Sprinkled throughout Tucson are 24 secret gardens. Some abound with produce and flowers, while others want for a little tending. Most are invisible to the general public: drivers-by and casual pedestrians wouldn’t know they’re growing. That is, unless they’re one of approximately 400 members of Community Gardens of Tucson (CGT), representing cultures from around the world and across socioeconomic divides.
Almost 25 years ago, a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension agent, George Brookbank, began Community Gardens of Tucson by planting two vacant lots. He divided them into plots and rented them out at a minimal cost, fostering a new community of passionate local food growers. The CGT’s modern mission still honors Brookbank’s overarching goals: to encourage healthy eating; educate citizens about local foodways; and inspire positive interaction among diverse Tucsonans sharing the love of sustainably cultivating one’s own produce.
As membership in the nonprofit increased from 1990 to 2004, Brookbank expanded CGT’s properties into six, and most of those still thrive. The years 2005 and 2006 were slower for the organization due to economic pressure, but in 2010, CGT earned several obesity-prevention grants. The number of gardens soon quadrupled. Accessibility to healthy food for all Tucsonans became increasingly important to the nonprofit’s mission. CGT embodies a symbiotic “teach a person to fish” concept: they demonstrate ecologically respectful gardening practices, meanwhile helping members reach lifelong wellness.
Plant choices showcase members’ heritages and tastes. Some particularly interesting crops include Armenian cucumbers, Jerusalem artichokes, 10-foot-tall Tohono O’odham sunflowers, and edible loofas. Bhutanese and Congolese families grow fruits and mustard greens to cook the recipes their families make in their homelands, while connoisseurs of Mexican food grow purple tomatillos.
“One thing that crosses cultural lines is gardening. CGT integrates refugees, locals, and immigrants into a singular community,” said head technician Jessica Paul.
Gardeners trade produce with one another, and in high yield seasons, some individuals sell at farmers’ markets around town. Others donate their harvests to nonprofits including the Community Food Bank, the International Refugee Committee, and Iskashitaa Refugee Network.
But as Susanne Kaplan, chair of the CGT board, noted, “In the movie Field of Dreams, they said, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and that’s not true”—not always, anyway. Most of the gardens have at least a few vacant plots: 60 square feet of soil just waiting to be planted.
The Davidson Garden at the Jewish Community Center on River Road is the newest and one of the most verdant. It is situated at a convenient public location. Yet even that lovely space, with its whimsical handmade soda bottle wind turbine, has several empty parcels ready to be nurtured. As Paul said, “It’s surprising that so many people are interested in the food movement, but no one actually wants to garden.”
Too few want to, anyway, for all the CGT gardens to flourish. A few, especially on Tucson’s west and south sides, lie mostly fallow and are at risk of closing because of membership shortage. Most gardens in jeopardy happen to be in the city’s worst food deserts—areas of town where inexpensive fast food is readily available to residents, but nutritional, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables are less accessible.
Members pay for their plots, but scholarships provided by member fees and donations render participation within reach for all. The $18 monthly rent includes irrigated land, free water, tool usage, and classes by master gardeners. Recipients are expected to contribute four hours of what Paul called “sweat equity”: helping install irrigation and building fences and walls, for example. All members cooperate by helping one another harvest, weed, and water when they are unable to tend their land. Plots are large enough for two or more to share, so CGT keeps a list of “garden buddies” who want to split spaces, thereby decreasing cost.
“Access to water is one of the main reasons members use community gardens,” said Kaplan. “It’s convenient and it breaks the barrier of using prohibitively expensive water at home.” And “gardening together is a communal experience,” said Kaplan. “Volunteers learn successes and challenges, and bring that to their gardens at home.”
Upon receiving the key to their community garden, members agree to not use toxic pesticides and herbicides. Preservation of local plant species has become increasingly important to the CGT mission, and cross-pollination is a potential problem. If maintaining singular varieties’ integrity is key to one garden’s community, everyone must agree about which to plant. For example, members of the Chaverim Garden at Congregation Chaverim near Speedway and Willmot agreed to grow only one type of corn.
Members include experts and novices, and every level in between. Their ages range from about 20 to 50, and many pass down their knowledge by bringing their children. Local schools also use the gardens for educational purposes. Among other schools, Sunrise Drive Elementary School has been a partner with CGT since 2008. Teachers incorporate on-campus plots into their curricula, providing hands-on, experiential education to explain topics like local food systems, nutrition, math, and botany.
Word of mouth and participation at events such as the Tucson Festival of Books are CGT’s primary marketing techniques. The gardens are short-staffed of volunteer administrators (such as a newsletter writer) and gardener members alike. For more information, call 520.795.8823 or visit CommunityGardensofTucson.org. ✜
Angela Orlando is a cultural anthropologist who is passionate about the Sonoran Desert, indigenous foodways, cooking, and eating.