Better Boys

Harvesting memories with the men of Wheat Ridge.

Once upon a time, there was actual wheat growing on a ridge in Wheat Ridge. But not a lot of it. Instead, where today new strip malls sprout up almost daily, five- and ten-acre truck farms grew tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and lettuce. And celery -- the celery was particularly fine. To find a Wheat Ridge plot that big in this day and age, you have to find the Happiness Garden, which is no mean trick.

It claims to be located at West 42nd Avenue and Ammons Street, but you don't see an entrance from either of those, just a dirt driveway in the middle of the block, lined by corn and flowers. Taking that driveway, you arrive at a large field divided into small garden plots, backed by the playing fields of the Wilmore Davis Elementary School. To suddenly be surrounded by all of this cultivated space -- the biggest secret garden you're likely to find in metro Denver -- is exhilarating.

"Well, sure," says garden manager Don Neithercut. "You feel it in your roots."

The plot thickens: Jim Teliha and Don Neithercut oversee the Happiness Garden;

Joe Scherber and his pumpkin.
The plot thickens: Jim Teliha and Don Neithercut oversee the Happiness Garden;

Joe Scherber and his pumpkin.

The plot thickens: Jim Teliha and Don Neithercut oversee the Happiness Garden.
John Johnston
The plot thickens: Jim Teliha and Don Neithercut oversee the Happiness Garden.

"I come here at least every other day," says Jim Teliha, who's worked a Happiness Garden plot for the past fifteen years. "I have a backyard but no sun, and this is a matter of getting closer to the land. My folks had a farm, and that's how I grew up."

"I would say most people's grandparents were farmers," Neithercut adds. "It's where we come from."

Well, it's where they come from: Even if I had just turned eighty, as Neithercut recently did, I would have to look far up my family tree to find anything more agricultural than the celery in the Dr. Brown's tonic served at my great-grandfather's deli. But still, at some point I would hit a potato patch in the shtetl, and standing in the middle of the ten-acre Happiness Garden, I realize I feel my farming roots just as much as Neithercut and Teliha do. We're happy, if a little sad that we're two days away from frost. We're interested in anything that will keep the three of us standing around out here a little while longer, talking about growing things.

Giant pumpkins, for instance. Joe Scherber, a local dentist, has just arrived with his extra-long measuring tape to check on the progress of the giant pumpkin he's training for an Iowa contest.

"The man's a champion," Neithercut says. "He's won the grand prize two out of three years."

"Never won the nationals, though," Scherber says modestly. His pumpkin, an Atlantic Giant currently about half the size of a Volkswagen bug, is gaining twenty pounds per day. (His calculations are made with the help of a chart supplied by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.) "I have the only known pumpkin hoist in Colorado, and this has been my obsession, or whatever you want to call it, for the past eight years. It was all because of this patient who kept bringing me pictures of himself with these huge pumpkins -- actually sitting in a pumpkin, a bathtub-sized pumpkin."

The next plot over, Neithercut grows average-sized jack-o-lantern pumpkins for the city of Wheat Ridge, which distributes them to residents who are very young or very old. Teliha is more of a generalist -- he grows all the basic household vegetables, with an emphasis on tomatoes. (There is nothing like a Big Boy, he says.) All three men are members of the former Wheat Ridge Men's Garden Club, now known as the Wheat Ridge Gardeners of America. For the past 46 years, the Wheat Ridge Gardeners have met the fourth Tuesday of each month to discuss a gardening subject.

"And we decided to allow gals in '93 or '94," Teliha says. "It was a good idea. The gals that joined contributed a lot of humorous moments to the meetings."

"It was an excellent addition," Neithercut says firmly. "I believe we did the right thing."

In fact, Paula DiYorio, a woman, has been club president for the past two years. But it's the gardening men who planted the seed. What did they talk about all those years? As I leave the Happiness Garden, another manly conversation is starting up.

"Do those big pumpkins make good eating?" Teliha is asking.

"Well, yeah, but it's hard to know what to do with the remaining 700 pounds," Scherber answers.

"And what about the seed?" Neithercut asks. "Where do you get it?"

"You try to get seed from a champion. But you know what? Last year the world-record pumpkin had no seeds at all."

"Well, I would say!" remarks Neithercut. "That's unusual!"

In 1954, the year the Wheat Ridge Men's Garden Club was founded, there were more than half a dozen men's garden clubs in the metro area, all official chapters of the national Men's Garden Club. That organization had formed in 1932, four years after Leo W. Nack of Chicago won a citywide ornamental gardening contest and decided to start a club that would inspire other men to try for similar honors.

"I seem to remember that a few men had been going to a women's club and didn't feel entirely welcome, either," recalls Mary Grandgeorge, bookkeeper at the Des Moines-based national Men's Garden Club office. "And I guess our mission is different than most women's clubs. We stress gardening education, horticulture therapy and civic beautification, not so much flower shows and judging."

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