For Larry Stebbins, gardening is a must, like eating and breathing

March 17, 2014 Updated: March 17, 2014 at 1:50 pm

One big red tomato was the catalyst for Larry Stebbins' love affair with gardening.

The director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens remembers the morning when he was 5 years old, growing up in Detroit, and he went with his grandfather out into the family garden. A tomato was plucked fresh off the vine and his grandfather cut it in half for them to share, tomato juice running down their chins.

"From that morning on I was hooked," Stebbins says.

In his book "A Backyard Vegetable Gardening Guide," (available on Apple's iBooks) he writes that many people say they love to garden, but, "for me it goes beyond that. I have to garden. It is as much a part of me as eating or breathing. Through my 60-plus years on this planet, many have encouraged and some just tolerated my passion."

Thankfully, his parents were understanding when he dug up parts of their yard for crops and cultivated a windowsill "greenhouse" in his bedroom.

His interest in gardening blossomed in high school when Stebbins and a friend got permission to transform an empty brick greenhouse attached to their biology classroom. School officials had no idea what was about to happen when these enterprising sophomores reached out for donations from the Detroit Botanic Gardens and turned the greenhouse into a "jungle of banana and rubber trees, ficus and tropical philodendron vines growing up to the ceiling." Stebbins says that he has long since forgiven his teacher for giving him a "B" in advanced biology.

He's had many gardening successes, but there was one unusual flop: a pumpkini. He laughs as he explains.

"I saved the seeds of one of my zucchini plants and planted it the following year. It must have crossed with the pumpkin next door. It turned out to be the worst of both. No good for carving or eating! I have since learned how to properly save the seeds of squash by covering the young unopened female flower with a cheesecloth baggie and, when it opens, hand pollinate it with the desired male flower of a similar squash."

For 18 years Stebbins taught chemistry at Aurora Central High School before becoming assistant principal at Russell Middle School, principal at Carver Elementary and assistant principal at Air Academy High School. After 35 years in education, he retired and turned to community gardens. With guidance from Michael Hannigan of Pikes Peak Community Foundation he put together Pikes Peak Urban Gardens with a mission he describes as being "dedicated to cultivating community through organic gardening and sustainable urban garden projects."

The group has helped build and maintain nine community gardens, a mentored Victory Garden Project for families in low-income neighborhoods, a demonstration garden and two farmers markets, and it has an educational outreach to schools and community groups.

More than 5,000 people have attended Pikes Peak Urban Garden classes.

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