Mission Garden Thrives with Support from The Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace

December 26, 2012

by Teya Vitu

Bush at Mission Garden

Bushes at the Mission Garden.

The fledgling trees at Mission Garden bore fruit in early December, much as they may have done some 220 years earlier at the very same spot in the sunset shadow of A Mountain.

Roger Pfeuffer, Raul Ramirez and Bill DuPont plucked pomegranate and grapes from trees and 24 vines just planted in March.

Figs, quince, apricots, sweet lime and plums are also growing on the 1 acre that the trio and dozens of other volunteers have tended this year. It’s the first phase to recreate the full 4-acres of the San Agustín Mission Garden from the 1780s and subsequent decades.

“This is all heritage fruit,” said Roger Pfeuffer, chair of The Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, the non-profit that is building and operating Mission Garden. “This is from cuttings from trees that trace their lineage from trees 150 years ago.”

The garden is open to the public every Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. through May and then 8 a.m. to noon in summer.

“These are European fruits brought into the area by Father Kino,” said Ramirez, secretary of The Friends and historian on Father Eusebio Kino.

The young garden has already become part of the natural environment. A clutch of quail eggs is deposited in one bush.

Quails at the Mission Garden

A clutch of quail eggs at the Mission Garden.

“This is why Audobon likes us,” commented Pfeuffer, former superintendent of Tucson Unified School District but now living the bucolic life at the garden and his home within walking distance at the Mercado District of Menlo Park.

The Mission Garden is the only project of the scrapped Tucson Origins Heritage Park to bear any fruit at all.

Tucson Origins was touted as Rio Nuevo’s signature piece until the city pulled the plug in 2008. No construction ever got started on recreating Mission San Agustin and its Convento or the new children’s, University of Arizona and Arizona Historical Society museums – or the Mission Garden.

The Mission Garden growing now off Grande Avenue south of Congress Street is post-Rio Nuevo, post-City of Tucson. The City did build the 7-foot-high adobe brick walls in 2008-09 to enclose a Mission Garden site but without any plan to actually plant a garden.

That’s where The Friends picked up the vine. The garden became the only living and breathing element in the aborted quest to reconstruct Tucson’s origins through the planning, spading, grading and planting behind the grassroots push by The Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace.

“We have to make that distinction that we are not part of Rio Nuevo,” Pfeuffer said.

mission garden trees

Volunteers tend to heritage trees.

The Friends started in 2009 as a loose group of West Side supporters including Pfeuffer, DuPont, Ramirez, Diana Hadley, Gayle Hartmann and Cele Peterson. They saw the adobe compound enclosing nothing.

“Diana and Gayle said why don’t we do this?” said DuPont, founding chair of the Friends and direct descendent of Jose Ignacio Moraga, who was commander of the Tucson presidio in 1791. “The person who really wanted to do this was Cele Peterson. She saw the wall. We assured her it was going to get done.”

The Friends had a press conference on the site in 2009, uncertain just who would show up. It was encouraging enough that The Friends then put on a forum attended by about 150 people in the historical preservation community.

“We saw there was an interest in this,” DuPont said. “People were willing to donate money and time.”

The Friends formalized themselves by incorporating as a 501(c)3 with the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2010 and gaining the non-profit status in fall 2011. In the mean time, that led to clearing up just who had what claim on the Mission Garden grounds.

The Friends had been working with the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department, while  the Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District laid claim to all land associated with Tucson Origins. Ends up, Mission Garden is Pima County Parks land and the City owns the wall.

The Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, The Tucson Botanical Gardens and the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum, the Arizona State Museum, the Arizona Humanities Council and the Audobon Society have all endorsed Mission Garden.

Pomegranates at the Mission Garden.

Pomegranates at the Mission Garden.

The Friends entered into five-year intergovernmental development and operating agreement in November 2011 with the City and the County. Rio Nuevo gave up all claims on Mission Garden.

“We didn’t do anything inside the walls until we got that agreement,” Pfeuffer said. “We’re obligated to raise $350,000 in those five years. Neither the City or County are under any financial obligation to support the garden.”

The Friends received a $15,000 grant from the City’s Historic Preservation Office that required a $15,000 match. That was the seed funding to plan the orchard. The Friends raised another $60,000 and received $35,000 from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Preservation. An Americans with Disabilities Act grant added $38,000, and recently the Tohono O’odham Nation donated $39,600 for the garden’s Phase 2 work.

This has raised $160,000 of the necessary $350,000 so far.

“This resonates with people on a number of levels,” Pfeuffer said. “Part of it is ‘yeah, we’re going to do something people didn’t think could be done.’ Part of it is the heritage trees got a lot of interest.”

The orchard now has 119 trees and people have sponsored 42 trees for $1,000 a piece.

Tucson used to have a lot of orchards and gardens before Davis-Monthan Air Force Base changed the dynamics of Tucson in the 1940s.

“It just brought back a lot of memories,” DuPont said. “My great grandfather had some of those orchards in his backyard. This is what we knew Tucson as.”

Only one of four acres is planted. The Friends started Phase 1 work on the site in January 2012 to install solar-powered irrigation, ADA trails, build a ramada and storage building and, in March, started planting the mission orchard. About 50 volunteers were involved in planting trees and building the ramada, and 20 volunteers are active on an extended basis.

A second phase should get planted in spring. That will include desert plants and also a timeline garden, both along the western wall. The timeline garden will trace the progress of agriculture from the earliest settlers to the Hohokam, the O’odham, the Mexican era, the Territorial era and cotton representing the statehood era.

“What we want to show people is how native people gather food from desert plants,” Pfeuffer said.

The southern 2 acres have not been fully planned yet but will likely involve mission crops such as Sonoran wheat, Pima white wheat and cilantro.

“We might put in an olive grove or maybe more fruit trees,” Pfeuffer said

For Pfeuffer, Mission Garden isn’t just a bunch of crops and orchards.

“I think of one word: legacy,” he said.