How does their garden grow? The Greenhouse Club raises the roof at North High.
How does their garden grow? The Greenhouse Club raises the roof at North High.
John Johnston

The Secret Garden

Intellectually, I know that the earth thaws from the outside in, but my gut feeling tells me it works the other way. Even when the visible part of the city is frozen into hard cubes, I like to imagine that something alive is running through its core, keeping things moving until spring can take over. This week I began to think that this underground river flows along a specific route, from the Federal Correctional Institution at South Kipling and Quincy through a series of small banana belts, where twigs are budding early and the daffodils have decided to go for it, on up through town until it reaches North High School in northwest Denver.

Right now, nothing is growing on the grounds of North -- unless you count the grass, which is the color of scorched Astroturf at any time of the year. To find something more fertile, you have to wander the maze of building additions until you find yourself in the old west wing dating from the '20s, and then make your way to the historic science lab in Room 129, where the walls are still painted a sickly pea green and a taxidermied waterbird perches on a shelf, looking as though it would collapse into a puff of dust if you breathed near it. And still you're not there. You now have to push your way into a sort of Bunsen-burner supply closet, through another door, up a flight of concrete steps, and then, finally, you reach a small rooftop greenhouse.

One kid with a rim of dyed orange hair running around the base of his brush cut told me that he had been at North three years, had even taken science classes in room 129, before he had any idea the greenhouse existed. He discovered it by accident one day when his Hacky Sack flew onto the roof and, climbing up to look around for it, he saw the peaked greenhouse glass, hidden from every other view. He climbed back down and figured out how to get to the greenhouse the normal way, and now he is one of a small group of North students known as the Greenhouse Club.

"I'm thinking they built it in the '20s," says Randy Stor, commercial art and science teacher. "When this began, Denver probably still had farmland starting at Sheridan, and this probably had agricultural meaning."

But by the time Stor came to North five years ago, the greenhouse had been abandoned so long that the only people who knew about it were the custodial crew and certain teachers who used it for smoking breaks. Its vent windows no longer opened, and its cooling fans had a disconcerting habit of shorting out whenever they came in contact with water -- which, in a greenhouse, is most of the time. A mysterious and sizable hole had appeared in one of the concrete walls, as if blasted there, and rubble and trash were everywhere. Still, Stor seized on the idea of rehabilitating the place, with no more justification than that he thinks it's good when people grow things.

"I used to teach at the Federal Correctional Institution," he explains. "I had inmates in a horticulture class, growing flowers and perennials for the grounds. I had some inmates who were pretty knowledgeable" -- presumably from agriculture-related lives of crime -- "and they were hands-on, self-taught, had done their research. At FCI, historically, there always used to be a farm. There hadn't been anything growing here, though, and I thought, 'Why not?'"

Of course, the thinking quickly grew deeper than that. "There are some people who swear that there's a correlation between caring for something and caring for your community that some people have never learned," Stor says. "You know, if you don't treat a plant too well, it dies. If you do treat it well, you learn compassion and self-respect and respect for the community, sort of a neighborhood thing. I decided there is something to all this. It's not just something someone dreamed up."

Figuring he needed about $5,000 to get the project going, and feeling somewhat daunted at the prospect of taking that request through official Denver Public Schools channels, Stor was relieved to run into Judy Elliott of Denver Urban Gardens, a private nonprofit that promotes urban gardens and farms. Stor had met Elliott at FCI some years ago, when she came to start a worm-composting program for horticulturally inclined inmates.

"I have no idea what I was doing there," Elliott now says. "I've been gardening for twenty years around here, how do I remember who I do worms for, or why? I just go around doing this stuff."

The stuff she was doing at North High involved a special-ed classroom comprising students with disabilities as disparate as Tourette's and Down's syndromes, narcolepsy, learning disabilities and "one young man who subsequently had to leave the class because of his violent acts," Elliott remembers. "Their teacher wanted them to do some gardening, so we started seedlings, touched the soil, watched stuff grow. For some of them, it was a matter of fine motor coordination. For others it was being able to focus on a task, deal with repetition. That one violent young man actually smiled at one point."

Elliott went to look over the abandoned greenhouse and liked what she saw -- but the idea of working through the DPS bureaucracy to get it running struck her as impossible, if not ridiculous. "No, no, forget that," she says, "you don't do that. I mean, I talked to the principal, and he didn't have a problem with it, but the person I really talked to was the head custodian, and I promised him a six-pack, and he was very cooperative."

No, not that kind of six-pack. What this custodian wanted was jalapeño and tomato seedlings, and in exchange he organized the manpower to clean the greenhouse and repair its most obvious faults. Meanwhile, Elliott helped Stor write a neighborhood grant proposal, complete with a materials list, and the Denver Foundation came through. By fall 1998, Stor had assigned his commercial-art students the job of creating posters for the greenhouse club, which was designed as an after-school hobby but soon became an anytime-you-can-get-up-there-and-water organization. Students were sowing seeds for spring planting, taking in abandoned and sick plants to nurse them back to health, and trying exotic crops like coffee and bananas.

