American Community Gardening Conference 2015

The thing about community gardens is that they come in seemingly infinite forms.

Chatfield Farms run by Denver Botanic Gardens is a 5-acre working farm

This August 2015 The Garden Project staff Sandhya Tillotson (Executive Director), Brooke Frazer (Manna Garden Manager), and Mia Carrasco-Songer (Ohana Kuleana Community Garden) headed to Denver for the 36th Annual National Conference on Community Gardening hosted by the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) and Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) in the phenomenal Denver Botanic Gardens.

A once in a lifetime experience:

Sandhya, Brooke, and Mia with the infamous Corpse Flower,
a 5ft tall flower which only blooms once every 8-20 years and releases a foul odor.

We got to talk with community gardeners from all over the country! We picked each others brains for best practices and told stories of the joys of our gardens. We heard about community gardens run by Parks and Rec Departments in Florida and teen urban agriculture programs in inner-city Denver. We talked to NYC gardeners who have been fighting for 20 years to keep their community gardens from being bulldozed by developers and to Denver gardeners who feed 30-40 of their extended family members from their plot. 

I was enthralled by the ingenuity and grit of community gardeners everywhere. I was inspired by the different models of community gardens - a different style for every different neighborhood.

Here are a few samples of the various gardens we got to visit:

Pecos Community GardenACGA_2015_Photos_-_Pecos-001.jpg

The first stop on the "Rooted in Tradition" Tour was the Pecos Community Garden. At this lush garden 6 families were gardening in 25 ft x 25 ft plots, or approximately 625 square feet per plot (for comparison at our Ohana Kuleana Community Garden plots are approx. 150 sf). These families are each feeding 30-40 members of their extended family from their gardens. Wow! Many of the families are Hispanic or Hmong and have been with the garden since 1976 when it was first established. At that time most lived in the neighborhood. Gentrification in recent years has priced many of the community gardeners out of the neighborhood, but they still commute to grow and harvest the food they need to sustain their families. The most common vegetables grown there were large swaths of squash, cucumbers, and beans.ACGA_2015_Photos_-_Pecos.jpg

Troy Chavez Memorial Peace GardenACGA_2015_Photos_-_Troy_Chavez_Memorial.jpg

We visited a garden with a slightly different purpose; the Troy Chavez Memorial Peace Garden, was created in response to Denver's Summer of Violence in 1993. Troy was one of the 74 homicides that year, many of them youth. One of the gardeners recalled that that summer "we were burying a kid a week in our parish." In search of an outlet for her grief and a need to cultivate a safer neighborhood for future families Troy's aunt set about building the Memorial Peace Garden. Now described as a safe zone which gangs respect, the garden was designed with the layout of a Mayan ball court and incorporates other symbols from native cultures. It serves as both a beautiful respite amidst the city traffic as well as a site for learning, through a partnership with The Escuela Tlatelolco.ACGA_2015_Photos_-_Troy_Chavez_Memorial-001_long.jpg

Hawthorn Community Garden20150815_111604.jpg

This 11 acre urban garden is managed by the nonprofit Growing Gardens, which manages 12 community gardens in the Boulder area. Hawthorn has a diverse array of programs, including a 200 plot community garden for neighbors, a teen project called ¡Cultiva!, a children's peace garden, greenhouses for their CSA, field trips for local schools and a garden in the back of Johnny's pickup truck! "¡Cultiva! is a youth operated organic farm. Participants ages 12 to 19 plant, nurture, harvest, and sell their produce shares weekly to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members. Volunteer projects, gleaning produce from the Boulder Farmers Market, and donating produce to people who are in need in the community gives each Cultiva participant a deeper connection to their community.  Hands-on experience and activities teach youth how to care for and protect the environment, operate a small business, and create positive change for the community, the environment, and themselves."


The Growhaus in Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood:

The Growhaus is a non-profit urban indoor farm and marketplace located in a very industrial and historically working class section of Denver. It is located in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood which is essentially a food desert for many of the folks living nearby (there are no grocery stores). The growhaus exists in a large greenhouse that was once used for the processing of carnations. Apparently Denver was once a major hub for carnations prior to the globalization of flower production. As we toured the Growhaus you first enter a large teaching area that hosts workshops and permaculture programs. To the right you can view the 2 very large growing areas. The first section is hydroponic greens, mostly lettuce. The second section hosts the aquaponics with 3 very large fish tanks with an array of fish and then lettuce, tomatoes, and other greens. The fish here are creating the liquid nutrients to feed all of the plants.  Additionally, aqua and hydroponics use a small fraction of the water needed to grow vegetables in the ground. This actuality is the inverse of most people’s perceptions about growing vegetables in water.

