The Secret Garden

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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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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