Story and photos by Andrea Sutherland
In the cool Colorado mornings, the gardens off of West Cheyenne Road teem with life.
Varieties of bees buzz among pollinator plants of yarrow, sage, dill, catnip, bachelor’s button, calendula and scarlet runner bean. Heirloom vegetables — the same varieties grown by Thomas Jefferson — soak up the morning sun in the Monticello Garden.
Walking along the dirt pathways, Larry Stebbins pauses to inspect the numerous garden plots that make up the demonstration garden at Harlan Wolfe Ranch.
“Each year the garden gets a little richer and things grow a little bigger,” said Stebbins, director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, a nonprofit focused on building community gardens in Colorado Springs.
Inside the children’s garden, Stebbins crouches to pull alpine strawberries and leaves off of mint and stevia plants from the Lemonade Garden.
“If we can get the kids engaged, hopefully it will change their eating habits,” Stebbins said, sampling the sweet leaves.
In an adjacent bed, oregano and tomatoes grow in the Pizza Garden. Across the way, acorn, spaghetti, sunburst and zucchini squash mature in the Squash Jungle.
In its third season, the demonstration garden has grown to include a pumpkin patch, garlic beds and a rainbow carrot garden.
“We want families to experience fresh food,” Stebbins said, adding that residents can sample and purchase vegetables from the tasting gardens.
Throughout the fall, residents can visit the demonstration garden Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon for free tastings and to purchase fresh produce. The garden will be closed Sept. 24 for the PPUG annual garlic festival.
And if Stebbins isn’t at the demonstration garden, he’ll be at one of the other nine community gardens PPUG manages.
“It’s a full-time job,” Stebbins said. “It wasn’t meant to be, but there’s such a need in this city. I can’t get grant money and build them fast enough.”
A retired chemistry teacher and school administrator, Stebbins devoted his retirement to his lifelong hobby — gardening.
“Many people don’t have the space (to garden),” he said. “They either don’t have large enough yards or live in apartments. In the community gardens, (gardeners) have the benefit of learning from other people.”
Stebbins formed PPUG in 2007, when he knew of only three community gardens in Colorado Springs.
In 2008, PPUG partnered with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation to begin building more gardens and in three years the nonprofit has funded nine community gardens, a demonstration garden and 42-square-foot greenhouse for a local school district.
“I do not see it as a fad,” Stebbins said. “People have to eat.”
For the past few years, Stebbins has made it his mission to work with the community and raise money to build the gardens, which cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to build and maintain. Stebbins said PPUG raises money through donations and grants.
More than 150 families have plots in one of PPUG’s community gardens, Stebbins said, all of which have unique features to better serve the local community.
At the West Side Community Garden at north 17th and west Bijou streets, raised beds were designed to accommodate elderly and handicapped gardeners.
“As soon as we got out of the garden box, we realized there were more ways to raise food,” Stebbins said.
Stebbins said he worked with the city of Colorado Springs to identify underused space in city parks to convert into community gardens. In the north part of Vermijo Park, Stebbins said PPUG workers converted a large mud pit into a 400-square-foot garden that feature 25×17-square-foot plots gardened by 17 families.
“We’re not in a vacuum on these projects,” said Stebbins. “We’re here to partner with the community.”
Stebbins said local restaurants buy fruits and vegetables produced by gardeners.
“We benefit each other,” said Andrew Sherrill, executive chef of The Blue Star restaurant in Colorado Springs. Sherrill said Blue Star owner Joseph Coleman fostered a relationship with PPUG for many years through donations as well as providing housing for PPUG farmers.
“They do wonderful things with heritage varieties,” Sherrill said, listing garlic, fresh greens, squash, sweet onions, herbs and edible flowers as the restaurant’s main imports. “You can’t find some of the produce they grow anywhere else.”
At Dorchester Park on South Nevada Avenue, gardeners grow produce for the Springs Rescue Mission, a local organization devoted to helping poor and homeless community members.
“It has been such a great thing for us,” said Kristin Oxendahl, community relations manager for Springs Rescue Mission.
Oxendahl said men in the residential rescue program tend garden plots as part of their work therapy and the vegetables they harvest feed residents as well as the Colorado Springs community.
Stebbins said PPUG also works with local school districts. District 11 unveiled its new 42-square-foot off-the-grid greenhouse Sept. 2, in an effort to produce fresh foods for student lunches.
“The greenhouse grows food, but it also provides education,” Stebbins said.
Stebbins said the purpose of PPUG was to teach the community how to grow local, healthy food. Each month, PPUG sponsors community workshops and lectures on gardening-related topics. He estimated that in the past year, more than 3,000 members from the community attended one of the lectures.
“It’s not so much about building community gardens,” Stebbins said. “It’s about building community. In times of divided ideology, people leave their ideological hats at the gates. People talk gardening. For me, that’s so important.”