Garden Party

Fairview fifth-graders sprout success in Sun Valley.

At any given time, a handful of community gardens across the city are under fire. Like the endangered Emerson Street Community Garden on Capitol Hill, plots located on privately owned land are vulnerable to developers eyeing the spaces for new construction or future parking lots. But the Fairview School Garden is going strong, thanks in part to the fact that the land is owned by Denver Public Schools, and in part to the efforts of Don Diehl's fifth-grade class.

The majority of Diehl's students live in the nearby housing projects and in low-income apartments offered to families who are transitioning from homelessness. Their neighborhood is known as Sun Valley, and according to U.S. Census data, it has the highest percentage of residents living in poverty of any area in Denver, and the second highest in the state. It is a tiny sliver of a community dominated by industrial plots and wedged into the valley skirted by I-25 as it soars past Invesco Field. Buildings housing social-services providers take up almost as much space in the neighborhood as do the homes in which the recipients of such services live.

Inside Diehl's classroom, plastic bins along one wall are filled with books ranging from pre-school to young-adult reading levels to match the diverse needs of his fifth-graders. On another wall is a sign that reads "Good ways to calm down," followed by four suggestions that sound like lessons from an anger-management class.

"My kids have a lot of anger, a lot of crisis in their lives," Diehl explains.

Ninety-eight percent of Fairview's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the school has found that attendance improves when food is provided in the mornings. As the kids in Diehl's class trickle in, an assistant makes her way around the room asking, "Did you have breakfast yet?" She encourages them to help themselves to cellophane-wrapped muffins, fruit cups and small cartons of milk stacked in bins by the door.

After everyone has eaten, the students clear wrappers and crumbs from their desks as Diehl directs their attention to Judy Elliott, the education coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens who visits the class on Wednesday mornings. Elliott asks the kids if they remember what was recently added to the soil in the community garden across the street.

"It's cow poop!" pipes up ten-year-old Brianna Cisneros.

Amid the ensuing giggling and chattering, Diehl and Elliott manage to review the previous week's lesson on the nitrogen cycle and the nutrients that manure adds to the soil. Following the discussion, the kids grab their jackets to go outside. Diehl's students cultivate half of the sixteen eight-foot-by-ten-foot plots in the garden. Families, church groups and other residents of Sun Valley work the rest in cooperation with the non-profit DUG, which organizes and manages more than sixty gardens and parks in the metro area.

Despite Elliott's explanation that the manure has broken down into organic matter and isn't really poop anymore, the odor that hangs in the air leaves many of the kids unconvinced and reluctant to start digging. After some whining and conspicuous nose-holding, a handful of kids become absorbed in their work of turning over the soil with shovels. With some difficulty, Brianna wields a shovel that's nearly a foot taller than she is, and stops frequently to empty dirt out of her bright pink Crocs. Her classmate, twelve-year-old Ashley Sandoval, digs in with enthusiasm after pushing up the sleeves of the navy-blue sweatshirt that hangs down halfway to her knees. The back of it reads "Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation," and hers is one of many that were given to students by the organization, which is a garden supporter.

The vegetables and flowers the kids are planting will be sold this summer at an annual farmers' market run by Diehl and a handful of his students. After the semester ends, several kids and a few parents volunteer to keep working the garden with Diehl and Elliott. Starting the first Sunday in July, the students set up tables under a big tent on Decatur Street, where they'll sell tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro, cabbage and more for less than a dollar apiece. The kids are paid a small wage, and the rest of the proceeds are put back into the garden to buy tools, seeds for the next season, and baskets and other equipment to expand the market's displays.

In addition to beautifying an area that looks out on a downtown skyline dwarfed by dull gray power lines and concrete smokestacks, the farmers' market provides residents access to fresh fruits and vegetables during the summer months. This is no small feat in a neighborhood whose closest large grocery store is more than a mile away and inconvenient to reach by the public transit on which many Sun Valley families depend. The only other source of fresh food in the neighborhood is the small market at the corner of Decatur Street and Holden Place that sells iceberg lettuce, apples and oranges at convenience-store prices.

For all its successes, the garden has seen its share of setbacks in the six years since Diehl's class and local residents began cultivating an old garden gone fallow. Disease once destroyed an entire season's tomato crop, and proceeds from the market had to be spent buying replacements wholesale. Another year, a Vietnamese resident out working his plot was hit by a bottle thrown by a passing motorist.

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