Our Story

Desert Survivors – Nurturing plants and people since 1981

All things grow with

Desert Survivors was founded in 1981 by Dr. Joseph Patterson, a Tucson psychologist who worked with adults with disabilities living in institutions during the 1970’s.

He recognized their need for meaningful activities and occupations to provide dignity and purpose in their lives. In the late 1970’s, Tucson residents became interested in native plants that were both attractive and low water use.

Originally starting with just five employees with disabilities, seeds were collected from the desert and grown out and sold from the original Grant Road storefront.


The Nursery Begins...

The new work program at Desert Survivors combined providing jobs for adults with disabilities and offering locally native plants to the community. This new synergistic concept allowed our employees to benefit from the idea of horticultural therapy, or the calming and grounding effects from working with plants and organic soils. The program also provided an opportunity for these individuals to build relationships, self-esteem and a sense of self-worth that comes with having a job or purpose. Our group supported employment program provides each individual an opportunity to learn what it means to have a job and be part of a work force. Our goal is for each person to learn the skills they need to move into competitive employment positions in our community.

By 1983, the Desert Survivors human services program grew to include early intervention for children identified as having a developmental delay. We “partnered” with families to demonstrate how best they could help their children meet their full developmental potential within their own home environment. After thirty one years of serving families in southern Arizona, Desert Survivors ended its children service early intervention program on November 28th 2014 due to funding cuts and revised state regulations. We were proud to have worked with in need families across Pima County including the Tohono O’odham Nation, where our staff drove out to Sells and beyond on a weekly basis. We hope to find innovative ways to continue to serve children in our community and are always here for families.

The plant nursery grew out of humble beginnings. Originally we were only open three days a year for annual plant sales and offered a small selection of desert adapted plants. When Peter Geirlach (aka ‘Petey Mesquitey’) joined the staff in the early 1990’s, a strong new direction began for the nursery. Peter brought his expertise of local plants, along with a passion to offer unusual and lesser known native plants to the community. Peter’s vision brought Desert Survivor’s plant nursery to a whole new level, and we offered unusual local plants along with desert adapted plants from around the globe. In 2004, the plant nursery went completely locally and regionally native, and made the wise decision to no longer sell plants from other continents or regions. Since then, we have continued to strive to improve our inventory, as well as the quality of our plants. We are proud to offer the largest selection of native plants in the state, most of which are grown on our small 4.3 acre site.

Former Representative Mo Udall and past Executive Director Joe Lakowicz (left) at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the current Starr Pass location in 1986.
Peter Geirlach (AKA Petey Mesquitey), one of the original nursery directors responsible for our direction as a specialty native plant nursery.
Our Executive Director, Karen Wilson, working with special needs children.
Our Children Service employees sharing smiles with a happy girl.
One of the kids from our Children Service Program visiting a Nursing Home.