ROOM TO GROW
Lillian Wittschen may be pushing seventy and hooked up to an oxygen tank, but she's always on the lookout for a thrill. She thinks you should be, too. "Why don't you go take a look at the biggest thing to come down the pike?" she suggests. "It's an angel's trumpet plant, and you never seen anything to beat it."
You never smelled anything to beat it, either. Its foot-long, bell-shaped blossoms hang overhead, emanating the heady, thick fragrance of the tropics--which could hardly be further away. "Sure, it's Cheyenne," says Lillian, "but I like it here. I came up here a couple years ago, and they begged me to go back to New Orleans, but I don't think so. I enjoy aggravating all these people too much to leave."
Like most of the people she enjoys aggravating, Lillian arrived at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens with no more than a garden-variety knowledge of horticulture. "We always had regular old gardens," she recalls. "First thing I remember is picking my daddy's beans, butter beans, and eating those wonderful beans and onions. And, of course, I always liked flowers." She has come to the right place. Located in the middle of Cheyenne's high, lonesome plain--an area where not a single tree grew until the 1890s--these gardens feature eight acres of now-frozen perennials. In the middle of them stands a three-room, passive solar greenhouse that keeps winter at bay. Here bananas ripen under three layers of hail-proof plastic, as do papayas, coffee beans, tea leaves and ginger. Sweet peas and regular old eating peas climb toward the rafters. Beets, lettuce, turnips and broccoli are ready to pick. If you work here, you get to take some home--the most tangible benefit of this highly unsalaried job.
"Our labor force is made up of the major groups society likes to reject--seniors, the handicapped and kids working off their drunk-driving court fines," says gardens director Shane Smith. "And we don't do make-work projects. Everyone who works takes home food, and they earn it. It's a lot different than being given a food stamp." You may not want to get into a food stamp discussion with Shane, let alone a chat about welfare or government handouts. As for American society in general--don't get him started.
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"Well, it's weird," he insists. "The generations are all boxed up seperate from each other. The mentally handicapped are put so far away from us that we get scared of them. All these talented seniors are playing bridge in Arizona, which is fine if they want to. But what if they don't?"
Well, they could always join up with Shane's rejects--and achieve a bit of nationwide notoriety in the process. "We aren't the only 100-percent-passive solar greenhouse in the country," he says, "but we are the only one with social service as our primary purpose."
"Some of the people who hang around here are half dead," Lillian adds, "but that doesn't stop them. My doctor says, `Don't you dare give it up, Lillian.' I do think we have just enough fun here to keep us alive." And make the vegetation thrive.
Shane Smith has been cultivating this symbiotic relationship for nearly half of his forty years. Out of this year's $80,000 budget--the most extravagant so far for the Botanic Gardens--Shane will squeeze not just his salary and that of his assistant, but all materials, down to the last blade of grass. In return, Cheyenne will get enough bedding plants to supply all of its parks. Not a week goes by without a call or visit from an out-of-state altruist who wants to duplicate this program. "Especially those Boulder people," Shane sighs. "They always say how far out it is, how perfect for Boulder, and how did something this hip ever happen in Wyoming? But they never do seem to get started, because they get all mixed up with foundations and boards and committees. In Wyoming we don't. Democracy works a lot easier here."
It's currently working in the Gathering Room, where all the volunteers but Lillian, who's manning the front desk, are taking a mid-morning break.
"God, these cookies are stale, Joyce," says Don Mason, a retired Spanish teacher who looks cool and tan in an almost teenage way.
"Quit eating them, then," says Joyce Schreck, who is working here as part of the federal Green Thumb Project, designed to retrain seniors for a second career in the greenhouse trade. "I like it here, because it's something to do and it pays," she explains. "We don't get too terribly profound." "Don't tell me you're eating again, Don," Lillian yells from the front office.
"Yes, I am, and when I get done, I'm coming in there and slap you off that stool."
"Why don't you try?" Lillian screams.
"Hey," Don yells back, "you still love me?"
"Crazy about him," Lillian says. "I like this whole town. I'm even mixed up in politics. I know it's crooked, but I love it. I love to get into arguments with a couple of those old Republicans."
Neither Lillian's enlarged heart nor her recent bout with pneumonia have weakened that desire. Shane, even though he's more Republican than anything else, is impressed: The way he sees it, Lillian is a brilliant example of horticultural therapy in action.
Shane remembers the exact moment he fell for gardening. He was six, and his mother sent him out to weed the strawberry patch in their southeast Denver garden. "I weeded it, all right," he says, "but I also ate all the strawberries."
