2023 Garden Leader Symposium: Building Community, Inclusivity, and Engagement

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This past Saturday, February 18, we hosted more than a hundred Garden Leaders from across the Denver Metro Area for our 2023 Garden Leader Symposium. It was wonderful to see smiles and welcoming hugs as we reconnected in person after two years of virtual symposiums.

We started the day with refreshments and casual conversations before Lt. Governor Diane Primavera officially kicked off the meeting. The Lt. Governor introduced the four DUG Corps members who will be supporting our work this growing season, “Serve Colorado has partnered with DUG and Colorado State University Extension to bring on four AmeriCorps members who will be helping with youth education and leading workdays over the next nine months.”

From the opening remarks, we transitioned to Garden Operations, as our team, Lara, Eliza, Taylor and Marisa, presented the Garden Leader Resources DUG has, how to find them on the website, and who to contact for different needs and scenarios.  

One of the goals of this year’s symposium was to workshop the topics of building community and engagement in the garden, and what a supportive growing environment looks and feels like. For both of those, garden leaders and DUG team members huddled in smaller groups for breakout sessions to share ideas and resources.

We also held a panel discussion about “Cultivating Safe Space: Supporting Unhoused Community Members in the Garden,” with the support and expertise of community and government organizations, like – Terese Howard from Housekeys Action Network Denver, Chris Richardson from Wellpower/STAR, Lana Dalton, Director of Unsheltered Homeless Response HOST, Vi Bright, Mutual Aid Monday, Kristine Thomas, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Our keynote speaker, Evan Harrison from Kiss the Ground, addressed the topic of Regeneration and the importance of redirecting Farm Bill efforts and funds toward a regenerative agriculture model that supports us all.

It was amazing to see all the community members that keep our gardens running in one space. We look forward to an amazing 2023 growing season! 

And we are especially grateful to our sponsors Specialty Woods Products, Birdcall, Everyday Pizza, Boochcraft, Illegal Petes, Great Divide Brewing Co. and Patagonia Denver.

Composting, One of Denver’s Strategies to Combat Climate Change

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The City of Denver has a bold goal to reduce its total GHG emissions by 65% by 2030 (from a 2019 baseline,) a targeted pledge to the Race to Zero Initiative, a global campaign established by the United Nations during the COP26 in 2020 to reduce global emissions. 

To achieve that goal the City of Denver has identified key strategies and specific high-emitting human activities. One of the key steps to achieving the city’s  2030 targets is to reduce methane emissions from organic waste (including food waste and yard waste) in landfills. In 2021, the state of Colorado published the CO Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap Report unveiling a plan to reduce GHG emissions incrementally in the next decades. 

This report highlights organic waste as the largest contributor to landfills in Colorado, emitting methane as it decomposes in the landfills’ anaerobic environment. Even though methane accounts for only 11% of all GHG emissions, it is detrimental to the environment as it traps 80 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. Scientists estimate that at least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions as reported by NPR.  

The city established a goal to divert 50% of waste from landfills by 2030 with a bolder goal of 100% diversion by 2040, which includes 57% reduction in tons of residential food waste collected by the city.

The Role of DUG

DUG is committed to supporting these goals as an educational partner providing skills and education to the community through the Denver Master Composter Training Program, a ten-session course in partnership with Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability & Resiliency (CASR) that prepares individuals to be master composters and to share their new skills with the community. DUG has been running the Master Composter program for over 20 years directed by Judy Elliott, Senior Education Specialist. 

In 2022, ‘Jungle Judy’, as she is known in the community,  trained 22 master composters through a series of 10 classes, on topics ranging from soil basics, composting processes and biology, vermicomposting, building a compost pile, and teaching techniques. The participants had the chance to tour several industrial composting facilities to better understand how large composting processes work in comparison with at-home practices.

After 10 weeks, the Master Composters began a 40 hour volunteer community outreach commitment to share their newfound knowledge. Throughout the spring and summer months, the Master Composters taught 25 2-hour composting classes educating 232 participants on how to start a compost pile, how to compost with red wiggler worms at home, and how to divert waste from landfills. They also visited farmers markets across the Metro Area to educate market patrons, they engaged in community events, and joined DUG garden events, reaching 1692 community members, and amassing 1140 volunteer hours, going above their initial commitment.

The 2023 Master Composter Program will support the rollout of the Pay-As-You-Throw program providing waste management education to residents as they transition to the new expanded waste collection service.

