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The Manitou Gardening Club scores national award, local admiration

By: Megan Wood
August 25, 2013 Updated: August 25, 2013 at 10:00 pm

owering sunflowers cast thin shadows over the various vegetables and flowers below. Rich with bees and color, Mansions Gardens provides the community with a beautiful backdrop for park activities.

Located behind Manitou Springs City Hall in Mansions Park, Mansions Gardens is maintained by the Manitou Springs Garden Club, the only garden club in Manitou Springs.

If passers-by are lucky enough to stop by the gardens when club president Jeanie Taylor is there, she gives them snippets of sage or dill from the gardens.

The club recently won a national award for the gardens from the National Garden Clubs Inc. in the Plantings for Public and Special Places, Gardens with Edibles category. The National Gardener published the second-place win in its summer 2013 issue.

"I just think it's so awesome that we won a national contest," said Liz Lee, Manitou Springs Garden Club member and former treasurer. "We're just a little tiny town."

The garden club was founded by 10 women in 1993. Today, the group numbers about 20.

Styled after French potager gardens, Mansions Gardens consists of two beds enclosed in black, wrought-iron fences. There are a total of 12 plots in the two beds, with each plot measuring about 10 by 3 feet in trapezoidal shapes.

Mary Ellen Montgomery, the former Manitou Springs city gardener, designed the original layout of the gardens and is in charge of the maintenance.

"From the beginning, the plan was to try to achieve an educational, interactive space like so many cities are trying, with local foods and community gardens and safer methods of park maintenance," Montgomery said.

The vegetables and flowers are planted in patterns, so there's more growing space than path space. Taylor said this model creates a more "shared experience" for gardeners, because the boundaries between the plots aren't distinct, just separated by rows of chives. The pattern also conserves moisture and limits runoff water.

"So typically, a person would get two plots that would be opposite each other, and they're supposed to be planted in a design that mirrors one another," Taylor said. "Usually though, the plants don't follow your design - that's the hard part."

Taylor and two other garden club members have plots in Mansions Gardens. Taylor has grown peas, lettuce, basil, beans, Swiss chard, kale, carrots and spinach in her plot.

The other plots are under the care of non-members. The club asks for a donation to the club to receive a plot, because the club added a drip sprinkler system, paid for the soil and brought in organic mulch.

"I think what's nice about this one is there's some irrigation," said Sue Benson, a plot owner who is growing peas, lettuce, basil and tomatoes in her plot, to name a few. "And there's some shade there, which is good."

The club is all about being organic.

"We're not looking to use chemicals to make the prettiest rose," club member Lee said.

Mansions Gardens played a pivotal role in transitioning Manitou Springs city lawn care to organic. After the city sprayed the lawn around the gardens with chemicals, there was uproar because the garden was filled with food, said Taylor.

"I think we're a very environmentally-conscious garden club," said Taylor.

The club cares for three gardens in Manitou - Mansions Gardens, Chamber of Commerce gardens and the Community Congregational Church garden.

The club awards scholarships of $300 to $500 to Manitou Springs High School students to help them with college expenses.

"We do like to see in the application that there is some correlation or some interest or some involvement in their lives that are similar to our mission," Taylor said, listing majors in environmental studies, botany or biology. To receive a grant, applicants must write a letter explaining what it is they need and why.

The dry climate of Colorado makes it difficult to garden, but Mansions Gardens yields itself to the growth of plants with its irrigation, good soil, sunlight and afternoon shade.

"We've been in a drought. All of Colorado is a tough place to garden," Taylor said. "And that's one reason I like it so much, because people come by and say, 'I tried and I can't grow that.'"

Taylor said when she's tending to Mansions Gardens, passers-by stop and ask her to identify the different plants. On the perimeter of the two gardens, there are now labeled herbs.

The club takes field trips to different gardens and has an annual plant swap in September and an herb potluck in the fall. The gardeners also share recipes, such as chive blossom vinegar and yogurt dill soup.

"We are a pretty down-to-earth garden club. We're not all about flower arranging and things like that," Taylor said.

"We're more about growing flowers and vegetables and learning and sustainability."

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