Tranquil Oasis in the Heart of the City – Tucson Botanical Gardens

One never knows what they’ll find on their first exploration of a botanical gardens, but one thing you can always be sure of, a city’s botanical gardens is an expression of the people of their city. The Tucson Botanical Gardens, known to the locals as a “tranquil oasis in the heart of Tucson”, portrays the progression of gardening one finds in cities with a large influx of residents from other areas of the country as newcomers develop awareness and appreciation of their native surroundings.

As cities begin to burgeon with newcomers, so do their home landscapes, filled with plants from the places from which they previously gardened. Noting the difficulty this presents in a desert climate, though at a higher elevation than most desert communities, many of the European and Asian landscape ornamentals found this climate problematic. Over time, favorite plants are replaced by others, and then those by still others, until one reaches an appreciation for native vegetation and a few non-native exotics (citrus and aloes are two) that possess enough variability to thrive. Upon entering the Gardens, one senses the respect the people of Tucson give to nature and native plants.

Early History

Far from being a foreboding place to live, desert cities can provide all the comforts known to city dwellers around the world, including places to enjoy nature and nurture one’s soul. Tucson, a city of over 525,000 (and a metro population nearly twice that size) on the northeastern end of the Sonoran Desert, has warmly embraced the culture and flora of the region.

Thought to be inhabited by ancient peoples since 2100 B.C., today’s modern Tucson began in the very late seventeenth century as Mission San Zavier del Bac near the present area of Tucson. In the late eighteenth century, a military fort called Presidio San Agustin del Tucson was built. Growing slowly, by 1900, the population of Tucson reached 7500 inhabitants. Along with it’s many other advantages, the clean dry air attracted many more people to move to Tucson during the twentieth century.

These new settlers brought with them their favorite plants, just as happens throughout most of the United States. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of Tucson took a dramatic increase, from 45,500 in 1950 to nearly 213,000 people (Census records) by the 1960 census. Many citizens recognized the growing reliance on foreign exotic plants in home landscapes. These citizens appreciated the floral beauty and diversity of the local area and of the larger Southwest, feared their extinction, and started native plant collections, particularly of cacti and succulents.

Botanic gardens normally get their start with plant loving gardeners and collectors who recognize the need for preserving and sharing the passion for nature with the wider community. The community of Tucson contained many such individuals that led to the founding of three major botanic gardens.

The Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum was founded by a group of individuals interested in desert plant and animal preservation. The Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, which specializes in both plants and animals of Arizona and the Sonoran Desert was located just outside Tucson on the west side, opening on Labor Day 1952. Today, the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum is the second most visited site in Arizona, the Grand Canyon coming in first.

Once the native plant ball got rolling, it apparently snowballed. In 1964, Harrison Yokum, a horticulturist and collector, known as the founder of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, opened his collection to the public at his home. Memberships grew to over 100 within a few years. Seeking a permanent home, this dedicated group of plant lovers eventually relocated the plant collection to the home of the Porter Family at 2150 N. Alvernon Way, officially designated by the city as Tuscon Botanical Gardens in 1974. The Porter’s were owners of Desert Gardens Nursery at their home, where love of native plants was not just their business, but their passion.

The population of Tucson continued to grow, though not quite as dramatically as the previous decade, but native habitat was disappearing quickly. By 1970, the population reached 262,000 (Census records). Wanting to preserve land on the outskirts (then) of Tucson, Richard and Jean Wilson began their vision of providing a natural area in the midst of booming developments in 1966 by acquiring surrounding acreage. By 1985, the Wilsons realized their vision and opened Tohono Chul, meaning 'desert corner' in the language of the Tohono O’odham, the desert dwelling people who are the descendants of the first ancient peoples who inhabited the region thousands of years ago. Today, Tohono Chul has become a place where “nature, art and culture connect”. This little corner of the desert is located on 49 acres in the Oro Valley “retaining much of its hacienda style charm in the face of booming urban sprawl just beyond its boundaries.” (Tohono Chul Official Guide.)

We visited all three gardens (not for the first time) this March, but was intrigued by the Tucson Botanical Gardens clear vision, mission and adherence to their strategic plan, a small sized garden of only five and a half acres, (close to the size of our hometown's Amarillo Botanical Gardens) whose vision not only includes being a “tranquil oasis in the heart of Tucson”, but to be recognized as the “best small public garden in America.”

