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Faces of DUG

Sparking Curiosity in Community

By Faces of DUG

#31, Meet Paula, Backyard Gardener, World Traveller, and Bilingual Youth Education Coordinator

I have known about Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) for many years–I think I heard about DUG through the Slow Food social media pages. So when the Bilingual Youth Education Coordinator position that I applied for became available, it seemed like a really great place to start. Education is what I’m passionate about, and also all the intersections with growing food, children, and youth – it was a really good place where it all kind of came together.

My mother was a peasant farmer in Colombia when she was little, but they were taken from their land due to the civil war in Colombia. So farming wasn’t something she did when I was her daughter. She had plants, but it was more like ornamentals & houseplants, and then my first very first garden was here in Denver, sometime around 2010, when I started planting a few pots and had my first tomato plant. Then, by 2016, I had beds in my backyard, and I was growing food about 10 months out of the year.

When I dug in, I was very curious. I read and read and read, and tried things that failed a lot. Then I would try again, and things would work out. 

The garden is a place where I can meditate. I know people like to get up early and do their own internal search and things like that. To me, that’s too unsettling, sitting there and not doing anything. Gardening is my form of meditation, tending to the plants, taking in their daily progress. I like asking ‘How are they? What are they doing today? What needs do they have?’ I think that that process is very mindful. That’s been very helpful in the sense that it helps me get to a place of calmness – especially when I was working in the hospitality industry. Every day, six in the morning, I would be in my backyard. Digging dirt. 

When I first started with the garden idea, my husband was like, ‘nope’, because he hated weeding, and I think that that’s something that we tend to have kids do. At one point, it just kind of happened – gardens are very welcoming. Over time, the garden became that one thing in which the two of us could come together, and I think it’s helped us grow in a sense. There is pride in growing something. The way I won him over is when I would see that something was ready to be harvested, and I wouldn’t harvest it; instead, I would call him to harvest it. He started off harvesting the carrots and potatoes. I would say “Hey, you want to get some lettuce for lunch?” And he would go outside and clip the lettuce, and he absolutely loved that & the idea that gardens can give you that power back that ‘I know I grew this, and I can put it in my body, and I feel happy.’

Everybody has to eat. We’ve been conditioned to believe that good food is only for those who can buy it. Challenge that to the core.

I have a Master’s Degree in Gastronomy, World Food Cultures and Mobility from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, which is also known as the Slow Food University.

What these studies addressed is really the global food system – anything that has to do with growing food, but also the impact that it has socially, environmentally, and financially around the world. We worked with indigenous communities, and learned about immigration laws around the world with different trade policies, tying them to the ecology of the land, how we build cultures, and how cultures have moved around the world. That’s the mobility part – how crops have moved around the world and created the extension of cultures. For example, the tomato bean from the Americas has moved to Italy, and now is known as an Italian thing, but it isn’t really Italian, it is native to the Americas.

And then what happens after that is how culture has become industrialized, and is used to sell us products that are fully industrial, but still have that cultural layer, creating environments where we don’t question any of it.

Gardens bring us back to the earth, and you can be very metaphorical with it, but it literally brings you back to the earth and where our food comes from.

We’ve gotten so divorced from the whole process of feeding ourselves, that we don’t even know where things come from, how they’re grown, and what it takes to grow food.

There’s always the expectation that food has to be cheap. But there’s no real thought about why it’s cheap, because we’re exploiting people who are growing the food.

It’s also a way to help heal the earth that we are destroying. Gardens are spaces where we can learn, or relearn, to get in touch with that which is very central to humans. We don’t have any connection to our food, especially if we live in the city. Gardens give back power to the people to put food that is healthy and nutritious in our bodies. It provides sovereignty, especially in neighborhoods where the only food that you find is designed to keep people unhealthy. Gardening regains food sovereignty: it’s not a privilege to have good food, it is our right.

The more we connect to the understanding that we are not above the system, that we’re part of the whole ecosystem, and that what we do here affects many parts of the ecosystem, then the more we can hope to understand that we need to also fight.

I think it’s all about just waking up the little bit of curiosity we all need.

DUG is working towards giving that opportunity to people to connect to & grow their own food by sharing the resources that we have, and educating on why we need to protect them – then perhaps sparking that curiosity of what else is out there.

There is also the educational part – I think that specifically for me being in youth education is showing that the next generation can be more thoughtful about connecting with the earth & with our food. When things like this are difficult to talk about, people tend to shut down, they don’t want to talk about it, it’s uncomfortable. This is why it’s important to garden, people can see their greater impact. It brings to light to a larger, shared humanity that we can see; we’re part of a community.

