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Faces of DUG

Growing a Sense of Self in the Garden

By Faces of DUG, posts

Meet LT, educator, inspiring creator, and Youth Education mentee.  

 

Recently, our Youth Education Department partnered with Urban Peak, a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to ending youth houselessness in Colorado through housing assistance and paid mentorship experiences. They partner with organizations that give their clients job skills that can be utilized in their careers. DUG’s partnership provided our mentees with knowledge on plant propagation and care that could be utilized in a horticulture career pathway. Our primary mentee, a young man named LT, worked alongside our educators to cultivate two sensory plots and one food-producing plot at our Fairview Community Garden throughout the spring and summer of 2023.

As we worked side-by-side with him, his passion for caring for this magical place that he helped create was palpable. With his trademark thoughtfulness and delicate touch, he worked to care for compacted soil, routinely watered the parched plants, and relayed his teachings in beautifully written essays. His dedication to the land, the plants, and the people that we gardened alongside with exceeded our expectations. With a remarkable ability to empathize, he viewed even the weeds that we had spent hours plucking from our plots as having a purpose. In one of his written reflections on a day in the garden, he wrote “Weeds are all unique just like every other plant”. What had started as a paid mentorship in creating and maintaining sensory gardens evolved into a point of pride and introspection for LT.  

At the end of the program, we presented his inspiring words at our annual Gather Round event. Despite his hatred of having his photo taken, he watched himself on-screen grinning from ear to ear. “Being involved in this organization, it really gives me higher hopes. This is people helping other people…if we can get more organizations like this out there, I feel like the future will be so much brighter”. 

As the summer wore on and fall began to rear its head, we prepared for our season and partnership to come to its natural end. While every growing season presents us with moments of reflection and learning, this one felt especially enriching. Not only had we watched the countless zinnias and marigolds LT had taken such gentle care of bloom into a magnificent flurry of colors, but we also witnessed the self-determination of not only a brilliant gardener but a brilliant individual. 

Want to get involved with our Youth Education team through volunteering, mentorship, or supporting our school-based community gardens? Learn more on our website.

Climate Action Through Trash

By Faces of DUG

Meet Christi, Master Composter, entrepreneur, and climate activist. 

Christi Turner is the founder of Scraps, a compost company born in 2017 as a result of the frustration of not having adequate composting services here in Denver. 

Scraps launched in 2017 as a solution for Denver’s apartment and condominium dwellers to compost their organic food waste and reduce their carbon footprint by keeping it out of landfills. A year before, in 2016, Christi joined DUG’s Master Composter program and trained with Judy Elliott on everything compost. 

We visited Christi at her ‘mini-farm’ homestead to learn more about the beginnings and mission of Scraps. This interview has been condensed for clarity. 

Why did you decide to join the Master Composter (MC) program? 

I wanted a foundation in composting as I was getting ready to launch Scraps. I knew I had to work on a project [as part of the MC program] so it was a motivation because I knew there was no backing down. I thought if I announce it here it is real. I wanted to understand more about the process of composting, how easy it is, how scalable it is, how accessible, and how it could be a practice applied to residential and commercial sectors. I was motivated by the idea of providing a service to a market that wasn’t serviced and [through the MC program] wanted to gain baseline knowledge of what happens when you take organic matter and mix it up in a way that it decomposes into finished compost.

Why composting?

Learning about the detrimental effects of landfills, how much food waste ends up there, and how backward policies were here in Denver, which are finally turning around, made me want to work toward changing the system. 

I learned to make a very basic compost pile as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It was an easy, low-impact, restorative project in the village where I was living, which was heavily impacted by unsustainable forestry, brush fires, intensive agriculture, and other degradation, not to mention an influx of non-organic trash as globalization brought in more manufactured items and processed foods. 

When I moved to Colorado to do my masters, the condo complex where I was renting a room in Boulder County had composting – so I had this idea that people composted here, that it’s easy. Then I moved to Denver and was surprised to not have access to this service – and the general thought was it’s impossible to provide composting to apartments or condominiums, which seemed ridiculous to me.

So then you launched Scraps in 2017, how did you go from Master Composter to entrepreneur? 

In 2017 I was working at the Alliance Center getting a lot of exposure to local and regional policy, including the differences between Denver and Boulder in the realm of waste diversion,  and I found myself scheming – almost obsessing – on how to address this issue of increasing access to composting at a local scale.

I went to the US Composting Council Conference in January of 2017 and I told myself if this conference goes well, I’m going to do this. I had been working on this idea for more than two years and it was time to do it or drop it because it was starting to take up a lot of space in my mind. I was super inspired by the conference, met a lot of great people, and in fact, that was the conference when Finian Makepeace announced he was going to do the Kiss the Ground film. 

I returned to Denver and gave my notice at work to focus on launching Scraps. That was in February and we didn’t start our first route until June, in the meantime we were setting up a website and drumming up hype, and we did a small crowdfunding campaign and raised about $5k to bolster the personal money I had scraped together.  

How did you get your first clients? 

Initially, we focused on apartment buildings and condos around Denver but our first customer actually ended up being a restaurant. It took a long time to convince the first building manager to let their residents compost with us, on a pilot basis. Back then we would field so many questions from HOAs or building managers, who basically worried we might dump a pile of rotting food on their doorstep or something – and we were like no, here’s what we mean by composting, we’ll take that material away and keep it out of your trash. Just a lot of basic education on what a compost pickup service is.  In the meantime, we had small restaurants, cafés, and offices that wanted to compost with us, who were actually facing similar barriers as the residents of multifamily buildings.  At the time the city’s program for single-family homes had not rolled out city-wide, so in the first year or so we had about 100 single-family homes and townhomes join us. 

