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Home Grown: The Beautiful Challenges of Urban Gardening Along the Front Range

Home Grown: The Beautiful Challenges of Urban Gardening Along the Front Range


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Photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens

Urban gardening can be a fruitless process, literally. But the benefits can outweigh the frustration. Growing food can aid the environment, bring families together, and help the hungry.

“We gave away 8,000 vegetable plants to our neighbors in need,” said Lawrie Wilson, a 22-year member of the Boulder Garden Club said of Boulder’s Growing Gardens.
Growing Gardens also gives away thousands of pounds of vegetables every year to food share banks, as well as hundreds of packets of seeds and vegetable starts.
While a passion for many, with clubs, websites and businesses devoted to the craft, growing one’s own food can seem like a Herculean task. This is especially true for the novice, who just wants to be more eco-friendly, have better-tasting food and know where their food is coming from.

There are unlimited resources to teach a new gardener how to get past initial growing pains. Sustaining a healthy and long-lasting garden, however, involves many variables.

Timing can be everything when dealing with Colorado’s harsh climate and ever-changing weather patterns.

Wilson touted the perks of producing your own food.

“It’s fresh, it’s delicious, it’s colorful. Vegetables are easy to grow, you learn where your food comes from, and ultimately, you learn how to feed yourself and your neighbors.”

So, how does someone get involved with growing his or her own fruits and vegetables?

Erie resident Brian O’Connor is owner of Erie Home Services and Eerie Sales, LLC. He is also chairperson on the tree board for the town of Erie. Because of his interest in gardening, he developed a Facebook page called Green Thumbs of Erie, CO. He offers advice on the best foods to grow and when to plant them.

For new gardeners, it’s pretty simple. “Start small and remember to water,” O’Connor said.

“Around Erie, we can grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The vegetables seem to do best when started inside.” He said that can help to provide a longer growing season.

In O’Connor’s opinion, the best and most consistently successful vegetables and herbs seem to be tomatoes, summer squash, winter squash, garlic, parsley, pumpkins, lettuce, and chives. In regard to fruit, Coloradans can also successfully and consistently grow many different kinds, including grapes, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.

“We can grow also apples, pears, plums, cherries, and peaches,” he said.

In Colorado, he said, we have plenty of sun and hot weather, and as long as enough water is given to the plant, we can grow just about any plant that can handle zone 5 or less.

Zone 5 is in reference to the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants will thrive at a certain location.

“There are exceptions. For me it has been blueberries. We have alkaline soil around this area, but blueberries prefer more acidic soil. Colorado State University has been successful at growing them. I’m currently trying to grow four blueberry bushes in our yard using their method and most have survived a few seasons, but have yet to produce fruit,” O’Connor said.

The university’s method requires that the blueberry bush be planted inside a peat moss bale that is buried in the ground.

Brian O’Connor’s home in Erie contains raised and planted beds, yielding a colorful crop of veggies and fruits for his family’s table. Photo courtesy of Brian O’Connor

Timing is Everything

O’Connor also said that gardeners should resist planting tender vegetables until after Mother’s Day. There were a number of posts in his Green Thumbs group this past spring from members who planted too early and lost plants. He also lost plants during the late snow.

But no matter how late you plant, he said, plan for the season to end mid- to late-October. Specific challenges range from late freezes, to hail and insects. O’Connor said that none of his fruit trees will produce fruit this year because of freezes in late spring.

He said that if a new gardener is not sure they want to create a raised bed or build a garden, they could plant a few plants in pots and have good results. Tomato plants and herbs are a good place to start, as he said that they are easy to grow and hard to kill. Then the next step would be to build a garden to introduce other food-producing plants.

It’s fresh, it’s delicious, it’s colorful. Vegetables are easy to grow, you learn where your food comes from, and ultimately, you learn how to feed yourself and your neighbors.

Colorado gardeners can preserve their current flora or begin a new garden and still be environmentally friendly by keeping the water they are using within the bed, utilize rain barrels, compost and grow fruits and vegetables that will be eaten, O’Connor added.

As far as O’Connor’s personal reasons for starting Erie Green Thumbs, he recalls fond memories of his grandfather, an Irish immigrant, and his garden.

“I remember my grandfather’s garden while growing up and seeing all of the different vegetables and fruits.”

O’Connor said that his father also always had a garden and enjoyed growing different vegetables and fruits.

