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John Underhill waters flowers at a makeshift memorial for shooting victims outside the University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 20, 2011. Many of the plants and flowers at area memorials were replanted at a community garden.
John Underhill waters flowers at a makeshift memorial for shooting victims outside the University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 20, 2011. Many of the plants and flowers at area memorials were replanted at a community garden. John Moore/Getty Images
Brad Holland had big plans for the empty lot he owns in midtown Tucson, Ariz.
"This was going to be my dream house before the economy collapsed," Holland says. "I had a big empty lot and said, 'Wow, a lot of good can come out of this.' "
He and the neighborhood decided to turn it into a community garden. There are 21 plots and about 50 gardeners. They were about to till the soil for planting two years ago when a gunman opened fire in another part of town, killing six and wounding 13. Among those wounded in the January 2011 shooting was a neighbor who lived across the street from the garden, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Meg Johnson and Brad Holland were behind the effort to replant the memorials' flowers and plants. They also used the plastic sticks that hold cards in potted plants for crop labels.
Meg Johnson and Brad Holland were behind the effort to replant the memorials' flowers and plants. They also used the plastic sticks that hold cards in potted plants for crop labels. Ted Robbins/NPR
Within days, candles, signs, pictures and flowers piled up in front of the hospital, the shooting site and her district office. Her staff knew the shrines had to come down sometime, but they couldn't bring themselves to throw it all away. A month after the shooting, neighbors gathered at the garden to go through a moving van full of mementos.
"I was in charge of getting the volunteers in the neighborhood to go through the plant material," says Meg Johnson, who has one of the garden plots. "So we literally took apart every bouquet and every potted plant. The bulbs were saved."
Some teddy bears were sent to the garden by mistake; they went to a warehouse. Notes and cards attached to bouquets and pots went for archiving, too. The clear plastic sticks that hold cards in potted plants now hold crop labels. The rest was composted.
"It took us five Saturdays working three or four hours every Saturday to go through all the material that was here. It was quite a neighborhood event," Johnson says.
The wounds from the shooting — emotional and physical — took longer to heal than the garden took to grow. When Giffords visited her home during her recovery in Houston from the gunshot wound to her head, Holland says she wanted to see the garden.
"The first lunch she had when she came back to my house, everything came out of the garden," Holland says.
This is Tucson. Despite an occasional frost, a lot can grow in the winter. "The greens are hearty," says Holland. "Here's the arugula, spinach, kale. The tomato plants are all gone, but we still have tomatoes that are still ripening on the ground."
Giffords moved back to Tucson last fall, though not back to this neighborhood. There are few indications the garden was ever part of the tragedy — just evidence of what grew from it.