SIDE STREETS: Urban gardening about to become a year-round affair

Staff reports Published: May 27, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

The trailer hitched to the back of Larry Stebbins' pickup truck is piled high with fresh dirt and long-handled shovels.

On the sides and back of the trailer, Stebbins has written by hand two words in big, capital letters: "GROW FOOD."

This is not some bumper sticker motto. These words are his exhortation. Words that drive Stebbins. Words he lives by.

He hopes you will, too. In fact, if you like, Stebbins is more than happy to teach you how. (Contact him through his group's website at ppugardens.org)

Stebbins is the founder of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, a nonprofit he created in 2007 after he retired from teaching chemistry and working as a school administrator.

Describing Larry as retired is a joke. He works harder than most as he pursues his calling of teaching people and helping them grow food. (Preferably organic food in home or neighborhood gardens.)

This is a big year for Stebbins and his organization and its four paid staffers.

Thanks to a new partnership with the Colorado Springs Parks Department, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens will no longer be a seasonal operation.

Until now, it has confined its work to summer months when weather allows his crew and volunteers to build community gardens in Mill Street neighborhood, or Hillside, or Dorchester Park, or any of the dozen places his crews have spread the gospel of home grown food.

Winter, in the past, has been a time to regroup, to plan new gardens and coordinate projects like the Galileo Greenhouse where vegetables are grown for School District 11's subsidized student lunch program, or the Harlan Wolfe Ranch Demonstration Garden at 915 W. Cheyenne Road where folks are invited to stroll, play, learn and pick and pay for fruits and vegetables.

Winters also have been a time to hold teaching seminars to raise money for garden projects and write grant proposals to shore up the budget.

Not anymore.

Stebbins has obtained permission to use a vacant city greenhouse and will be planting and harvesting year-round.

Kurt Schroeder of the parks department said the city is simply building on its established partnership with Stebbins and the urban gardens.

"We have the greenhouses and we're no longer using 100 percent of them," Schroeder said. "He asked if he could work on this program and he's got a good track record with the community gardens he has done in our parks.

"Plus he's providing an invaluable service with the programs he provides in our community centers. It's definitely a win-win for us."

Stebbins said his group pays all utilities and water costs for operating the greenhouse, so there is no cost to taxpayers for use of the otherwise vacant structure.

He got underway in April planting salad greens he hoped would become a community-supported agriculture project. It was an interesting concept. He sold 70 shares of his anticipated lettuce harvest for $10 apiece. Customers were guaranteed 10 weeks of fresh, organic lettuce.

But the project failed. When I visited the greenhouse along Monument Creek in Monument Valley Park last week, Stebbins and two students from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Sean Swettet and Katy Short, were pulling out all the lettuce and replanting tomatoes.

I tried the lettuce and it tasted good to me. But it didn't meet Larry's standards for crispness and tenderness. He deemed it at tad hard and bitter and condemned it to the compost pile.

"It's just not good enough," Larry said. "I refunded everyone's money.

"We want people to be totally satisfied. We shut it down."

Those kinds of issues are to be expected, Larry said, as he gets used to growing inside the greenhouse, essentially a Quonset hut draped in thick plastic with an industrial fan and heater. He said hot spots, due to nearby trees, and other issues contributed to the crop failure.

Still, he's thrilled to have the greenhouse and is confident the group soon will be selling tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other greenhouse-grown vegetables at a new farmer's market to open soon in the Ivywild School redevelopment project.

Then, in the fall, he'll convert the greenhouse to cool-weather crops such as lettuce, spinach, kale, collards, cabbage and carrots and grow all winter.

Of course, he won't just leave it at that. Stebbins plans to use it as a classroom, inviting teachers to bring students on field trips, or in this case greenhouse trips.

It's all designed to live up to those two simple words he wrote on his trailer: GROW FOOD.

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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