So you started with trikes and now use trucks, how was that transition? 

Yes, we were a bike-and-trike-based hauler! The idea was to be carbon-neutral and low-impact by using bikes, but we hit a capacity limit as we expanded. The first real expansion happened in 2018 and I was really resistant at first. I had been car-less myself for like 6 years, a huge proponent of more sustainable transit – and also I didn’t know anything about owning and operating trucks, hiring and managing drivers, running a fleet. But it was becoming surprisingly hard to maintain and manage our small fleet of trikes as well. They are not designed for high mileage, and we were doing 30 miles a day or more on some routes. If you get a flat, which is often!, it is not like you can call AAA and get it towed, and you may be stuck for hours trying to get a trike mechanic to you. Plus you have to empty up to 500 lbs of full bins just to turn the trike on its back to change the tire. It was also really hard to get insurance, which we needed as we grew as a small business. It was getting to the point of disrupting our growing operations.  Plus we were getting requests for services further and further outside of where it was feasible or safe to pedal a trike around, in a city where safe bike lanes only exist in certain areas.

At some point in our second winter, I remember pedaling through a whiteout downtown, with freezing hands, foggy glasses, downhill, stuck in traffic, and thinking, what am I doing? And how could I ask someone to work for me and do this? It just isn’t something you can safely do outside year-round in our climate. It’s bonkers to think of some of the questionable situations I and my earliest Scraps pedalers got ourselves into. 

Composting awareness has grown, what is next for Scraps and other composting programs?

I feel like we finally hit a tipping point of education, awareness, and enthusiasm. Fast forward to now, especially with the Waste No More ordinance coming online in January, which will require all businesses in the City and County of Denver to compost as well as to recycle, and we are fielding inquiries from property managers, building owners, and HOAs on an ongoing basis. And these days we do not just individual residential accounts, but full building contracts, and even full portfolio contracts. Things have really shifted in a positive direction.

Scraps continues to grow while keeping true to its mission and values to be a climate-forward organization in Colorado. Scraps now services not just multifamily buildings, but downtown office buildings, schools of all types, restaurants and food halls, Denver-based food producers like Leprino and Polidori, corporate campuses like Google, federal campuses like NREL, retailers like Patagonia, even national franchises like Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Sweetgreen, Snooze, and more. Their service is now available throughout the greater Denver Metro. Christi and her team of eight Scraps employees remain committed to providing the most effective, most reliable composting service in the region, especially as policies like Waste No More help push the Front Range into a new and promising paradigm of waste diversion.

Interested in learning more? Explore the Community Composter Training Program webpage.

Learn more about composting at one of our upcoming Composting Workshops!

Educating the Future Earth Stewards One Seed at a Time

By Faces of DUG

Meet Miss Nune, avid gardener, ECE teacher and earth steward. 

Edurne Artazcoz Glaria, or Miss Nune as she is known by students, teachers and parents at Maxwell Elementary where she teaches Early Childhood Education (ECE), works with 3 year-old students with a variety of abilities using sensorial experiences to engage them with the world and each other.

Miss Nune grew up gardening thanks to her father, who loved to grow their own produce constantly digging in the soil, and using the produce in their homemade meals. “I’ve always loved to garden,” she said, “it is such a great way to connect with nature and I want to share that with my students.”

She has adapted the curriculum to support the learning of her diverse students, from creating visual materials to provide kids with autism a different way to communicate their needs with her and their classmates, to teaching in Spanish to welcome native-Spanish speakers, creating a safe and nurturing environment for all. 

Gardening is one more tool Miss Nune uses to engage the kids in sensorial nature-driven education. She follows the natural cycles of plants to teach kids about seasonality, “We had been talking about pumpkin seeds and showing them what a plant looks like. Then DUG brought us mini pumpkins for each child to be able to paint one and take it home. The kids loved it!” she said. 

Our Youth Education team has been working with Miss Nune since September of 2021 when she joined a cohort of teachers working to incorporate gardening education in their curriculum. “When I heard of the program I immediately applied because I saw the potential it could have on my students,” she said.

She incorporated vermiculture education with the support of our Youth Ed team and a Master Composter, who first taught the cohort how to care for Red Wiggler worms. “The kids love to take care of the worms,” she said, “they are our pets, and we check them every week. The kids feed them leftover fruit scraps and make sure their home is comfortable, it’s one of our favorite activities!”

In the spring, Miss Nune received a few Grow A Garden kits and divided the plants among the kids. The kids took care of seedlings at school for a couple of weeks before planting them in the community garden. Plus, Miss Nune had extra plants, so each kid could take one home. “That was a great activity!” she said, “because we talked about plants as living beings and the importance of nurturing them to keep them happy. Taking care of the plants made them feel capable and independent, regardless of their abilities.”

In September, they went to Miller’s Farm to learn more where food comes from. “The kids got to dig potatoes, and we talked about how potato chips coming from potatoes like those, they were amazed!” she said. And at the community garden they harvested cherry tomatoes and zucchini, “the garden was such a great way to teach them about colors, shapes and textures, plus they loved eating the cherry tomatoes!”

When the opportunity came about to have a cooking class with Slow Food Denver, as part of our Seed To Plate To Regenerate partnership program, Miss Nune was the first to schedule a visit. “It was great, although the instructors were nervous at first to work with 3 year-olds, they had a great time and the kids absolutely loved it!”

