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Garden Revolution! 

What Tucson tradition is feeding the hungry, promoting health and entertaining children and seniors?

If you stand on "A" Mountain and look down its eastern slope, you'll see a walled garden taking shape. It sprawls over land where agriculture has taken place for thousands of years, and is being designed to preserve that agricultural past.

If our eyes were sharper, we could look down from the same vantage point and see gardens sprouting across the city. Some are intended to help fight obesity; others are improving the lives of older adults. Still others are meant to teach children how to grow and cook healthful food for themselves and their families.

Dig beneath the surface of these projects, and you'll see gardening that does a lot more than fill refrigerators with produce. In the right hands, the ancient art of agriculture becomes a valuable tool that's especially helpful at enriching our sometimes all-too-modern lives.

Preserving Tucson's History

The story of gardening in Tucson begins with a big chunk of rock near the base of "A" Mountain.

That rock is a basaltic dike, and it once caused natural spring waters to well up. The indigenous people of the area made use of the phenomenon by diverting that water, and more water from the Santa Cruz River, to irrigate the surrounding fields.

This had been going on for thousands of years when Father Eusebio Francisco Kino showed up in 1692. He established his Mission San Agustín among those verdant fields. Within a century, a granary, a cemetery and a walled garden had been established there.

Diana Hadley, a board member of the nonprofit group Friends of Tucson's Birthplace (www.tucsonsbirthplace.org), knows this history well, and wants others to know it, too. That's why her group has spent the past 20 years planning for the new Mission Garden, which sees its inaugural planting this month.

"We have archaeological proof that all of the area between the Santa Cruz River and Mission Road is one of the longest continually farmed locations in the United States," says Hadley, a retired associate curator of ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum. "It would be a national tragedy if this amazing history that we have here in Tucson was not commemorated."

Mission Garden—on four acres at Mission Road and Mission Lane, in the original location of the Mission San Agustín gardens—will serve as a museum dedicated to preserving 4,000 years of agricultural history.

Hadley says the garden will have space dedicated to indigenous crops, plants introduced by Europeans, medicinal plants and more. The first phase of the effort gets underway this month when volunteers will plant 100 trees grown from cuttings that can be traced back to trees planted by Kino and his Jesuit priests.

"We know that when the Jesuits traveled, they brought cuttings and seed and wheat and barley," Hadley says. "They created a kind of ecological revolution."

Hadley says the Jesuits brought with them iron tools that made digging easier, while the indigenous people offered thousands of years of agricultural wisdom. The sharing of these made for a unique brand of agriculture.

Hadley says other portions of the garden will showcase crops introduced by Chinese and Mexican residents, who added their own nuances to Tucson's agriculture.

"What you see from this agricultural past is that the Tucson basin was an amazing place for melding many agricultural traditions," Hadley says.

The project is run through a public-private partnership among the city of Tucson, Pima County and the Friends of Tucson's Birthplace. Supplemental agreements have also been forged with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Desert Survivors.

The archaeological surveys and garden wall were funded with money from Rio Nuevo, the much-maligned plan that was supposed to revitalize downtown.

The Friends of Tucson's Birthplace has socked away $100,000 in private donations to get started and is looking at other funding sources to complete the project.

Hadley says the group is seeking donations of tools such as shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows. The Friends of Tucson's Birthplace also welcomes volunteers.

Community Gardens of Tucson

The grassy lot behind Doolen Middle School, at Grant and Country Club roads, doesn't mean much to most people, but to Gene Zonge, it's a garden waiting to happen. With a few volunteers and a small mountain of supplies on hand, he plans to make the lot burst forth with vegetables.

Zonge is executive director of Community Gardens of Tucson (www.communitygardensoftucson.org), a small nonprofit that's been quietly building neighborhood gardens across Tucson for 20 years.

And now, thanks to a nice chunk of federal money, the group's gardening mission is reaching more neighborhoods than ever before.

In September, the group received a $175,000 grant that's being used to install community gardens in neighborhoods across the city. Community Gardens of Tucson has already picked the sites, and is now in the process of installing the gardens.

The grant is part of more than $15 million awarded to fight obesity in Pima County through Communities Putting Prevention to Work, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Similar grants are helping build gardens across the country.

Zonge sees gardening as a way for residents to improve their nutrition while reconnecting with the neighborhoods they live in. He says community gardens become hubs of activity where members share seeds, produce and gardening tips, as well as information about the community.

"You can't tell it standing here, but this area has a large immigrant population. And many of those people bring their own gardening techniques and things they like to grow," says Zonge, motioning to the neighborhood surrounding Doolen.