Brian O’Connor teaches children about the benefits of gardening and locallly-grown food. Photo courtesy of Brian O’Connor

When Brian and his wife, Nicole, bought their first Erie home in 2001, “I started my own garden and faced a lot of challenges dealing with the soil.” O’Connor said he received pointers from his father, who lives in Pittsburgh, on how to deal with the troubles he was experiencing.

In 2014, the O’Connors bought their second Erie home. They faced additional challenges when dealing with the soil. O’Connor said that not much had been done with the backyard in 12 years, so they were left a clean slate.

“During the planning process for that yard, I was hunting around the internet and Facebook for help and ideas, but I couldn’t find any good local information. I decided to create the group to gather information, share ideas, and provide a forum for others to ask questions or share with their neighbors,” O’Connor said. And Erie Green Thumbs was born.

Brian believes growing your own food has many benefits, such as convenience, freshness, and he said it often tastes better than store-bought food. It is also an activity that he likes to share with his 5-year-old son.

“Our son loves going out to the garden, picking, and eating cherry tomatoes and strawberries.”

He said that he didn’t start gardening to be eco-friendly, but because he enjoyed growing his own fruits and vegetables. Through that experience, the eco-friendliness was a natural progression. He said he has eliminated pesticide use around the house, regulated water usage and even began plans to try using eco-friendly insects around his yard.

He said that opinions would probably differ from a professional in the business, but that is a great part of his Facebook group.

“I freely admit that I’m an amateur gardener, but do often share successes and failures.”

He has learned from others on a daily basis through the group, and a number of industry professionals have joined, contribute and answer questions from people that may never become their customers.

“I’m certainly not a master gardener, just a person who enjoys growing fruits and vegetables,” O’Connor said.

A Connection Between Earth, Plants, and Each Other

Boulder Garden Club alum Wilson echoes much of O’Connor’s advice, but offers new tidbits as well.

She volunteers at Boulder’s Growing Gardens, 1630 Hawthorn Ave., a non-profit organization founded in 1998, which leases 11 acres from Long’s Iris Gardens, 3240 Broadway in Boulder. She’s been a volunteer there for about 14 years.

“Our (Growing Garden’s) vision is a connection between the earth, plants and each other. The Boulder Garden Club is perennial partner,” she said.

The garden club’s mission is beautification of Boulder and beyond, and increasing plant knowledge everywhere. Wilson said the club supports Growing Gardens with donations. In the past 10 years the club has given them a fruit crusher, a juicer press, which is a big vat that one would put fruit into that children or adults can push around, children’s bee suits for the bee program, and plants for the entryway and pollinator garden.

Wilson went on to say that just last year, after a 10-year effort, an orchard was also installed at Growing Gardens with 100 different fruit trees.

“Growing Gardens is seed to plate. We have a children’s peace garden, which is all edible, except for the rhubarb leaves. It’s not processed. It’s organic; we don’t use any pesticides, herbicides, nothing. Truly organic,” Wilson said.

The Horticultural Therapy program connects seniors and people with disabilities to food… and a nurturing community through gardening.

Struggles & Successes

In the Community Garden Program held at Growing Gardens, spaces are rented where anything legal can be grown. Wilson said there are renters from different countries, so there’s Russian, Vietnamese, and all manner of culturally based vegetables that can’t be bought in the store. Bees and worms for composting are also raised there.

A farm to table dinner is also offered every year. Now in its 18th year, the dinner will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 5 in Hawthorn Garden and will feature signature cocktails, wine and local beer. Benefits will go toward the nonprofit programs, with a cost of $135 per person.

“It’s really fantastic. All the chefs in the community prepare these phenomenal dishes,” Wilson said.

Growing Gardens also manages more than 530 individual community garden plots across 12 locations in Boulder County.

The children’s peace garden invites any visitor of Growing Gardens to use all of their senses. It offers edible daylilies, asparagus and a pizza garden that boasts tomato plants, dill, peppers and onions.

You will also find an herb garden that features lemon balm, lavender, oregano and garlic chives. Wilson said that the chives can be put on salad with tender leaves, and that the flower can be eaten too.

In spite of the bounty at Growing Gardens, the season has not been without struggles. The snow and two freezes in the late spring impacted fruit production. It’s been exceptionally hot and dry this year, and Wilson said there has been an infestation of flea beetles. Because of the eco-friendly mindset of so many gardeners, the beetles are taken care of with heavy sprays of water and by smashing them.

