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Urban Agriculture: Serving a Diverse Community in Need

Celebrating the pinnacle of the garden season, now is the time we see mammoth zucchini, squash that actually look like pumpkins and bushels of tomatoes! Denver Urban Gardens took advantage of the lush, green growth of summer to lead a tour of multicultural gardens in Aurora this past Saturday highlighting the glorious abundance of thriving gardens that support communities working together to survive.

Kicking off the tour was the Mountain View Community Garden, which I visited and posted about here at the beginning of the season in June. The garden is all grown up now in August of it’s second season. The garden features an international array of plants, as well as gardeners, from Korea, Kenya, Vietnam and Mexico.

Vicky, one of the two garden leaders, says the “richness of ethnicity has created an incredible palette of things I’ve never heard of.”

Originally from Vietnam, Inbae Kime (pronounced In-bay), has created a landscape of greens and tomatoes nestled between stripes of wood and cardboard covered in plastic. The wood and cardboard provide a footing for working in the middle of the plot and help to keep moisture in the ground to prevent the plants from drying under the summer sun.

Inbae shared his wild sesame plants that are a traditional green in Asian cooking. The greens have a slightly bitter taste with a hint of sesame after taste. The greens can be eaten raw in a salad, lightly sauteed, and when larger they can be used as a wrap for meats or vegetables.

Njeri Kingangi (pronounced Jerry), from Kenya, had the opportunity to take a trip to Kenya in early spring and brought back seeds to plant in her Aurora plot – amaranth, onions, maize and cabbage, millions of cabbage! The amaranth plants that were little seedlings in June have grown up to provide Njeri with a bushel full of greens so far this season. The maize has grown tall and healthy but as of yet, not shown any ears. Njeri hopes that the plants are simply late bloomers.

Her garden neighbor and friend, also from Kenya, set up her plot in the Kenyan style with the plants inter-mixed. A departure from mass-agriculture row planting, the method utilizes all available space and creates an appealing landscape.

The multicultural diversity of the gardeners has posed the challenge of communication among participants. There are some translators who can help but when those translators aren’t available the conversations start and end with hello.

That doesn’t stop gardeners from enjoying their time in the garden together and it certainly can’t stop the international language of food from bringing people together at the frequent community potlucks held in under a majestic shade tree.

The Mountain View garden has flourished within the community and there is already a waiting list for the 2012 growing season.

Our second stop took us to The Blue Chair Community garden serving the low-income senior residents that have the pleasure of seeing their garden grow from the windows of their high-rise building. The garden was named for the over-sized blue chair sculpture on Colfax Avenue.

Garden leader and owner of the land, Sharon has provided colorful art – including a large collection of blue chairs – while the gardeners provide colorful plants creating a space with surprises at every turn.

Sharon wanted to find a home where she could be close to the thriving Aurora arts community that would also provide a community garden.

The garden buzz began with a flier posted in the high-rise and the idea took off the moment the pin hit cork. Garden members and residents alike can enjoy the garden from their windows and have a safe destination for walking.

Some members have felt the downward turn of aging and suffer from illness or have to go through surgeries. During these times when a gardener can’t tend their plot, their neighbors help with watering and weeding. If plants are ready to harvest, the bounty is delivered to the plot owner with some of it shared among those who helped raise the crop.

Njeri, from the Mountain View garden, admired a stand of robust red chard and asked if she could take a leaf home to prepare with her amaranth greens. The garden owner had taken ill recently and has not been able to visit the garden very much. Sharon knew the owner would be proud to share his hardy greens and together we picked some gorgeous leaves for her. Njeri is hoping to make a trip back to The Blue Chair garden to share her wealth of cabbage with her new-found gardening friends.

Our final garden visit and potluck location was the Beeler Street Community Garden. Beeler Street sits in the middle of an area dubbed the children’s corridor. Denver Post Columnist Tina Griego published two articles this month on the corridor and the people working to improve it (August 14 and August 18).

This is a unique neighborhood. The birth rate is high – with 10 births everyday within the 41 square mile corridor – and the education of mothers is low, most without a high school diploma. It is also an arrival area for recent refuges from countries such as Nepal, Burma, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico.

A wall of green on one side of the street looks both out of place and the perfect place. Entering the garden we are embraced by the tall arbor supporting grape vines. Brightly painted benches line the sides of the entrance. Pictures of blue sky, yellow suns, purple flowers invite you come in, rest, and enjoy the space.

The garden started 20 years ago to provide for this depressed community which hasn’t improved it’s financial standing in all those years. One woman had a dream of creating a space for children and families to come to play, a place to gather, to be a community. With help from the City of Aurora and support from the community her dream came true and each night of the summer families gather to while tend their gardens while children play in the large sandbox.

Mike, a garden member, shows us his row of impressive beets that grow next to a plant called zuk grown for a local company that makes rice cakes utilizing the herb. Kolrobi – great with chicken – and cucumbers do very well but tomatoes don’t get enough sun in many plots to flourish though they do produce some fruit. A massive plot of horseradish grows tall in the middle of the garden soon to be harvested and preserved.

Food is often stolen from this garden yet the gardeners don’t mind. The culprits are typically children who are seen hopping the fence to pick the veggies and eat them on the spot. Most of the families in the neighborhood are on food assistance programs. The swiped snack is an opportunity for the children to eat fresh food and fill their hungry bellies.

Though the families in the neighborhood are struggling, they are supporting by an amazing diversity of organizations. The Aurora Symphony Orchestra has come to the garden and played music during a community work day. The Aurora Public Schools visit during the summer to learn about urban agriculture and get their hands dirty helping.

Today, four cadets from the Adams County Sheriffs Academy came by to plant a pear tree as part of their community service requirements. Cadet Lance Vance grew up in the neighborhood. His parents were active in their community and coordinated the planting of hundreds of trees throughout Aurora. Lance choose to return to his old neighborhood to give back and to help provide for the residents with a tree that should prosper and be fruitful for decades to come.

The day started with a simple plan of viewing urban gardens in their prime of summer production. It turned into a lesson in how communities are taking steps to support themselves despite multiple and varied challenges. I found the people and places deeply inspiring beyond what I can convey with simple pictures and descriptions. While I was impressed with the vegetables I was struck by the dedication and commitment to community shown by every garden member and people from all over the metro area to help these people who are doing their best to help themselves.

To support community urban gardens in your area and throughout Denver-metro, take a visit to where you can see what is taking shape and discover how you can take part!

Heather Ruch
Author: Heather Ruch

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