Celebrating 85 Years of the Garden: Music in the Garden Founding | Desert Botanical Garden


Among Desert Botanical Garden’s rich programming throughout the years, no other event has had the longevity and popularity similar to its holiday experience Las Noches de las Luminarias like Music in the Garden has. 

For 35 years, this concert series has been integral to the Garden, gracing Ullman Terrace with weekly musical performances in the fall and spring. Hundreds of visitors show up each week to stroll the trails and then experience their favorite artists in this unique outdoor venue. The event has become a highly-anticipated affair in recent years that several shows sell out hours after tickets go on sale.

“It was clear these kinds of events would bring more visitors to the Garden, even those who are not interested in the plants,” said former Garden Board of Trustees President (1990) Kate Ellison.

She and a group of Garden board members and volunteers, including long-time volunteer Anne Gully, helped cofound Music in the Garden in 1988. The proposal initially came from Ellison, who was batting around ideas with former Garden Executive Director Robert Breunig (1985-1994) that would help increase visitorship while educating guests on the importance of desert plant conservation. She even suggested a gourd carving show at one of her weekly meetings with Breunig.

“Everyone thought the Garden was an unknown amenity in the Valley at the time,” Ellison said. “Not many people know about us. We didn’t get the publicity like the Phoenix Zoo did.” 

Almost immediately, the concept for Music in the Garden was greenlit. The plan called for using a newly constructed patio space that would offer an experience unlike any other in the Valley: A live entertainment show with a stunning Sonoran Desert landscape. 

Ullman Patio had just finished being constructed,” Gully said. “So, we suggested using the area for this new event. We started off with folk and classical musical and even invited Arizona State University collegiate groups.”

During the Garden’s 1988-1989 fiscal year, the concert series debuted to a few dozen guests on Sunday mornings. The event was included with general admission. Volunteers helped manage the event that first year. Even Ellison’s and Gully’s husbands would lend a hand every week, they said.

Several tables with colorful linens were scattered around Ullman Terrace for guests to enjoy the show. Light breakfast was served through a caterer. And guests would see artists play with a pleasant outlook of the saguaros and cactus on the butte.

“That first year we had Music in the Garden, I don’t recall ever having a rainout or any technical difficulties,” she said. 

Still, Garden staff and volunteers weren’t ready for the throngs of visitors that descend onto Ullman Terrace on Mother’s Day weekend in 1989. That year, Music in the Garden had a special Mother’s Day Sunday brunch, featuring specialty drinks and catered breakfast. But the event quickly hit its capacity.

Ellison said the Garden and the caterer had planned for an attendance of about 100 guests, but they stunned when a sea of visitors arrived. “It must have been about 200 guests that day,” she said.

“We over-advertised it,” Gully said. “I remember that Dr. Robert Breunig was bussing tables. That’s how busy it was. The director was helping clean up.” 

The following year, Garden staff would help manage Music in the Garden after its wild success. In those early years, the concert series took place at several locations, including Elliott Patio and the path adjacent to the Berlin Agave Yucca Forest. The event is now held at Ullman Terrace. 


Today, Music in the Garden boasts an average attendance of 350, features over 20 shows each year and showcases a diverse line-up of local favorites and national buzz-worthy groups. That includes Valley icons like Margo Reed, Turning Point, Carlos Nakai, Dennis Rowland, Sistah Blue and Bad Cactus Brass Band. But the event wouldn’t be what it is now without the help of volunteers and board members. 

“I’m so pleased it has survived so many years,” Gully said.

Ellison said she is “proud the Garden has grown with the metropolitan area” over the years.