#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.