Applications to join the Master Composting program are opened with only six spots left available. The cost for the entire program is $75. Apply by emailing Senior Education Specialist Judy Elliott at to set up a time to come to the office and interview.

Grow a Garden Opens February 1st

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Exciting news! DUG’s longstanding food access program Grow a Garden is now accepting orders for our 2023 Garden Kits!

Choose from our five signature Garden Kits that contain seeds and seedlings
that will grow well– and eat well-– together! Pay what you can with our sliding scale using our suggested program fee of $60 per Garden Kit as a guide. Choose what’s right for you to pay–whether less or more or than the suggested program fee. No one will be turned away for inability to pay.

Pick up your kits from one of our 17 distribution partners the week of May 15th-20th then get planting with the support of our Plant Care Guide and a community of gardeners in DUG Online.

We only have 2,000 kits available, so order yours sooner rather than later!

If you’re new to gardening and need a little extra support, we’re also offering FREE gardening mentorship to the first 30 people who apply in the order form!


The Science is in: Gardening is GOOD for You!

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Article adapted from The scientific reasons you should resolve to start gardening in 2023, first published by Lisa Marshall at CU Boulder Today  

Anyone who has gardened can tell you that gardening has a powerful effect on both mind and body, and we’re excited to share new research confirming those outcomes!

DUG was honored to be a partner in a 3-year (2018-2020) randomized trial exploring the physical and mental health benefits of community gardening funded by American Cancer Society and conducted by researchers from University of Colorado BoulderColorado State UniversityUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillMichigan State UniversityUniversity of Colorado Anschutz Medical CampusUniversity of South Carolina, and Urban Institute.

Read the results of The Community Activation for Prevention Study (CAPS) study here.

The study, operated exclusively in DUG gardens, found that people who started gardening ate more fiber and got more physical activity—two known ways to reduce risk of cancer and chronic diseases. They also saw their levels of stress and anxiety significantly decrease.

Professor Jill Litt (right) checks on a plant with colleague Erin Decker (left) at a community garden next to Regis University. Photos by Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder, 2017.

Filling the research gap

Some small observational studies have found that people who garden tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and have a healthier weight. But it has been unclear whether healthier people just tend to garden, or gardening influences health.

Only three studies have applied the gold standard of scientific research, the randomized controlled trial, to the pastime. None have looked specifically at community gardening.

To fill the gap, senior author Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, recruited 291 non-gardening adults, average age of 41, from the Denver area. More than a third were Hispanic and more than half came from low-income households.

After the last spring frost, half were assigned to the community gardening group and half to a control group that was asked to wait one year to start gardening.

The gardening group received a free community garden plot, some seeds and seedlings, and an introductory gardening course through the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens program and a study partner.

Both groups took periodic surveys about their nutritional intake and mental health, underwent body measurements and wore activity monitors.

By fall, those in the gardening group were eating, on average, 1.4 grams more fiber per day than the control group—an increase of about 7%.

The authors note that fiber exerts a profound effect on inflammatory and immune responses, influencing everything from how we metabolize food to how healthy our gut microbiome is to how susceptible we are to diabetes and certain cancers.

While doctors recommend about 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day, the average adult consumes less than 16 grams.

“An increase of one gram of fiber can have large, positive effects on health,” said co-author James Hebert, director of University of South Carolina’s cancer prevention and control program.

The gardening group also increased their physical activity levels by about 42 minutes per week. Public health agencies recommend at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, a recommendation only a quarter of the U.S. population meets. With just two to three visits to the community garden weekly, participants met 28% of that requirement.

Study participants also saw their stress and anxiety levels decrease, with those who came into the study most stressed and anxious seeing the greatest reduction in mental health issues.

The study also confirmed that even novice gardeners can reap measurable health benefits of the pastime in their first season. As they have more experience and enjoy greater yields, Litt suspects such benefits will increase.

The study results don’t surprise Linda Appel Lipsius, executive director of Denver Urban Gardens (DUG). “It’s transformational, even life-saving, for so many people,” Lipsius said.

Many DUG participants live in areas where access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is otherwise extremely limited. Some are low-income immigrants now living in apartments—having a garden plot allows them to grow food from their home country and pass on traditional recipes to their family and neighbors.

The social connection is also huge.

