by Brenda Stuart
Your thumb doesn’t need to be any shade of green to get involved in a community garden. It’s a great way for beginners to learn about horticulture from those who have been gardening for years.
Denver Urban Gardens brings Denver folks together (for more than 35 years now!) to grow local, fresh, organic food. Not only does this benefit our tables, but people in tight-knit communities tend to be healthier.
Gardening may not look physically challenging, but even a moderate workout has benefits. There’s a lot of bending and stretching, reaching, pulling, and squatting involved, and you can burn up to 300 calories in 30-45 minutes of working the soil.
Treat gardening as a workout for the best physical benefits. It’s useful for older and younger adults and kids, all of whom are welcome in community gardens. Of DUG’s 180 gardens, only a few target specific communities. The majority are open to the public.
You can expand your “gardening workouts” beyond your own family and invite others in the garden to join in. Gardeners get about 30% more moderate exercise each week than non-gardeners. You may soon have others in the community improving their health, and looking forward to these gardening sessions.
What you eat also impacts your physical health. Community gardens result in neighborhoods with healthier diets. More than 50% of gardeners meet federal guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake compared to 25% of non-gardeners.
Stress is a killer. It causes all parts of your body to decline, from eyes and gums to your heart. Gardening fights off stress by decreasing cortisol in the body (a stress hormone) and restoring your good mood.
There are several advantages to practicing green-care therapy with the community:
- Socializing – Working with companions toward a common goal increases your sense of well-being. It also sharpens your memory and cognitive skills, and it may help you live longer.
- Sunlight – Exposure to the sun increases the brain’s release of serotonin, a hormone thought to boost mood and help you feel calm and focused.
- Being Outdoors – Calming nature sounds (birds, insects) and even outdoor silence help distract your mind from negative thoughts. The visuals of nature have a similar effect.
- Exposure to Plants – Greenery cleans the air. Plant leaves remove toxins, dust, and microorganisms and freshen the air you breathe.
Spending time outdoors surrounded by natural elements helps you forget the pressures you face in the rest of your life, like deadlines at work or family dilemmas. Community involvement in a garden offers these queting benefits to everyone in the neighborhood.
Overall Neighborhood Impact
How well do you know your neighbors? Community gardening creates a positive atmosphere in which people get to know one another and enjoy their living space.
Community gardeners nurture relationships with the folks next door, are more involved in civic activities, eat better, and stay longer in their neighborhoods. People who garden together say their communities are cleaner, safer, and more beautiful; all qualities that promote healthier living.
If you’re ready to try your hand, or thumb, at a worthy project, take a look at the gardens in Globeville, Ruby Hill, or any of the other best community gardens around Denver. Most gardens not only feed the neighborhood, they donate produce to food banks and other food charities. You aren’t only helping yourself and your community, you’re providing help to others throughout the city. If you’re ready to dig in, contact us here at Denver Urban Gardens.
Brenda Stuart is a journalist and avid gardener in Denver. She takes a lot of pride in planting tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli, which she’ll sometimes trade with her neighbors for carrots and peppers.
Now that it’s heating up and we’ve had a lot of rain, our gardens – and weeds! – are flourishing. Learn how to identify common weeds and how to ensure that they are organically managed for maximum production in your garden!
by Senior Education Specialist Judy Elliott
June, a month in which temperatures range between the mid-80s during the day to mid-50s at night, is a prime month for growing most garden veggies, flowers, and herbs. Rain is usually low to non-existent, with humidity also low. It basically is beginning to feel ‘hot and dry,’ and early spring-planted crops, such as salad greens, are approaching the limits of their preferred growing conditions.
You can extend their lifetime by picking outer leaves for your meals, a process that stimulates the growth of new, inner leaves. After a time, however, they develop a bitter taste, signaling that their ‘edible’ journey is ending. In the case of spinach, which matures in less than 40 days, the shape of its leaves changes from broad and rounded to one that resembles an ‘arrowhead’. Shortly after those ‘weird’ leaves begin to grow, the plant sends up a stalk that soon opens into flowers and then seed-heads as pollination occurs. You will notice the same process with lettuce.
