The childlike joy felt when something green pops through the earth where a seed's been planted is about as basic as burping. We've all been there. Many of us will be there again. But when the pure art of gardening -- a kind of introspective, personal thing -- intermingles with scores of unique personalities all interacting with nature in their own unique ways, it opens up a whole new sociological dimension. And that's why community gardening is way different than digging around in your own back yard.
Rosedale Community Garden, Denver's largest until a newer plot at the former Lowry Air Force Base surpassed it, is a living, growing, budding, blossoming case in point. For $20 and eight hours of volunteer time a year, anyone can have a 15-by-30-foot plot of land at Rosedale, while they last. So there really is no demographic in community gardening: "We have whites, blacks, Hispanics, handicapped people, a lot of single women, even a lot of men -- everything from janitors to doctors," says Mary Murphy, a professional gardener and former head honcho at Rosedale (a thankless job now handled by a committee of five). Middle-aged people, retirees and families -- including a den of foxes -- work there side by side each summer, all observing how their neighbors' gardens grow.
Multiply that by seventy or so -- that's how many active plots the garden supports -- and you begin to understand how managing activity at Rosedale can become a real pain in the neck. "You get this plot, you can grow anything you want there as long as it's legal, but then you're also asked to be a part of the community, and some people don't want to do that," Murphy notes. "People are gung-ho in the spring, but then the weeds start to grow, and they find out that gardening is not so easy." The plots thicken.
That's not to say there's no give and take. "You get a lot of support," Murphy says. "If you stand in the same place long enough, you'll get more advice than you'll ever need." The garden donates plots for use by developmentally disabled students from the Denver Public Schools and a group for people with head injuries. There are communal medicinal and culinary herb gardens, a small orchard and xeriscape and perennial demonstration plots at Rosedale. Another parcel is reserved to grow flowers for the Platt Park Senior Center. And the gardeners themselves -- people like Dave Conant, who spearheads twice-weekly food collections for Project Angel Heart -- display rare facets of generosity and human spirit.
"A couple years ago, I saw how much food was going to waste on the vine," Conant says. "I gave some away, but there was still too much. At first, it was loose -- people would take food someplace sometimes, and squirrels took everything else. I decided to be more consistent about it."
Consistency paid off -- under Conant's direction, Rosedale contributed 3,000 pounds of homegrown food last season and expects to surpass that mark this year. "To really be a community garden, you must look at the community at large," he says with kind resolve.
Ultimately, though, Rosedale -- plunked on a site that's been everything from a dump to a hobo haven -- seems like one of the last great places in the middle of the city where you can still go to get an inkling of what it was like to homestead on the prairie over a century ago. Pad quietly along its woodchip-strewn paths in early evening, and the nearby houses fade away. The birdsong seems louder somehow, as the setting sun filters its way through cornstalks and sunflowers.
Conant puts that hard-to-describe ambience all in place: "I sometimes just like to go sit and watch things grow." We've all been there. Many of us will be there again. "It's a social thing, and it's a nature thing," Conant continues. "But also, I guess people garden just for the taste of fresh vegetables -- there is nothing like a fresh tomato."