The fascination was still going strong by the time he entered George Washington High School, where he was introduced to the world of "race riots and violence. It was like too many mice in a box," Shane recalls. "It helped me understand the principle of a mass mind of violence. I would watch people fighting and get this uncontrollable urge to hit someone."
He controlled the urge, which wouldn't have served him very well in his chosen profession as a Western Slope fruit farmer, anyway. But neither did two years at Colorado Mountain College, where Shane says he did little but go white-water rafting and be "rebellious and arty." In an attempt to sample the real world, Shane enrolled at Colorado State University, where he told his advisor his career goal was to have fun. That landed him in the horticulture department, where classes took up little of his time. Instead Shane poured all his energy into raising chickens and goats in the yard of the house he rented in Fort Collins. "And you know goats," he says. "They were dancing on the hoods of cars in that neighborhood, and they tried to stop us, but we said, hey, show us the statute."
The neighbors managed to banish the chickens, but the goats stayed, and Shane soon found himself hosting tours of elementary-school children. "That really was the beginning," he recalls. "I liked telling kids about goats. I still thought I wanted an orchard of my own, but what I ended up farming was people."
First, though, Shane took a job measuring the sugar content of potato chips. His teachers, who'd discouraged his interest in greenhouse growing, suggested he try for a career breeding carrots for a seed company--or perhaps enter a master's program in potato-chip technology. But Shane was unenthused. Between chip checks, he drove to Cheyenne to visit the site of a solar greenhouse being built by Community Action of Cheyenne, a federally supported project. "It was supposed to raise food for senior citizens, and that interested me," Shane remembers. "I was 23, and before long, I was a paid consultant." The job paid only $400 a month, small potatoes compared to what he'd been making. Rather than commute from Fort Collins, he moved into a tiny trailer on the site of the greenhouse, which was going up slowly and erratically thanks to any volunteer help that was available. "We hired two real construction guys," he says, "but they weren't brave enough to go out on the scaffolding. A 14-year-old girl did that. We had a 57-year-old female plumber from Russia. We got a bunch of shingles donated and nailed them up in a crazy pattern after we drank some beer. But we got it built, and amazingly enough, the plants made it through the winter."
That was enough to earn Shane the position of greenhouse director--and a $100-a-month raise. The group got a lot for its money. Shane expanded the greenhouse's activities until monthly potlucks, a weekly farmer's market and a spring bedding-plant sale were Cheyenne fixtures. He began making regular appearances on local radio, sometimes as a call-in gardening consultant, sometimes as the producer of short horticultural commentaries that occasionally made it to National Public Radio.
"And I didn't always concentrate on science, either," he says. "I invented a fictional seed company called Harley's Hot-to-Trot Hybrids, and I had old Harley on the show to promote things like a leek that actually leaks and a special strain of zucchini that explodes at a certain point so you don't have to deal with it." The nonexistent Harley received several serious inquiries from gardeners. "The defense department was interested, too," Shane adds.
Schoolchildren began coming to the greenhouse by the busload, Shane remembers, "and most of them had no idea where carrots come from." He told them, repeating his greenhouse-growing spiel so often that he eventually wrote a book (The Bountiful Solar Greenhouse), did some out-of-town consulting and became "a member in not very good standing because their dues are too expensive" of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. The more he left town, though, the more attached Shane became to Cheyenne. "It's the bastard child of the Front Range, and that's how I like it," he says.
He also liked the loyal band of otherwise unwanted folks who'd become his crack volunteer staff. Shane's projects attracted everyone from senior citizens to a squad of handicapped workers. Debby, who has Down's syndrome, has now been greeting greenhouse visitors for more than a decade.
By 1986, when it became evident that the original greenhouse was suffering from the lethal combination of high humidity and poor construction, Shane and his crew were well known around Cheyenne--so well known that when the mayor tried to transfer the greenhouse's federal funds to the Downtown Association, all hell broke loose. "Poor guy," recalls Shane, "he ended up on a task force instead." After a summer's worth of the sort of meetings that no self-respecting Wyomingite wanted anything to do with, the task force decided to make the gardens part of the Cheyenne Department of Parks and Recreation. Shane secured a $350,000 community development grant to build a fancy new greenhouse, which would serve not just as a social services/food-for-lower-income/bedding-plant center, but also as a tourist attraction--the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.
"See, I turned out to be just like all social services people everywhere," Shane admits. "I disapprove of all government programs except my own."