To close the gardening year, Miss Nune and her students planted garlic in the garden with the support from our Youth Ed team. “This was a great activity for the kids. We were able to work on our motor skills,” she said, “we worked with each child’s ability to help them dig a hole, plant the garlic clove with the pointy end up, cover it and then water it. They loved watering!”

“I’m so grateful for all the support from DUG! I love working with the Youth Ed team and I’m always eager to join any of the program activities they have to offer. It has been a great partnership,” said Miss Nune.

Our Youth Ed team has also enjoyed working with Miss Nune, her infectious energy and inspiring commitment to her students’ education fills our hearts. Thank you, Miss Nune!

Interested in learning more about our wonderful DUG community? Read our other amazing Faces of DUG pieces!

Reclaiming Food Sovereignty Through Gardening

By Faces of DUG

Meet Jat, community gardener, high school student, and food justice advocate.

Jat Martinez gardens at the Commons Community Garden at Confluence Park where he finds a way to reconnect with the natural cycles of the earth and reclaim food sovereignty. 

Jat, a junior in high school at the Denver School of the Arts, joined the community garden this summer after growing many plants indoors at home and wanting to take his green thumb to grow food, connect with the community, and begin his own food revolution. 

We caught up with Jat on a sunny fall afternoon at the Commons Community Garden to chat about his gardening journey.

Why did you decide to join a community garden? 

I love plants. At home, I have many decorative indoor plants and I have grown some other things like herbs on my balcony, but I wanted to try to grow food to understand what it takes and to connect more with nature.

Gardening gives me the opportunity to work with the circular cycle of the earth. I can put seeds or a plant in the soil in the spring, and see it grow and flourish in the summer, and now that the season is ending it is going back to the earth. It’s so beautiful!

Why is that so important to you? 

Because we have separated ourselves from nature so much that we don’t understand the cycles of the earth and how we are part of it. I mean, look at how our food is produced now and how the system is not working, at least not for everyone. The industrial food is not good for us, and many are going hungry. It [the food system] needs to change. 

Food is a right we are not getting. You see how many people struggle to get good food, and that’s not right. I find the homelessness crisis frustrating and the idea of giving food to others is a way to create a revolution. So being able to grow food that I can then share with others is great, it makes me feel connected with a cause.

How has this community garden helped you feel connected to the community? 

I love this community garden! Everyone is so nice and they share their gardening knowledge with me. When I started in May, I didn’t really know what to plant or how to work my plot, but everyone has been so welcoming and helpful. I like that this garden is an oasis in the middle of the city. I mean, if you ignore the buildings as you walk around this park and this garden it feels like you are in the forest. It makes me think of Princess Mononoke, you know the movie. 

What produce did you grow this summer? 

I grew brussel sprouts, which I had no idea how to harvest but they looked really cool. I also grew cabbages, onions, lots and lots of basil, marigolds, and tomatoes, a lot of tomatoes. My mom made some really great tomato sauce, because I don’t like raw tomatoes or tomatoes by themselves, but I like them in things, you know.

And now that the season is ending the plants are still filled with green tomatoes so I need to figure out how to use them.

Are you planning to return next season? 

Yes! I’ve learned so much this first season and I already have so many plans for my 8×4 plot for next year.

I want to try different produce, maybe some greens like bok choy or spinach. I really like spinach. It’s the one vegetable I can add to any meal. And maybe some flowers!

Grateful for a gardener in your life? When you make a gift in honor of a gardener you know–or in honor of all of DUG’s gardeners–you help provide spaces for Jat and others like him to grow cabbages and tomatoes while learning from other gardeners.

Donate by November 22 and your gift will be matched (up to a total of $10,000) by a generous donor who appreciates DUG’s critical work in food, climate, and community. 

Building Community from the Inside Out

By Faces of DUG

Meet Alex, DUG Volunteer, Farming Youth Educator, and Future Urban Planner

Since landing in Denver a couple of years ago, Alex Curtis had embedded himself  in the community through volunteering and working with food, farming, and education at different levels.

After 10 years working in software sales and marketing, Alex Curtis found himself disconnected from the world wondering if that was his calling or what he could do to feel fulfilled and an active member of the community.  Alex got into community agriculture in Indianapolis where he became involved with the Mad Farmers Collective at South Circle Farm, an organization dedicated to helping create a healthier Indianapolis, growing fresh produce using organic methods in a 1.5 acre farm on the southside of downtown.

Alex has become part of the DUG family as a constant volunteer at different events, planting food forests and at garden workdays, and we wanted to get to know him a bit better. Here is what we found out:

How did you get involved with Denver Urban Gardens
When I moved to Denver from Indy two years ago, I was looking for a way to connect with the urban food community, so I did a search on organizations working in community gardens and DUG showed up. I had no idea the community garden network was so big here in Denver, so I immediately signed up to volunteer.

What was that experience like?
It was great. I signed up for a corporate workday where a group of people from a company go to a garden to do major work. We worked on pathways and fixing garden plots and I absolutely loved it! But it was at the next event I volunteered for, the Spring Plant Sale, that I got to meet the entire team and it was amazing. Everyone feels so engaged with the work and connecting with a broader community, so it was exactly what I was looking for. 