Touring the Gardens

Tucson Botanical Gardens tells its story and the story of Tucson within seventeen themed gardens. Keeping their vision and mission firmly in mind, the administration of TBG developed their plant base and gardens. According to Michelle Conklin, Executive Director, five core plant collections are distributed among their gardens. These include the Historical Collection with 175 species and the Cacti and Succulents, boasting 240 species growing among a setting of 64 species of trees, shrubs and perennials. Other collections include the Tree Collection, Plants of the Tucson Basin Collection and the Collection of Drought Tolerant Ornamentals.

To begin our tour, taking a right at the entrance, past the Iris Garden, the path leads to the Historic section of the grounds, the former home of Rutger and Bernice Porter. Along this walk one will find plants used during the mid-twentieth century by Tucson home gardeners: “citrus, roses, privet, sweet olive, nandina, pomegranate, Aleppo pine, pyracantha, iris, chaste-tree, jasmine and others” that provide the atmosphere of an oasis in the desert in many city gardens. Tucked within the corners and crannies of the gardens among the historical Porter buildings are many pleasant areas under the shade of citrus, olive and myrtle trees to ponder and view the gardens, building on the oasis theme that threads itself throughout the seventeen gardens. The Porter family home is the site of administration offices and the Porter Hall Gallery, which features rotating exhibits of regional artists.

Within this complex lies the Herb Garden, loved by Bernice Porter, and Edna’s Shed, an example of an early twentieth century garden shed, named after the Porter’s friend, Edna. Although I visited in early spring with this year’s growth just beginning, the Herb Garden was enchanting. Of particular interest are the ceramic signs describing features of every garden, which give a permanence and richness to this garden in every season. These delightful, and informative signage provide another connective thread that weaves through the garden, often causing visitors a chance to pause, look and consider. Artful signs and places to ponder increase the “stay time” spent at the gardens, which raises the likelihood of a repeat visit.

My husband and I visited Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG) in early March, well before the heat and many of the spring and summer blooms. Though not in full bloom, there was plenty to keep our attention and allow ones eye to see beyond flowers. Not able to be missed is the Cox Butterfly and Orchid Pavilion and Tropical Greenhouse's Butterfly Magic display, presented yearly from October to May. I absorbed it’s magic as wide-eyed as any 6 year old,filled with orchids, bromeliads, hibiscus, lantana, ferns, pitcher plants along with a chrysalis exhibit, dart frogs and tropical butterflies from eleven countries.

Of particular interest to gardeners from warm southwest climates are the many Sensory Patios – displays of urban gardens scaled to fit in today’s smaller home lots. These are great examples of lower maintenance contemporary designs with a sense of place.

Further along the path is an extensive Cactus and Succulent Garden, considered to be one of the best in the state, many of them the plants from the original Yokam and Porter collections, featuring specimens both native to the Americas and succulents from around the world. During March, a few of the cacti were beginning to bloom, a foretaste of beauty soon to come. Benches are liberally placed to stop and study these sturdy southwestern evergreens.

No garden in the Southwest would be complete without a Xeriscape Garden, TBG’s Xeriscape Garden demonstrates the principles, including water saving irrigation systems. The Xeriscape Garden’s “oasis bed” was recently redesigned and replanted using white flowering plants.

The corner of the gardens at the opposite end from the Herb Garden are more food related gardens: the Home Compost site, Mrs. Porter’s Chicken Coop, Native American Crops Garden and the Plants of the Tohono O’odham, showcasing and honoring the relationship between people and plants of the native peoples over the past centuries. An additional focus of TBG is horticultural therapy, whose gardens are located in this area. Over a hundred outreach programs served more than 1300 people at the gardens (scroll down page to Annual Report, 2012-2013).

On the east side of the gardens is Café Botanica, opened daily throughout the year. Eggs from the chicken coop and food from these vegetable gardens, from the citrus trees and herbs from the Herb Garden are used in Café Botanica, supplemented by fresh locally sourced food. Sitting in the Café, we had a good view of the many blooming aloes of the nearly Aloe Alley. The physical structure of many of tree-like succulent aloes make grand focal points at any time of year, and especially during bloom season in late winter.

Winding back towards the garden center, we passed the Butterfly Garden, coming into bloom, a railway garden, wildflower garden and sat again at the Neuestro Jardin, or Barrio Garden, that embraces the cultural influence of the Hispanic community. As we rested, children streamed past on their way to the Children’s Discovery Garden.