It is a typical wintry morning in Cheyenne. Last night the temperature fell to four degrees, but it isn't just the cold that gets to people. "It's the wind," Shane explains. "We're the eighth windiest city in the nation. If you'll notice, every single tree in town has a lean. People learn to open their car doors here very carefully."
Inside the greenhouse, though, the air is still and humid. Lettuce and snow peas are thriving--enough so that any volunteers who show up today will eat a home-grown salad tonight. Shane moves around restlessly, trying out various benches, drinking in the flowery air and postponing another grant proposal. "I hate sitting in front of the computer," he says. "I need to get my hands dirtier."
At the potting bench, Claus Johnson, the gardens' only other paid employee, reviews his plan for the morning. Magic City, a local sheltered workshop, is sending over Manny, a retarded man in his mid-thirties, for some horticultural therapy. Claus consults his notes from Manny's last visit. "Planted paperwhite narcissus," they read. "Manny will work on remembering names of things."
Manny arrives and begins, as if on auto-pilot, to plant more paperwhite bulbs.
"Good," Claus tells him. "And what are those bulbs called?"
Manny thinks, then shrugs.
"Well, the blossoms feel like...?"
"Right. And the color is...?"
"White," Manny says, more definitely.
"Paperwhite narcissus, but you only have to remember the first part," Claus tells him. "Hey, look, the seeds you planted are germinating."
"Hey!" says Manny, delighted. He heads off to open some windows and weaves his way back through the plants a few minutes later, carrying a tall ladder with Don and another older man who introduces himself as an "ex-Navy swab jockey." The three discuss pick-up truck cab styles, the mediocrity of Cheyenne restaurants and life on a fixed income. Finally, they get around to deciding who should climb to the top of the water containers to apply algicide. "What about you?" the swab jockey asks Don. "Are you too old, or what?"
Before those become fighting words, Claus scampers up the ladder and does the job. The swab jockey and Manny busy themselves with fertilizing. Don disappears into the Gathering Room. "It's socialization," Claus explains. "I can't think of a single one of our clients who doesn't look forward to it."
Striking a balance between socialization and actual work is part of Claus's job, which he describes as "anything Shane doesn't feel like doing. I didn't have that much experience with this kind of thing before I came here," he admits. "I had gardened some, but mainly I worked in parks and rec."
In fact, Claus was hardly the best qualified applicant for his job. "I had guys with degrees from Cornell, which has one of the best horticulture schools around, but they didn't have the right personality," explains Shane. "You can't teach someone to like people. Claus is more of a gardening coach than administrator. He's like, okay team, get in there and garden!"
Claus came by way of Wheatland, a small Wyoming town that could afford recreation programs during the energy boom. In the mid-Eighties, though, the money dried up, and Claus ventured down to Cheyenne to undergo Shane's grueling interview process. "Even after I got the job," Claus recalls, "I wasn't sure if I was fortunate or not. As far as horticulture went, I was lost. I went through a lot of soul-searching and head-scratching. But I loved the volunteers, especially the seniors. They're real open and honest."
"Yes, and Claus is the nut of the bunch," Lillian interjects.
"They can also get a little difficult," Claus says. He is thinking about the recent massacre of forty expensive koi fish that once swam languidly in the waterfall. "One of the school kids or a mental patient poured bleach on them, because they heard it killed algae," he sighs. "It also killed the fish."
Fortunately, Claus understands the philosophy of the motto Don has just posted in the Gathering Room: "Most Folks Are Like Barbed Wire. They Have Their Good Points."
One of Don's is that he follows instructions. "I only do what I am told to do," he says. "That way there is absolutely no stress. None at all. I'm not the hobby type. I don't tie flies. I don't play golf. I volunteered for a while at the state archives, but I found myself looking out the window all the time." Here Don is outside the window looking in--and grateful enough for the experience that he donated a sundial for the outside grounds. It is engraved with the words: "The sky is the daily bread of the eyes."
"Oh, I didn't write that or anything," Don says, a touch embarrassed. "It just came with the sundial."
"Don't get the idea we're too articulate," echoes Green Thumb worker Joyce. "We are all also insane, or hadn't you noticed? Like Lillian--listen to her singing to that frog. She sings and whistles and sweetie-pies that frog to death."
In fact, the frog--an entirely white albino with red eyes, which could not survive in the wild but weathered the bleach incident--seems to be enjoying the concert. It may not be part of a normal frog-raising program, but around here, it works.
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