Growing Tucson's History

Mission Gardens

Tucson's own edible museum is now open for tours.

Mission Garden is a re-creation of the Spanish colonial-era walled garden that was part of Mission San Agustín. The new gardens are on the old gardens' original spot at the corner of Mission Road and Mission Lane—at the foot of "A" Mountain.

"It's built over the original walls," Dena Cowan said between planting heirloom tepary beans in the "timeline garden." She's been volunteering with the organization for three years and started working on community outreach this summer. "Mission Garden is all about reviving Tucson's ancient agricultural heritage, and that's what's so fascinating and rewarding about being a part of its growth."

Archeologists confirmed that the land has been continuously occupied for at least 4,000 years, earning the area the moniker "Tucson's birthplace." The garden features heirloom plants representing 4,000 years of local agriculture—the longest known history of cultivation in the United States.

"This is primarily an educational undertaking and our main goal is to engage the community and encourage people to value Tucson's unique heritage. I love when people understand how the trees tie into the heritage of Tucson," Cowen said, noting that she feels particularly connected to the history.

"I was born and raised in Tucson and spent half my life in Spain, so I feel especially connected to the Spanish heritage of our region," Cowan said. "I often imagine what it must have been like to live here when the missionaries were working to grow their Old Worlds crops in an effort to provide for, Christianize and 'civilize' the Native Americans."

The garden is stocked with Hohokam and O'odham crops, along with an orchard containing more than a hundred heritage trees—including figs, pomegranates, quinces, apricots and plums, and grapevines. The tour involves tasting the fruits in season.

"The plan is to plant a vineyard in the near future and make some mission wine. We've been calling it 'tasting history,'" Cowan said. "There are many histories to tell here, and many new stories in the making."

Volunteers harvesting wheat at Mission Garden in May.