Urbavore's Dilemma: Introducing Heirloom Gardens, your friendly neighborhood farm

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.

It's hard not to stop and stare when you pass the brick bungalow on Grove Street in northwest Denver.

While neighboring homes feature your typical manicured grass lawns and mulch beds, here at this house the entire side yard, comprised of a steep hill, has been transformed into a 1,500 square-foot terraced farm. Lettuce, spinach, pea and carrot leaves cascade down the slope like a verdant waterfall, with clover-blanketed walkways bisecting the beds.

It's downright amazing, says May Ann Feldman, a neighbor who can't help but pause to admire the greenery during one of her walks around the neighborhood. "People are working on it just about every weekend," she says. "It's pretty exciting to have this in our neighborhood."

In fact, Feldman now has several such operations in and around her neighborhood courtesy of Heirloom Gardens, a new farm encompassing farmland that's nothing more than six northwest Denver yards.

"We produce food. We are a farm; it's just on separate plots throughout a neighborhood," says Sundari Kraft, Heirloom Gardens' founder. She's sitting in her backyard, not too far from the Grove Street operation, which also doubles as one of Heirloom Gardens' six plots. In one corner of her yard, there's the greenhouse she and her husband Brian built out of tarp and PVC pipe, where the farm's seedlings were kept during the colder months. In another corner, she's growing test crops of garlic and potatoes to see if they should be planted in large amounts during next year's farming season. The rest of the space is devoted to her farm's fertilizer factory: a large pen for her chickens and Nigerian dwarf goats.

Farming tools lie about, remnants of the marathon planting and weeding session undertaken the day before by her and a small army of volunteers. Soon, they'll be back in the miniature fields, harvesting their weekly crops of Atomic Red Carrots, Dark Purple Opal Basil, Chinese Red Meat Radishes and other, all-heirloom varieties to be distributed to those who've signed up for a membership share of the farm, as well as to be sold at nearby farmers markets.

"It is extremely labor intensive," admits Kraft, who estimates she's been putting in sixty to eighty hours a week on the endeavor in addition to her part-time job as a music therapist. It's worth it, she adds, since it literally and figuratively feeds her passion.

"I love food," says Kraft, former events manager at Highland's Garden Cafe and onetime executive with the Denver Independent Network of Restaurants. "I love to grow good food, I love to eat good food. Growing food is miraculous."

She'd been interested in growing food locally ever since she starting reading the works of local-food experts like Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollen. But it wasn't until she met Kipp Nash, a farmer who over the past few years has converted more than a dozen Boulder-area yards into a thriving urban farm called Community Roots Urban Gardens, that she realized she could actually make a go of it in her own neighborhood. The answer was neighborhood supported agriculture or NSA, a term coined by Nash that's a twist the on the popular concept of community supported agriculture, in which consumers support a particular farm by buying shares in it in exchange for a weekly allotment of produce. NSAs operate on the same concept, but all the farmland -- and its shareholders -- are based in a single neighborhood. Along with Heirloom Gardens, there are at least two other NSAs currently operating in Denver: Sense of Colorado, in Washington Park and Krisana Park, and Produce Denver, at sites around the city.

Last fall, Kraft started developing Heirloom Gardens' farm templates, growing schedules and shareholder applications. "It was a lot of head work," she says, but thankfully she soon had a cadre of likeminded individuals eager to help. When she sent out e-mails looking for six yards to be donated to the cause, as well as potential shareholders and work volunteers, she was inundated with responses. She quickly filled her yard quota (five in the Berkeley area and one in Lakewood), and the sixteen farm shares she was offering sold out, too. Dozens of other volunteers signed up to work in the fields, either to earn a farm share at the end of the month or just to learn about gardening.

"They are all very dedicated. This would not be possible without their help," she says of her workers. "People just really want to reconnect to where their food come from. People really want to learn how to do this."

She had more than enough hands on deck in April for her "big digs," in which the six yards she'd be farming were stripped of their sod and transformed into gardening beds. When it was all finished, she had over 8,000 square feet of unconventional farmland -- a tiny fraction compared to most farms, but still capable, she believed, of significant production considering Heirloom Gardens would use bio-intensive farming methods in which all crops would be closely spaced together.

So far she's been right. Last week, the first allotment of Heirloom Garden produce were distributed to shareholders, and Kraft has been doing a brisk business at the new Highland Micro-Market on Thursdays. She'll also have a stand at the new Highland Farmers Market, which will launch this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the 1500 block of Boulder Street.

She's already covered her start-up expenses and hopes to expand next year with more yards and more shareholders. She'd love to make Heirloom Gardens her fulltime job and aims to take on apprentices, explaining, "The plan is to train people and have an NSA in every single neighborhood." That plan could be helped by the city's current zoning rewrite, which will involve clarifying language relating to urban agriculture.

The six leafy yards Heirloom Gardens is managing also serve as the perfect grassroots NSA marketing campaign. Just take the conversation Kraft had with a nosy neighbor who stopped by a few weeks back while Kraft and her volunteers were working in one of the yards. "The conversation started with, 'What the hell are you doing?'" says Kraft, "and ended with, 'Can you do our yard next?'"

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