Urbavore's Dilemma: Growing weird with Russ Dale's mystic space garden

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Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

Russ Dale's been sending me cryptic e-mails for a while,

"There is a bigger story here," he wrote me about his garden in April when I first started my Urbavore's Dilemma series. "One complete with mission patches similar to what the astronauts wear on their flight suits. Complete with a garden webcam. Complete with hope and peace."

He elaborated on his backyard operation in a later e-mail. "I'm a farmer," he noted. "It's in my blood. I utilize my small plots of good earth in south Denver to perfection." There's a scarecrow named Barnabas, he promised, as well as something called space basil and other elements he described as some sort of "homage to NASA human spaceflight." This summer, he added, he'll be delving into canning: "My mind is fixed on pickles."

I can't wait any longer. I have to see Dale and his plots of good earth.

"Wanna see the urban 'rustic garden?" asks Dale, wearing a plaid shirt and plastic-rim glasses when I meet him at his Platt Park house. On the way to the backyard, he pauses. "Do you want a patch?"

He hands me an embroidered patch, explaining that he makes a new one every year. This year's patch is emblazoned with "GX" -- short for Dale's backyard "Great Experiment" -- as well as the Latin numerals for four, since Dale started gardening four years ago after he was inspired by learning about his agricultural ancestors. There's also a picture of a water molecule and a hockey mask that resembles the one Jason wore in the Friday the 13th movies.

It's supposed to be like the mission patches astronauts wear, he explains, a medal of sorts for each successful campaign he wages against the natural chaos of his backyard -- pulling the weeds, getting his strawberries to grow. "It's a never ending sort of battle," he says of gardening -- and in his case, that's apparently an intergalactic battle. Dispersed around the his yard, among the garden beds to which he's given names like "Butter," "The Battlements" and "Soil Prime," and in between the wormwood bush (for absinthe, he explains) and mapacho plant (a sacred Latin American tobacco that a person insufflates, he says -- "You are supposed to huff the fumes and it takes you to another world") are more odes to outer space than a grade-school science classroom.

There's the moon pole, a pair of long tree branches set into a bucket of concrete, which were originally supposed to support a cascade of moon flowers but are currently guarding over young morning glory seedlings (the moon flowers never took). There's the space basil, a strain of cinnamon basil from the second generation of seeds that took a trip on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. "We ate some and we didn't die of any mutant diseases," reports Russ. And there's the bean pole, a wooden structure Russ and his colleagues have named Jack, which resembles something found on a NASA launch pad.

"That's the rocket tower," says Matt Twardy when he shows up with James Quirk. The two, Russ' close friends and his two main collaborators in the Great Experiment, are wearing camouflage hats. It's part of their fishing attire, they explain -- they've been fishing at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Did you mention insufflating the mapacho?, Matt asks Russ. And don't forget the giant pumpkin, adds James, whose nickname is Pumpkin Lord James. Last year, the three tried to grow a thousand-pound pumpkin, but their beast topped out at 80 pounds. That's okay, says Pumpkin Lord James: "Those giant pumpkin growers are a little weird."

It's all about "Keeping the scarecrow alive," Russ explains with a conspiratorial whisper, referring to Barnabas Von Scarecrow, who stands near the back wearing a Rod Smith Broncos jersey and a hockey mask -- hence the spooky hockey masks on the mission patches.

Talking about it all, the three thirty-somethings sound like a bunch of twelve-year-old kids planning a slightly dangerous science project. It's quirky, to be sure, but also charmingly endearing. Especially since the fruits of their geeky experiments go to their family and friends. People have suggested that Russ, who works in the maintenance and public works department of the Aurora Public Schools, sell his harvests at the South Pearl farmers market, but he'd rather give it all away. "I don't eat a lot of it," he says -- especially the plentiful tomatoes he grows. He hates eating those things.

He'll keep growing them, though -- pouring on the horseshit mixed with water he has fermenting in a bucket behind the garage. "I stirred it up the other day and the whole neighborhood reeked," he reports gleefully. He's also found success serenading his crops. "They seem to like Metallica," he says -- that and U2, the band that's currently blasting over his house speakers. In fact, he says, maybe they should name the new gardening bed they'll be building in the backyard "Bono."

Matt has a better idea: Why don't they contact Bono to see if he'll donate some money to the operation.

Who knows -- that might just happen. Anything's possible with the Great Experiment.

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