Why do you like to volunteer with DUG?
This might sound crazy, but it’s really a selfish act. I just love the work, it brings me joy to be out in the community with this team and getting to know the city through DUG. So I see it as more of a benefit to me than anything else. Volunteering with DUG has helped me connect with the different neighborhoods and communities in the Metro Area because the gardens reach many different parts of the city. I feel that I’ve been able to get to know this city and communities in a short amount of time because of DUG. 

Work & Life
I’m currently working part-time with SustainED Farms supporting garden curriculum work for youth. I also work as a farmer and lead educator for the ‘Dream Big Day Camp’ program in partnership with Denver Jewish Day School. I love working with kids in the farming context because we can connect their food to the place of origin. Obviously age has a big impact on what we cover, but building a base of knowledge and sparking curiosity is great.

I’m also excited to start a master’s program in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver in August, and one of my goals is to get more involved with local policy as the next level of community involvement.  

What are some crops you are growing with the kids this year?
We are growing a three sisters garden to explore the concept of farming in an ecological way, using companion planting and supporting cultural traditions. I do wish I spoke Spanish so I could connect better with some of the kids, but that limitation has allowed other kids to be the mediators and take a more active role supporting me with translation, which I just love. 

Besides that, I’m growing Anaheim peppers for the first time mostly because I want to roast them to make chili, and I want to start growing more crops that have been staples of this region for thousands of years. 

Connecting with Nature and Building Community

By Faces of DUG

Meet Shay, Avid Rock Climber, Outdoors Enthusiast, Philosopher, and DUG’s Food Access Coordinator

Born and raised in Taos, New Mexico, Shay grew up with nature as his backyard, exploring with his younger brother.  Shay brings a love for plants, cooking, and community to his work as DUG’s food access coordinator with a pretty good handle on Spanish as a second language.

We sat down with Shay to learn more about what makes him sparkle from the inside out, here is a condensed and edited version of that conversation:

What was it like growing up in Taos?
It was great. My dad is a trail runner, so outdoor activities were a norm. Growing up, we were always outside, going on camping trips out in the woods, especially to undeveloped places where we could just pitch a tent for the night, or sometimes skipping the tent all together and simply falling asleep staring at the stars. And in the winter we would go skiing at Taos Ski Valley.
Taos felt like a place where people could be free to be who they are, a very artsy community, filled with interesting people.

You loved Taos very much, why did you leave?
For school. I went to the University of Pennsylvania to study, which was a big change.

What did you study?
After going back and forth between economics, computer sciences and some classes in political sciences, I finally decided to major in Political Sciences. Although, I’d have loved to major in philosophy. I’m an avid philosophy reader, especially of contemporary leftist theory.

What did you do after finishing school?
I moved to New York to work at a law firm as a paralegal, which I did for two years thinking I wanted to go into law school. But I realized it wasn’t for me, I’m too much of a romantic, hopeless optimistic, and this experience actually made me want to become an anti-capitalist, and a corporate job wasn’t really in my future anymore.

So from New York to Denver, what made you come to Denver instead of Taos?
I wanted to live in a city bigger than Taos but still be close to my family, and Denver is the closest to Taos, four hours by car, so it was a good in-between place. Plus, Denver is surrounded by nature and with easy access to outdoor activities, from the foothills to deep in the mountains. In fact, I love the Conifer area so much that my dream is to buy a place up there and build a glass brick greenhouse where I can use the sun to heat up the space while allowing the light to come in. 

So besides reading philosophy and outdoor activities, what other hobbies do you have?
I love to cook! I cook a lot of vegetarian and vegan meals that are also gluten free because I have a gluten sensitivity. I also love plants. I share my small apartment with my partner Marley, our two dogs – Franklin and Otis, and 38 houseplants – from large fig plants to tiny succulents and everything in between; but my favorite one is a Moth orchid named Kyle, who is now in full bloom.

Was it your love for plants that brought you to DUG? Or what made you decide to apply for the Food Access coordinator position?
Even though I love plants and I love being around people who love plants, that wasn’t the only reason for joining DUG. When I moved to Denver I began looking for non-profit jobs working toward food sovereignty and saw the amazing work DUG is doing in the community, which was exactly what I was looking for. 

During my time in college in Pennsylvania, I traveled to Sierra Leone to work with the Sierra Leone Children’s Fund, a non-profit organization forming farming cooperatives to boost food cultivation. It was a rewarding experience to support the efforts of a community striving for food sovereignty in the wake of multiple disease outbreaks and a civil war. 

My goal as DUG’s Food Access Coordinator is to connect anyone and everyone who is interested in growing their own food with the resources we offer at DUG, from seeds and plants, to our online educational resources, workshops, and events. I want to embed myself in the community leaning on DUG’s mission to work with other organizations to bring even more resources to our community.

Make sure to say hello to Shay when he is out in the community delivering Grow a Garden Kits and providing other services to make our city a better place.

Connecting to People and Food

By Faces of DUG

#30, Meet Alix, Organic Farmhand and Repair the World Corps Member

The importance of connecting to how our food is grown is never something I was taught. It is something I know in my heart, that I connect to innately, an ideal that honors this beautiful planet and helps me to do something bigger than just living the ‘American Dream’, which I have found can feel dull and empty. It began one day when I was in high school, when my mom and I went on an excursion to all these plant stores and bought herbs and flowers and pots and soil, and we created a little herb garden together. This was my first exposure to growing things, it was really fun. 

Since then, I’ve gotten involved in farmwork. It started when I heard about opportunities with World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). I think it’s one of the best ways to travel abroad because you veer completely off the beaten path of usual travel.

