Demonstration garden goes beyond organic

 

Demonstration garden goes beyond organic

 

posted 01 July 2011, by Candace Krebs, AgJournal (GateHouse Media, Inc.), agjournalonline.com

Colorado Springs, Colo. — More than a hundred years ago, this little plot of land, surrounded by orchards and gardens, was known for its turnips.

Today the four-acre Harlan Wolfe Ranch is still growing turnips — pulled fresh from the ground on a late June morning as part of the pick-and-pay program instituted two years ago — but nearly everything else around it has changed.
The garden is spread along a clearing adjacent to Cheyenne Creek in the heavily wooded Broadmoor area near the world famous resort. During the last three years, it’s been transformed into a demonstration garden that offers a you-pick program to the community three mornings a week, while hosting a variety of cooking and gardening classes.
This little oasis in the city is a place for people increasingly removed from agricultural life to make the connection to growing things again.
“It’s actually a city park, so it’s always open for people to walk through,” said Steve Hitchcock, the garden coordinator, who was selling produce to visitors on a recent morning. “There are educational signs throughout, so you can learn about what grows here. That is pretty important to know, due to our crumby soils.”
Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, a three-year-old nonprofit that manages the garden with the support of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, coordinates about a dozen community gardens around town, but since this one is a park, it doesn’t have individually farmed plots as most gardens do: instead, all of the garden spaces are for demonstration purposes. The collection of beds includes a children’s garden and another special garden space planted as a tribute to Thomas Jefferson, who grew more than 250 varieties of vegetables at Monticello, his farm in Virginia, and introduced America to tomatoes, okra and eggplant, among many others.
A couple of years ago garden managers decided to start selling vegetables to the public for a nominal fee to help offset the costs of upkeep.
On a recent morning, Hitchcock was harvesting lettuce, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, young turnips and three kinds of radishes. Two local women got a bag brimming with greens, herbs and radishes for $5 each. A garden volunteer was busy watering dozens of plots.
History meets innovation

The vegetables at Harlan Wolfe are likely the only biodynamic produce for sale in town.
While original homesteader John S. Wolfe made the land productive long before the advent of commercial fertilizers or genetic modification, the garden is now farmed using biodynamic practices that weren’t invented until 1920, when a group of European grape growers, concerned with a decline in wine production, sought the advice of Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher, scientist and early environmentalist. He helped them develop an approach to agriculture that related the ecology of the farm to the surrounding environment and the cosmos as a whole, as described by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, which was founded in 1938.
Still most often associated with a few boutique wineries in California, biodynamics is a combination of scientific, organic and sometimes whimsical production guidelines. It incorporates organic composting, mineral soil amendments and crop rotation with more unusual practices that include filling a cow horn with manure and burying it in the ground in the fall for retrieval in the spring. Planting and harvesting is done by the waxing and waning of the moon.
Not surprisingly, biodynamic vegetables are rare. About a handful of biodynamic farms and wineries are located in Colorado.
James Bertini, owner of the Denver Urban Homesteading Farmers Market, said being biodynamic is typically considered a step beyond organic, but organic practices have to be established first as the basis. He sells only one biodynamic product at his market, wines from Jack Rabbit Hill Winery, an innovative ecological farm near Hotchkiss on the Western Slope.
While the movement is most pronounced in California, Bertini said it seems to be picking up momentum in other states.
“It’s growing a lot,” said Bertini, who is organizing a community wine making project in his South Denver neighborhood and is an advocate of legalizing urban farming in the city.
At Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, it’s the elimination of chemical pesticides, which are typically salt-based and can interfere with soil structure and health, that makes biodynamic farming popular with garden coordinators.
According to the organization’s website, since 1945, the use of artificial pesticides on food has increased tenfold.
Hitchcock described biodynamics as an intelligent combination of “nature and nurture” but said people tend to think of it as something on the “fringe.”
For Larry Stebbins, the executive director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, it’s nothing new: he’s been using biodynamic practices in his own gardens since the early 1970s.
“It’s been around for a long time,” he said. “It’s very big in Europe and Australia. In the U.S., it’s getting bigger.”
An early leader in natural gardening, J.I. Rodale, was big on organics but didn’t promote biodynamics, which is why it has tended to take a backseat in this country, Stebbins believes.
“Biodynamics isn’t about a close-minded set of things,” he said. It leaves room for a gardener’s intuition and for the awareness that what works for one farmer might be different than what works for another just down the road.
“It’s peasant wisdom, a lot of practical things,” Stebbins added. “Some people think of it as an addition to organics that just adds to their gardening chores. But we don’t see it that way. The plants tend to be more vibrant, and a little healthier, and withstand the elements better. People say these vegetables are the best they’ve ever eaten.”
The point of the Harlan Wolfe Ranch is not to promote biodynamics, however. It’s to spread interest in gardening and nutritious eating as a way to enhance the health of the community.
“Our goal is we want people to enjoy gardening,” Stebbins said.
Pikes Peak Urban Gardens appears to be succeeding at its mission in spades.
“Our classes are packed every month,” he said. “We’ve had 300 people show up to learn about gardening. The interest is just going crazy.”

Copyright 2011 Ag Journal
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