Any gardener knows the secret to healthy plants is a strong root system. That’s one thing that makes Mission Garden in Tucson so special. The roots run incredibly deep here — more than 4,000 years deep.
Mission Garden is a living museum preserving the lineage of Tucson’s remarkable agricultural history. But there’s nothing staid or stuffy about this museum.
It’s green and shaggy, filled with butterflies, hummingbirds and flowers, teeming with life. Tree branches are heavy with fruit and trellises are wrapped in vines. Hundreds of small fish swim in the acequia, the irrigation canal. Earth scents and soft autumn sunlight permeate the space. And there’s the sound of people digging, turning over bare plots as they prepare for new seeds to be planted. Each season brings fresh delights.
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What is Mission Garden in Tucson?
The 4-acre plot sits behind adobe walls at the foot of Sentinel Peak and grows heritage fruit trees, heirloom crops and edible native plants. This is the food that fed the communities of Tucson for generations. There’s also hope it can point a path toward food sustainability in the future amid a changing climate.
Managed by the nonprofit Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, the Spanish Colonial walled garden has been growing since 2012. It occupies the site of the original Mission San Agustin garden set out by Spanish missionaries near the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
The initial planting in 2012 set the tone. The Friends planted 120 trees acquired from Kino Heritage Fruit Trees, cultivars that can be traced to those introduced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Jesuit missionaries such as Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, and later ones from the Franciscans.
Today, Mission Garden contains about a dozen distinct plots representing the diverse groups and cultures that have farmed the Tucson basin through the centuries. They include the Mexican Garden, O’odham Garden Before European Contact, O’odham Garden After European Contact, Territorial Garden, Chinese Garden, Africa in the Americas Garden and several more.
“Mission Garden attempts to represent all the eras and cultures of Tucson’s history, through growing plots that contain — as nearly as possible — the precise varieties of vegetables, fruits and grains that were grown in the eras being represented,” says Kendall Kroesen, Community Outreach Coordinator.
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What is there to see and do at Mission Garden?
Mission Garden is open to visitors, a quiet place to learn about Tucson’s origins. Dirt walking paths weave among the gardens below Sentinel Peak, also known as A Mountain. A model irrigation canal provides habitat for endangered Gila topminnows that are being used to reestablish populations in the wild.
Chairs, benches and ramadas are tucked away amid the various plots. Long arched trellises covered with plants create tunnels of green. It is a soothing getaway, part of the city but detached from it. By their very nature gardens are places of hope, where there is always a future harvest to anticipate.
The orchards stand so tall it’s hard to believe they were only started a decade ago. In fact, everything seems to thrive here.
These are all plants with a proven track record of adapting to Sonoran Desert conditions. They’re growing on the fertile floodplain of the Santa Cruz River and are the recipients of good, thoughtful gardening practices. Here the soil is improved with organic matter and compost. When the soil is healthy, it is alive with earthworms, fungi and bacteria. This releases essential nutrients and creates more oxygen to feed plant roots.
“Mission Garden is an educational space which gives voice to all peoples who participated in Tucson’s history, and their modern descendants,” says Kroesen. “It is a place where all are welcomed and respected.”
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Volunteers are key to Mission Garden’s success
In many cases, those descendants have become very involved in the project. The Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace works closely with community stakeholders in many of the garden plots. O’odham people help plant and interpret the Native American timeline gardens. Yaqui people are involved in the Yoeme Garden. Volunteers from the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center are helping with the Chinese Garden. Such connections help encourage the continuation and exchange of traditional knowledge.
The success of the garden hinges on a dedicated army of volunteers doing much of the labor. They’re also on hand to answer questions and point out fascinating details. With more than 200 volunteers helping out at Mission Garden, it only strengthens the link with local communities.
“Originally, volunteers just mostly did gardening — planting, pulling weeds, etc.,” says Kroesen. “But now some of them — apart from stakeholder groups — have begun to specialize in one garden plot or another.
“Some are becoming quite sophisticated gardeners and historians of their plots. Other volunteers have become docents, kitchen volunteers, retail volunteers, seed savers, composters, chicken wranglers, and other roles. This would not be possible without them.”
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While Mission Garden offers a window into the past, it is not rooted there. The garden promotes agricultural techniques that combine traditional knowledge with modern science.
It is a chance for desert gardeners today to discover crops that have been grown for centuries, how they can be used and what can be learned from them. With the addition of a kitchen, there will be demonstrations on how the produce and fruit are prepared, both in traditional recipes and modern ones.
The garden store offers a wide selection of seasonal produce, dried herbs, fresh eggs, fertilizer, compost, books on history and gardening, shirts, hats and more. Native shrubs, trees and vegetable plants are available at certain times of the year.
Mission Garden regularly hosts community events including guided walks, gardening classes, cooking demonstrations and fruit and vegetable festivals. Bird walks take place from 8 to 9:30 a.m. on the second Thursday of every month. A presentation on traditional O’odham agriculture occurs from 8 a.m. to noon. on the third Saturday of the month. Archaeology Days are from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every fourth Saturday (except in December). Check the website for more events.
One of the new plots coming soon is Tomorrow’s Garden. According to Kroesen, “It will be a garden that brings heritage, drought-tolerant crops together with sustainability techniques to model how we can garden in the future, adapting to higher temperatures overall, more extreme weather events and even scarcer water supplies.
“We hope to be part of a future of better food security.”
How to visit Mission Garden
When: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays.
Where: 946 W. Mission Lane, Tucson.
Admission: A $5 donation per person is suggested.
Details: 520-955-5200, www.missiongarden.org.
Mission Garden events
The Big Read: On Jan. 14, local authors will do readings during this literacy event, which will also highlight the Bookworm Path — 20 locations in the garden with books and activities for kids.
Native American Arts Fair: On Feb. 4, 40 Native American basketmakers, potters, painters, jewelry makers, carvers and other artisans will display and sell their work.
Citrus Celebration: On Feb. 18, explore the wide variety of citrus fruit growing in the garden, including Mexican sweet limes, Meyer lemons, Valencia oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, tangerines and more. Plenty of focus will be on the sour Seville orange, often considered a strictly ornamental tree yet is the world’s source of marmalade and many other uses.
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