Garden Party

Adam Calderon (from left), Judy Elliott, Henry Martinez and Justin Archuleta dig in.
Mark Manger

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.

For better or for worse, the garden is a public park with an unsecured chain-link fence that puts a great deal of trust in local residents to treat it with respect. Vandalism has been rare in recent years, but there is occasional evidence that the garden is also used for nefarious activities. When twelve-year-old Shealynn Sandoval, Ashley's twin, was diligently digging up weeds one morning, she unearthed a small metal pipe, apparently left behind by drug users. She picked it up, examined it and ran over to Elliott.

"Miss Judy," she called, "look what I found!"

Elliott took the pipe and quickly wrapped it in a plastic bag to be disposed of off the premises, visibly relieved that Shealynn asked no further questions as she went back to weeding.

The satisfaction that Diehl's students take away from their 45 minutes in the garden every week is evident. Kids who enter the classroom withdrawn and sullen come alive outside. Given a shovel or a packet of seeds, most work diligently and are reluctant to go back inside for their next class. "It's a way to work out frustrations and relax," Diehl says. He adds that it's also a valuable lesson in self-respect: "I want them to know that they deserve everything that everyone else in the world has."

Although this year's class of fifth-graders has as many problems at home as any group Diehl's taught, they have risen to the challenge and taken full responsibility for the success of the garden. If Diehl forgets a scheduled watering of seedlings or to check on the progress of the "worm farm" the kids cultivate in a rubber tub, they don't hesitate to get him back on track.

"They're in charge of it, not me," he says with a grin. "These kids don't let me get away with anything."

Elliott attributes much of the garden's progress to the fact that it provides kids with a "a different way of measuring their own successes." Unlike CSAP test scores, which tend to tell them they're sub-standard in some way, the garden gives them a connection to something tangible, a project whose growth is a direct result of their efforts.

As a kid in this neighborhood, "you don't know if you're going to have a roof over your head the next day," she says. "This is something to look forward to in a constant state of crisis."

The students who thrive in the garden tend to go about their work quietly, a welcome contrast to the cacophony of the classroom. Shealynn says she prefers gardening to sitting inside at her desk because "gardening is fun." She smiles shyly and brushes her brown hair out of her eyes, then adds, "You get to get fresh air."

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