Urban gardening: Concept creates useful oases in underserved neighborhoods

This sign near the Harrison School District 2 administration building is the only indication of a nearby urban garden.

This sign near the Harrison School District 2 administration building is the only indication of a nearby urban garden.

Pikes Peak Urban Gardens founder Larry Stebbins’ duties are too numerous to fit on a business card. Botanist, community advocate, unifier and oasis-maker are just the tip of the radish.

On one summer day or another, through an undistinctive parking lot lined with barbed-wire-topped fences, Stebbins will trek across a pitted driveway to the north side of Harrison District 2 administration building, which blocks from most views one of his urban escapes. The Harrison Urban Garden is an escape not just for Stebbins, however, but for anyone who wants to make a small investment in a 20-by-20-foot piece of the country life.

“Around the world people are leaving farms and going to urban centers,” Stebbins said. “[Farmers] want to make a living and find a meager job to support their family. But the more farmland we lose, the more it pushes our food sources [farther] from the cities. The [farther] it moves, the more it costs to transport it. Fresh vegetables will become scarce as we push farms away from cities. Urban gardening is very important and we can do this in many cities.”

Stebbins, a former chemistry teacher and public school administrator, wanted to spend retirement immersed in his passion. He proposed a Venetucci Farm greenhouse to Michael Hannigan, CEO of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which owns and operates the farm.

“After 35 years [in education], I wanted to pursue my passion, which was gardening. I just didn’t know where that would take place,” he said.

Stebbins said he brought the greenhouse idea to Hannigan, who, when he heard the proposal, spoke in hushed tones to a nearby associate. When he finally addressed Stebbins, rather than OK’ing his project, Hannigan offered him a job.

“He said they needed an education coordinator at Venetucci Farm and that it meant long hours and it didn’t pay much,” Stebbins explained. “I told them I didn’t want a job. I was retired.”

Stebbins relented. He said he enjoyed farm life, but he spent too much time waiting for people to come see him, rather than canvasing the community while touting the benefits of gardening.

“It was fun when kids came through and in between I did farm chores, which was OK, but it’s not what I wanted to do,” he said. “Michael [Hannigan] knew that. He saw I wanted to do something else and, at the time, I was volunteering and helping people start community gardens. He knew that was my interest. He asked about bringing that project under the umbrella of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.”

In the winter of 2007, PPCF and PPUG combined forces, resulting in the creation of 12 community gardens, a demonstration garden and 19 backyard gardens.

“The partnership with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation has been immensely beneficial,” Stebbins said. “They’ve been integral in the growth of this program.”

Think small

Stebbins said all community gardens funded through PPUG have been in underserved neighborhoods.

“We don’t fund it if it’s in a neighborhood that can afford it,” he said. “But we’ll offer advice to anyone for free if they are a nonprofit or don’t have exclusionary membership.”

Stebbins’ vision went smaller than community gardening, though. For PPUG to have the biggest impact, it must “help most the ones who could afford it the least,” he said, which means fundraising and seeking grants. And while the need for PPUG’s services has been on the rise, there’s a growing scarcity of funding.

“There are places hurting even more than Colorado Springs. We don’t fare as well next to some rural communities suffering tremendously with poverty much worse than ours,” Stebbins said, adding PPUG must be a good steward of any funding it does receive.

“A community garden costs between [$20,000] and $30,000 including water, fencing and everything that goes with it. But it’s a closed project,” he said. “People come and go and we fill open spots with new people, but for many neighborhoods, that’s 20, 30 people involved and the rest are looking in.”

“The partnership with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation has been immensely beneficial. They’ve been integral in the growth of this program.” 

– Larry Stebbins

Now PPUG educates and assists individual households through its Pikes Peak Backyard Gardens program.

“We’ve done it for two years now,” Stebbins said. “We went into the [neighborhoods within the Harrison School District] and leafleted homes for 10 backyard gardens. Within an hour, 10 families called back and said they were in.”

He said PPUG helps build the backyard gardens, pays for supplies and plants, helps design the garden and provides weekly consultations.

“We also let you know when to harvest and what to do with the harvest,” Stebbins said, including how to sell or share excess produce. “But you have to help us build it; you have to put in some sweat equity.”

At approximately $5,000 for all 10 gardens, Stebbins said the individual backyard gardens can serve the same amount of people with far fewer costs.

Harlan Wolfe Ranch

The Harlan Wolfe Ranch demonstration garden is one way PPUG generates a revenue stream while at the same time showing the community how urban gardens can thrive.

Located at 915 W. Cheyenne Road, the half-acre garden provides “a way for us to allow the public to come in and see how to build a garden,” Stebbins said. “We allow anyone to come in and tasting is free. We love to have children come by.”

Twice a week, the demonstration garden is host to a pick and pay, where the community can fill bags with fresh produce for about what they would pay at a farmers market, Stebbins said. Pick and pays take place seasonally from 9 a.m. to noon on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The off-season

During fall and winter, PPUG offers educational opportunities to the public in preparation for the growing season. 

Stebbins said PPUG hosts clinics in school auditoriums and fills cafeterias with local vendors.

He said they demonstrate how much a garden can yield and the cost-effectiveness of gardening from seed versus purchasing produce from a typical grocery store.

“The average person eats 156 pounds of fresh produce in a year,” he said. “A 20-foot-by-20-foot garden will grow 3 pounds per square foot per year. You can easily get up over 500 pounds of produce in a year.”

Stebbins said, perhaps the greatest payoff for community and backyard gardeners is watching children eat their vegetables.

“Without a question, kids are more willing to eat this stuff because they helped grow it,” he said.

For more information about Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, visit ppugardens.org. 

Hillary Malloy discusses vegetables with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens founder Larry Stebbins at the Harlan Wolfe Ranch demonstration garden.

Hillary Malloy discusses vegetables with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens founder Larry Stebbins at the Harlan Wolfe Ranch demonstration garden.

One Response to Urban gardening: Concept creates useful oases in underserved neighborhoods

  1. Gardening is a noble pursuit and can be a relaxing past time that produces a useful products. However, there are so many obstacles to urban gardening here that must be over come before it can be successful. The garden has to be fenced to protect the work from deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and malicious young people. Then some CS neighborhoods have covenants that prohibit gardening other than landscaping. Then it must be determined what can and will grow here at this altitude and with our limited growing season. Here is hoping more people make the attempt.

    Steven Shepard
    August 28, 2014 at 11:04 am