ROOM TO GROW

UP IN WINDBLOWN CHEYENNE, SHANE SMITH CULTIVATES ALL KINDS OF LIVING THINGS--BANANAS, SWEET PEAS AND PEOPLE NO ONE ELSE WANTS.

Shane remembers the exact moment he fell for gardening. He was six, and his mother sent him out to weed the strawberry patch in their southeast Denver garden. "I weeded it, all right," he says, "but I also ate all the strawberries."

The fascination was still going strong by the time he entered George Washington High School, where he was introduced to the world of "race riots and violence. It was like too many mice in a box," Shane recalls. "It helped me understand the principle of a mass mind of violence. I would watch people fighting and get this uncontrollable urge to hit someone."

He controlled the urge, which wouldn't have served him very well in his chosen profession as a Western Slope fruit farmer, anyway. But neither did two years at Colorado Mountain College, where Shane says he did little but go white-water rafting and be "rebellious and arty." In an attempt to sample the real world, Shane enrolled at Colorado State University, where he told his advisor his career goal was to have fun. That landed him in the horticulture department, where classes took up little of his time. Instead Shane poured all his energy into raising chickens and goats in the yard of the house he rented in Fort Collins. "And you know goats," he says. "They were dancing on the hoods of cars in that neighborhood, and they tried to stop us, but we said, hey, show us the statute."

The neighbors managed to banish the chickens, but the goats stayed, and Shane soon found himself hosting tours of elementary-school children. "That really was the beginning," he recalls. "I liked telling kids about goats. I still thought I wanted an orchard of my own, but what I ended up farming was people."

First, though, Shane took a job measuring the sugar content of potato chips. His teachers, who'd discouraged his interest in greenhouse growing, suggested he try for a career breeding carrots for a seed company--or perhaps enter a master's program in potato-chip technology. But Shane was unenthused. Between chip checks, he drove to Cheyenne to visit the site of a solar greenhouse being built by Community Action of Cheyenne, a federally supported project. "It was supposed to raise food for senior citizens, and that interested me," Shane remembers. "I was 23, and before long, I was a paid consultant." The job paid only $400 a month, small potatoes compared to what he'd been making. Rather than commute from Fort Collins, he moved into a tiny trailer on the site of the greenhouse, which was going up slowly and erratically thanks to any volunteer help that was available. "We hired two real construction guys," he says, "but they weren't brave enough to go out on the scaffolding. A 14-year-old girl did that. We had a 57-year-old female plumber from Russia. We got a bunch of shingles donated and nailed them up in a crazy pattern after we drank some beer. But we got it built, and amazingly enough, the plants made it through the winter."

That was enough to earn Shane the position of greenhouse director--and a $100-a-month raise. The group got a lot for its money. Shane expanded the greenhouse's activities until monthly potlucks, a weekly farmer's market and a spring bedding-plant sale were Cheyenne fixtures. He began making regular appearances on local radio, sometimes as a call-in gardening consultant, sometimes as the producer of short horticultural commentaries that occasionally made it to National Public Radio.

"And I didn't always concentrate on science, either," he says. "I invented a fictional seed company called Harley's Hot-to-Trot Hybrids, and I had old Harley on the show to promote things like a leek that actually leaks and a special strain of zucchini that explodes at a certain point so you don't have to deal with it." The nonexistent Harley received several serious inquiries from gardeners. "The defense department was interested, too," Shane adds.

Schoolchildren began coming to the greenhouse by the busload, Shane remembers, "and most of them had no idea where carrots come from." He told them, repeating his greenhouse-growing spiel so often that he eventually wrote a book (The Bountiful Solar Greenhouse), did some out-of-town consulting and became "a member in not very good standing because their dues are too expensive" of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. The more he left town, though, the more attached Shane became to Cheyenne. "It's the bastard child of the Front Range, and that's how I like it," he says.

He also liked the loyal band of otherwise unwanted folks who'd become his crack volunteer staff. Shane's projects attracted everyone from senior citizens to a squad of handicapped workers. Debby, who has Down's syndrome, has now been greeting greenhouse visitors for more than a decade.

By 1986, when it became evident that the original greenhouse was suffering from the lethal combination of high humidity and poor construction, Shane and his crew were well known around Cheyenne--so well known that when the mayor tried to transfer the greenhouse's federal funds to the Downtown Association, all hell broke loose. "Poor guy," recalls Shane, "he ended up on a task force instead." After a summer's worth of the sort of meetings that no self-respecting Wyomingite wanted anything to do with, the task force decided to make the gardens part of the Cheyenne Department of Parks and Recreation. Shane secured a $350,000 community development grant to build a fancy new greenhouse, which would serve not just as a social services/food-for-lower-income/bedding-plant center, but also as a tourist attraction--the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

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