When we grow food or when we cook, we want to share it with people. Food is central to our human existence, and a communal part of our world and of our lives – we just forget.

Gardens help us bring that back. If we can grow our food, and cook it, and share with people, that in itself just brings to the forefront that communal nature that is very ingrained in us.

Hopefully the youth we are working with take home the plants or the knowledge we are sharing with them, and then pass on their excitement and curiosity with their parents about their little plant; how they put the seed in the dirt, and how now it has grown. At any age, you can spark that excitement of ‘I had a seed, and now it is a carrot.’

Right now, I have about 20 little pea plants in my pots. I love peas because they just seem very friendly. As they grow they have these little tendrils and they look like they have a little skirt, so when the wind hits them, they kind of look like little butterflies, and then they have these wild little flowers. Sometimes they have pink little flowers, depending on the variety, and then the flower shoots up pea pods. I just love them, they’re so beautiful. They smile at me. It’s so cute.

For anyone new to gardening, my advice would be to plant things you like to eat. Also don’t be afraid of things dying. You will learn, don’t get discouraged.

Some years will be great, some years will not. And that doesn’t determine your skill as a gardener, so instead of taking it as a failure, take it as a learning experience. Take whatever outcome, and try to get curious about why that happened. And you can make the changes that you need for the next year, you can make it a lifelong practice. 

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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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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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Reflecting on Gardening and Fighting

By Faces of DUG

#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!

More Faces of DUG

Faces of DUG
June 22, 2020

Gardening through a lifetime

"I come from Africa. I like gardening so much because my parents were farmers in my country where I was born and they had a big farm. They taught me…
Faces of DUG
October 23, 2020

Cultivating love in the garden

“I signed up for a community garden plot at a DUG garden before I ever heard Daniel's name. I was excited to grow things and put down roots, as I…
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April 12, 2021

Gardening as a family

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December 5, 2020

Building community during COVID

"I am the Garden Leader at the Cedar Hill Community Garden at Green Mountain United Methodist Church. We have been working on the building of our garden for six years…

Discovering Your ‘Why’ For Gardening

By Faces of DUG

#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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Finding Mentorship (and more) in Community

By Faces of DUG

#26: Meet Laurel, a first-year gardener at Growasis Community Garden

“Last year, my boyfriend and I lived in the Cole neighborhood and had never gardened before.

We lived in an apartment with no outdoor space and were home all the time due to COVID. It has always been important to me to try and make our lifestyles more sustainable. As most human beings, I used to rely exclusively on grocery stores to provide everything I need to survive, but gardening was a paradigm shift for me and my boyfriend– to really see that we could grow our own food.” 

Last summer was our first season and as beginners, we both went into the experience blind.

DUG’s To-Grow Box was what got us started. It was a great learning experience. Before gardening, my boyfriend wasn’t particularly interested in eating fresh fruits and vegetables much of the time. Surprisingly, he got really into gardening and as a result, eating the food we produced. Our diets were both improved and diversified.

The different pepper and tomato varieties included in the To-Grow Box weren’t things I would’ve typically purchased before. Growing them was an impetus to learn how to cook and incorporate them into foods we wanted to eat.

Gardening was great for our relationship.

It gave us a project to work on, something that we had to do every single day that required our attention. It was exactly what we needed at that time.

The garden made us feel like a part of our community, especially at the height of isolation during the pandemic.

We felt really lucky to be at Growasis. It had a cohesive group of people, even despite the limitations of COVID. It was nice to have that in-person connection around something other than work, which is typically the only way we interact with others as adults. We learned so much during our first season. Our plot neighbors were also first-time gardeners, so we bounced ideas off each other all the time.

There was a woman at our garden, we called her ‘Miss M.’

When we first picked up our To-Grow Box, we were so excited that we immediately drove to the garden to plant our seedlings. The next day, everything was weathered and dying. Miss M swooped in and said, “I know what happened. It’s okay, we can save them!” She got on her hands and knees and helped us dig up and replant everything! I was being cautious, but she said, “No, you need to show the ground who’s boss–get in there!”

From that moment on, Miss M would give us garden tips every time we saw her.

She took us under her wing and helped us maintain our entire garden. She could tell early-on that we were struggling pretty significantly, so she inserted herself in such a welcomed, appreciated way. I can’t express how much it meant to me at the time. I didn’t ask other gardeners for help out of fear of seeming like too much of a rookie. What she did meant so much.

