With more plantings in more places, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens grows its influence 

The plots thicken

Pikes Peak Urban Gardens' Victory Garden program just completed its first season, and the people involved have reaped a harvest to be proud of.

Linda Mooney and Dick Anson, both retired and avid gardeners, are longtime volunteers for Westside CARES, which serves needy families in various ways. One thing it does is run food pantries at west-side churches (see "Neighbor nonpareil," Indy Give!, Nov. 21, 2012).

"We had for years been in one of the community gardens, growing vegetables for the pantry," Mooney says. "We have families that come in three times a year and walk away with a few tomatoes or a squash.

"It doesn't make a difference — and how much better if people had their own gardens?"

So Mooney and Anson decided they could lead an effort to help families learn to grow their own food, and approached Larry Stebbins, director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens. Stebbins loved the idea of expanding from PPUG's community garden program, wherein families work small plots in several public locations.

"We've wanted to do this for a number of years, but until you have the resources for it, it would take away from our primary project, which is community gardens around the city," he says. "There's no money in this, obviously, all the money goes out to the families. So the biggest part was staffing, and Linda and Dick stepped in to spearhead this. It was a no-brainer."

Sweet 'Victory'

The project was dubbed "Victory Garden," harking back to the plots planted during World Wars I and II to supply food and boost morale on the home front.

Westside CARES quickly got on board. The nonprofit partners with 20-plus churches to serve families in need, so it's ideal for identifying Victory Garden candidates. (If the families are renting, they get permission from the property owner to put in a garden.)

In spring 2013, 11 families signed up; most had little gardening experience. They would be shepherded through the process by volunteers who would provide expertise via visits, emails and phone calls.

The mentors helped families design their gardens, taking into account the yards' conditions and the families' food preferences. Most would be 4 feet by 8 feet, unless families wanted something larger, and they'd all be raised beds filled with rich garden soil, avoiding the frustrations of Colorado's notoriously uncooperative dirt.

"We provide all the supplies, the materials and part of the labor. If they can't do it, then we do all of the labor," Stebbins says. "Then we help locate plants and seeds, many of them donated." This year's donors included Dutch Heritage Gardens in Larkspur, Phelan Gardens and Ace Hardware.

Stebbins told Mooney and Anson that if 50 percent of the families succeeded, he'd consider the Victory Gardens a winner.

"It's this little dance you have with nature," says Anson. "You have to do your part, but even if you do your part, there's no guarantee that it's going to turn out perfect."

They were all pleasantly surprised by the results.

"Ten out of 11 of our families were successful," Mooney says. "And the one that wasn't just had too many health situations to make it a go."

Models for more

Mooney and Anson mentored Scott Johnson and Susi Light, who say the program has slashed their food bills.

"We couldn't have done it without them," Johnson says. "Just the garden stuff they supplied for us, we couldn't have ever done it on our own budget. They made it happen."

"I'd never gardened in my life — Scott is the gardener. All I did was the radishes, and they were spectacular," says Light, who shows off photos of flourishing vegetables like they're Nobel Prize-winning children.

They're already thinking about the next growing season. "We're going to do two more boxes and space it out more," Johnson says. "We were amazed at how much we could eat out of that small garden."

The benefits go far beyond the nutritious vegetables and herbs Johnson and Light have enjoyed in countless meals and shared with friends, family and neighbors. Both want to pay forward the pride they're feeling by mentoring others.

"We call it self-sufficiency, one garden at a time," Mooney says.

Stebbins is ready to expand this "idea whose time has come." He wants to tap local college students as mentors, start seedlings in a city greenhouse to extend the season, and sign up more families. Victory Gardens just make financial sense to him.

"To build a community garden takes about $1,500 per family to get the construction going, with the fence, lumber and water, all that. So for less than $300, we can actually bring the whole family along and do the same thing — but in their backyard. We can help five families for the price of one community garden."

At the top of Stebbins' wish list: a "beater" truck to pull trailers hauling supplies to families.

"To me, it's the best investment in gardening that we can ever possibly imagine," he says. "We just want to replicate this throughout the city, as far and wide as we can."


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