When Jefferson County first settled during the 1860s, agriculture was the name of the game. For nearly a century, the area served as the main food supplier for the Denver metro area, including fruits from the orchards of Clear Creek Valley, potatoes from Evergreen, and grains and vegetables from Wheat Ridge, Golden and Arvada. With names like Wheat Ridge and Applewood and preserved farmhouses, barns and silos scattered across the land, Jeffco’s agricultural legacy is still recognizable. But in the 21st century, Jefferson County has risen as a gateway to the Rocky Mountains and as a growing metropolis full of new opportunities.
Across the county, libraries and their communities are working to create another gateway — one that both links to the county’s rich farming heritage and points the way for a future full of fresh food and shared knowledge — with community and urban gardening programs like the Grow Together series at Lakewood Library, the DUG Grow a Garden series at Wheat Ridge and miscellaneous one-off events this spring.
“Growing food at home is definitely on the rise — people want to know where their food comes from,” says Michael Neff, patron experience associate from Lakewood and part of the staff who created Grow Together.
These programs cover everything from planting the best varieties for high-altitude farming, fermenting the final produce and the ever-popular community seed swap. Fruit and vegetable growing is often the focus as a way to, in Michael’s words, “address food security and help out people who are wanting to start gardening but are put off by the cost.”
Food insecurity, or non-reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, is a key concern for an estimated 9.1 percent of Jefferson County (according to Feeding America’s 2017 Overall and Child Food Insecurity by County data). But, with free resources and information from the library and its gardening programs, facing food insecurity is a more manageable task for families.
At Wheat Ridge Library, affordable urban gardening is also the focus of its DUG Grow a Garden programming, presented and hosted in partnership with Denver Urban Gardens, a metro-wide program providing participants access to the materials and education needed to grow a vegetable garden. The program includes complimentary seeds and seedlings for participants, all of whom must meet income requirements. Its two educational workshops are open to the general public.
For Wheat Ridge resident Chad, DUG’s seeds and plants are the basis of his summer gardening, which includes homegrown peppers and cherry tomatoes.
“It was a heck of a year this year!” Chad says of his recent harvest. “Four [tomato] plants produced enough for my neighbors, myself, and I even took in big bags to the library. Pounds and pounds!” With the produce from his garden, Chad is able to pursue his other hobby — cooking — and enjoy more fresh food throughout the season.
“I love to make pico de gallo, and I was eating a tomato and zucchini salad every day for months,” he says. “That final harvest — it was so overwhelming! I made tomato sauce and spaghetti sauce, too! ”
Despite his successes, Chad claims that he doesn’t really have a green thumb and that he just enjoys the experience of being active outside, saying “some years are just better than others. I love harvesting food directly as a result of my effort, and I love sharing that. I loved taking the tomatoes in to the crew at the library.”
“We [the library staff] kept asking Chad, ‘what’s your secret with the tomatoes?’” recalls Christina Maher, patron experience associate at Wheat Ridge and coordinator for Grow a Garden.
Gardening is far more than a lonely, isolated pursuit. It’s generosity and community. “We’ve become a gardening community!” Christina continues. “Getting to see people year after year, the joy they get at picking up their seeds — I think that’s what’s really special.”
“[Gardening] fosters a sense of community,” Michael agrees. “Neighbors might walk by and ask what you’re growing, what your successes are and how you got such and such to grow. At the library, we ask the same things.”
And at the library, these questions can lead to connection, as library staff help community members learn about their gardening options and education opportunities to meet other people who share their interests.
“If you’re curious and don’t know where to start, we can connect you to a no-cost or free resource,” Michael says. In the past, Michael has connected patrons with local businesses giving away soil, mulch and seeds to start their own gardens, as well as finding community garden plots for those living in apartments or other areas with limited resources.
This spring, reconnect with Jeffco’s roots and discover just how fruitful urban and community gardening can be. And as for the secret to Chad’s tomatoes…“Coffee grounds,” he admits, a smile in his voice. “Watering every other day when it doesn’t rain. No spray, no pesticide, no herbicide. Just earth, sky and water.”
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