9 a.m. The alarm clock blares. Dirty, dusty shoes are pulled on. Later, sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses. It’s Saturday.
On Saturdays and Sunday’s from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., volunteers travel to the base of “A” Mountain to pull weeds and pick the ripest of fruits and vegetables at the Mission Garden.
“We’ve developed gardens trying to honor all of the cultures that our archeology shows were cultivated on that property,” said Roger Pfeuffer, co-chair of Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace.
The Mission Garden is a garden project run by the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace non-profit organization, which was established in an effort to push forward the Tucson Origins Heritage Park. The Mission Garden is the first step in its progress.
“Our established mission is to preserve and activate the cultural resources along the west banks of the Santa Cruz, at the base of “A” Mountain,” Pfeuffer said, referring to the river that is now dry most of the year.
Tucson Origins Heritage Park highlights the historical San Agustin Mission and its garden, which has been continuously cultivated for over 4,000 years. Because of this occupation, there is rich Sonoran Desert agricultural history found in archeological sites surrounding the area.
“During the early agricultural period, there was agriculture all over the place here, and [indigenous communities] were growing corn, bean and squash,” said Betsy Wirt, garden supervisor at Mission Garden. “We call this managed-desert agriculture. It’s kind of like turning your entire world into a garden.”
At the end of the 20th century, the Mission was deserted, fell into disrepair and Tucson bought the land.
The Tucson Origins Heritage Park was first organized and funded by the Rio Nuevo Project in 1999, which was voter-approved in Proposition 400. When the project began, much of the money was spent on archeological excavation and building a wall surrounding the garden, which was finished in 2008. From 2008 until 2010, funds ran low and the mission was once again deserted.
“You had this beautiful wall,” Pfeuffer said, “and it was starting to get vandalized by graffiti. Given the state of the economy, this program was probably not going to happen the way we thought it was going to happen, so we started the non-profit.”
The Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace was established and the Mission Garden was the first task the non-profit undertook.
“You know how you change people’s perspective on the environment?” asked José Gastelum, assistant gardener at Mission Gardens. “Show them how their food is grown. It completely changed my life.”
The non-profit has five employees, including full-time gardeners Wirt and Gastelum, but the program is mostly run by volunteers with a volunteer board.
“Without the volunteers, we would not have a garden,” Pfeuffer said. “There is no question about it.”
Volunteers may work as gardeners, greeters or “go-getters.” Greeters meet other volunteers and inform the public about the history of the San Agustin Mission and its garden. “Go-getters” help with special events that the Friends non-profit holds. Schools and volunteer organizations also visit and donate their time to the garden. For them, working in the garden serves as both a historical lesson on the Mission and a biology lesson on desert gardening and Sonoran ecology.
“Today we have kids out here, which is what it’s all about,” said P.K. Weis, a photojournalist visiting Mission Garden. “They’re planting the seeds of tomorrow’s crops and when they’re 50 years old, they’ll be able to come back here and show their kids the tree that they planted.”
Along with volunteer services, the non-profit holds special events to keep the public engaged and involved, as well as to fundraise. The organization hosts festivals, picnics, breakfasts, tours and trips both inside and outside of the Garden, selling tickets and merchandise to keep the Garden in operation.
At the time of its first contract with Pima County in 2011, Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace had to fundraise $250,000 in five years. In December 2016, it beat that amount by raising $750,000. The program also applied $900,000 from the Rio Nuevo project to install infrastructure like irrigation, electricity and public restrooms. In total, the organization has had use of $1.5 million for the Mission Garden.
“It’s not a garden and it’s not only about the Mission – it’s about everything,” Pfeuffer said. “The public has really, really supported what we do.”
The produce grown in Mission Garden is given to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona to be sold at the farmer’s market in the Mercado District. A portion of the profits go back to the Garden and the produce not sold is given to the Food Bank kitchen and local refugee resettlement programs. Volunteers are also allowed to take home the fruits and veggies they harvest.
“We definitely struck a chord with this project, and people are just really quite taken by it,” Pfeuffer said.
This article was written in the spring of 2017.
Thank you for reading! Have you ever heard about or visited Tucson’s “Mission Garden?” Did you know about the agricultural practices of Native Americans in the southwest? Like this post if you want more like it and let me know in the comments below your volunteering stories!