The Plot Thickens

A fear of development is growing in community gardens around Denver.

Van Pelt, however, remains optimistic. He's willing to try to raise money no matter what the price, as long as he has the support of his fellow gardeners. He envisions holding a race or a benefit concert to raise money. Until he has more details, though, he's focusing on collecting signatures. "I'm not sure how much success I'd have by myself," he adds. "But if there's energy behind it, I'm willing to lead the organized effort."

Every square inch of the Emerson Street Community Garden is brimming with plant or animal life. There are petunias, poppies, cosmos, sunflowers and marigolds. Echinacea, rosemary, parsley and tarragon. Bees, butterflies and birds. Pumpkins, watermelons, squash, turnips and eggplants. Cherry tomatoes, roma tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes. On hot, end-of-summer afternoons, after the morning glories have closed their petals, the trees on Emerson street come alive with the electric buzz of cicadas. Cars whiz by on busy Eighth Avenue, but it's hardly noticeable from this urban refuge.

Jeff Mason is leading the effort to save the Clarkson Street Garden.
Anthony Camera
Jeff Mason is leading the effort to save the Clarkson Street Garden.

The garden is divided into forty plots that currently serve 48 gardeners who each pay $40 a year to the treasurer of an informal board of directors that governs activities in the garden; the fee covers the use of water and gardening tools. There are usually about ten or fifteen people on a waiting list every year.

The people who garden here are as varied as the species of tomatoes growing. There are the two hairdressers whose plot is full of human hair. (Hair is a source of nitrogen that, after broken down with other composting materials, helps promote foliage growth.) There's the local Midas who turns everything he touches into gold -- or, more appropriately, green. His own lot is a tidy pattern of leeks and lettuce and neatly staked tomatoes, but he's most noted for revamping the abandoned garden next to his: Within weeks of his taking over the weed-filled plot, it was full of fruits and vegetables.

There's also the Korean couple, for whom the garden has been a source of new friendships. Bo Han and her boyfriend, Su Jung, moved to Denver from Seoul two years ago. Han, an architect who speaks perfect English (like De Pree, she is the daughter of diplomat parents and learned the language early while living in Panama, Norway and Hong Kong), doesn't get to work in the garden as much as she'd like, but she's benefited from the harvest. "When you don't own your own home, a community garden is the only relief you have. We didn't have to buy any lettuce or cucumbers all summer," she says.

Han's boyfriend, who is studying in an intensive English program, has the green thumb, and his flexible schedule allows him more time in the garden. "Even though it's a small piece of land, you can grow a lot," Han says. "We couldn't eat everything we grew, so we gave a lot of it away."

For the last two years, all of the gardeners have been donating extra vegetables to Project Angel Heart, a nonprofit that provides food for people with HIV and AIDS.

But there has also been some theft over the years, along with a few unsavory characters. "There was one man who was supposed to be a dentist. He grew nothing but one big pumpkin," Prendergast recalls. "We tried to tell him to grow something else. It was the biggest pumpkin I'd ever seen. He left after one year. I don't think he was a real dentist."

Randel Metz, the de facto president of the garden's board, remembers hearing about a power-hungry gardener who left just before he got his plot six years ago. "This guy had two plots at first, and then he got more plots after others vacated theirs. It was like a Monopoly game; suddenly he controlled the whole garden," he says. "And he was trying to tell everyone else what to do, so they got rid of him."

Another year, a man came to the garden who "had a way with all the women -- or at least thought he did," Metz says. "He grew spectacular cantaloupes. He covered the ground with black plastic, and of course everyone was horrified. But it increased the heat, and the cantaloupes grew really well."

Metz, who catalogues historic photographs on the Internet for the Denver Public Library's Western History collection, concentrates on growing flowers to restore habitat for honeybees; their population has been decimated by a plague of lice, and many of the prairie wildflowers they thrive on have been lost to the bulldozer.

"The demographic in this garden is fascinating," Metz says. "We've got people who barely speak English and an older couple whose son has AIDS and lives with them, so it's not all rich condo owners with a hobby garden. There are a lot of salt-of-the-earth types who rely on it for their food."

Laura Tizzard is one of those. Known to her fellow gardeners as Grandma Laura, Tizzard got a plot thirteen months ago after she got tired of gardening in a friend's yard a few miles away. "It got to be too much for me to go over there," says the retired schoolteacher and grandmother of six. She grows spinach, beets, kale and Swiss chard.

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