recipe! Make sure to discuss where your food comes from and the benefits of growing it your own backyard.
  • Practice reusing with your children by making crafts with materials that you were going to throw away.  Plastic bottles can transform into terrariums, flowers and much more!
  • Practice reducing by bringing your own bags to any store…not just the grocery store.  Encourage your children to set the example for others as well.
  • Instead of putting clothes in the dryer, have your children help you hang them outside to dry.  Discuss how this simple action can save a lot of energy, especially in Arizona!
  • When you go for a walk with your family, bring a bag with you to pick up litter along the way.  Have your young person help you separate items for trash and recycling when you get home.
  • Read books or articles together that introduce a variety of topics including the environment, plants, animals, culture, positive relationships, and decision-making.
  • And most of all, have fun learning together!