Although we spent the morning, one never sees everything there is during a visit. In thinking about the gardens and looking over my photos, one can never fully capture a garden’s composition and complexity. There is much more to see than what I’ve described in this single impression in the life of the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Visitors from out of area rarely have an opportunity to take part in TBG’s many educational offerings throughout the year as Tucson residents do. Scanning the classes listed on their beautiful website and posted newsletters inspires in me thoughts of retiring to the desert. (TBG Newsletters)


How Do They Do It?

It would not be unusual for a metropolitan area of a million people to have a botanic garden. But to have three top class botanical institutions is significant. In our present day and age of diminishing donations to public museums and gardens, how is it this desert community can support three top class gardens?

I asked Michelle Conklin, Executive Director, this question. Conklin’s reply stated there were not just 3 botanical gardens to compete with, but a plethora of nature-based attractions to compete with for operating expenses, including “ Yume Japanese Garden, the University’s Arboretum and Krutch Garden, Valley of the Moon, extensive University of Arizona Master Gardener’s Community Garden, the Mission Gardens, Reid Park Zoo, and Saguaro National Park.

With so much competition in the natural realm, I think it’s not “if they build it, they will come”. One has to work the idea and create a culture of gardening, fully integrating the various concepts into the whole. Studying how TBG has done this is a master class is planning and performance. It begins with the vision and mission, plant selection appropriate to the region, and followed through step by step with a strategic plan that not just tells the story of the city, but educates as well.

With a vision of creating an oasis and striving for excellence, appreciating one’s native surroundings, and a mission promoting, demonstrating and educating responsible use of regionally appropriate plants with skilled professionals, the outcome will trend to a culture of and appreciation for gardening. The plant collections emphasized by TBG touches on all areas of home landscaping: the native and adaptable plants for beauty, relaxation and food.

TBG receives less than 1% of their operating money from Pima County, and none from either the state or city, according to Conklin. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 caused hardships that required a good deal of streamlining and thinking outside the box. Yet, TBG rebounded and was even able to fund and complete a new entrance and visitors center to the gardens.

Innovation is the word for fundraising, with admission fees a large part of their operating budget. One of TBG’s areas of focus is on urban demonstration and display gardens. They promote this not just through their many display gardens, but through a diverse number of educational offerings including DIY Desert Design classes, classes from The Potted Gardener (container plantings), Ultimate Home Garden Tour, TBG garden, urban tree, and backyard bird tours, and events such as Growdown!, a garden design competition involving 3 teams of local landscape designers over three days and much more.

Increased awareness, attendance and membership is a result of successful planning and programming, allowing them to grow the gardens bit by bit. During the winter months, the ever popular Butterfly Magic and Luminaria Lights is a big draw. During the heat of the summer, a first for botanical gardens, pet-friendly Dog Days of Summer offers dog memberships by the visit or a $20 per pet membership, June 1- September 30. These are just some of the progressive programs TBG hosts. As time passes, upgrades are accomplished and new, larger exhibits have been planned.

In 2011, TBG sponsored the Wicked Plants Exhibit designed to teach children and adults about poisonous plants, Garden Geckos and Worms/Garden Explorers programs in 2013, as well as Alien Invasion: Of the Plant Kind, an exhibit designed to teach children about invasive plant species in Arizona. Last year, TBG attracted a major exhibit, Nature Connects: Art with LEGO, which in turn netted 600 new members, Conklin wrote. This year, Tucson Botanical Gardens is hosting the New York Botanical Gardens exhibit from 2015, Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, running October 10th through May 21, 2017. TBG was the only garden in the country chosen to host this world class exhibit featuring the reproduction of Kahlo’s Casa Azul.

Residents and visitors to Tucson aren’t the only ones taking notice. TBG is active in the American Public Gardens Association, with Executive Director Conklin sitting on the Program Committee, and current chair of the association’s Membership and Development Committee. TBG has been invited to be part of Longwood Garden’s pilot program, “Guest Experience Academy.” And this year, TBG was awarded a 5-year grant in the amount of $300,000 to create and implement a pollination program (TBG Summer, 2016 Newsletter).

Tucson Botanical Gardens employs thirty people, half of them part time, including a garden design consultant that supervisors 3 full time and 2 part time gardeners, with others brought in as needed. Tucson is a city that attracts a lot of northern winter snowbirds, supplementing the local volunteer hours, 14,859 volunteer hours (latest figure from 2012-2013 Annual Report). They are all directed by a well thought out vision, mission and strategic plan, a model for other botanic gardens to take note of. It's evident TBG knows their story and is comfortable with it. It’s little wonder they are achieving their goal, as Reader’s Digest recently designated them America’s Best Secret Garden.

Not so secret anymore.

Angie Hanna, September 14, 2016