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."