Desert Botanical Garden is a living museum, requiring equal parts living plants and aesthetically pleasing displays. With beauty and plant health at the forefront of our day-to-day operations, maintenance is a full-time job for the Horticulture department and their nearly 100 volunteers. Just as the Garden is separated into trails for our guests’ enjoyment, nine of the 14 members of the Horticulture team are assigned to be the curators for specific trails and sections. By focusing on one trail, it allows the horticulturalists to recognize the characteristics and seasonal responses of their particular trail. 

“To us, the plants have personalities and it is important to have a relationship with them,” says Tracy Rhodes, Horticulturist I in charge of maintaining the Center for Desert Living Trail. “You need to know how the plants interact with the seasons and in different sun exposure so it takes about a year to gain that trail knowledge.”   

Horticulture staff start each day bright and early as they arrive with the sun. After assessing the weather and their trails, carts and tools are collected and a game-plan is prepared for their assigned volunteers. Volunteers begin arriving about an hour later, ready to tend the Garden. For the first four hours of the day, staff and volunteers work side-by-side pruning, fertilizing, watering, raking and occasionally, planting. 

Adding new plants to trails is not something that happens on a regular basis, but some trails do require seasonal and replacement planting. It is a group effort when determining what to plant. With six certified arborists, specialists in cacti, agave, aloe and succulents, and an exhibitions department, everyone’s input is valuable. What is best for the plant is of the utmost importance, but it is important to be mindful about the aesthetics of the Garden, especially in areas that double as event, festival and exhibit venues. 

Another objective of maintaining a museum is providing an educational experience for guests. 

“Certain types of plants allow the Garden to transition from a compelling attraction to an educational attraction. In some areas you can find plants with shade cloth over them, for example. It is not the most beautiful thing to look at, but it provides an educational opportunity to explain why it’s there,” says Rhodes.

One of the most important elements to the health and well-being of the Garden is water. Irrigation lines and drip systems are responsible for a majority of the watering, but some trails and plants depend on supplemental watering during the warmer months. The water used is non-potable water from the Arizona Crosscut Canal which runs along the east end of the Garden. The water goes from the canal into a hydraulic pump that allows us to change its pH balance to a more beneficial level for the plants. The Garden is set up to collect rain water in retention basins. Some paths are designed with water collection features to maximize the use of rain water.

When the Horticulture staff finally make it to their desks, the work continues. They keep logs about what is happening on their trails, documenting everything from soil test and pest issues to disease management and pruning schedules. Keeping complete records enables the department to find patterns, mitigate potential issues and ensure that our plants thrive. Participating on Garden committees, preparing and hosting the biannual Plant Sale and supporting other departments keeps the Garden functioning as a cohesive team.

These curators may look a little different than their counterparts at more traditional museums, but they provide the Garden with the ability to keep more than 50,000 living pieces in our museum focused on providing beauty, education and preservation of the Sonoran Desert.