Our garden would’ve failed from day-one if it weren’t for her.

We could have read any number of gardening books, but there’s something different about having an experienced gardener who has lived in the neighborhood for a long time telling you what she does to make her garden healthy and successful.

It’s hard to explain without getting too sentimental. We’ve never connected with someone in that way before.

It really made all the difference for our first gardening experience. I’m so excited to make community gardening a part of my life now! 

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Seeding Self-Sufficiency

By Faces of DUG

#25: Meet Jolene, Palmer School community gardener

“I moved up to Denver from Arizona; I wasn’t much of a gardener in Arizona, because the climate is really challenging to garden in. I got involved with DUG because I saw the community gardens at the elementary schools, and my son was starting kindergarten at Park Hill. I put in a request to be at the garden there, so that was how I got initially connected– just seeing the gardens in the community and reading the signs attached to the different community gardens. It was actually interesting because as I was looking for school choice options and schools to send my son to, the ones I liked also often had the DUG gardens. 

This year I’m growing lemon cucumbers, sugar snap, peas, butternut squash, golden yellow beets, and green string beans. I also have two types of tomatoes. One’s called pineapple tomato, which is yellow with a little bit of red in it–and the other, I’m not sure what it’s called, but it’s red with a little bit of purple in it. 

I’m really proud because over the last two or three years I’ve started to harvest my own seeds and then regrow them. This year, all my sugar snap peas are grown from seeds that I collected last year. I also grew marigolds this year from seed, because last year with the pandemic, I spent probably like $30 for a flat of marigolds. They were just outrageous. You couldn’t find them anywhere, so I harvested the seeds and I grew all my own, which was enough for my garden while also giving away marigolds to around 10 other people, too.

I first started by saving butternut squash seeds and cucumber seeds because those were easy. Then last year, I added the sugar snap peas from seed. I attempted tomato seed that I had harvested using the method where you squeeze out their juice onto paper towels and then you plant the paper towels, but it didn’t work out this year. They didn’t take, so I adopted some tomato plants that someone was getting rid of–I did try training the tomato plants in buckets to see if they stay more contained and don’t go so crazy!

Over the years, I’ve also learned to save my own eggshells and my own coffee grounds to add those to the dirt. Saving your own seeds and growing your own seedlings feels very empowering. You don’t have to spend money or go get something from somewhere else–you can just generate it yourself year after year.

At Palmer, I’ve helped support another gardener who is in her 80s with a lot of health issues. I started to take food to her and then found a couple of other elderly people in my community to take some food to. One was in my apartment building and the other was an old professor who had retired from MSU. Then, I just started really going crazy because I didn’t like seeing any food wasted, so I would just harvest everything that people didn’t want!

I harvest a lot from the garden in Palmer; there are a lot of school plots that were beautifully-landscaped and planted with all sorts of things that came back year after year like rhubarb, kale and even asparagus, which grows like a weed. Because the school families weren’t coming and taking it, I started to take it to the Park Hill food bank. I now take produce there on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the summer. From what I read and understand there’s definitely been an increased need.

I have experienced food insecurity over the course of my life, both growing up as a child, and then as a single parent–but I had access to resources, like the snap food stamp program, which actually lets you buy seeds or buy plants to garden with and create that self-sufficiency. I think maybe one year I used food stamps to purchase the things at Walmart to plant. For me, it’s about self-sufficiency and growing your own food, and how that feels to feed yourself and feed others through your efforts. That’s what drives me a lot.

I think it’s hard sometimes to connect with neighbors or people in the community because our sense of community is so spread out and not just where we live. I’ve learned so much from my fellow gardeners about what to do with my soil. I started growing dahlias, which are very temperamental and really get eaten by Japanese beetles. This is my first year using their tubers with their roots from last year to regrow them. That’s something that if I hadn’t known someone at the garden who was doing it, I probably never would have attempted it either.

For people that are just getting started, I would just say don’t be intimidated. It’s really easy. Dig a hole, throw some seeds in it, throw some water on it, and don’t be intimidated to start somewhere. For example, in my garden for the first couple years, I always planted too much stuff, and it got too crowded–everything was growing over each other. But you know, five or six years in, now I have this little grid system, and you can really clearly see where everything is and is supposed to be. You learn different techniques over the years. I encourage people to play around, too. If it doesn’t grow this year, just stick with it. Try it knowing you can’t fail because it’s not really failure. It’s just learning and the chance to grow something later on if it doesn’t work out the first time.

