Mission Garden Recreates Historical Crops

February 27, 2015

The Mission Garden includes examples of every key era of agriculture in the Tucson basin.

The Mission Garden includes examples of every key era of agriculture in the Tucson basin.

by Brad Poole

Roughly 4,100 years ago, settlers irrigated and plowed the earth at the base of A-Mountain, along the banks of the perennially flowing Santa Cruz River, and began coaxing a rich bounty from the volcanic soil.

Over the ensuing millennia, several cultures followed suit – after the paleo-Indians who first settled here came the ancient Pueblo peoples, the Anasazi, then the Hohokam. After the birth of Christ, the Papago Indians, a Native American nation now known as the Tohono O’odham emerged, and finally Europeans arrived in the 1600s and also planted crops there.

Through all those thousands of years, the flat verdant plain west of the Santa Cruz continued to nurture local residents. First they grew native crops like tepary beans and desert squash. Later they adopted European crops, like fruit trees, fava beans and turnips, brought by missionaries.

Dena Cowan, garden manager for the Mission garden, guides irrigation to onions. Look for these onions soon at the Mercado san Augustin farmer's market.

Dena Cowan, garden manager for the Mission garden, guides irrigation to onions. Look for these onions soon at the Mercado san Augustin farmer’s market.

Now many of those crops are growing on the same spot again, inside the walled San Augustin Mission Garden, a project spawned almost a decade ago and now finally coming to fruition.

The Mission Garden goal is not crop production, but education, said Dena Cowan, the project’s garden supervisor who manages the dozens of different crops.

“We really consider the Mission garden as a living laboratory,.” Cowan said recently during a break from irrigating onions.

Bill O’Malley, a former city project manager who worked on the Rialto Theater renovation and Presidio Origins Park, is the project manager for Mission Garden.

He is not managing the project from an office. On one recent afternoon, he was at the garden with other board members, wrestling a wood chipper into place to spit out mulch for the 5-acre garden.

Tucson Mission garden is offivcially open to the public only on Saturdays, but private tours are available.

Tucson Mission garden is offivcially open to the public only on Saturdays, but private tours are available.

The garden was a long time coming. The original idea dates to about 2006, as a part of Rio Nuevo. Then over the next couple years, the city shifted its focus and there was some Rio Nuevo turmoil. By 2009, the project was stalled, O’Malley said.

“The walls had been built, but there was nothing growing yet,” he said.

Then in 2009, Menlo Park neighborhood residents created the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace and asked to take over. By 2011, they had an agreement with the city and county to manage the park for five years.

The sprawling garden includes an orchard of heirloom trees – figs, dates, pomegranates, apricots and limes genetically identified by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as descendants of the trees Father Eusebio Francisco Kino brought to the Hohokam in the 17th century.

There is a row of garden plots, each one representing an era of Tucson cultivation – early agriculture, Hohokam, O’odham, Mexican and European. Those areas include cotton, squash, beans and grain. There is also an area of plants natives foraged before and alongside agriculture.

Mission garden volunteer Lynn Ketchum tackles a few weeds at the garden near the Mercado San Augustin.

Mission garden volunteer Lynn Ketchum tackles a few weeds at the garden near the Mercado San Augustin.

“The Kino trees are really the newcomers on the block,” O’Malley said.

Technically a city park on land owned by Pima County, the garden is about half a mile south of the Mercado San Augustin. It is on land adjacent to the Mission san Augustin de Tucson, a towering adobe structure that eroded away to nothing in the 19th century.

The Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace manages the garden, which sits roughly on the footprint of the original mission garden, with funds raised through grants and donations, primarily the latter.

“It’s a grass-roots organization. We rely entirely on donations and volunteers. Community support is important to keep the garden going,” Cowan said.

The project has linked numerous educational organizations. Several University of Arizona students are serving internships there, and children from Manzo Elementary School spent time there learning how to prune and propagate fruit trees.

The crops from the Mission Garden end up at the Mercado farmer's market every Thursday.

The crops from the Mission Garden end up at the Mercado farmer’s market every Thursday.

Their clippings are being lovingly cultivated at the school and will eventually bear certified organic fruit for the school cafeteria, Cowan said.

Food from the garden has also supported the Santa Cruz Valley Food pantry and the Iskashiita Refugee Network, and eventually Cowan hopes to host farm to plate dinners at the site.

For now, the garden is officially open to the public only on Saturdays, but private tours are common. Eventually, the garden will be open daily and include an education center and numerous benches and walkways for meandering and resting.

For more information about the Tucson Mission garden, go to the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace here, call (520) 777-9270, or email MissionGarden.Tucson@gmail.com.

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