It’s helpful to know that although our veggies provide copious quantities of nutritious meals, their true purpose in life is really to produce seeds for a new generation. Respect their life cycle and continue to provide the conditions that allow your June garden to flourish.
F |Feed the soil, yourself, and your community
- For a garden to flourish, continue to attend to the soil community. Make sure you have distinct ‘walkways’ within your plot to minimize soil compaction
- Consider planting cover crops such as buckwheat that can enrich growing conditions for roots and, additionally, feed soil micro-organisms
L| Learn new gardening techniques
- In June, all crops should be mulched, both cool and warm season. Use straw, any remaining fall leaves, even weeds that have not gone to seed. Mulched soil decreases the effects of erosion that occurs from strong winds and overhead watering, moderates soil temperatures, and, additionally, can lead to fewer problems from diseases later in the season.
- Try planting small amounts of romaine lettuce (more heat tolerant than most other varieties), near bush beans. The beans provide needed shade for the ‘greens’ and, additionally provide a source of nitrogen for their neighbors.
O | Opportunities abound
- Surround yourself with flowers and herbs that nourish soil, provide homes for beneficial insects, and repel pests. Buckwheat, planted between rows of crop, is used as a ‘cover crop’ to enrich soil. Cut it down prior to flowering, leaving its foliage & stems on the soil surface as a mulch & roots in the soil to feed the microorganisms.
- Asters, zinnias, marigolds, chamomile & dill have flowers that provide nectar & pollen for beneficial insects that then lay their eggs on the plants. The larvae are fierce predators of pests
- Garlic and onions have strong oils in their leaves that help to repel pest insects
U | Understand connections between basic organic gardening practices and thriving crops
- Take a ‘preventative’ instead of a ‘reactive, crisis’ approach. Healthy soils really do provide the foundation for a bounteous harvest. There is no magic bullet that substitutes for deeply–rooted crops, properly spaced, watered at the base of the plants, and mulched to cover bare soil. Begin to envision your plot as a balanced, diverse micro-community
R | Practice season-wide renewal
- Replenish the soil environment by lightly spreading handfuls of compost (‘top–dressing’) around all crops on a monthly basis. Carefully use a hand trowel or garden hoe to scratch it into the soil (pulling back mulch if necessary).
- Replant early beans with a second crop, plant another summer squash seed by the end of the month
- Remove early spring crops that are no longer actively producing
- Pinch back basil to delay flowering
I | Imagine the possibilities
- Investigate the wealth of knowledge in your community gardens, neighborhood, or DUG’s ‘Mighty Network’ gardening platform
- Investigate the life cycles of garden insects by ‘turning over a leaf’ and noticing the variety of eggs and larvae that call the shady surface ‘home’.
- Feel the difference between soil that is covered by mulch and areas that are exposed to constant overhead watering and the effects of wind and erosion. Mulched crops are healthier.
S | Simplify your gardening season
- Grow what you like to eat, can preserve or share with others. Don’t try to mimic the variety of crops shown in seed catalogs. Be realistic with your efforts, fine-tuning your expectations with the amount of time you can devote to nurturing the space on a regular basis
- Cultivate garden ‘buddies’ who can help with seasonal tasks and/or jointly grow sprawling crops such as cucumbers or winter squash
H | Handle challenges with humility
- Resolve to treat every step in the growing process as a learning opportunity. The best gardeners ask questions, recruit help from others and celebrate their journey as a life-long experience of giving back more than they take
Create Opportunities to Linger!
Colorful flowers not only provide gathering places for beneficial insects but also stimulate our senses with visual and olfactory messages that encourage us to ‘stay awhile’. As we spend more time in our plots, we begin to notice early signs of insect damage or disease and can more easily attend to management strategies. Consider using small tree stumps, straw bales, or even old folding chairs in your plot to custom design your ‘home away from home.’
#23: Meet Jerry and the Wonder Garden
“My daughter Beth introduced me to Denver Urban Gardens around 6 years ago. She’s always been a big DUG fan. She received an impact award at DUG’s annual fundraiser for her role as Garden Leader at the Academia Sandoval school garden. She first became an advocate for community urban gardens when she worked with Hmong people in their gardens in Rhode Island.
