Michelle Conklin

Michelle Conklin is executive director of the Tucson Botanical Gardens and the force behind Growdown! The Great Tucson Garden Design Challenge. Four local architects will get their hands dirty in this three-day competition to create Tucson's best pocket garden, beginning Thursday, March 21. Cost is $13 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 4 through 12, which includes gardens admission. For tickets to the awards luncheon on Sunday, March 24, contact Katherine Hougland at 326-9686, ext. 25. The full Growdown! agenda is at tucsonbotanical.org/events/growdown/.

Where did the initial idea for the event come from?

From watching too much HGTV (laughs). We had an opportunity to submit an annual grant, and I had watched The White Room Challenge a couple of weeks before. And I thought, why couldn't we do something like that here? I sat down with our director of education and I said, "Well, this is what I'm thinking of. What do you all think?" The first thing I had to do was pitch the idea to Tucson Lifestyle Home & Garden magazine, because I really believed that the whole success of (the competition) would have to be hinged on a fabulous prize.

How long has the event been in the planning stages?

Not that long, around September. We developed a very small committee of a landscape architect and a landscape designer—Shelly Abbott and Lisa Ribes—our education director and other staff members, and they developed the guidelines and the application process. We were just really overwhelmed by the response. We received 11 or 12 fabulous applications. Any one of those architects could have been chosen.

Who made the final four?

The designers are all very well known. There's Scott Calhoun of Zona Gardens LLC; Christine Jeffrey from LJ Design & Consulting is very talented; and Ezra Roati from REALM is probably our youngest designer. Janis (Van Wyck) is an architect, and her husband, Phil, is a landscape architect, so they're bringing, as a team, quite a bit to (the competition). Every designer is given a stipend of $1,500 to create this 15-by-20-foot space. We probably have over 30 different community design partners helping our designers create incredible gardens in 24 hours.

Did the architects have to submit their design in advance?

Every landscape architect had to fill out a questionnaire ... relating to what we wanted to get out of these gardens: What is the one thing you will be demonstrating to the public? How does this typify the Sonoran desert? Things like that. Now we have their final design, and we'll be posting that so the public can see (the gardens) actually transform.

And they have only 24 hours to complete the garden?

That's correct. They have Thursday, Friday and Saturday between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday is the judging day, and the winner will get a full-page spread in Tucson Lifestyle Home & Garden, and all of the other designers will also get recognition in the magazine.

Why is it important to have the gardens designed in accordance with the Sonoran Desert climate?

At the Tucson Botanical Gardens we care very deeply about appropriate gardening in this desert environment. This reinforces our mission and even though this is great fun and about design, it's also about education.

What type of activities will offered during the competition?

(On Friday and Saturday) there's going to be garden demonstrations in the pavilion. Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., there's a full day of garden-related demonstrations, tours and booths. Also on Sunday, from 12 to 1:30 p.m., there's a luncheon and awards with the special guest speaker, Mary Irish, and that's a $50 ticket. You need to RSVP and call the gardens for that.

What prompted the gardens to bring in Mary Irish as a guest speaker?

Mary is one of our favorite garden writers, and she does have her wonderful new book, A Place All Our Own: Lives Entwined in a Desert Garden. This book just came out, so she's also going to be doing a book signing. She's really an expert on gardening in the Sonoran desert.

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