A Great Place to Grow: Community Gardens
By Becky Hurley
Looking for a way to get meet new friends, get a little exercise and maybe help your community? If so, check out the nearest community garden.
Since 2008, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens has helped locals establish start-up plots throughout the Pikes Peak region. Some of the area’s 16 community gardens are managed by PPUG, while others are managed by separate neighborhood groups.
Locations can be found throughout El Paso County. On the city’s west side, for example, you’ll find options like Vermijo and Harrison Urban Gardens or the Westside Community Gardens. Westside is especially handy for those who use a wheelchair, offering wider garden paths and 30-inch high planting boxes. In southwest Colorado Springs, new gardeners can learn techniques at the Harlan Wolfe Ranch – or develop a 20-foot by 20-foot boxed plot at Charmaine Nymann Community Garden at Bear Creek Regional Park. Downtown, there’s the new Mid Shooks Run (near the city’s new or Mill Street Community Garden while further south and east, check out plots at Duckwood, Fire Station 21 near Peterson AFB, Iron Horse, Ranch or Deerfield Hills locations.
And first-timers will find plenty of support. One of PPUG’s goals is to provide education. Newcomers can take classes or get on-site assistance from other gardeners. Each spring, for example, the organization’s founder and retiring president Larry Stebbins (aka “The Garlic Guy,” based on his 12-15 annual varieties) conducts a full morning’s overview on building and preparing a garden plot, preparing the soil, nurturing plants and harvesting a bonanza. This year’s packed house at Horace Mann School not only learned from a pro, but got a chance to meet with knowledgeable local vendors.
In 2008 Stebbins, a former botany, chemistry and biology teacher and school administrator initially led the program under the Pikes Peak Community Foundation’s umbrella. By 2016, however, he had formed a separate nonprofit whose mission was to build community gardens.
“You’re outside, always learning and you meet incredible people,” Stebbins explains. His own experience began after moving to Old Farm years ago. One day he saw an open garden gate across the street and walked in. “A gentleman named Ernie was working and right away asked, ‘Where’s your hat?’” Turned out Ernie was the garden’s manager. Stebbins decided to pay a $40 plot water fee and planted his own garden. The two men are still friends and discovered they’d both grown up within a mile of each other in Detroit – something they might never have known, had they not met in a community garden.
“I call a community garden a “third place,” he says, adding home and work are usually Place No. 1 and No.2. “For some the third place is church – or the corner bar. But for many of us, a community garden is a little like the TV show, ‘Cheers.’ It’s where everybody knows your name and why you came.”
Thirty-year gardener – and Bear Creek’s Charmaine Nymann regular Kay Gray, agrees. Her planting colleagues – the people she meets and works with – have become friends. “You get to know all kinds of folks. There’s Dave, the Master Gardener in my area, Brenda, a former kindergarten teacher or Karen whose plot is across the way. We help each other out with watering or weeding if we’re going to be out of town,” she explains, adding that camaraderie has been a wonderful by-product.
But there’s more to Kay’s story. After a big harvest in 2011, she realized that she had raised more than she could use. “Sometimes you trade veggies with other gardeners,” she explains. But the former teacher and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo docent, had another idea. “I began asking zoo commissary staffers, ‘What kind of produce did the zoo need for the animals?’ and “How much was the garden donating annually?’” Today organically raised produce donated by the BCGA has reduced food costs for the zoo with annual donations exceeding 3,500 pounds.
Of course Mother Nature can throw you a curve. Colorado’s wind, hail and rugged weeds can be a challenge. Case in point: Just before harvest a couple of years ago – after months of soil work, planting, watering and volunteering – Emily and George Ulrich were ready to harvest a rich crop of kohlrabi, greens, peppers and tomatoes. That year, however, the entire Bear Creek Charmaine Nymann garden was attacked by grasshoppers!
“It devastated everything in the garden. Fortunately we had more successful years. And community gardens do a lot of good. You can’t sell your extra produce, but you can give it to the zoo or to a local food bank.”