"We love the diversity they bring. For example, did you know a lot of Chinese vegetables do really well here in Tucson?" he asks.

Zonge notices a change in people when they become interested in gardening.

"There's something really uplifting about going back to something you know your ancestors did. ... You can be successful at it, and you can show your kids how to do it," Zonge says. "It reconnects you to your food. You see it as a seed, and you see it struggle as a seedling. And then it just grows and grows."

Zonge got involved with Community Gardens of Tucson several years ago. The group established four community gardens in its first 16 years, and that number has jumped to 16 since Zonge joined. He expects to have 10 more gardens established by early next year.

The group plans the gardens, puts up the fences and makes sure irrigation and other necessities are in place before turning the sites over to the community. The $15 monthly fee for those who use a garden pays for a 3-by-20-foot plot, water, a monthly newsletter, classes with master gardeners and the use of tools.

Participants must supply "labor, enthusiasm, plants and seeds," Zonge says. "And if they have a favorite fertilizer, they have to supply that, too."

Zonge says its costs about $6,000 to install a community garden, although the cost can vary widely depending on conditions. For instance, fencing costs will shoot up if ground squirrels inhabit the neighborhood. And gardens in areas with high crime rates often require sturdier sheds to keep tools from being stolen. The condition of the soil also affects costs.

Zonge says interest in gardening is surging among Tucsonans. He can't pinpoint a specific reason, but notes that growing one's own food makes a lot of sense to people struggling in the weak economy.

He also senses a rising distrust of big-box grocery stores, fast food and other aspects of modern food culture.

"If you grow the food yourself, you know where it comes from," Zonge says. "It's a way for people to get a little more security in their lives."

Whatever the reason, this is a golden moment for Zonge and the volunteers at Community Gardens of Tucson. Attendance at group meetings is way up, and the waiting list of residents seeking gardens gets longer each month.

"Members of our group tell me they used to stand on the street corner and beg people to come and look at their gardens, and there was no interest at all," Zonge says. "Now, it's just meeting after meeting after meeting, and rooms full of people who are interested in what we're doing."

Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona

Our desert city is not the first place the nation thinks of when the subject of gardening comes up, but the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona may just change that.

Robert Ojeda, vice president of the Food Bank's Community Food Resource Center, says the organization's gardening programs have become nationally recognized, and that he's often contacted by groups interested in implementing similar programs in their communities.

"We're part of a national network of food banks called Feeding America, and within that network, we are recognized for this work of growing food to create long-term sustainability," Ojeda says. "What makes us unique is the holistic approach. Part of our vision is to really be able to support a community-based food system."

The Food Bank's Marana Heritage Farm grows a variety of vegetables as it trains a new generation of farmers through a youth-apprenticeship program. The farm, at 12375 N. Heritage Park Drive, also offers gardening classes. Ojeda says the project's scope grows with each passing year.

The Food Bank's new Urban Farm, at 2405 S. Cottonwood Lane, also offers a youth-apprenticeship program, as well as free classes and workshops aimed at increasing the quality of food consumed in the surrounding neighborhoods.

There's even a program dedicated to helping low-income residents install home gardens. Melissa Mundt, the Food Bank's food-production education coordinator, says about 50 new backyard gardens are started each year.

The program helps residents plan and install the gardens, and provides them with compost and the other things required to grow vegetables in the desert. Food Bank employees and volunteers will help new gardeners for the first two gardening seasons.

Mundt says there's also a consignment program that allows residents to sell what they grow at farmers' markets.

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona has also received funding from the CDC's Communities Putting Prevention to Work program, which has allowed it to increase existing programs and start new ones, such as farmers' markets and the Urban Farm.

CDC officials say the grants have helped install 10 community and 300 family gardens in Pima County that have produced more than 12,000 pounds of locally grown fruit and vegetables. The CDC also estimates that more than 200,000 Pima County residents have better access to healthful food thanks to the farmers' markets that the Food Bank has helped put in place.

Through the grants, "local leaders have an opportunity to make a significant impact in creating healthier places to live, work, learn and play," says Becky Payne, program director of Communities Putting Prevention to Work.

Tucson Village Farm

Kids are also learning how to grow fresh food and improve their nutrition. The goal at Tucson Village Farm, on about three-quarters of an acre at 4210 N. Campbell Ave., is to reconnect families with what they eat through workshops on farming and cooking with fresh foods.