You’re helping locals who need your help, and you’re meeting other travelers and working together experiencing how food systems work in other parts of the world.

First I went to Israel with my best friend, and we worked for two months on four farms. Several months later, when I had enough money to travel again, I went to Central America, and worked on six farms throughout Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. After my travels, I moved to Fort Collins, where I interned with The Growing Project, and in Denver, I volunteered weekly at Ekar Farms. I believe it is highly important to connect to our food systems, and to grow the organic movement.

I heard about Denver Urban Gardens through a service corps program I was working with called Repair the World. I was part of a small cohort of Colorado residents. Basically, corps members get paired up with local community organizations in need of volunteers. My liaison, Alana, told me about DUG and I was really excited about it. I’m no expert farmer, even gardener, but I love the work, I love the cause. I was so surprised that I had never heard of DUG because I’m always trying to get involved in these kinds of communities, and now that I am aware of them I see their gardens all over the city!

My role with DUG was to help update and standardize the garden directory on their website. It was truly one of the best volunteer opportunities I’ve had, even though it wasn’t in person. Niko laid out her hopes for this particular project so clearly. She has such a strong vision, and I am honored I was able to help her see it through. 

For me, my passion is planet Earth, which extends to humans as well.

There are so many important movements – there’s conservation, there’s animal welfare organizations, there’s greening cities, there’s clean energy, there’s all these things. For me, agriculture is the thing that I see myself being a part of to contribute to this greater holistic movement. The future is small farms, and people working together and collaborating to connect over sustainably-sourced and seasonally relevant food. 

And why? Because it’s so relevant, it’s relevant to every single living being, we are all eating all the time. There’s parts of this environmental movement that I don’t think necessarily touch us every day, but food does.

And I see the value and the importance of the work DUG does because of its reach throughout the city, there are so many who have the opportunity to understand where their food is coming from, and what it takes to grow food – the challenges in it, and the hard work that is behind it, the need for resources like water, labor, and healthy land. I think that it’s so necessary today to educate people about the nourishment they feed their bodies. Were toxic chemicals involved in producing the food? Were the people growing and harvesting the products paid a fair and liveable wage? Was there a great amount of waste involved or were the farming methods more regenerative? Additionally, we are privileged that we can go and grab what we need year round, but the reality is that most produce and ingredients are only available in certain seasons, and to obtain off-season items takes a tremendous amount of energy to transport it across the world.  

I have seen some documentaries that have woken me up to the reality of modern-day agriculture, and to the large agribusinesses that are wreaking havoc on our earth.

To bring it back to a microcosmic level, to bring it back home, to bring it to a garden next door – that reconnects us – to our food, to one another, and to the bigger picture of what we can do as a community to combat the environmental damage caused by the food that we’re eating. It’s just the system we’re in, but we have to do something to change it. 

There is a quote I love, from Rabbi Tarfon. “You are not obligated to finish the work. But neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” 

We might not see a revolutionary change in our food system in our lifetime, but we can’t ignore it. We have to do something, and everyone has a part to play and there really is a little we can all do, instead of feeling doomed, which I honestly do feel sometimes. But I know that there are people out there who care, and nothing beats being around the likes of them.

With gardening it’s not just about addressing the bigger issues. Only good that can come out of going to volunteer on your local farm or garden. You’re connecting with people, you’re outside, you’re digging in dirt, you’re connecting in a way that you can’t in other aspects of life, especially living in a city. It is a special kind of person who wants to spend their time learning about growing food, and it’s amazing to be in a community of people who are very passionate and caring. 

And it’s just plain good for the soul. You’re outside in the sunshine (most days), working for not only a good but a critical cause, with others. It’s all so symbolic. You get dirty as you dig out the dark stuff. You observe the growing season, and the season of rest. When weeding – you’re removing the stuff that doesn’t serve you anymore, allowing space for fresh, new, healthy growth. A lot of people I know work in dirt in this way have connected this work to personal struggles, and personal triumphs.

This is the first season I will be trying to garden in a DUG community garden, and that is going to change my summer and really impact my life in big ways. I am very thankful for DUG.

You can learn more about Repair the World’s Service Corps here.

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Reclaiming Food Sovereignty Through Gardening

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Composting with Kiddos

By Faces of DUG

#29, Meet Luz, Master Composter, Mother, and Backyard Gardener

My paternal grandfather loved the garden and had this remarkable green thumb. He could throw seeds out onto the soil, and lo and behold, it would grow–whatever it may be. My earliest memories of being in the garden were in his garden, and I considered his yard to be the Garden of Eden. It was just so green with a ton of fruit trees, rose bushes, and lots of plants. He enjoyed it so much.

My dad also has a green thumb–not to the extent that my grandfather did–but he enjoyed it as well. We just had a lot of family time in the garden; taking care of our yard was a family activity. Saturday mornings we would wake up, have breakfast, and then would all get into our gardening gear. And we would go outside to spend time caring for our plants.

I feel as though DUG has been around as long as I’ve been alive and living in Denver.

A couple of years ago though, I did come across an article about how DUG was accepting applications for the Master Composting program. I thought, ‘You know what, I don’t know much about composting, and it sounds pretty interesting.’ I’d always wanted to have a garden. At the time, we had tried to do a garden in our backyard, but our backyard was so tiny. So I decided to start by learning about having healthy soil and submitted my application.

I had the opportunity to come in for an interview, and it was very refreshing. And that was it – I started the program! Judy Elliott, Senior Education Specialist at DUG, had said that we were the largest class in history. So I thought, ‘Wow, we’re setting history already!’ And, then history hit us again, with COVID. 

