The Tucson Botanical Gardens, a tranquil oasis in the heart of Tucson, strives to be recognized and respected as the best small public garden in America.
Originally, the house was the longtime home of Rutger and Bernice Porter. The Porters raised a family, ran a nursery, and participated fully in the life of Tucson, though their lives began on opposite sides of the country. Bernice Walkley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, an only child who ultimately graduated from Vassar in 1923. After Bernice’s mother died, she cared for her arthritic father, Raymond, for several years until his condition prompted their move to Tucson in 1930. He must have found it salubrious, for he soon built a house in the El Encanto neighborhood. Tucson at that time was an up-and-coming town of about 35,000 people.
Rutger Bleeker Porter was born in Hollywood, California. His father died when Rutger was a teenager; soon after he moved to New York City to live with an uncle, and then studied agriculture at Rutgers University. After suffering several bouts of pneumonia in New York, Rutger decided to move to Tucson in 1927. He lived with an acquaintance and did landscape work for Alfred and Anna Erickson, founders of the Desert Sanatorium, an institution dedicated to treat people with tuberculosis (which later became Tucson Medical Center). Anna nicknamed Rutger the “Kactus Kid,” because of his interest in local plants and he was commissioned to do the original landscape work for the Desert Sanatorium. News of Rutger Porter’s landscape services made its way around the small town. Raymond Walkley hired Rutger to do some landscaping at his El Encanto home, where he met his future wife, Bernice.
The young couple married in 1931 and started Desert Gardens Nursery at the site of their home on the corner of Grant and Maple Boulevard (now Alvernon Way). The earliest buildings on the grounds date to the 1920s and were constructed of adobe bricks made on site. As the family grew to include three daughters their house expanded to three bedrooms, two baths, a sleeping porch, and several beautifully landscaped patios and gardens. The property, nicknamed “Porterville," also had a corral and two horses (where the TBG Sensory Garden now stands). In an interview several years ago, daughter Cornelia recalled, “It was wonderful. We would cross Grant—of course there was little traffic—and then ride straight up to the foothills.”
The Porters’ garden developed from many planting experiments with a mixture of native and Mediterranean plants. Over the years, the original garden began to reflect the sturdier choices for the Tucson climate. A wonderful landscape of winding walks, low adobe walls, fountains, and lovely greenery evolved around the home. Today, the Historical Garden contains many of the original plants from the Porter estate including citrus, roses, privet, sweet olive, nandina, pomegranate, Aleppo pine, pyrancantha, iris, chaste-tree, jasmine and other plants of that era. The oasis style represented in this garden is typical of large Tucson gardens dating from the 1920’s to the mid 1960’s.
Bernice and Rutger stayed active in the community raising their children, and joined clubs and boards, including Junior League of Tucson, Tucson Medical Center, and Tucson Symphony Orchestra. The Desert Gardens Nursery closed in 1958 and Rutger Porter passed away in 1964. Bernice wanted the beloved property to become a public garden and donated it to the City of Tucson in 1968 while continuing to live in a small apartment on the grounds. About the gardens, Bernice said:
Since it became open to the public, the Tucson Botanical Gardens has renovated and expanded the property while preserving the Porter Family legacy as an important piece of Tucson history. Originally a large grassy area off of the Porters’ sun porch, the Reception Garden was a favorite family gathering space. In the late 1970s the hardscape replaced the grass and in 1991 the raised stage was added and the Gardens was renamed The Alice Holsclaw Reception Garden. The Cox Butterfly & Orchid Pavilion was the original site of the Herb Garden. Edna’s Shed, whose namesake was a family friend of the Porters, marked the site next to the Pavilion until it was relocated to the current Herb Garden in 2010. In conversations with Cornelia Porter Ford, the move was appropriate because it placed Edna’s Shed where it belonged: next to the herbs that Bernice loved so much.
The organization has also expanded its offerings over time by continuing to provide educational resources to the community as well as developing several public events held throughout the year. Docent training started in 1982, while the Educational Outreach programs began in 1986. The following year saw the first annual Luminaria celebration, with the SAWARA Xeriscape/Solar demonstration garden opening in 1988. The1990’s were a period of rapid growth for the Gardens, evidenced by the additions of an outdoor amphitheater, compost demonstration area, Butterfly Garden and several multicultural exhibits. A new educational building was constructed in 2000 and the popular Butterfly Magic exhibit began in 2004.
In recent years, Tucson Botanical Gardens has increased its commitment to bringing nationally recognized exhibits to Tucson. Beginning in 2015 with the traveling exhibit, Nature Connects, and continuing with hosting the New York Botanical Gardens blockbuster show, Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, the Gardens have seen an increased number of visitors, membership and volunteer participation. In September of 2015 the Gardens completed its Welcome Center, a stunning addition that reflects the historical, territorial style of central Tucson. Designed by local Architects Rory McCarthy and Paul Weiner of DesignBuild Collaborative, the building brings new gallery and meeting space as well as an expanded Gardens Gift Shop, shifting the heart of the visitor experience to the center of the property. To better serve our virtual visitors, a new website was designed and launched in 2015. Providing a streamlined experience, the site is a hub for information about exhibits, events and the many ways to participate in and contribute to the Gardens.