“Even if you come to the garden looking to grow your food on your own in a quiet place, you start to look at your neighbor’s plot and share techniques and recipes, and over time relationships bloom,” said Litt, noting that while gardening alone is good for you, gardening in community may have additional benefits. “It’s not just about the fruits and vegetables. It’s also about being in a natural space outdoors together with others.”

Ready to get gardening with DUG? Learn more about how to join a community garden.

DUG Says Goodbye to Ainslie O’Neil

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On December 18th 2022, the DUG community and Denver suffered a terrible and unexpected loss when Ainslie O’Neil was struck by a car while biking and died of her injuries at the age of 32.

Ainslie was a landscape architect, designer, educator, and gardener. She was passionately devoted to creating a better urban future in the city of her birth–physically, socially, economically, and culturally. She was a part of the teaching team for the Denver Permaculture Design Course for ten years and was recently working with DUG in multiple capacities: re-designing a garden with her landscape architecture skills and as a member of the Therapeutic Garden Initiative task force. She was honest, brave, focused, energetic, and endlessly positive in all her endeavors. 

Ainslie was a committed bike commuter, sometimes arriving at classes or meetings after riding for an hour or more. Her death at the hands of a car, while biking along a dedicated bikeway, is a particular wrench of the knife for those of us who knew her.

While the city is continuing to allocate more money for bike lanes and biker safety, we still undeniably live in a car culture, with all the speed, violence, and chaos that can bring.

Ainslie loved her family, her friends, her dog, and her garden. She loved the mountains, a long hike, and a good soak in a hot tub. She loved collaborating with others to create space for radical change, and exposing students to new ways of seeing the world. Her memorial at the Posner Center was a testament to her impact, as people from all walks of life and all parts of the city and beyond packed in to celebrate a life well lived.

Here within the DUG staff, Ainslie had many friends, and her passing has shocked and stunned us. Of course death begets life, and every day is an opportunity to weave elements of Ainslie into our what we do: a deep care for people and the land, a tireless motivation to do good work, and a recognition that taking time in the garden is one of the best ways to care for ourselves, finding peace and belonging wherever we are. May she lead us on.

The Countdown to Colorado Gives Day is On!

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Donations to DUG are being matched $ for $ through the end of the year!

Colorado’s largest day of giving, Colorado Gives Day is happening on Tuesday, December 6th, 2022! Help us meet our goal of $75,000 to support Denver Urban Gardens’ programs in 2023!

As we approach the end of year, we’re not talking about the problems we’re facing–we’re focused on how we can work together to make things better.

For us, it starts with hope.

That it’s still possible for the world to be a sustainable place for generations to come, that we can grow and nurture our common ground, that we can heal ourselves and the soil while building regenerative local food systems.

2022 has been a monumental year of growth for us as an organization and we’re looking forward to digging in deeper next year. From planting new food forests throughout the city and providing critical resources to gardens through our Baseline Infrastructure Initiative to deepening gardening skills for people of all ages and providing opportunities for community and home gardeners to connect and learn from each other, we’ve got our hands in the soil and our eyes focused our vision of a sustainable urban future where people are deeply and directly connected to the earth, each other, and the food they eat.

We believe that by growing in community, we’re strengthening our ability to access healthy food, live in harmony with the earth and each other, and be more resilient. Join our growing movement to spread seeds of hope across metro Denver.

A better world is not only possible, we’re ensuring it is coming.

When you give to DUG, you’re investing in a sustainable urban future where people are deeply and directly connected to the earth, each other, and the food they eat.

Plus, through the end of 2022, every dollar you give is DOUBLED through our match–just one more big reason to give!


We’re planting seeds with the Semillitas Garden Club!

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This fall, our bilingual youth educators Laura Calderon and Paula Thomas have been leading a K-2 Garden Club called Semillitas (little seeds) at Valdez Elementary in Denver’s northside.

The club is dedicated to welcoming kids into the garden space and planting the seed of gardening in their minds as a vital part of their lives. Research has shown that kids who get exposed to gardening go on to eat more fruits and veggies! 

Following a learning-by-playing model, Semillitas Garden Club is a place for children to explore the world of gardening, from seed to flower. The kids are exposed to gardening books, arts and crafts, and direct hands-in-the-soil gardening. Through guiding questions, our instructors connect kids with key concepts like soil composition, parts of the plant, ecosystems, and more. 

