The Accidental Guerilla Gardener

Emily Frost, Events and Garden Leader Coordinator

A true story about the organic growth of a neighborhood, a garden, and the man who helped bring them together

Kurtis Keele has poured a lot into the Lowell Street Community Garden. As garden leader for five years and neighbor to the garden for 20, he has been an integral part of the many changes that took place in this space, and the garden in turn has become a meaningful part of Kurtis’s life. When he was considering a new vehicle, he purchased a truck- it would be useful for the garden. He regularly buys tools to distribute to gardeners. He recently invested in a rototiller, which he claims is for himself, but we both know it will spend its lifetime in the garden.

But Kurtis’ relationship with Lowell Street Community Garden extends far beyond his generous contributions of garden amenities. I recently sat down with Kurtis, over some authentic Latin cuisine at my favorite hole-in-the-wall spot on Federal Boulevard. Over guac and mole, I explored the man, the myth, and the garden. Here is what I learned.

Though Lowell Street Community Garden is one of seven gardens across the DUG network located on Denver Parks and Recreation land, from the curb it looks less like a park and more like just another yard on the street in this predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood. In fact, many neighbors believed for a time that it was Kurtis’ yard, since he was consistently working in the garden every time someone passed by. They asked when he was going to build a house! And then Kurtis would invite them in to take a plot. The vast majority of the plots have always been and still are utilized by people whom live in the neighborhood, if not on that very street, as he does. His community outreach consisted primarily of the tried and true method of “showing up.” Kurtis was nearly always in the garden, and nearly every current gardener came to the garden by way of walking by and asking Kurtis about it. Another way that families got involved was through their curious kids, who made friends with “Grandpa” as he became known.

When the garden first started, there was a vacant lot next door. Kurtis worked in the garden with his scooter nearby, which captured the interest of the many young boys in the neighborhood. With (alleged) parental permission, these young kids would come to the garden to drive Kurtis’ scooter all over the vacant lot. And, one by one, their families got to know “grandpa” as well, and took up plots at Lowell Street. The garden has become a social hub, a third space for neighbors in the evenings during the growing season. “It’s a real social thing with all the 40- to 50-year-old men. They go out there and hang out in the evening, and water, and talk, and smoke, and drink, and you know, socialize. And all the kids in the neighborhood have grown up, and now they’re having kids.” But they stay rooted here in this neighborhood, expanding to a new plot for their own young families.

Kurtis took over garden leadership some five or so years ago. At that time, “there were literally 10 plots. And most of those were one person who would have two plots. It was kind of an empty place. The lawn was a pain in the butt, because nobody watered it and I had to mow it. So, as it started to fill up, people said “I need a garden plot” and I said “OK, where do you want it?” and I rototilled up all the grass, never thinking this was actually a design! Sorry, Michael.”

So, as it started to fill up, people said “I need a garden plot” and I said “OK, where do you want it?” and I rototilled up all the grass, never thinking this was actually a design! Sorry, Michael.”

When it occurred to Kurtis that he could lose the land that he and the other gardeners had unwittingly guerilla gardened, he reached out to DUG. Fortunately, DUG was able to work with the landowners to negotiate new boundaries for Lowell Street Community Garden that encompassed an approved expansion plan. Kurtis could rest easy knowing that the additional plots were there to stay. “And that’s how I got stuck with it,” he says of his leadership position.

(Garden leaders! Considering going rogue and expanding your garden’s plots? Please, don’t! Our good relationship with landowners, and the future of community gardens, depends upon DUG and gardeners upholding our end of land use agreements. If you are interested in expanding your community garden, give us a shout. We’re happy to work with you to explore those possibilities.)

As someone who self-identifies as an introvert, the garden has played an important role in Kurtis’ social experience. “[Becoming garden leader happened] at a time when it was therapeutic for me, and it has been ever since. …I tend to isolate or be in anonymous places- like sit in a restaurant, go to a movie alone. Isolated. So it’s very good for me to be social and spend time with my neighbors. It’s really fun. And it amuses the hell out of me.”

Kurtis says that his favorite thing about gardening is “learning how to eat vegetables. Collard greens! I had heard what they are, but never seen them, never fixed them. I now eat collard greens, I eat the greens off the broccoli and the cauliflower, mustard greens- all of these greens. I grew up in a suburban low-income family and my mom’s idea of cooking was boiling hotdogs. Or she’d make a roast. I would say, “What’s for dinner?” and she’d say, “I made a roast” and I would say “Well Mom, a roast does not make a meal. What goes with it?” and she said “Two slices of bread and some butter.”

Just learning different foods is my favorite part. And getting out of the house. Getting people involved who you see walk by and look.

Does Kurtis relate to any particular vegetable more than others? I asked him what his “spirit vegetable” is. His answer reflects wisdom gleaned from years of experience cultivating community in the neighborhood: “The green bean. I love the way they grow, pole beans. You can cover up anything with pole beans! Cover the fence, cover the walkway. I plant pole beans everywhere. And I have a saying at the garden- I’m not sure where it came from originally, either the Aztecs or the Mayans- you know there were no 7-11s on the corner. So, we say the first three rows are for the travelers. You stick your hand into that fourth row, we cut your hand off- you’re stealing. But those first three rows are up for grabs. A lot of gardens have really big fences, which is really good for… something. But I tell all of my gardeners to plant along the walkways things like cherry tomatoes, beans, things that as they go by, people can grab one and eat it. Cause they’re going to anyway, so don’t give them your 300 pound pumpkin, give them your cherry tomatoes.”

To his fellow garden leaders, Kurtis offers these words on balance: “You’ve got to be able to do both. Let it go, and spend 80 hours a week there.”

Knowing that this was his advice, it was no surprise to me how our time together ended. As the meal was wrapping up, Kurtis took a moment to answer an incoming phone call. His response to the caller is what I now understand to be commonplace for him:

“If I’m not at the house, I’ll be at the garden. Give me a call and I’ll meet you.”

Kurtis Keele lives half a block from the Lowell Street Community Garden. He has participated in both the Master Community Gardener and Master Composter Training Programs. Kurtis shakes things up by taking on new hobbies every 5-10 years: once an avid skier, he forayed into 4-wheeling, and then explored scuba diving. His most recent passion: gardening, especially composting and rototilling. We are so grateful!

Back to The Underground News: Spring 2014