"I'd tell them to go over to St. Catherine's, the nursing home across the street," Stor says. "I said, just introduce yourself and ask if you can bring over a plant. I had them put plants in the front office so people could see how cool it was. I dug worms out of the worm box to give the people who liked to go fishing. We had a spring plant sale -- onions, tomatoes, perennials -- to help the Colorado history kids pay their way to Washington, D.C."

By then, the greenhouse project had a life of its own. "Mr. Sandoval, the principal -- he even called downtown once to get the motor on the fan replaced," Stor marvels. "There's nothing easy about calling in the downtown district maintenance office, but he was willing to do that for us."

In fact, the most unlikely people have shown themselves willing to do things -- including garden. One of Stor's star horticulturists, a "special-ed kid," he says, "is amazingly knowledgeable about plants. She was the first one who noticed the bug problems I had overlooked, and she ended up bringing in a mixture from home, something with vinegar and alcohol and water, and it worked."

Like many other greenhouses, this one still battles the occasional bug infestation. As Stor walks around watering, he pinches off diseased pieces of plants. But he's unable to part with others; for instance, two tomato plants that survived the winter, leggy and exhausted.

"Sometimes I'm breaking a plant rule and I know it," he says, "like you can't keep growing a tomato through winter. But I don't have the heart to throw it out, and what can it hurt?"

Under the terms of the Denver Foundation grant, the greenhouse grew those tomato plants for distribution to neighboring community gardens -- most notably the Peace Garden at 38th Avenue and Lipan Street, started by Ana Chavez to commemorate a son killed in a gang fight. In addition to tomatoes, the Greenhouse Club grew container plants for this garden, iconoclastic arrangements with snapdragons and coreopsis overflowing the pots, and jalapeño plants in the center. Once, when a foundation representative was on hand to track the results of the grant, a young man blew into the greenhouse, yelling, "Where the fuck are my tomato seedlings? Nobody better be fuckin' messin' with them!"

"Tomatoes were popular, absolutely," Elliott remembers. "And then, I had asked the kids what else they thought of when they thought of a good plant to grow, and almost everyone said peppers. So that's how they did this, from the ground up, with soil they mixed themselves, seeds they started, plants they thought of. And then, the unbelievable thing that happened was there was another death in the neighborhood of the Peace Garden. Another kid their age killed. So all the planters were given to that dead kid's family members, and the kids, I think, felt good about it. As good as you could."

On this visit to the greenhouse, Randy Stor is worried that too many other things are competing for his students' attention -- spring sports, independent projects, the upcoming school production of Fiddler on the Roof. There are only two girls working in the greenhouse right now, applying insecticidal soap from spray bottles and trying to root some Christmas cactus cuttings. Mr. Moravic, the other science teacher who's grown increasingly interested in the greenhouse, has only five minutes to spare -- he's volunteered to be discus and shot-put coach and is anxious to get out on the track.

"But, cool, look at the bougainvillea," he says. "Look at it bloom."

"I remember real well that I didn't believe this was up here," one of the girls remembers. "Someone said it's in 129, and I was all 'Yeah, right, 129th and Federal?' And they're all, 'No, in Mr. Stor's room, on the roof,' and I'm all, 'Yeah, right!' But my Mom's an herbalist. We have plants everywhere, like even in the shower. And it was cool to know about a few plants she doesn't."

"Whatever this is, it's good for kids," Mr. Stor says. "I mean..."

Suddenly a crew of boys piles up the stairs. They're in such a dense crowd that it isn't immediately apparent that they're carrying one of their own in his wheelchair. But then they plunk him down at the top of the stairs and take turns leaning on him and sitting on him.

"Mr. Stor, where is that huge fuckin' lemon? Where is it? That thing is a monster lemon!"

Turns out the monster lemon has succumbed to the spider mite, but the boys take it in stride, striking choreographed poses -- Charlie's Angels! Superman! -- and riffing on the songs from Fiddler on the Roof.

"Like, it should be Fiddler in the 'hood," someone says. Then he begins to sing: "All these schlemiels be thuggin' on our fiddles. Life is tough in the 'hood."

I think this is funny.

"Yeah, see -- the media does not portray this school in the right light," someone else yells, immediately collapsing in laughter.

"Yeah, the school is full of controversy and we're always standing around here waiting for the media to show up."

"Yeah, they come here in their TV trucks and we help them figure out where to park, and give them a statement. We're the youth, you know?"

Not being the youth, and needing everything explained for me, I ask, "But you guys are gardeners? Why?"

"Watering and tending and all that is good for you," one guy says.

"It totally calms you down. I have a ton of plants at home and they calm me down all the time."

"Plants are like, you know what I'm saying, they're like, how they make you feel, is like, you feel like a mom."

"Yeah?" I say. "Is that good?"

"Of course that's good! Moms are good!"

After that, as precipitously as if a bell has rung -- which it hasn't -- they pick up the wheelchair and begin rattling down the stairs on their way to discus practice, or an after-school job or, come to think of it, another interview with the media.

"Wait," I yell, "who are you guys?"

"Us? We grew here!"

"We grew here! Yeah! Ha!"

And then they are gone, leaving the green place they helped to build quiet and beautiful.


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