The People's Garden

For more than a decade, the Tucson Botanical Gardens' Nuestro Jardín served as a prime example of a classic barrio garden.

But through the years, some plants grew too much; others died; and the nopales that made up a wall in the garden were hit by a hard freeze.

It was time for a makeover.

"All gardens need renovation over time," said Juliet Niehaus, TBG's director of horticultural therapy. "It's just part of gardening."

After almost a year of dedicated gardening and input from focus groups, Nuestro Jardín is ready, with fresh new growth and décor. The nopales have been replaced with an ocotillo fence, and a new fountain burbles at the entrance. Now, TBG is drawing from Nuestro Jardín's Hispanic roots and hosting a Day of the Dead event to celebrate the makeover.

"I think it's going to be a really great community-building, family event," said Darlene Buhrow, the gardens' director of communications.

The Feast With the Dearly Departed will start with a presentation on the history of the barrio garden in Tucson.

In preparation for a 6 p.m. procession, there will be luminaria-making and face-painting. The procession will move through the gardens and finish back at the reception garden.

The living will be able to enjoy post-procession tamales, Sonoran hot dogs and beer; meanwhile, attendees can decorate sugar skulls while listening to the sounds of Mariachi Tesoro de Tucson, a youth mariachi band.

Several workshops featuring Mexican-American artists who share traditional crafts like shrine-building and paper-flower-making were held in the weeks leading up the main event.

"If you're still in the land of being alive, you want to be here and enjoying it, but also remembering your family and people who have died," said artist Quetzally Hernandez Coronado. "It's a very good opportunity. "

Coronado taught a class in making papier-mâché masks at the gardens, and some of her students will be returning to participate in the procession.

A grant helped to make the garden makeover possible, but it wasn't just a matter of buying new plants.

"There's a constellation of elements that underlies the Tucson style," Niehaus said. The traditional barrio garden is known for the creative use of found objects and a variety of plants, herbs and vegetables. Often, the plants are gifts from friends and family, and are chosen for their function and beauty. Herbs like mint, tarragon and rosemary are essential.

Religious elements are also commonplace, including perhaps a shrine or a statue. The chosen patron is said to watch over the household.

Nuestro Jardín has two religious figures. A shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe was one of the original features of the garden. It's now joined by a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the herb garden. TBG visitors are encouraged to record their wishes and leave an offering.

While the gardening was mostly the handiwork of TBG gardeners, the planning was a cooperative effort with members of the El Rio and El Pueblo senior centers.

At the suggestion of the Latino seniors, gardeners added a garden of succulents next to the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine. The eccentricity of the garden is also seen in the myriad found objects adorning the garden, from a porcelain-sink planter to a wall-hanging made of rusty horseshoes and railroad spikes.

A loquat tree is festooned with mementos from participants in the revitalization. Items from Barbie dolls to baby shoes to Oaxacan folk-art carvings swing from the tree branches. On the day of the dedication, everyone is invited to add personal items.

"It is really now a garden that the people own," Niehaus said. "It's not just a garden that we created."