My season was cut in half, and our class was given the option to continue working in the community and do some work in the gardens, but we knew it was going to be very limited. Many class members dropped off, but I signed up to be the worm nanny. This was actually my first hands-on learning, and I cared for these worms over the summer.

When we were setting up the garden, Judy let us take some of the compost that we had removed from the worm bins. And she offered for us to take some of the casings home. We picked out the worms to see if we could start our own little worm bin.

I came home so excited! I gathered the family in the backyard and we pulled out a mat to dump the casings on. We took turns trying to pick out as many worms and eggs as we could.  It prompted me also to take the worms to my kiddos’ classrooms. 

When I had my children, for several years, I was a single mother with two children. There were times when food was just really precious– it was something that I really grew to appreciate. I’ve taught my children to value it, and we have a very special connection with food. It’s one thing to appreciate it on your plate or to save for leftovers, but then it’s another to appreciate how the food got to our plate.

I think that was really a turning point–experiencing my own kids enjoying caring for the worms, learning about the cycle of life that the worms go through, what happens to our food, and how we add it back into our gardens to create new food. 

My husband had taken a stab at gardening before the class, and we had tried some gardening. Unfortunately, nothing really grew, and it was kind of an epic-fail of a garden. At the time I had already signed up for DUG’s Master Composting class, hoping to get new knowledge on how to care for my plants.

Our first year, we started with a handful of vegetables, but we also had a pumpkin patch. This pumpkin patch, it took over the yard! We were only thinking about half of them would come up, and we ended up with all 12 pumpkin plants–they just grew, and grew, and grew! We took our biggest pumpkins to a state competition, and our little ones took 1st place – our biggest one was 104 pounds! The kiddos still have their ribbons.

It’s been really eye-opening for my children. It was eye-opening for me too, and I’m nearly 40! My kids were able to engage in this new appreciation for where food comes from.

Then, I had a chance to volunteer in my kiddos’ classrooms. This fall, I came back at the beginning of the year and both classrooms asked if they could start their own worm bins. My husband and I offered to donate the bins, and we’re using those same DUG baby worms that started our family off. 

Later, I was invited by DUG to show them what I was doing in the classroom. Rob Payo, Director of Youth Education, heard about what I was doing for my kiddo’s classes and invited me to talk through my lesson plan – and then they offered me an opportunity to be part of their public school, Denver Public School (Early Childhood Education) ECE programs. 

Now I’m going into ECE classrooms and teaching them about Verma Composting. I am a first-generation American born –my first language is Spanish – and the composting classes that I’m teaching to ECE in Denver Public Schools, I can teach both in Spanish and English.

We break it up into two different sessions in each classroom. The first one, we’re just introducing them to the worms, talking to them about how to care for worms, the fact that they are living, and that they require care, food, water, and a nice little bed. Then, I’ll be returning back to those classrooms and leaving worm bins in the classrooms that opted to have one. 

It’s been a blessing for our family, and I’m setting a way of life that will encourage my children to compost in their households, and maybe it’ll be something my children and grandchildren will remember. I think children are so blessed to be able to still have that fresh set of eyes and fresh perspective that we take for granted. You forget the little things in life are what’s important.

Gardening means a lot to me; I feel so connected to our planet, as well as to my grandfather, when I can grow in my garden. It’s all been organic. It’s so natural, and that’s what makes it easy.

Hopefully, in my kiddos’ lifetime, everyone will be composting.  It just repeats itself, so I’m spreading the word on how each one of us has a responsibility and the ability to make some small changes in our lives for our planet.

Interested in applying to be a Master Composter? Classes start February 28, 2022! Learn more and apply here.

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#28, Meet Rose, MMA fighter and gardener at Rose Roots

I’m a first-generation Lithuanian-American. In Lithuania, the culture is very nature-oriented. My grandmother pretty much grows all of her own food at her cottage. It’s really important to my family. Gardening has been ingrained in me ever since I was little. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was an urban environment.

We had a small 10 x 10 space in our backyard with a couple of tomato plants, some strawberries, and some sunflowers every once in a while. My childhood garden had a lasting impression on me. The tomatoes were so delicious and the strawberries were way better than any store-bought strawberry I’d ever had.

I looked forward to our garden every year. My chore was always weeding and I didn’t really like it as a kid, but I definitely learned to appreciate it as a form of therapy.

I was put into martial arts as a young child to keep me out of trouble and to keep me active. That has led me to the career that I’m in right now [MMA fighter]. In 2013, my partner and I moved to Denver. In 2016, I bought a townhome, and from there, I established my roots. Even though I was constantly traveling for work, I decided that I was going to have a home base here. I was looking for community gardens to join but It wasn’t panning out because of my busy schedule, and then eventually, I joined a CSA share. It was the most delicious food I’d ever had! 

That next year, I saw that there was a DUG community garden in my neighborhood called Rose Roots. I’m like, “Wow, that’s the biggest community garden I’ve ever seen!” Then everything just fell into place. I decided to find a way to work it into my schedule and just go for it!

I’m really blessed to be a part of the Rose Roots Community Garden. Everybody there is pretty awesome. I feel bad sometimes because I’m always in and out of town, especially this past summer, so I haven’t been able to get to know more people.

But it almost feels like a sentiment of the garden that everybody is busy but it’s still so established there that even with the extra stress of the pandemic and people’s lives, the garden takes care of itself and the people still take care of each other. 