As we toured the facility it became very apparent how involved the neighborhood is in this project. The volunteers were composed of neighbors and interested students while the market bustled with folks picking up either a weekly food box at a subsidized cost or food from the Denver Food Rescue. The Denver food rescue picks up donated produce and relocates it via bike and bike trailer to neighborhoods and communities that need some free produce. The Growhaus serves as a drop off and pickup for the donated produce. This project addresses food justice issues in urban Denver while also demonstrating exciting and possibly misunderstood growing methods. Check them out here:

Greenleaf Denver:

This inspiring model of urban agriculture relies on youth workers and farmers to grow, sell, and distribute fresh produce to Denver’s food deserts. The truly amazing part of this program is that it is year round and staffed with 10 teen interns and 2-3 “menterns” (former interns who are now teaching the newer interns). 1 “mentern” and 2 interns orchestrated the garden tour with their obvious learned leadership skills. The teens were excited to discuss the different varieties of melons, okra, and other non traditional colder weather crops that they were growing. Seeing their excitement and devotion to this project was incredibly inspiring and it was obvious that while the teens were learning how to grow food, they were also gaining innumerable other skills that will help them in life. With an amazing understanding of food justice issues, these teens are being groomed to make a difference in their communities. The unfortunate travesty of Greenleaf is that they are going to lose their 6,000 foot growing space to a housing development. They are currently looking for a new space and hoping to get set up for the summer of 2016. They are able to transform “unusable” spaces by setting up raised beds with compost and topsoil. This eliminates the need to find a space with productive and uncontaminated soil. This youth farm serves as an inspiring model for something that could happen in Durango!

With such a diversity of possibilities- 
what will your neighborhood grow?

We attended 25+ workshops between the three of us covering everything from community gardening for peak nutrition to systems level change to measuring garden outputs to the youngest gardeners. Here are a few of the organizations and resources we think you should check out!

- Chef Ann Foundation: ACGA Keynote Speaker, Chef Ann Cooper, is an internationally recognized author, chef, educator, public speaker, and advocate of healthy food for all children.

- The Lunch Box: Online resource dedicated to supporting school district food service teams as they transition their food programs from processed foods to scratch cooking with fresh ingredients. Include free, downloadable recipes, and more

- Parent Advocacy Toolkit: a comprehensive guide to inspire, educate, and activate parents to advocate for better school food in their communities. The Toolkit walks you through the steps to Get Educated, Get Organized, and Take Action. 

- The Farming Concrete Toolkit: a way to help measure all of the good things growing in your farm, garden, or yard, from hot peppers to happiness. The Toolkit helps you track your output to showcase the benefits of your farm or garden, to improve and share your practice, and to raise awareness of your impact to funders and policymakers.

- Denver Urban Gardens: Our neighbor in Denver, supports 150 school and community gardens and provides a ton of resources!

- Connecting gardeners with excess produce to food banks and food pantries to cut fresh food waste and ensure that families who need fresh food are getting it!

- Michigan Good Food Charter: "A roadmap for a food system that is rooted in local communities and centered on good food. The charter outlines six goals to advance the vision by 2020.

- EPA Targeted Brownfields Assessment: Concerned about the safety of the soil for a new community garden? Get a soil test done for free by the EPA through their Brownfields program.

Recommended Reading

- "Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health" by Jo Robinson

- "Gardening for Maximum Nutrition" by Jerry Minnich

- "The Gardener's Table: A Guide to Natural Vegetable Growing and Cooking" by Richard Merrill and Joe Ortiz (Garden AND Cookbook)

-"Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ" by Giulia Enders


Brooke and Sandhya at Denver Botanic Gardens beside a bronze statue of a horse...
bronze, even though it appears in every way to be wood!

Mia and community gardeners at the Arvada Menonite Community Garden.
These generous gardeners gave Mia a cucumber (a variety from Ukraine) to save for seed!

Beautiful waterlilies at the Denver Botanic Gardens


 See more pictures on The Garden Project's Facebook page

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