With the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden’s closure, Charlie Love, Riverview Elementary School science teacher, is stepping up to provide students and the greater community a new and improved community garden, and now Durango Parks and Recreation is stepping up to support the project.
Ture Nycum, Durango Parks and Recreation director, said his department has $25,000 in Capital Improvements Projects funds committed to supporting the SOIL Community Garden project spearheaded by Love.
It is Nycum’s hope the city’s money, paired with the funds Love and Durango School District 9-R has already raised, will help the project receive more funding through grants, such as a Great Outdoors Colorado grant that could provide up to $350,000, he said.
The parks director said his department is working on developing an MOU to present for City Council – city funding would help the school district pay for a part-time garden manager who will maintain the community garden 25 to 40 hours a week.
Ground was broken on the project at Riverview Elementary School in March, although construction has a long way to go, Love said. The gardens will be on the west side of the school in what Love said is an underused, weedy area of the campus. The site has nice views and is easily accessible with public parking nearby, he said.
“It’s kind of the perfect site. I can’t think of a better place to do something like this,” he said.
Love said the project was plotted out into five phases, with the first beginning last spring. Phase 1 includes the construction of a terrace that overlooks the valley with a clear view of the mountains in the distance.
He expects about 70 garden beds to be ready for use by students and city residents by springtime 2023, right in time for growing season, with about 56 of the beds, or 80%, to be available to the broader community.
The remaining beds would be reserved for educational programming with Durango School District and other organizations that might partner with the district, he said.
Karen Cheser, superintendent for Durango School District, said at the Oct. 4 City Council meeting that the garden will be available for use by all students within 9-R in addition to community members. The district is already engaged in talks with Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College Southwest about how to implement the garden into their environmental science and agricultural natural resources programs, respectively.
The school district-college partnerships will be geared toward providing a “streamlined pipeline” for students to explore career paths in agriculture and environmental sciences, she said.
“We are wholeheartedly focused on this,” Cheser said. “... I really feel part of this has to be environmental education, sustainability education, for the next generation, and what better way to do this?”
The garden area will feature handicap-accessible gardening spaces, food-preparation areas, an interactive art zone and education stations, Love said.
In Phase 2, a public performance stage and event pavilion, including an amphitheater, will be constructed in addition to demonstration gardens. Phase 3 focuses on the construction of a 42-foot garden dome that will display “innovative agricultural techniques” and host experimental year-round growing operations with the intent of keeping the garden relevant to the community during the winter months, he said.
Phase 4 introduces a “food forest” to the community garden where trees, berries and other perennials are available for perusing, he said. A farm stand is also planned to be installed to teach students and the public about food distribution systems and to “address food insecurity issues.”
A building housing a commercial kitchen, classroom and an indoor growing space is the basis of the final phase of the SOIL Community Garden project, Love said. He anticipates Phase 5 will take about five years to complete, but that it is dependent on successful fundraising efforts and grants.
People who want to contribute to the SOIL Community Garden project, or who want more information, can access the project website at soillab.org, he said.
“It could be a place for events to occur for both the community as well as organizations, and businesses would have access to this space for different kinds of programming,” he said.
Love, who was heavily involved in the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden that got its start in 2013 and closed on Sept. 30, said the old garden was “an integral part of an extremely successful science program and an innovative STEM curriculum.”
“There’s so many benefits to kids with being outside, being in nature and being physical,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It has implications for their social skills, emotional well-being, physical health. All of those things are supported by being outside in nature.”
He said in-class projects that integrated the hands-on, investigative nature of exploring the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden motivated students to take initiative in looking for answers to the questions they formed.
“Which would often lead to more involved investigations. And more questions. And that’s sort of the scientific process that I’m trying to engage them with,” he said.
He said he also found that students would take more risks – trying a vegetable they grew themselves that they didn’t think looked tasty, only to discover it is delicious, for example.
He said when he learned Ohana Kuleana would close Sept. 30, he brainstormed with city and school district personnel, in addition to community members, to plan a replacement garden. Today, he expects the SOIL Community Garden to be accessible to students and residents by spring.