Garden Club Guidelines

1- Respect all living things

2- Move carefully in the garden

3- Pick only with permission

4- Use tools carefully and return them when finished

Objectives and Outcomes: 

  • To introduce kids to the garden, the practice of gardening, and the many creatures that form a garden ecosystem

  • To grow future garden lovers in the different communities

  • To spark curiosity about the natural world 

  • To instill joy in tending a garden 

  • To connect children to healthy foods – from garden to plate 

This program is made possible with funding from Healthy Food for Denver’s Kids and SCFD. To learn more about our curriculum or bring gardening education to your school, please contact Director of K-12 Education Rob Payo.

The Etkin Family Food Forest Initiative is Fruiting!

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Earlier this year we shared about our new Food Forest Initiative, seeded with support from The Giving Grove, a national nonprofit serving communities experiencing food insecurity. We are now thrilled to share that DUG has received a transformational gift from the Etkin Family Foundation to expand our work to
20 food forests across metro Denver in 2023!

This year, DUG has finished planting the first six food forests– oases of perennial fruits, nuts, and berries– that will produce food for decades and become neighborhood fixtures. These sites will also serve as learning labs for experimentation with other perennial edibles and medicinal plants and are being set up as educational zones with permanent signage to help people learn to identify, care for, and harvest trees and perennial foods.

In total, and with the support of many fabulous volunteer groups, we have have already planted 113 trees, more than 120 companion plants, and 116 berry bushes at 6 sites located across Denver.

We are now deep in the planning process for 2023 and are looking for at least 10 additional sites that would fertile ground for a new garden! If you think you know of a site located on public or private land that may be available, we are looking for:

Must Have

  • Water Access – Existing water infrastructure that we can tap into. This could be garden irrigation lines, or a building (school/church/etc.) that we can extend a new line from. DUG will cover the cost of the new irrigation infrastructure.
  • 2,000 Square Feet – This is the absolute minimum for sites to be able to plant at least 10 trees and companion plants at each.
  • Carbon Sequestration Potential – Should not be an area that already has trees or a healthy ecosystem.

Ideal To Have

  • 3,000 – 6,000 Square Feet – Even if we don’t plant everything out in the first year, a site with room for 20 or more trees is excellent.
  • Volunteer Stewards – Preference may be given to sites that already have one or more people ready to be Tree Keepers and be the main steward of the site. (See below for Tree Keeper requirements.)
  • North or East Aspect – Areas that stay cool for longer are the best for fruiting trees here. Maybe the north or east side of a building, wall, fence, or slope.
  • Marginal Area – We want places that aren’t good for garden expansion or other more intensive uses. Slopes, strips, or overwatered and unused grass are great places to start.
  • Easy Access – Spots where we can drop mulch and bring in trucks easily will facilitate workdays

Don’t Need

  • Fencing – Unless they’re inside a garden, these spaces do NOT need to have pre-existing fencing, and in most cases we will plan to keep them unfenced.
  • Good Soil – It will help the trees get established, but we’re also engaged in work that will remediate and improve soil, so we don’t need the cushiest spots.
  • Pathways – A blank slate is fine

DUG ‘food forests’ are being cared for by volunteer “Tree Keepers,” who receive  discounted supplies, digital trainings, lots of planning resources, as well as demographic data on neighborhoods served from
our partners at The Giving Grove.

Each food forest has at least two Tree Keepers who will shepherd and steward the site. 

It will be their perennial playground, where they can make changes as needed–but it will also be their responsibility to ensure the survival and establishment of the trees and plants.

Commitment and Expectations for Tree Keepers

  • At least two-year commitment: we want this to become something you own, love, and care for for a long time to come, and the less turnover the better. This is not just a place where you take orders from us at DUG, but something that reflects you and your passions and skills.
  • 30-60 minutes of work per week on average: there will be less to do through the winter, a lot more to do during pruning season, and you will be expected to keep close tabs on the site at all times so you can see disease and pest issues as they arise. The most consistent and crucial work is watering for tree establishment.
  • Work collaboratively with at least one other Tree Keeper to meet goals. This will be someone outside of your family, although you are more than welcome to involve partners, family, and friends in this work.
  • If you ever need to transition away from being a Tree Keeper, we ask that you recruit and find your replacement.