We all take care of the pollinator plants and we switch off watering for each other when someone goes out of town. It’s really cool to see that with the landscape that we’re in right now, the garden is still doing very well. Sometimes when you leave things alone and are hands-off for a while, things flourish on their own. The garden is a very serene, beautiful place. This season, we had two plots instead of just one, so I was worried because it’s double the trouble. But I think because I’m more experienced now and knew to put mulch down and space things out a little better to organize my garden, it’s actually doing really good without needing to put as much work into it. 

When I started out gardening, it was all about productivity for me. What can I eat? Over time, I’ve become more appreciative of flowers and plants that are good for pollinators.

This season, I planted pollinators for the first time. They’re so pretty to look at. This is the first year that I’ve successfully grown the most delicious tomatoes ever. I grew an heirloom tomato plant that was red, green, and purple. It was the most gorgeous tomato I’ve ever had! 

I ferment a lot of my vegetables, so I have a refrigerator full of beets, carrots, and some of the cucumbers I made into fermented pickles. I eat a kale salad with cucumbers and tomatoes from my garden almost every day. I used to be annoyed with making salads before I started gardening. But now, that’s all I want to eat! So it’s really changed my food palette. I’ve been a vegetable-eater my whole life, but making salads always felt like a chore to me. After growing my own kale, I realized how much I liked it and how good it is for my brain. The food I need needs to be good for my brain because of the profession I’m in. I like kale so much better than other lettuces now!

For me as a martial artist, the community garden provides a similar effect to fighting.

Obviously, gardening and martial arts are two very different activities, but what martial arts and gardening do for me is give me a sense of control over myself and my situation. Lots of things happen to us in our lives that we can’t control, but putting a seed in the ground, watering it, doing things that help the environment around you, and then seeing something come out of the ground that you can eat, something that’s good for the plants around it, taking care of something that will take care of you back is the most rewarding thing ever. It gives you a sense of control over your situation when there’s not really much that you can control. With martial arts, you might not have enough money in your account to pay your bills, but you can throw some punches and I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better afterward. 

Gardening and martial arts both take time and patience. There are times when it gets a little frustrating and things aren’t working out. However you are feeling at the time, it is reflected back to you in your garden. Gardening is not only good for when you want to feel better, but it can also point out the moments when maybe you’re not feeling so good. It shows you when you need to address the issues that you’re dealing with psychologically because if you’re not feeling good, your plants ain’t lookin’ so good.

Gardening is a reflection of ourselves. 

There are so many parallels between fighting and gardening. To other people, it probably seems like there wouldn’t be any similarities between them. To me, they’re so closely related. Gardening and farming give fighting a purpose for me. I’m not just in the ring being a brute (even though I do have some brutish tendencies sometimes). If there are any MMA fighters reading this interview, I’d tell them that gardening really gives me a vision for after fighting. There’s a huge epidemic of fighters that take fights for no reason at the end of their career and they have trouble transitioning to regular life. They don’t have a way to do anything else. I would really encourage them to get involved in a community garden because it gives you that sense of balance. It’s really healing for the soul, and you might even find out that you like it better than fighting and eventually that’s what you’re gonna do. My vision one day is to start a program called “fight-to-farm” to help fighters transition to normal life and something beyond their fighting career — to help them live a rewarding life that has a greater purpose.

Community gardening is great for people that are low on time, for beginners, for people that lack the space at home, or for people who lack the resources.

There are people at a community garden that are willing to help and pick up the slack when you’re not there. When you develop those relationships, there’ll be people there who you can ask questions all the time. You can ask them how to space out your plants or what to put where. Our garden already has most of the tools that you could ever need and they have shared compost, so it’s great for someone just starting out. All you need is some seeds. Being part of a community garden is really fun. You get to see what other people are doing and it’s a very serene, peaceful thing to be a part of.

The benefits of community gardens aren’t just personal. There are ripple effects from the actual garden itself to the city. We donate food to the food bank. We educate other people on how to grow their own food. If you look at the effects it has on our food system, we all know that there’s a whole bunch of inefficiency when it comes to grocery stores and how we get our food. Food is delivered from other states and other countries, for that matter. Think of the negative effects that that has on our environment and pollution. It’s not healthy for each of us as individuals. It’s nice to know that you’re doing something good for the environment, too. Eating food you grew yourself versus eating food from the grocery store is night and day. It’s so much more nutrient-dense and some people maybe haven’t had that. To this day, I don’t like buying cucumbers, tomatoes, or even strawberries from the store. So maybe it might ruin you — I don’t know. Ignorance is bliss! The list of benefits of community gardening is endless with so many dimensions. It’s kind of like, why aren’t we doing this as a whole nation? It would definitely be a solution to a lot of our problems. If you look at American history, we’ve historically been farmers. That’s what we started as, so I think it’s good to be in touch with our roots.

I’m working towards owning a piece of land and my ultimate dream is to live on an Earthship. They’re these off-grid, self-sustaining houses that are built out of recycled materials and they recycle water. They’re being built all over the world right now. I helped build one in Indonesia–it was a really cool experience.

Colorado is one of the best places to have one. I’d love to build an Earthship type of community where we educate people in the community and maybe bring kids from the inner city who’ve maybe never had any type of experience like that there and do camps to show them that this is another way of living life.

As a kid, I always wanted to be outdoors even though I was trapped in the city. I want to provide that for kids who grew up like me and want to get out and be in nature.

