Gary Gholson’s home garden, located in east Tucson, is a mosaic of vegetables and flowers, lined neatly with stone pathways and garnished with carefully placed ornaments. The garden’s design parallels the way he lives his life—it is eclectic yet meticulously planned, with a balanced eye for practicality and aesthetics. A Missouri native, the 68-year-old has lived in St. Louis, Italy, India and, finally, Tucson. He’s owned his own hair salon, worked on HIV/AIDS communications research, and worked as a fitness instructor. Now retired, Gholson started planting his colorful beds with some help from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s Garden Program.
How did you get your garden started?
When I moved into this house six years ago, I was using a walker because I’d gotten surgery because of abnormal excessive bone growth on both of my hips. The whole yard was just gravel and weeds, three feet high. I had to have people take care of the weeds because I couldn’t.
Later, I ran into a friend at the library, and she told me about the Garden Program. I contacted them and they put in a 4-by-10 foot raised bed almost five years ago. The two main people from the garden program, Melissa Mundt and Luis Herrera, came with about five volunteers. They brought the material, painted the boards, put it in, and dug out an area to mix native soil. I was still in a walker for a while after that, but I cleared [the yard] and put down the edging and the pathways while on my walker.
What exactly is the Garden Program?
The Community Food Bank runs it, and I qualify because of my income. They offer different classes on gardening in the desert, like how to position your garden and how to compost. I’m getting into the part of their program on water conservation. It has been a really great resource. You can get seeds and starts, too.
The program also asks you to come and volunteer. When I got into it, because of my walker, I couldn’t do things like put in a raised bed or help them in their garden. But I could do things sitting down, like putting seeds in packets or planting seeds into little pots.
You look very spry now. Does the garden keep you active?
I have limited range of motion, so I use a kneeler because I can’t get down without support. But yeah, this gives me something to do. My recovery was great because I was in great shape from working in the yard, and I was a fitness instructor from 2000 to 2009. Some days I’ll work for an hour; other days I might work four or five. I’ve taken out three palo verde trees in the yard, which takes a lot of physical activity and strength.
When did you start gardening?
Every summer from the age of 3 until I was 11, I went to my grandparents’ 20-acre farm. They raised pigs and chickens and cows, and my grandfather had a great garden almost the size of my backyard, and they canned whatever they could. I helped him make sauerkraut and sausage and cure bacon.
Tell me a little bit about the ornaments you use to decorate your garden.
I love to look at beautiful things, and if the price is right, I’ll buy it. Like these cast iron urns—they were on consignment, and the price was so ridiculously low. I bought those white lion sculptures before I moved here, when I was back in Missouri taking care of my parents before they both died.
Aesthetics are clearly important to you. How did you pull off this look for your garden?
When people ask me questions about gardening, I always tell them to start off with a plan—put it down on paper. After I got the weeds and gravel cleared out, it probably took me six months to come up with a design I was happy with. I have a spiral notebook with graph paper, and it’s loaded with different perspectives.
Aesthetics have always been something I’ve had in my other home gardens. I had an antique shop back in St. Louis, so those interests come out. I was also a hairdresser and owned my own salon for 20 years.
Hairdressing, antiques, fitness instruction, and gardening. What else have you done?
I did this language intensive program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the age of 47. I thought, something new to do. For 10 weeks, I had three hours of Hindi in the morning, two hours of Urdu in the afternoon. Two weeks after the program ended, I went to northeast India and then wrote a paper on how language was being used in the media to report on AIDS in India.
What motivates you to do so many different things?
Creativity. Look at Madonna and how she constantly redefines and recreates herself. The person inside stays the same, but you bring creativity outward. If you don’t stay creative, what’s the point? ✜
Sophia Chen is a freelance writer based in Tucson. Her work has been featured in Wired and Physics World.