Support, Training, and Materials from DUG

  • A bucket of materials: orcharding book, pruners, pruning saw, tie tape, limb spreaders, hat, and t-shirt. These are yours to keep for as long as you’re a Tree Keeper with us–if you ever need to find a replacement, we ask that you transfer the pruners, saw, and book to that replacement.
  • Throughout the year there will be a series of tree-care workshops, with priority and free access given to our Tree Keepers. We will also convene some potlucks and community gatherings for our growing network.
  • You will get access and notice about national tree-care trainings offered by The Giving Grove.
  • DUG staff will be on-call via text or email to answer questions as they come up. 
  • If you want to add new plants to the food forest, we will find you funding, volunteers, and schedule workdays to get that accomplished. 

To get involved with the Food Forest Initiative at any level, please contact Director of Permaculture and Perennials Creighton Hofeditz at

Welcome To Our New Board Members

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We are thrilled to announce three new members to the DUG Board of Directors. Tim Craft, founder of Craft Companies, Jesse Ogas, Executive Director of Social Responsibility and Corporate Engagement at 9News, and Chris Shaffner, Senior Vice President at CoBank have joined the DUG Board for a two-year term beginning July 2022.

Meet Tim Craft

Tim is the founder of Craft Companies, a Denver-based real estate development firm that is transforming the future of home building through responsible, sustainable, and innovative practices that set a higher standard for future development. This is achieved by creating clustered developments, preserving open space and starry skies, incorporating pocket parks, solar lights and energy saving practices.

Recognized for national design excellence, Tim and his team are currently working with five local counties and municipalities to deliver communities that maximize natural resources through responsible land planning, preservation of open space and green technology.

An active partner in the communities where they create neighborhoods, Craft Companies’ hosted the HBA’s 2021 Parade of Homes Industry Night at their conservation-focused Independence Community.

Meet Jesse Ogas

Prior to joining the non-profit sector in 2006, Jesse worked in the retail industry where he worked on Regional teams and as a GM leading several big box stores in Colorado and Utah. After a 17-year career as a GM, he decided to take his knowledge to help the non-profit industry to think about philanthropy differently. Under Ogas’ 9 yr leadership, Firefly Autism has grown to serve families and children with autism across Colorado and is considered one the leading agencies in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy nationally and internationally.

Ogas is a proud member of one of the nation’s prominent Latino Theater companies, Su Teatro. He is a community advocate that has served on a variety of nonprofit Boards, including Colorado Aids Project, Tepeyac Community Health Center, Kemp Foundation, Latina Safehouse, Newsed Development Corporation, Adams Camp, Latina Safehouse, and the MSU President’s Cabinet. Currently, he serves on Tepeyac Community Health, Firefly Autism, Newsed, and 365 Health. He is a recipient of the Eric J. Duran Community Service Award, which honors a person of Latino descent who has made a positive impact in the Denver community.

Ogas was the 2021 9NEWS Leader of the Year, which is presented by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation. Ogas also recently participated in 9NEWS’ Voices of Change initiative during Hispanic Heritage month. Voices of Change is an ongoing conversation that amplifies voices of community members who are provoking change toward building an equitable, inclusive, and flourishing Colorado.

Today Ogas leads the DEI efforts with 9News as the Executive Director of Social Responsibility and Community Engagement. He just successfully relaunched the 9Listens Community Voices event, is working on the relaunch of 9Who Care, and rebuilding alliances in all the communities in which 9News serves.

Meet Chris Shaffner

Chris is the senior vice president and director of business operations for CoBank, a cooperative bank that provides loans, leases, export financing and other financial services to agribusinesses and rural power, water and communications providers in all 50 states.

Chris responsible for the development and execution of bank-wide strategic initiatives impacting loan and investment portfolios, including legislative and regulatory issues, portfolio growth, and customer initiatives. He also leads CoBank’s $3 billion water infrastructure finance business. In 2020, Chris also served on President Biden’s Infrastructure Policy Committee, co-chairing both water and rural subcommittees.
Prior to joining CoBank in 2015, Chris held various leadership positions in both public and private organizations, including private equity funds management in excess of $1 billion. He also headed borough operations for the New York City Housing Authority, where he led a team of 1,500 responsible for operating Manhattan’s 60,000 public housing units.

Mr. Shaffner earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, a juris doctor degree from Valparaiso University School of Law, and an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He lives in Denver with his wife and two kids and also serves on the Board of Directors of Colorado Youth for a Change.

As we welcome our new board members, we also say goodbye to three long-standing DUG board members, Diana Denwood, Chloe Mickel, and Ramonna Robinson, who collectively have served DUG for the last 10 years. We are so grateful for the extensive time and effort they have each offered to DUG over the years, and wish them the best in their future endeavors.