The farm (www.tucsonvillagefarm.org), which just held its second-annual Harvest Festival, is gearing up for another year of teaching children and parents how to live better by eating better, and by understanding where their food comes from.

Leza Carter, the Village Farm's program coordinator, says more than 4,000 people have taken advantage of the farm since it opened in 2010.

"Kids these days don't have any idea where their food comes from," Carter says. "They know ketchup and fries, but they don't know tomatoes and potatoes."

Carter and her partners in the program, Elizabeth Sparks and Cheralyn Schmidt, offer a curriculum that empowers participants to improve both diet and lifestyle. They also reach out to schools across the city by making the farm available for field trips and other programs.

Carter calls what the farm teaches a "seed-to-table" curriculum. Participants learn how to save seeds, plant them, prepare soil, harvest crops and cook with what they grow. Classes on composting and other gardening essentials are also available.

A recent workshop taught kids how to grow wheat, grind it into flour and then make baked goods from the flour. Other classes have included food-preservation techniques and making cheese from goats' milk.

"Cooking is becoming a lost art," Carter says. "People want to relearn those skills that their grandmothers learned. They want to learn how to can, how to freeze and how to cook. They're interested in those most basic skills."

The farm also offers gardening classes tailored for specific age groups, as well as summer camps where kids can learn about numerous aspects of urban agriculture. Workshops where parents and their children can work together on gardening or culinary projects are also available.

Carter says the demand for what Tucson Village Farm offers continues to increase, and that the only thing holding back an expansion is staffing and funding. The project is run with assistance from the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona, and is staffed almost completely by volunteers.

"Our vision is to be able to serve as many people as want to come through the program," Carter says. "I feel like our potential is unlimited, and that all that's holding us back are our staffing needs."

Carter also wants to augment the culinary aspect of the program by adding a certified community kitchen that can be used by her students and others in the community.

Fellowship Square

George Ortega, executive director of Fellowship Square (www.fellowshipsquaretucson.org), a community for seniors, stands where a new community garden is going in and cracks a wide smile.

He says the garden will improve the quality of life for the 700 residents who live there.

Residents asked for the garden in surveys about changes that could make life better at the community, at 8111 E. Broadway Blvd.

"We have folks who are retired, but their lifelong passion was gardening," Ortega says. "A lot of our seniors are really conscious of the produce they use and where it's purchased."

Initial plans called for a few spots where residents could grow vegetables or flowers, but that quickly gave way to a more-ambitious vision.

The garden now will include a hummingbird garden, a prayer garden, a croquet field, outdoor seating and numerous other details that will add life to what is currently little more than a slab of concrete and some sparse landscaping.

Ortega says the garden is designed with older adults in mind. Raised beds will allow residents to work on their plots without bending over, and the entire area will be wheelchair-accessible.

"We feel like we're going to get some of those folks to get out and continue their lifelong passion of gardening," Ortega says.

Fellowship Square will hold regular gardening classes with master gardeners, and will provide all of the necessary tools.

Ortega estimates the project will cost about $20,000. He says he's been getting great response from the residents, who have donated money to get the project rolling. He's also been seeing strong support for the project through donations at the online fundraising site Fundraise.com.

Although Ortega and his landscape architect handled the design, he says the plan is to turn management of the garden over to the residents as soon as possible.

"We're all about serving our residents here, and these are the little, simple things that they really enjoy," says Ortega. "For many folks, it's very therapeutic, but more than anything, I want this to be their backyard. I want them to feel at home here."

The project gets started this month and will progress as funding allows, says Ortega.

Looking Ahead

There is no shortage of gardening fervor in Tucson these days, but one wonders what the future will hold. What if the funding for some of these projects dries up? What if the gardening bubble bursts, leaving acres of amended soil with nobody using it?

This was on my mind as I strolled through the Tucson Village Farm's well-attended Harvest Festival. Some kids turned wheat into flour; others traipsed through trellises heavy with gourds and squash, their tiny hands swinging the bulbous items as giggles floated through the air. There was a remarkable amount of excitement—considering the main attractions were rows of vegetables and a few pygmy goats.

Perhaps putting kids in touch with dirt and seeds and plants can help develop an interest in gardening that lasts a lifetime. It seems to have worked for the residents of Fellowship Square—people who grew up gardening and now, in their golden years, want to get back to it.

Whatever the case, it's good to pause and see the irony in all of this: We made local gardening obsolete by handing our gardens over to Big Business, whose processed foods are largely to blame for the obesity epidemic.

Who knew we'd need to bring back gardening to fix the problems caused by kicking it out in the first place?

More by Adam Borowitz

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