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Gardening is no longer just about growing plants.

It’s about tending plants in ways that don’t harm the environment.

You’ll get plenty of ideas on how to do that in two upcoming garden tours.


The four home gardens and 15 demonstration gardens on this tour take balanced approaches to growing plants in environmentally friendly ways. Visitors will see water-harvesting techniques, organically grown gardens, low water-use plants and composting systems.

One stop that incorporates a number of strategies is Debbie and Mike McIntosh‘s 2.33-acre property, where they have lived for almost 17 years. Their several gardens range from wild spaces to human comforts.

The desert area is meant to invite wildlife onto the property. Native plants attract birds, squirrels and the occasional coyote, among other animals. The dirt path serves as a channel to guide rainwater runoff into a retaining basin that irrigates the mesquites and prickly pears surrounding it.

Here and throughout the gardens, the McIntoshes have installed bird feeders and plants that “bring in the pollinators,” says master gardener Debbie McIntosh.

In the farm area, a chicken coop and separate garden with concrete raised beds, designed and built by Mike McIntosh, are constructed to keep wildlife out.

The six chickens provide eggs, as well as manure for the compost pile.

The garden beds, which will have eggplant, tomato and pepper plants during the tour, are irrigated by a drip system that includes water collected into a cistern. Pipes under the beds guide excess water to trees just beyond the garden.

The 1970s shade garden is full of tropical and non-native species that fill planters along brick walkways and patio seating areas.

Debbie McIntosh says she’s able to keep the area lush by planting things the animals won’t eat, such as wedelia, Turk’s cap and lizard tail.

A concrete water feature of small pools, canals and waterfalls flows through this area.

McIntosh built trails through a one-acre stand of trees that lead past mature eucalyptus, pine, desert willow, acacia and pistache. She is slowly adding native succulents and bushes that use low amounts of water in order to attract more wildlife.

“It brings us great joy,” she says of the gardens. ”We can commune with nature.”


More than two dozen homes, businesses and public spaces are on this tour organized by Watershed Management Group, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals and communities build water collection and conservation systems.

Homes with solar electric and water heater systems installed by Technicians for Sustainability also are part of the tour.

Sean Herman doesn’t have a solar system, but his central Tucson backyard has lots of other sustainable-living features.

The highlights are four aquaponics systems. There he grows vegetables — chard, kale, broccoli, leeks and watercress for now — and raises bluegill and channel catfish for eating, plus goldfish.

Each 600-gallon tiered system cycles nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks through garden tanks where plant roots filter the water that then is pumped back to the fish tanks.

Herman, who works at Local Roots Aquaponics, says each system uses one-tenth of the water used for a typical soil garden. It also makes it easier for him to garden.

“I struggle with soil gardens,” he says. With aquaponics “I rarely have to add nutrients, and the growth rate is quite fast.”

The backyard has a large fenced area dedicated to six chickens and two fruit trees.

The fowl provide eggs for the three-person household and manure for the trees.

Herman tosses food scraps around the trees. The chickens eat the scraps and, by scratching the ground, aerate the soil and dig uneaten scraps into the dirt. Herman irrigates the trees and the composting material at the same time.

“It’s the least labor-intensive way to do a compost pile,” he says.

Herman also has a rain-collection system that stores up to 1,200 gallons of water, a second compost pile that uses worms, a small gray-water system, a contoured front yard that keeps rainwater from running into the street and a compost toilet, which turns human waste into fertilizer.

Herman admits that each of these projects requires a labor intensive set-up and some financial investment. But once installed, maintenance is minimal, and the benefit is living in a sustainable way.

“I hope people would see that it works,” he says, “and have the gumption to start experimenting.”

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

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