Desert Gardening

With summer in full swing, gardeners all over the northern hemisphere are shifting their techniques to embrace the increased daylight and warmer temperatures. But how does one garden effectively in Earth’s hottest ecosystems? Drachman Montessori K-8 Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona, is one of several schools in the Tucson Unified School District working with University of Arizona’s Green Academy for Garden-Based Curriculum Integration to successfully do just that!

Started in 2010, Drachman’s Ecology program features place- and project-based learning focused on food, sustainability, ecology, and reconnecting with nature. “Almost everything is designed with water and sun in mind,” says teacher and garden leader Eric Flewelling. “The only things on irrigation timers are the traditional (in-ground to conserve water) food garden beds and a couple of fruit trees and vines.”

A picnic table under a shade-giving tree.

Drachman has seven distinct gardens on campus, each with different educational goals. A large mesquite tree sits at the school’s entrance and provides shade to a hummingbird pollinator garden with plants chosen to provide food and nesting material for several native hummingbirds, along with space for students to observe them. This is joined by two additional pollinator gardens, one planted in-ground with native milkweeds, passion flower, and butterfly mist plants.The second is a registered Monarch Waystation built in stock tanks with an olla irrigation system and has native milkweeds and other desert plants that provide food and shelter for monarch butterflies. Each year Drachman students collect data on the monarchs’ seasonal migration, and the beds are nourished by compost from the school’s cafeteria composting program.

Caring for animals extends beyond pollinators to chickens and desert tortoises as well! Students feed and care for around nine hens that live in the school’s chicken coop and learn to collect and wash the eggs, which are sold to teachers and staff. Adorning the roof of Drachman’s chicken coop is a succulent garden maintained by the students that provides insulation and temperature control for the birds. Drachman is also home to a rescued desert tortoise that lives inside a planted habitat, where students can observe the tortoise’s behavior and learn about the plants that tortoises eat in the wild.

Drachman’s food production garden is planted with seasonal crops that students are taught to safely harvest, clean, and prepare in partnership with the district’s Food Services and Farm to School programs. “Often our food garden beds are harvested and fallowed at the end of the school year for scorching June, then prepped and planted during our monsoon season starting in July, often with Three Sister beds as were utilized here in Tucson thousands of years ago, some of the earliest known farming in North America,” says Flewelling. “Nothing quite like watching students eat the food they've planted and tended to and waited patiently for. One of our favorite meals is breakfast tacos of student-made corn tortillas with cheesy scrambled eggs from our chickens topped with a delicious garden pesto, including "weeds" such as London-rocket mustard greens and cheeseweed!”

Two kids reaching down to touch a rock

When teachers and students need a peaceful place to sit and decompress, they can head to Drachman’s meditation garden — a space with rock features and minimal planting. But perhaps the biggest accomplishment for the school’s ecology program is its xeriscape and rainwater harvesting gardens that work in harmony with the desert’s wet and dry seasons. Drachman’s xeriscape garden is planted with natives of the Sonoran Desert, including saguaro cactus, blue palo verde, and velvet mesquite trees. It offers a nesting area for native birds and bees and a space for students to study the Sonoran Desert’s native plants and animals.

A big tree with yellow leaves, and on the side of the photo are the words "Yellow season in the rain garden"

Drachman’s rainwater harvesting garden is a large space where rain collected from classroom roofs are channeled into basins where students grow native plants and trees. “The rainwater garden utilizes native trees, shrubs, and grasses that only needed two summers on irrigation and now thrive on rainwater alone. It shades what was a hot, desolate bus bay and a long stretch of wall and windows, drastically cooling the area and reducing air conditioning bills. The trees are deciduous and let ample sunlight in during the winter. It also now produces native food enjoyed by students and native ecology alike. It is a re-wilded zone that we benefit from, but it progresses without further intervention,” says Flewelling. Along with the rainwater collection systems in the rainwater harvesting garden, Drachman has a 2,600-gallon cistern that collects runoff and supplements the water needed for its pollinator gardens and fruit trees.

These gardens systems and facilities are also maintained and built by the students through the Build & Grow program, an ecology-themed elective for Middle School run by Flewelling. Students in Build & Grow have assisted with the creation of the rainwater harvesting garden, the school’s shaded outdoor classroom, and a large mural along the outside of the campus. “At the beginning of the rain garden process, one of my students, Juan, dismissed the project as just another silly school idea that never was going to happen...but it did! I think just that experience of seeing a big project through is such a powerful life lesson for students,” says Flewelling. “It's also so wonderful to hear the students that weren't directly involved, sitting in its shade, recognizing the radical transition and benefits firsthand.”

Kids under a sunshade, sitting at a picnic table

All of this incredible work carried out by Drachman students and teachers is supported by the University of Arizona, which is actively involved at Drachman and other TUSD schools in support of garden education. “Every semester numerous garden interns from UA are placed at our site to assist teachers in involving students in planting, harvesting, making food, creating and maintaining worm bins, and on and on,” says Flewelling. A team from UA also worked with local knowledge keepers, artists, and organizations to create the Sonoran Desert School Gardener’s Almanac, an annual publication that is a free resource for teachers, students, and the community at large. The almanac is filled with information on gardening in harmony with the desert’s rhythms and ecology as well as beautiful art and activities for students. 

When it comes to future plans, Drachman hopes to keep building on its success. “Programming is a year-to-year, choose your own adventure based on social and financial capacity,” says Flewelling. “My personal focus is on honing and moving these programs forward in ways that are truly sustainable, despite staffing and capacity fluctuations — something that I think is a well-recognized weak point in school gardens across the country. But one top priority here is more rain gardens! It's hard to overstate the benefits of conscientiously re-wilding our urban spaces. We also are excited to get students more involved in our Green Academy's school garden almanacs, as well as the agrivoltaic (beneficial farming under solar panels) research already going on at other TUSD schools.”