From his Colorado Springs home, Larry Stebbins walks a couple of blocks to his slice of paradise.
It’s the 2 1/2-acre square that forms the community gardens of the Old Farm neighborhood.
“It’s just a real pleasant place to be,” Stebbins says.
“Especially this year,” says fellow gardener Debra Othitis.
COVID-19 might put a damper on the annual potluck, the fall get-together where many of the people managing these 58 plots come with dishes they prepared with the ingredients they’ve grown. Awards have gone to the best salsas, jams and jellies, relishes and flower arrangements.
The celebration might be off. But the garden solitude remains.
Down close to the dirt, it can seem the greenery goes on forever, the houses far off in this neighborhood tucked away near Austin Bluffs Parkway and Stetson Hills Boulevard on the city’s northeast side. The hedges and shrubs combine with colorful arrays of flora. Hummingbirds flutter and bees buzz. Other birds and bugs join the symphony. A mischievous mouse scurries by.
It’s all overlooked by a silo and farmhouse — nostalgic reminders of the historic way of life here. The gardening tradition continues on the hillside, as does the instruction of past mothers and fathers on the ranch.
Much of the teaching is courtesy of Stebbins. He founded Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, the nonprofit raising green thumb ranks in the region since 2008. Since he and his wife moved here in 1994, the Old Farm gardens have been Stebbins’ base.
“When we moved in, I had no idea this was here,” he says. “I go, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
It got even crazier. One of the originators of the community gardens was named Ernie Rector, who happened to grow up in Detroit just as Stebbins was growing up there. They were 1 mile apart, yet they were unaware of each other.
That’s because Stebbins was white and Rector was Black. “Back in those days in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a dividing line,” Stebbins says.
The two grew their gardens together for 15 years. “We became really good friends,” Stebbins says. “When Ernie passed away, it was a tremendous loss for me.”
Old Farm’s gardens maintain the vision Rector and other originators had in the late 1980s. They’d been gardening in a bigger community setup in the Springs, but they wanted plots without certain restrictions.
They wanted structures such as hoop tunnels to protect crops from hail, for instance. They wanted to be able to raise their soil beds with wood barriers. They wanted to keep perennials in ground rather than watch them be tilled away.
In this emerging neighborhood, they found a spread that had been deeded to the city’s parks department. It was “bare earth,” Stebbins says, but conveniently there were several water spigots from the former horse corral. The city granted permission to grow.
Much has grown indeed, largely through the organic ethic that the gardens’ board of directors encourages. Alpaca, cow and horse manure is used to enrich soils.
The board counts “great success” with garlic, onions, carrots, squash, peppers, corn, beans, peas and varied greens to name but some. Watermelons, strawberries, cantaloupe and pumpkins are also tried among an ambitious bunch who swap tricks for cultivating near 6,800 feet above sea level.
And they’re not all residents of the neighborhood. Anyone and everyone is welcome, though they’ll likely be put on a waiting list.
“It took me four years to get a plot,” Jennifer Phillips says. Over the past 14 years, she’s served on the board, getting closer to the group described as a family.
As in any family, there’s arguing. Mostly “those darn weeds,” Phillips says. “We all fight the weeds. But then you’ll have gardeners, something happens in their life and they can’t take care of their plot. (They say) ‘I’ve got this going on,’ and we all chip in.”
The camaraderie has been essential for Othitis on her path to becoming a master gardener.
“I’ve found the best way to learn about gardening is to learn from other gardeners,” she says.
She finds them here, along with peace.
“Whenever you can be in nature, it’s good for your emotional well-being,” she says.