Twenty-five years ago the Community Gardens of Tucson started as a class lab, subscribing to the idea that it’s better to show than merely tell.

That was George Brookbank’s idea. In the 1980s he was the horticultural agent for the University of Arizona’s Pima County Cooperative Extension. Part of his job included teaching gardening classes to the public. He received comments about people wanting hands-on instruction.

“I discovered there was a lot of interest around the people who were taking my classes,” Brookbank recalls.

Darlene Schacht, who took Brookbank’s master gardener course, agrees. “We realized that what they needed was education around gardening to teach them along the way,” she says.

In 1990, Brookbank, Schacht and other master gardeners built a garden on donated private property on North First Avenue near East Roger Road.

Newbie gardeners paid a $5 monthly fee to grow vegetables and get tips from the master gardeners.

In a few years, other master gardener-built sites popped up. Eventually, the cooperative extension decided to no longer support the program.

The original group of gardeners struck out on its own as the Community Gardens of Tucson to continue teaching gardening by doing.

By 2010 the group became a formal nonprofit organization that managed eight sites.

The Salad DAYS

The organization has seen tremendous growth in the last five years.

Pima County won a 2010 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an initiative called Communities Putting Prevention to Work. County health officials used the grant to tackle obesity.

They worked with Community Gardens to create gardens in poor areas, as well as in neighborhoods with high numbers of Hispanics, a high-risk group for obesity.

At the same time, the Great Recession that began in 2009 contributed to the growth spurt, recalls Gene Zonge, who was CGOT executive director from March 2009 to March 2014.

“People needed to conserve their precious money and could do it by growing their own food,” Zonge says.

Another trend emerging at this time was the emphasis on locally grown, organic food, he says.

They all combined to create an explosion in local community gardens, established by CGOT or formed by other means.

During Zonge’s term about 30 CGOT gardens were built, reflecting a demand not seen in the organization’s first 20 years.

“In the old days, we couldn’t get anybody interested in gardening at all,” says Zonge.

Some of those grant-funded sites eventually failed. Zonge believes it’s because the organization didn’t know how to work with residents to encourage them to participate.

In a fall 2014 CGOT newsletter message, the board of directors, of which Schacht is still a member, admits that attempts to create sites that would attract gardeners was an “experiment” that “did not prove to be successful in all cases.”

The organization went back to its previous practice: Create only gardens that groups request and commit to maintaining.

“It seems that people want to create their own community,” the board acknowledged. “It can’t be done for them.”

JOINING A GARDEN

While gardens have come and gone over the years, CGOT has helped sites weather the ups and downs of membership.

“Even in low points, CGOT is there to maintain (a site) so someone would have someone to contact and get the garden started again,” says Zonge.

Every CGOT site is open to the public so that gardeners can find a place to tend crops. There currently are 500 members.

For $18 a month you can rent a 3-by-20-foot plot. This pays for the maintenance of the irrigation system, water, tools and monthly educational meetings.

Qualified gardeners can earn scholarships to help cover the rental fee. There also is a cooperative exchange gardener program in which volunteers work for the organization in exchange for rental fee reductions.

Members regularly gather in work parties to maintain the common areas of their sites. At some locations, social events are planned for members to get to know each other, share their gardening knowledge and swap recipes.

Brookbank says building community is the best thing that has come out of the Community Gardens of Tucson, an effect he saw from the very beginning.

“We saw people making friendships,” he remembers, “friendships that took in gardening.”

“There was a sense of togetherness.”

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net