Gardeners Square off at “Growdown”

March 4, 2014 |

On your mark. Get set. Grow!

An outdoor space created at Growdown 2013. photo courtesy Tucson Botanical Gardens

An outdoor space created at Growdown 2013.
photo courtesy Tucson Botanical Gardens

It’s time for the Tucson Botanical Gardens’ (TBG) second annual Growdown!, and this year’s gardening gurus are leaving nothing to chance. Three local landscape design firms will put their trowels to the test between March 18 and 22 in a battle to create the best small garden space in Tucson. Each of the three finalists—chosen by a committee from a pool of about ten design proposals—will be given $1500 in “seed money” and a fifteen-by-twenty-foot plot of dirt on which to craft a backyard sanctuary fit for desert royalty.

The winner will be announced on Saturday, March 22 at a ceremony and reception following a day of demonstrations by the competing designers. Judges will score the displays based on five criteria: aesthetic appeal, connection to Tucson, appeal to multiple senses, the use of space and practicality. The winner gets a handsome trophy as well as priority attention in the June issue of Tucson Lifestyle Home & Garden Magazine. Last year’s cover article meant some well-earned attention for Growdown! 2013 champions Phil and Janis Van Wyck of Van Wyck Projects.

Phil Van Wyck says that the cover story led directly to a handful of projects for the company, as well as countless complimentary phone calls from the community at large. But, Van Wyck says, the pride they felt in their work was the biggest payoff.

“We used every square inch of that space,” said Van Wyck, adding that, even though they prefabricated as much of their garden as possible before the three-day installation period began, putting it all together literally came down to the final two minutes of the competition. Their winning design included custom tile art by local artist Nick Tranmer, a water feature, as well as a raised, covered platform built along a soil cement wall—a technique the Van Wyck’s demonstrated at TBG last year.

Plans for the 2014 installations (billed as “Small Gardens, Big Ideas”) appear even more ambitious than the year before: Allen Denomy and Micaela Machado of Solana Outdoor Living partnered up to create a design which features a green-roofed chicken coop; Iylea Olson of LJ Design & Consulting envisions a garden full of local edibles with a water feature that uses harvested rainwater; Petrichor Design + Build’s Maria Voris aims to erect a modern suspended swing as her small garden’s centerpiece.

People work to create the best pocket garden at Growdown 2013. photo courtesy Tucson Botanical Gardens

People work to create the best pocket garden at Growdown 2013.
photo courtesy Tucson Botanical Gardens

Like the Van Wycks last spring, this year’s green-thumb gladiators can expect a few sleepless nights in the mad dash to install everything from gravel to gazebos from scratch, including every plant, rafter, fountain, and artistic accent in each of their pre-planned plots. And, though the time table leaves very little room for construction errors, TBG’s Marketing Director Melissa D’Auria assures us that these local agriculturalists are up to the challenge. D’Auria says that since Growdown! lets designers work without adhering to a client’s specifications, the annual competition at TBG is one of “the best opportunities for them to be creative in their profession.” And the small spaces that spring up as a result of that freedom are “really elaborate,” says D’Auria, incorporating fire elements, cisterns, and just about everything else you could reasonably think to put in your backyard.

The designers will all be on hand to answer your questions on the Saturday that follows installation, making it a spectacular opportunity to pick the brains of a few extremely talented professionals for design insight. For anyone looking to spruce up their own outdoor living areas, Growdown! 2014 is the perfect excuse to swing by TBG; you can learn a new trick-or-two from the demos, get some inspiration on how to give your small garden a big impact by checking out the finished gardens, and take an extra minute to stroll through the butterfly aviary before the exhibit flutters away again next month.

So, put on your best pruning gloves and some sunscreen and we’ll meet you in the garden.

It all grows, er, goes down March 18-22 with the final results presentation and contestant demonstrations taking place on Saturday, March 22. Growdown! exhibition is free with paid admission (adults, $13; student/military, $12; children 4-12, $7.50). More information available at or by calling (520) 326-9686.

Category: Community, Events, Living, Nature