Wilson said that there are a lot of plants in Colorado, however, that are literally bulletproof. But in the state we are not able to grow any tropical fruits or vegetables, like bananas, mangoes or papayas.

What we cannot grow is insignificant compared to what we do produce. Pumpkins, squashes and other vegetables are abundant.

For those just getting started, Wilson recommends that you start with a plan, with the first decision being whether you want raised beds or not. Raised beds are 2 to 4 feet tall.

“You want decent soil, our soil in Colorado is predominantly clay. Clay holds water, which could be an advantage; the disadvantage is that you can make bricks out of it. It’s really, really hard. So you have to dig it up and add soil amendments,” Wilson said.

Amendments are additions to the soil. These amendments could be some topsoil, aged manure, or organic potting soil.

“There are some people who theorize ‘why not just plant things in our heavy clay soil and see how they do?’ But you’ll have a better outcome if you improve the soil. So there are various different opinions about how to amend or not amend the soil. So, for example if you planted one of those beautiful pink echinaceas here, it would look pretty puny, if you improve the soil, you have it branching out, you would have many flowers.

There’s some very experienced gardeners that don’t believe in amending the soil,” Wilson said.

Lawrie Wilson, a 22-year member of the Boulder Garden Club, tends to the Peace Garden in the Children’s section at Boulder’s Growing Gardens. Photo by Stephanie Dyke.

Wilson also believes that an eco-friendly mindset is very important to organic gardening. She said that we want to preserve, protect, enjoy and share our plants, and our harvest.

When planning to grow vegetables and fruits, gardeners need to be aware about where their seeds and plants are coming from. Wilson warned to not go to a nursery that uses neonicotinoids. That is a pesticide that either goes into the plant or on top of the plant that will kill the butterflies and birds. The Boulder Garden Club fought vigorously against the use of such pesticides.

Many large places such as Home Depot have stopped this practice.

Wilson also recommends an adequate irrigation system, preferably a drip system. Then you’re ready to harvest and enjoy.

While not a professional, Wilson is passionate about gardening and thinks her opinion would be in agreement with nursery professionals, and with other members of the Boulder Garden Club, as well as other gardeners.

“Gardening is a wonderful activity for people of all ages. We have wonderful tools for people to use as they get older,” she said.

Ann Hartman-Mahr, who is the perennials manager at Flower Bin, 1805 Nelson Road, Longmont, feels that growing your own food is the best idea you could have. The more that you can depend upon your-self, the better off you are, she said.

In her opinion fruit trees are good if you have the space.

“There used to be a huge berry industry in Colorado.”

Raspberries do wonderfully here, as do grapes. Wine grapes, however, are too tender. This is not true on the Western Slope, where the climate is more forgiving and warmer. Which is why wineries are more commonly found there.

A challenge that gardeners face is over-wintering plants, which is basically the process of simulating the season of winter for your plants in a controlled environment. The means by which to do this are controlling the amount of light, water, fertilizer and frost a plant is subject to, to create a state for the plants to help them survive the tough conditions. She said that’s consistently been an issue for gardeners in Colorado, from a perennial standpoint.

If a gardener manages to do his or her own composting, that’s a good way to get a jump at producing a fruitful garden. The Flower Bin sells organically produced compost, and it does well with sales of that product. These composts are without animal manures.

Her view on gardening may slightly differ from a hobbyist, simply because she has more access to knowledge than they would.

“I may know sources of research and have more information than the general public,” Wilson said. It’s that access, as well as her own experience, that set her aside from someone who takes up gardening as a side venture. She can walk into the hard goods department of The Flower Bin with a bug problem to look at various insects that may be causing issues in her own garden. But, she noted that this information is also available to any customer who decides to seek it out.

Her advice to anyone who may want to jump into the gardening game is also simple: Spend the winter reading and ask a lot of questions.

“Prepare yourself and don’t take on too much. Start with a few tomato plants and build from there,” she said.

As far as adding to Colorado’s clay soil, Hartman-Mahr said that is a must.

“You have to add amendments to the soil.” It’s a young soil, very rocky and highly alkaline. Depending on the plant, she said to try to lower the PH levels, and The Flower Bin has products to aid in that.

Jamie Wickler is the Farm Education Coordinator at Chatfield Farms, part of the Denver Botanic Gardens, in Littleton. It is a 700-acre native plant refuge and working farm located along the banks of Deer Creek in southern Jefferson County.

