From seed to harvest

The story of Boulder’s newest community garden

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Mary Reed

It’s late April and Polly Ruff pulls a few weeds growing from the outside edge of her raised bed at Living Harvest Garden. The 30 plots surrounding her are in various stages of preparation for the first season of this freshly minted community garden.

Thanks to the hard work of Ruff and her fellow congregants of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Boulder’s newest community garden will help feed an estimated 60 people this season.

“We have all this land,” Ruff says about the church property on the corner of 28th Street and Jay Road. “It just sits here. We don’t even water it in the summer because water’s very expensive. So I was like, what could we possibly do with this land that would be beneficial?” 

That idea came to Ruff several years ago. She floated the idea of a garden, but says the biggest challenge was getting the congregation on board. When Pastor Jesse Stern arrived in 2010, he enthusiastically supported the garden idea and drummed up support.

“If you do it, you have to have a group of people … that are really dedicated or committed to the success of the garden. If you don’t, it could just fall apart,” Ruff says.

So Ruff reached out to Growing Gardens, a Boulder nonprofit that supports sustainable urban agriculture. Growing Gardens manages 12 community gardens in Boulder County, which contain a total of more than 500 plots. Operations coordinator Megan Reehl estimates that each plots serves, on average, two people when you take into consideration that some plots belong to one person and others to couples, friends or families — making it an estimated 1,000 people in Boulder County who use these public plots.

Still, Growing Gardens has some 50 people on a waitlist for garden plots for the 2015 season. And Reehl expects this number to grow.

“I find that this is the time of year when a lot of people who are new to gardening [start thinking about it],” she says. “I would expect another 50 people to sign up between now and July 1.”

Just one or maybe two more gardens the size of Living Harvest could fill this need.

At Ruff ’s invitation, Growing Gardens sent a representative to talk to the members of the church.

“We are typically approached by a community, an organization, an HOA, a church — someone who really wants to have a community garden on their land and is willing to put in the initial grunt work,” Reehl says.

Growing Gardens provided the technical support needed to get the church’s nascent garden planned. They offered advice on layout and materials — for example, raised beds allow for better soil amendment and a neater look, and pathways need to be wide enough to accommodate wheelbarrows. Growing Gardens also suggested — as they do with all new garden projects — a full year to plan and build the infrastructure before opening it to the public.

They also offered a sample budget with pricing for timbers, gravel, irrigation systems and other materials. But with an estimated budget of about $16,000, the Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church had more work to do in terms of fundraising and in-kind support.

A member of the church’s congregation made a large donation to the garden project and the congregation as a whole agreed to kick in some money out of their budget for the material expenses. Then congregants and others added some sweat equity.

“Almost everybody that goes to our church pitched in and helped in some way, shape or form … as well as other sister congregations along the Front Range,” Ruff says. In addition, students from Rocky Mountain Lutheran High School in Denver came and helped with construction as did members of Rooted, a Front Range Lutheran fellowship for young adults. To date, Ruff estimates that her fellow churchgoers rent four of the plots.

Each of the 30 plots rents for $102, including a water fee. The total fullprice rental income of $3,600 a season is a fraction of the construction and maintenance costs for the garden. And a reduced fee for a plot runs just $70 for the season. Starting a community garden may be entrepreneurial, but it’s not done to make money.

After completing construction of the garden, the church turned over the management of the plots to Growing Gardens, who trained Ruff as the required garden leader — a volunteer position that requires a consistent time commitment.

Ruff, who also gardens at her home, plans to donate excess food to Boulder’s Emergency Family Assistance Association. But she is concerned that her biggest challenge may lie ahead, and hoof prints in the raised beds confirm her fears. “I don’t know what I’m even going to be able to produce with deer!”