So, that’s my plan eventually. And community gardens are for sure going to be a part of that plan!

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#27: Meet Robbin, gardener, mentor, and community leader

I got into gardening in 2000 when I was suffering from severe clinical depression. In my research, I found information around diet and nutrition but also found a piece around gardening, and I thought that was kind of different. So I got a beautiful little pot with a geranium on my patio in Los Angeles. That was my very first attempt to grow anything. And it’s been a long journey from there!

When I moved to Colorado, I shared my property with my grandmother. There was a little space with some ground in the back. I don’t even remember what I grew. But whatever I put back there grew, and I was like, “Oh wait, I might know how to do this!” That was what piqued my interest. It seemed I had an intuitive ability. 

Images courtesy of Robbin Otey and the sow sistas FB page 

DUG came into the picture as my hobby got out of hand. I found out about DUG’s two coaching programs: the Master Community Gardener Program and the Master Composter Program. My pedagogy is always to start with science. So that’s how I ended up doing both programs.

The work that I do now is garden ministry.

I grow our ministry through A Georgia Green Project. My role in A Georgia Green Project is to manage the garden and teach others – composting, companion planting, you name it. I’m teaching people about resisting food apartheid and how to invite community into the gardens.

My other group, the sow sistas, is a mentorship group of ladies. I’ve had some very micro-aggressive experiences in the community. I consider myself to be resilient, but in Colorado, any environment that I’m in is going to be – if it’s 10 people I’m probably going to be the only black woman (well people think I’m a black woman, and I identify as a black woman, but I’m actually Washitaw).  Not that that doesn’t affect me, but there are other personalities and types of people that don’t feel welcome. So I’m like, “Okay, we need to figure out how we can be in this space.”

That’s kind of how it manifested in the DUG space. Colorado has a very bloody history around the land, so we always honor it. We appreciate the ability to lease the plots with DUG and I appreciate all of the educational opportunities DUG offers. That’s part of what the sow sisters is about — let’s garden together as a group, let’s harness this information.

Our focus is resisting food apartheid, exploring global food sovereignty, and educating ourselves and our community on these issues and our program is centered around black women and girls.

Anyone can garden with us, but that’s our focus. Our intent is to solve for isolation. In a community garden, it takes a team effort to make it work. We manage the plots together. We account for people’s physical limitations — we have some that can pull the wheelbarrows and some that can do the weeding, but everyone can contribute.

It is intergenerational — we also have the little sow sistas, the young girls who help out. We’re actually able to employ the sow sistas, which is part of our mission. So that people can know there’s work, there are jobs, and there are lots of careers in the Ag world, not just growing food. 

We also have The Kaleidoscope Project (TKP). TKP was part of the DUG garden at Shorter AME Community Church, and the pastor reached out to me to ask if I wanted to do something in the garden. They’re social activist trainers, so the whole program at TKP is around claiming our power in the food system. TKP also has music programs with young people in the garden. TKP had done pop-ups in different areas that did not have easy access to fresh food. And so the pastor was like, ‘We can just do our own thing!’ People are able to barter or pay what they can. I’m excited to see the music that they’re going to do around what’s happening in their garden.

Our group is motivated by love. Love for ourselves, love for our families, love for community, and love for humanity. The more that we all vibrate high, whatever love looks like, the better the whole world is going to be.

My love language is resisting food apartheid and growing–people, places, and things. That’s what I do. I support the women that want to garden. One of our guiding principles is that the land and the food is sacred. 

For me, love is a resistance tool. Everyone says ‘support’ global food sovereignty, but we have to understand that we cannot be afraid of the truth that there were very violent actions in this documented history and herstory of the land. People were killed to gain these resources. This information matters not so that people get angry, you move past that.

I appreciate the opportunity to share that gardening can be a love language. For people to open their minds and to be intentional about how they eat and even if they don’t grow, support those that do — that’s the food sovereignty piece, right? Go find a local market that’s better for your health and go eat some food that was grown four blocks from you, rather than something that was driven 12 hours in a truck. 

The pandemic was a huge catalyst in everything that is manifesting in my life around gardening and what I see happening in the garden. Folks were gardening that had never gardened before that always wanted to — it was all over the internet. We couldn’t find stuff in the stores.

I usually grow edible pollinators. The new thing I’m growing right now is my moon bed. The intent is to attract those nighttime pollinators in the dusk. It’s beneficial because the flowers are white. Typically they’re also highly fragrant flowers. Part of the sow sistas is our aesthetic — we care that it looks pretty. I sowed biennial hollyhock last year and it’s blooming beautifully pink this season. 

The very first lesson for a new gardener is to find your ‘Why.’ Your ‘why’ is going to matter when you don’t feel like getting out there to water.

There are many ‘why’s.’ Some of the sow sistas are in the group for the social piece. Some are there to get the education. Some are there to get the physicality. Some just want to be out there in the fresh air. And some want to have control over their food. To know that there should be a ‘why’ is going to support you.

If I were to encourage someone who had never gardened before, I would give them the basic five. The basic five is ‘Planning. Take time to ‘Plot.’ ‘Pay Attention’ to where you’re planting. Include ‘Pampering’ — that’s the fertilizing, the water plan, the pest control. The last piece is the ‘Pulling’ — that’s the harvesting and the preserving.

Take the time to be plant-specific. Do some companion planting. Start with the science. That’s what beginners don’t realize. They’re like, “Oh I thought we were just going to be taking pictures and wearing the uniform shirts.” Like no sister, grab a shovel (laughter).”

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