Although Wickler’s background was originally in engineering, she developed a love of farming. She believes that growing food has many amenities, such as quality, flavor and nutrients. The homegrown items are loaded with nutrients, as opposed to what you would buy in the store.

The best foods to grow in Colorado are, in her view, tomatoes, especially, because they do not like moisture on their leaves. Tomatoes love the dry climate that Colorado provides.

“There are some people who theorize, ‘why not just plant things in our heavy clay soil and see how they do?’. But you’ll have a better outcome if you improve the soil.” – Lawrie Wilson

Summer and winter squashes do well also, as do herbs. Lavender, thyme and oregano thrive in Colorado, as they do not mind the aridness of the state. Bell peppers, however, do not do so well, and can become “sun scald.”

“Only in Colorado, right?” Wickler said.

Garlic does do well also, as the plants like the cold. This is especially true for Hardneck garlic.

Because of the soil, Wickler recommends the use of organic fertilizers with nitrogen amendments, such as blood meal, feather meal or fish emulsion. She said these products could really help with your yield. Even pasteurized chicken manure would work.

But, make sure it’s treated. They are all good things to use with our soil.

With spring being what it was, with a massive hailstorm and snow, along with the clay soil, which makes it difficult for the root to get through, gardeners have often faced challenges planting in the state.

On the organic scale, farmers are working with different tilling methods so they are not killing natural aerators, such as worms.

What sets someone like Wickler apart from the average gardener, she feels, is scale, and the use of different equipment to seed, weed and harvest. At home, she said, people are doing things by hand mostly. It’s not being done on a massive scale with equipment like tractors at your disposal. In a home garden, there may be only a couple of beds.

In spite of the industrial aspect, she became a part of the gardening world because of the environment.

“I wanted my food to be local,” She said.

She wanted to be comfortable ingesting the product that she put into her body, and to make sure it was really something she cared about.


Finding Strength & Healing in the Earth

Photo credit: Stephanie Dyke

Horticultural Therapy is one of the many programs at Growing Gardens is the Horticultural Therapy Program.

“Horticultural therapy is for people who want to raise things that need to sit down or are in a wheelchair,” said Lawrie Wilson of the Boulder Garden Club.

The goal of the program is to increase motor, cognitive and psychological functions. The program creates social and inter-generational gardening activities and increases the nutrition of participants through daily access to fresh organic produce. The program also empowers seniors and people with disabilities through experiencing the pride of successful gardening and working with others in the community to produce beautiful and bountiful gardens.

In the raised beds at Growing Gardens, just before the entrance of the children’s peace garden, are corn, squash, kale, lettuce, carrots and tomatoes. Members in the therapy program planted them all.

Garden classes and activities include: garden planning, soil preparation, propagation, transplanting, container gardening and growing organic vegetable and flower starts for the home and market. Students also participate in activities using plant material in cooking, artistic displays and crafts.

Seniors and individuals with disabilities may experience improvements in several different areas through the program.

Cognitive: Offers new skills and/or the opportunity to regain past skills, increase attention to task and concentration, make decisions and follow directions.

Physical: Provides exercise focusing on both gross and fine motor skills.

Psychological: Gives an individual a sense of worth, promotes nurturing attitudes and responsibility.

Social: Increases/improves social interaction with others in working toward common goals.

Partner agencies include the following: The Academy, Bella Vista, Mental Health Partners, Boulder Garden Club, Expand, and Imagine!. Photo credit: Stephanie Dyke

Classes

FALL (Aug – Nov)

  • All About Apples
  • Applesauce and Apple Salsa Making
  • Dried Apple Slice Garlands
  • Harvest Festivals

WINTER (Nov – Feb)

  • Lip Balms and Salves from Beeswax fresh from our honeybee hives
  • Gifts from the Garden – bath salts, teas and tinctures
  • Seed Legacy
  • Chocolate Making

YEAR-ROUND:

  • Vermicomposting
  • Dried Hanging Leaf Mobile
  • Honeybee Studies
  • Hand-dipped Candles
  • Aquaponics and Hydroponics
  • Current Agriculture Issues
  • Georgia O’Keefe and Vincent Van Gogh: Painters in the Garden

Weekly, monthly and one time visits to the garden are available throughout the year. Classes are typically one to 1.5 hours in length. For more information about the Horticultural Therapy Program or to sign up your group for an on-site or in-house program, email Annie Sweeney at annie@growinggardens.org or call 303-443-9952, Ext. 2.

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