Behind the North Boulder Recreation Center off Broadway is another world, nestled between subdivisions and marked off into 400-square-foot plots. It is a subculture that has its own rules. And like any community, especially one where there are no walls and your neighbors are literally right next to you, disputes can arise.
It is Hawthorn Gardens, a community where the characters are sometimes as colorful as the flowering plants. It’s a place where gardeners can rent a patch of earth to grow crops, and Brandon McKee claims he has gotten kicked out for no good reason.
In the morning sun of Monday, April 30, he is without a shirt, urgently digging up some of the 31 varieties of berries he has cultivated on his double plot for 10 years, in an effort to be out by his 9 a.m. deadline. He is moving more than $15,000 worth of plants into pots headed for gardens owned by friends at the North Boulder Garden Center, formerly known as I Love to Grow. Stephen and Jonathan Hayes, co-owners of that establishment, are helping McKee place bushes into plastic barrels and loading them into a truck for a fourth trip to their nursery.
McKee claims that Growing Gardens, a nonprofit that operates several city community gardens, has evicted him because he was a troublemaker, a whistleblower. Growing Gardens officials recently sent tenants a new set of rules that, among other things, gives the nonprofit the right to eject any gardener for any reason. They claim that McKee lost his plot because he responded to the new rules and staffing changes like he has reacted to those who let their dogs run loose at Hawthorn: in a threatening, aggressive way.
However, McKee and other gardeners maintain that the regulations are not just poorly communicated but selectively enforced.
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McKee is looking for the favored metal pitchfork with which to extract one of the plants that he says got him evicted from his small parcel of land. It is a josta berry, a cross between a gooseberry and a black currant, he explains. McKee soon finds the pitchfork and begins stabbing at the far-reaching root system, saying that he knows of only one person in Boulder who has more varieties of berries than he does.
“It’s not going to fruit now, so I’ve lost this whole harvest,” he says of the bush as he pulls it out of the ground and hoists it into a large black bucket with a sigh. “I realized there was no way I could fight getting kicked out, and I realized it was time to go, so I focused my energies on finding another place.”
Raspberries are a cane fruit, which are prohibited by Growing Gardens because they are considered invasive and can take over. But McKee says he got permission from Growing Gardens Executive Director Ramona Clark nine years ago to transplant the berry plants when they were encroaching on the pathways between plots, which are supposed to be kept clear. Since then, he says, he has gained the permission of each subsequent garden coordinator to keep the berries, and he points to other raspberry bushes around Hawthorn that have not attracted the same crackdown that he has received. McKee adds that other, equally invasive plants like hops and horseradish are allowed, for some reason.
McKee says he is considering taking legal action to fight his horticultural ouster and has contacted the district attorney’s office. But as part of their contract, gardeners agree to release all claims against Growing Gardens and not sue the organization.
While he may be guilty of growing a cane fruit, McKee says, he is being singled out because he has been vocal about pointing out violations of other garden rules, like one that prohibits dogs being off leash.
“The rules are unevenly enforced,” he says. “I complain about not enforcing the dog rule, so I’m the bad guy. … Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. I just hate dog owners.”
One problem seems to be communication, according to other gardeners interviewed.
“The main issue is a lack of transparent interaction between Growing Gardens and the gardeners, in regards to how the rules and regulations are designed over the years and how they are applied,” says one gardener who asked not to be identified.
Another gardener who requested anonymity due to fear of retribution said there was only one other tenant who was kicked out for something other than abandoning their plot, and that was a woman the gardener referred to as an “obnoxious hippie” who used to accuse neighbors of stealing her iris and would go looking for them accompanied by two tall “thugs.”
McKee says another gardener was issued a “weedy warning,” a notification that weeds in one’s garden have gotten out of control or are about to go to seed and spread to other plots. That gardener attempted to clean up the weeds, but when she went to renew her contract, it had been discontinued without notice and her plot assigned to another gardener, McKee says.
That gardner, he adds, is a new Growing Gardens staffer who he suspects has been strategically placed “in the middle of the troublemakers and old-timers” to keep tabs on things.
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Clark, a co-founder of Growing Gardens in 1998, acknowledges that those notified of a weed problem have two weeks to remedy the situation before the plot is turned over to someone who will take better care of it. She denies, however, that she gave McKee permission to grow the berries. Still, she says, he was kicked out not because of cane fruit but due to his reactions to the recent rules and staffing changes as well as complaints from others about his behavior.
According to Clark, the change in regulations allowing Growing Gardens to revoke a plot for any reason was prompted not by a desire to remove McKee, but by an incident last year involving another gardener that could have escalated into danger or violence. She acknowledges that the rule change “riled some gardeners up,” but she adds that “we’ve never revoked anyone’s plot for no reason.”
She says an email exchange with McKee regarding his concerns about the changes ensued, culminating in McKee sending a particularly disturbing message.
“He went on a little bit of a rampage,” she says. “It really freaked our staff out, being in the garden at the same time as him.”
Clark read some excerpts from the email, which contained phrases such as “your days are numbered,” “I will attack you with a vengeance” and “in some countries people lose limbs, and no one knows what I am capable of.”
McKee admits that things had come to a head and his frustrations spilled over in a “mean and nasty” email, but he insists he meant no violence, and was simply telling Clark he would make sure she lost her job if there wasn’t sufficient response to his ultimatum.
But Clark says other gardeners have sent her emails saying that they, too, have felt intimidated by McKee. One person told her that McKee ran at her, screaming profanities about her loose dog, threatening to call the cops and follow her home.
McKee finally told Clark that it would be best if he left Hawthorn. She took that to mean he was giving up his plot, so she prepared the paperwork and his refund check. But McKee says all he meant was that he was looking for an alternate garden, not that he was ready to leave yet. He received his check, then returned it and said he wasn’t leaving. But Clark, after consulting with the city’s parks and recreation superintendent, told McKee it was time to go. McKee says the cane fruit violation was listed among the reasons for his eviction, but Clark counters that he was primarily evicted for “harassment and threatening behavior.”
“We take it very seriously when we ask a gardener to leave,” she says. “We never want to kick anyone out of the garden. Why would we give ourselves that headache?” As for the claim of selective enforcement, Clark says her staff is not constantly patrolling the gardens, so there is not a lot of scrutiny unless a violation is reported or something becomes a big issue.
“We’re not huge enforcers,” she says. “We’ve never kicked anybody out of the garden for cane fruit. … We try to make the greater whole function, and it sometimes makes individuals unhappy. When it starts to affect other gardeners, we take action.”
Clark adds that she is always open to discussing policies and rules with the gardeners, and she plans to have a community meeting soon to discuss the recent changes and areas that may be unclear, like a recent move to purge the waiting list for plots at the end of every calendar year.
She agrees that Hawthorn and others like it are their own little subcultures.
“The community gardens are a microcosm of the world, a compacted and dense version of the world,” Clark says.
“It’s a very intense community experience. But part of that community is that it has all kinds of people, and they all have to get along, and sometimes they don’t. … Gardeners are very passionate people.”