When I knew that I wanted to dedicate a community garden in my late wife Jacquelyn’s memory, I asked DUG where the best place for us to support a new garden would be and they gave me a list of a half dozen sites. Jacquelyn overcame learning disabilities throughout her life and one of her interests was how people learn and how the brain works. The idea of openness and creativity were always themes in her life. The educational partnership made that much more sense.
DUG’s model of partnering with schools is really a win-win deal. Seeing the success of Wyatt Academy really resonated with me. They had just done their goal-setting for the year, and one of their core values for the school was “wonder”- which was serendipitous. It was DUG’s introduction to the prospect of a garden there that began the journey.
I grew up in Washington DC and moved to Denver in the early ‘60s after graduating law school. I had a very satisfying and varied career as a practicing lawyer. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a general practice, which has allowed me to engage with the community in pro bono cases and community work.
In the legal profession, it’s important to choose something where you’re following your bliss because it can often get too demanding. The skills you develop allow you to do an awful lot professionally and community-wise because you learn how society works, and how infrastructure, business, and government all interact.
Through my involvement on the board of the Denver partnership, with the Bar Association, and in other leadership positions, I’ve been able to make a difference in the community. I co-founded the non-profit organization Invest in Kids in the 90s. It’s a wonderful early childhood program. It began as a Nurse-Family Partnership where registered nurses visit first-time mothers from the time of their pregnancy till their child is 2 ½ years old. Now they have two other evidence-based programs and the model is used nationally.
I’m very interested in MVP (Micro-venture Philanthropy). I get personal satisfaction from being hands-on and monitoring the projects I fund and getting to see small projects be efficient and succeed. It’s so satisfying to have ideas and watch them develop and take off.
I believe that community gardens help build the “town-gown” connection by getting people in the neighborhood. Partnering with a school allows you to provide a type of educational experience for students that they otherwise might not have had. Seeing the kids release the butterflies at the garden opening party and the garden shed mural painted by students was magical.
It’s been an inspiration to work with the school. Their connection with the community is just wonderful. They have a community-based social services center that provides meals, supplies, and assistance to the families of the kids who attend the school and to the community generally. The school has become part of that community in a most effective way. I know Jacqueline would have loved the site of the garden just as much as I do.
My hope is that the model of funding and process we used at the Wonder Garden will be replicated and expanded upon. I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to add to the DUG network and encourage this model of fundraising and development to appeal to others who want to dedicate gardens as memorials or in honor of someone. I would tell others like me to just go out and do it! There’s a lot that each of us can do in our communities. I’m so gratified by everything we were able to accomplish. This is the way it ought to work!
More Faces of DUG
In May, Denver Urban Gardens had the pleasure of coming together as a community to dedicate the new Wonder Garden at Wyatt Academy, located in the Cole neighborhood. The Wonder Garden was funded by Jerry Conover in memorium to his wife, Jaquelyn Wonder.
The dedication party was a wonderful time to celebrate being able to gather again in the garden. Guests (including Wyatt Academy students who stole the show with excitement from the classroom butterfly release!) were treated to mariachi music and delicious local food as the DUG community celebrated the life and impact of Jacquelyn Wonder, as well as witnessed how her legacy will grow with future students experiencing the wonder of gardening.
We caught up with Jerry after the dedication to learn more about his decision to leave a garden legacy in honor of his late wife. Here’s what he had to say:
“The Wonder Garden at Wyatt Academy is such a perfect memorial to my late wife, Jacquelyn Wonder.
Jaquelyn and I met in the late ‘70s. We were both divorced and a mutual friend introduced us. We were married for almost 40 years. She had 3 kids and I have 4, so we have a large combined family with 15 grandkids.
Jacquelyn was a woman who overcame adversity, both in the form of family poverty and illness, and she made it on her own. Education was so important to her. After graduating from Denver’s East High school, she went on to earn her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and had a successful career in teaching and consulting and as an author.
Since we’ve been together, Jacquelyn always loved gardens. We lived in East Denver and gardening was one of her primary hobbies and loves.