I think one of the greatest benefits for me is just the time I spend outside, working hard, getting dirty– it feeds my soul, and it improves my mood. I’ll spend five or six hours out in the sun and the heat, and just be so happy with what I have accomplished in the end. There’s a lot of mental health benefits to gardening and so I selfishly garden for that. Similar to giving food away, there’s a lot of intrinsic value. It feels good for me to know I’m feeding other people; there’s also a lot of pride in seeing that you grew something that a week ago was just an inch tall and now it’s got food on it.”

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Exploring a New Career Path

By Faces of DUG

#24: Meet Alex, our first Fransisco Cordero Legacy Apprentice

Our longtime contractor and friend Fransisco Cordero passed away in November 2020 due to complications with COVID-19. In 2021, we established the Fransisco Cordero Legacy Apprenticeship program to provide pathways into career fields with urban agriculture. Alex Oldham is our first apprentice with the program.

“I’m 20 years old and live with my foster parents. With the pandemic happening, I had to stay in a lot. Because they’re older, I didn’t want to risk them getting sick for me going out or anything. So I picked up a night shift at FedEx. I was doing that for a very long time. Then my brother-in-law introduced me to a friend. And I guess, he also knows the Executive Director that works over here at DUG. He had been sending me a few different applications of places. When this one popped up, I was interested because growing up, I worked outside doing farm-type work with my grandfather in Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, the atmosphere is different (than in Denver). Being in the country is different. The smell of manure is everywhere. Taking care of cattle, making hay, riding the tractor, and stuff like that. But it’s cool. I also just wanted the change of being out in the daytime, in the sun after being out at night all the time.

Not everything is necessarily gardening with what we’re doing. Some days, we have to use wheelbarrows, and we’ll put really heavy gravel down, just scoop it all in there. And then carry it over to lay it on the pathway. The similarities of being outside in the sun and working hard is what carries over to this. There’s a lot of work to do – just seeing what every garden needs. If they need their fence fixed, we’ll go do that. I’ve gone to Home Depot to get some parts for water tank adapters. I’ll be mowing lawns, doing wherever (the gardens) need. Oh, and a lot of weed pulling, too!

I’ve been learning a lot from Nessa [Director of Physical Infrastructure and Community Engagement] and about what DUG really does. I like seeing everything growing. So far I’ve learned that we have like 180 something gardens all around Denver and Lakewood and stuff. I didn’t expect that a lot of them are refugee community gardens.

Sometimes the fruits or what they want to buy at the store they don’t have from their own places, so they can just grow it in their garden. That’s really cool to see. The price of getting a plot for the year isn’t that much. So I think that it gives them the opportunity to keep making the food that they want, without having to make a lot of money to go buy food. Because I know coming to America and getting jobs and stuff like that is a lot harder.

 I’m a really picky eater. I like all kinds of fruit, but vegetables are not my thing… so everyone is trying to give me vegetables, like sugar snap peas or something like that. That’s the only thing I’ve eaten so far. They’re really secure about their stuff and they like everyone to see what they’re growing. They’re always asking me to try something new. 

I think me being also a person of color, and then seeing all these other people of color and different ethnicities that are from other countries come into these gardens. Helping in any way that I can help them is why I feel like I’m really here. I’m helping the people who really need the gardens to grow their food. So that’s why I like it, I like helping them and want to continue to be in the position to help other people with their gardens.”

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July 7, 2021

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October 30, 2020

Looking back on a lifetime in the garden

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Leaving a Legacy of Wonder

By Faces of DUG

#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.

READ MORE ABOUT THE WONDER GARDEN

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! 

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#22: Meet a few of our amazing volunteers

Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. The B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high-quality jobs with dignity and purpose. By harnessing the power of business, B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.

B-Local Colorado is a team of business leaders that engage and oversee Certified B Corps. This spring, DUG partnered with B-Local for a fun and productive volunteer day at El Oasis Community Garden.

Read our interviews with a few of the volunteers below.

