READERS' PICK: With four lanes of traffic whizzing by on Alvernon Way, the 5.5-acre Tucson Botanical Garden is the quintessential urban garden. Just on the other side of the 6-foot wall separating the roadway from the Herb Garden, one can easily forget the whir of engines and wheels. Even children can enjoy this garden, bolstered by permission to touch, sniff and taste an abundance of basils, mints and sages. As it should in the Sonoran Desert, the Tucson Botanical Garden emphasizes low-water use and ethnobotany. Woody vines are used for shade, 15-foot-tall sunflowers provide whimsy, and a collection of seed pods allow the musically inclined to cut loose. The Butterfly Garden is well established now; we counted more than a dozen yellows and monarchs. We particularly like the new Nuestra Jardín ("Our Garden"), modeled after traditional Mexican-American planted courtyards. A wall of prickly pear on one side, the tiny garden is full of chile plants, exotics like birds of paradise, cilantro, day lilies and even a small religious shrine.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte. The name means "desert corner" in the language of the Tohono O'odham, Tucson's first people. And it's a fitting one, for Tohono Chul Park is an unexpected island in the flood of development that's washed over Tucson's northwest side; a surviving pocket of sanctuary and reflection among columnar cacti, cholla, Spanish bayonet, and other native plants of the Sonoran Desert. Dotted with small ponds and ramadas, the park is a wonderful place to get away from the big city and even learn a thing or two about the way things are supposed to work out this way, sans Bermuda grass and asphalt.
MORE MANIA: The Community Garden at the Food Bank, 3003 S. Country Club Road. This garden just keeps getting better and better. Go down and see the new mural of San Isidro (patron of farmers) painted by young Yaqui muralist Nick Robles. Ask one of the gardeners to show you the snazzy new apartments for stingless pollinating bees. Check out the composting wormbox. If you show up on the right day, produce from the garden is available for purchase from the Food Bank. (Who says homegrown tomatoes can only be had for love?) And if you get completely seduced, sign up to get a plot of your own and become a community gardener yourself.