When we moved downtown 12 years ago, a condition of our moving was that she had to have a garden. We were fortunate to find a place in LoDo that happened to have a 2,400 square foot deck, which we then made into a rooftop garden. She was able to downsize from a conventional house to more urban living, and still retain the beauty and enjoyment from having a home garden.
In the middle of the city, I have this little enclave of nature right outside my door that has perennials, annuals, trees, and birdfeeders. I wake up to birds singing; it’s a great way to start my day. It’s been a lovely reminder of how much she loved gardening.
When I knew that I wanted to dedicate a community garden in Jacquelyn’s memory, I asked DUG where the best place for us to support a new garden would be.
DUG gave me a list of half a dozen sites. I looked at all of them, and then we went to talk to Andrew and Kate, the directors of Wyatt Academy. It turned out that the timing and school were just right.
Jacquelyn overcame learning disabilities throughout her life and one of her interests was how people learn and how the brain works. The idea of openness and creativity were always themes in her life.
DUG’s model of partnering with schools is really a win-win deal. The educational partnership made that much more sense. Seeing the success of Wyatt Academy really resonated with me. They had just done their goal-setting for the year, and one of their core values for the school was “wonder”- which was serendipitous.
It was DUG’s introduction to the prospect of a garden there that began the journey. I’ve been familiar with the neighborhood for quite a while because it’s close to Manual High School where my own kids attended. The neighborhood has a wonderful history to it.
It’s been an inspiration to work with the school. Their connection with the community is just wonderful. They have a community-based social services center that provides meals, supplies, and assistance to the families of the kids who attend the school and to the community generally. The school has become part of that community in a most effective way. I know Jacquelyn would have loved the site of the garden just as much as I do.
The building process took less than two years. Through our family’s Donor-Advised Fund at the Denver Foundation, I was able to provide the funding for the garden. DUG and Wyatt Academy took charge right off the bat! The short time it took to complete is a tribute to the rapid and nimble response of DUG, the school, and other small charities. The Community Coordinator at Wyatt, Maria Estrada, is an unbelievably talented woman.
Working with the DUG team and all of the school representatives was just a joy for me. It was a pleasure not to be burdened by bureaucracy during the process. Katherine Smith introduced me to the sculptor Peter Durst, whose birdhouse sculptures are now displayed in the garden. The playful nature of his sculptures fits right in with the garden’s theme of wonder and connection to nature. The bird sculptures were created by Joan Walker.
I would love to see the sculptures at the Wonder garden inspire further installations of public art. Denver’s mandate that 2% of the budget goes to public art show how important the arts are to our community. Bringing in three-dimensional art seemed to be a natural next step in a community garden. Finding a way to display art publicly contributes to the fabric of our community.
In 2020, DUG sought feedback from more than 500 stakeholders in order to gain insight into what our community members needed from DUG. The feedback had a common theme: community gardeners and Garden Leaders wanted and needed more of DUG.
Our gardeners asked for more support, education, leadership training, community building, and to ensure equity across the network. In response, in 2021 DUG launched our new Baseline Infrastructure Initiative (BII).
The BII is a holistic program centered on establishing and increasing equity across DUG’s entire network of community gardens. The BII encompasses 3 core areas– Physical, Human, and Resource– to ensure that all of our gardens are resourced at an equitable level to support thriving community gardens producing optimum yields for their needs.
BII Success looks like:
All garden plots are fully utilized.
To achieve this outcome, DUG will provide translators and on-the-ground support for plot applications to overcome language and technology barriers, develop and distribute multilingual resources for DUG mentorship and educational programming, recruit representational leadership at all gardens, and provide support for community-building events including through DUG Corps and paid apprentices.
All gardens meet a baseline physical infrastructure standard.
This entails completing regular repairs and improvements to at-need gardens, including providing water access, shade structures, and tool storage. This also looks like delivering resources like compost, seeds, and seedlings, regardless of a garden’s ability to pay.
The BII is funded with support from:
June 2021 Update
Learn how to plan out a perfect garden plot with considerations to layout, plant selection, ease of harvest and more! Our 40-minute on-demand comprehensive workshop with Senior Education Specialist ‘Jungle Judy’ Elliott will set you up for a successful garden!
Bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, wasps, beetles, flies, and even bats are some of our most important pollinators. As they visit different plant species, collecting nectar and pollen to provide nutrition for their offspring, they provide important services to both plants and humans.
Flowering plants complete their life cycle, producing seeds and fruits with the help of these important visitors. To encourage their feeling at ‘home’, we can create a habitat to support them, offering their preferred food, water, shelter and space.
Some important things to consider include:
Creating season-wide food sources targeted to your pollinators
Provide nutrition throughout the season by planting flowers that bloom from early spring through fall. Consider perennial and annual flowers with different colors, shapes and sizes, including ones with tubular or bell shapes, in addition to flat surfaces to attract the widest variety of pollinators. Local plants (the natives), match the needs of nearby pollinators. Many of the double hybrid flowers have pollen, nectar, and even scent bred out of them and are not as attractive to local pollinators.
Plant in clumps, rather than individual plants to make it easier for pollinators to find their food source. Planting several varieties of milkweed will provide treasured habitat and food source for the endangered Monarch butterfly. Many commercial agriculture operations use genetically engineered crops, virtually eliminating large stands of milkweed that were previously available for these beautiful butterflies. Simple strategies like planting parsley and allowing it to flower will provide habitat for the Black Swallowtail butterfly. Consider utilizing trees, native ornamental grasses, and groundcovers which all offer nesting, resting and shade benefits for a pollinator habitat.
Eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides
The over usage of chemicals has contributed to the decline of pollinators, with systemic insecticides that are absorbed within plant tissue being most dangerous. The number one threat to pollinators is ‘neonicotinoid’ or ‘neonic’ pesticides. Not only are they most toxic to bees, butterflies, and other insects, but they’re systemic. When applied, these poisons make their way throughout the entire plant, including the pollen and nectar. Provide a safe haven in your habitat by practicing ‘regenerative gardening,’ using the basic principles of organic gardening and sustainability.
Instead of chemical fertilizers that can pollute our water supply, use compost to provide a season-wide supply of major and minor nutrients. Compost-enriched soils promote deeply rooted plants that use water more efficiently, feed soil microorganisms, and ultimately lead to healthy soil, healthy food (and pollinators) and healthy people.
Cover the soil with mulches and cover crops
Use straw, alfalfa, and cover crops such as buckwheat or crimson clover to provide a blanket to cover and protect the soil. As cover crops begin to flower, they are highly attractive to pollinators for nectar and pollen and, additionally, provide areas for shelter. Diverse heights and seasonal plantings of cover crops offer appropriate homes for beneficial insects.
Create nesting sites
A garden that is ‘overly neat’ is not as attractive to pollinators as one that respects the nesting and shelter needs of its visitors.
Pollinators such as ‘ground bees’ need access to the soil surface as they excavate nest tunnels in sunny patches of bare ground. Grassy patches provide nesting for bumblebees and other insects to overwinter. Many native bees use abandoned beetle tunnels in logs, stumps, and branches and even chew out the centers of dead raspberry canes to establish nests.
Provide water sources
Shallow birdbaths filled with small pebbles or rocks help to provide ‘landing spaces’ for small bees to gain a needed source of water.
Be sure to empty and refill these frequently to prevent stagnant water, which attracts mosquitos.
- Trees: Fruit trees such as apple pear, peach, plum
- Shrubs: Serviceberry, Sulphur flower
- Perennial flowers: Penstemons, yarrow, blue flax, wallflower
- Trees: Black locust, linden, honeylocust
- Shrubs: leadplant, chokecherry
- Perennial flowers: Asters, Showy milkweed, blanket flower, salvias, harebells, coneflowers
- Annual flowers & herbs: marigolds, zinnias, bachelor buttons, dill, cilantro
- Shrubs: Rabbitbrush
- Perennial flowers: Rocky mountain bee -plant, Blue giant hyssop, goldenrod, plains coreopsis
- Annual flowers: All sunflowers
Taking small steps to diversify your plantings, decrease or eliminate the usage of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and create a habitat oasis that welcomes our pollinator friends is an earth-friendly strategy that connects us to the broader efforts to step lightly upon the land and recognize our part in the interconnected matrix of pollinators, food, and sustainable landscapes.