Ellen (Patagonia Denver):

“We have a long-standing partnership with DUG. Last summer, we hosted a virtual gardening workshop together. Our missions really align. Patagonia is passionate about community engagement and how we can partner as much as possible with local organizations. Our store is opening late today so that we could volunteer this morning. Patagonia highly encourages all of its employees to get involved in the local community through volunteering. The fact that Patagonia pays its employees to volunteer makes it feel like community engagement is more important than just doing business. Not only is volunteering good for the well-being of those doing the work, but it feels good to know that what we’re doing is going to help the local community. It’s rewarding and gives you a sense of purpose. It just feels good to be able to take action and be a part of something during these hard times. Volunteering for DUG has a direct impact that can be seen. The work that we’re doing now is going to help feed people. It’s a good reset and reminder to slow down. Spending time in nature is more important now than ever.”

Ari (Patagonia Denver):

“I grew up in this neighborhood and still live here. I went to school at Bryant Webster. With our busy lives, volunteering with DUG has been an awesome opportunity to take a break and slow down. Gardening is great because it gives you something to take care of and it gets you out into the dirt and sun. My favorite part of today’s workday has been being able to spend time with friends and coworkers out in the dirt. I would encourage other groups like us to volunteer for DUG because it’s a great way to spend time with your coworkers outside of work and to meet new people in your community. 

David (B Lab):

“DUG’s slogan should be something like, “DUG: bringing people together.” Volunteering for DUG at a workday is a great way to bring people together. We get to interact with people we haven’t normally gotten to see in-person outside of our “COVID bubbles.” There’s nothing like some manual labor to start off the day and rock your senses. 

I work for B-Lab. We certify B Corps like Patagonia and organize group volunteer days like today. We chose to volunteer with DUG for many reasons- everyone here today shares a passion for community engagement and helping the environment.”

Ryan (Patagonia Denver): 

“I’m part of DUG’s Master Community Gardener Program and my wife is a DUG Master Composter. My favorite thing about DUG is the wide breadth of programming they offer which is open to everyone- from kids, to schools, to adults. DUG’s educational programming teaches life skills you just don’t learn in school. We have a home garden with seven fruit trees. My 3-year-old is already into gardening! She’ll be able to help me pick strawberries and peas this summer.

There’s no better feeling than knowing where your food comes from and that you helped grow it, and that there were no pesticides or herbicides used. I’m Patagonia’s Provision Food Line lead at our store, which was developed from the principles of organic regenerative agriculture. It teaches us how important it is to grow your food in the ground and not to get your soil from a store.

We’ve been amending the soil at our home garden for two years now- adding compost and horse manure and making compost tea. Learning about our Provisions products alone has taught me a lot. Patagonia is one of the first to launch the Regenerative Organic Certification Program (ROC). It’s kind of like the next step up from organic: Patagonia Provisions Line doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides, incorporates compost and animal manure, and then there’s an additional social justice aspect to it. We make sure that all employees are paid fair wages, have the opportunity to do training and education to advance their careers, and make sure they have safe working conditions. It’s not just about growing the food, it’s also about animal and worker welfare.” 

Employees from B-Local Colorado, Cause Labs, Scream Agency, & B-Lab:

“We love DUG. We’re hosting multiple Lunch & Learns together. All of us have paid volunteer time. It’s been great to see people in person during the pandemic and have that comradery. It’s so cool to see the impact just three hours of work has had on this space today. Having the time to give back to your community is priceless. Garden workdays with DUG are invigorating. Being outside, exercising in the fresh air is an amazing way to start the day. You feel so accomplished in such a short amount of time. You can get so much done as a team. When you feel like you’re doing one small thing like shoveling a pile of dirt and not getting much done, you look up at everyone else in your group and realize how much you’ve accomplished collectively. We’re absolutely rocking it!”

Hailey (Denver Parks + Rec): “I’ve volunteered with DUG in the past. I grew up in rural Virginia, where gardening and farming were a way of life. I was always put to work by my parents, so volunteering with DUG today and working in the dirt just feels natural to me.”

More Faces of DUG

Faces of DUG
August 12, 2020

Teaching the next generation about the magic of gardening

"I believe that every moment is a teaching moment. Getting the kids to see the world in a different way is a fascinating thing. Every time you get just one…
Faces of DUG
October 30, 2020

Looking back on a lifetime in the garden

“Although my mother wasn't an active gardener, I think that sometimes interests skip generations. I remember my grandmother saving seeds of her treasured cleome (we called them 'spider flowers') whose…
Faces of DUG
March 9, 2021

Growing community support in a school garden

“I was one of the founders of the Samuels garden in 2011, and have been a Garden Leader there for the last 10 years. I was never a gardener before;…
Faces of DUG
January 11, 2022

Composting with Kiddos

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.…