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SOIL lab and community garden reenters fundraising mode after ribbon-cutting celebration Saturday

Plot beside Riverview Elementary serves as learning space for students, growing place for visitors
Eerie Henchman, 5, left, and Ruby Riederer, 6, tour the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden on Saturday after the ribbon cutting ceremony that officially opened the garden. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After nearly two years, the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden opened at Riverview Elementary School on Saturday to a crowd of spectators with short speeches from the men and women who contributed to the project.

The outdoor garden for students districtwide, residents of Durango and everyone else who cares to visit is the culmination of a vision thought up by Charlie Love, Riverview Elementary science teacher, and elevated by donors, sponsors and the kids of Riverview.

But the gardening space is far from finished. Although the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday celebrated the opening of the space, the project is still in its first of six construction phases.

About 24 education garden beds, 50 community garden beds and four wheelchair accessible garden beds are already in place, with more wood materials for additional beds scattered about the plot.

Allison Riederer, SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden, garden manager, welcomes everyone to the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the official opening of the garden on Saturday. The project, thought up nearly two years ago by Charlie Love, Riverview Elementary School science teacher, went through a year of fundraising and construction to get to where it is today. The first of six phases of construction is nearly complete, but the garden opened to select growing on Saturday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The next phases of the project will bring about a soil shed for advanced composting, soil analysis and demonstrations; an amphitheater and event space with a solar pavilion featuring EV charging; a grow dome for year-round gardening; a food forest for edible fruit and an agriculture lab; and an education center for more indoor growing space, a commercial kitchen, classrooms and community events.

“The SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab is on a mission to enrich the lives of every person who lives in or visits this community,” Love said. “You don’t have to rent a garden plot to enjoy the space. You can learn new things by attending a workshop or engaging with an education station. Just immerse yourself in nature, spend time with loved ones, meet new people, and the list goes on.”

Phase 1, which includes education plots, family and individual community garden beds available for rent through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, still has a way to go, but is expected to be completed this year. And Love is shifting back into fundraising mode to push through the final steps of the first phase.

Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, and Charlie Love, a Riverview Elementary School science teacher and visionary of the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden, cuts the ribbon Saturday for the official opening of the garden. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He said the project is just getting started and he is accepting ideas and suggestions from the community, which can be sent online at soillab.org.

“Altogether, let’s learn from the rich agricultural history of our region that spans back thousands of years, leverage available modern technologies and ideas, and innovate together to grow an inspired community and a sustainable future,” he said.

A ‘world class’ culmination of culture and ideas

Rod Barker, who donated six figures to the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden project, said the project holds huge potential. The community is on the right trajectory to turn it into a world-class facility.

Ture Nycum, director of Durango Parks and Recreation, speaks on Saturday during the ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the SOIL Lab and community garden. The Parks and Recreation Department worked closely with Durango School District 9-R to make the student and community garden possible after the closing of the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He said entertainment is another cultural influencer, and the garden space at Riverview Elementary is an amalgamation of food, entertainment and community involvement.

He envisions bringing top-of-the-line chefs to the planned community kitchen to teach local cooks and families how to up their culinary game; and he said the educational opportunities afforded to students inspire them to someday open their own business in Durango to apply their skills and interests unlocked by the garden.

Darren Parmenter of CSU Extension said anything can be taught in a garden, from the process of planting seeds to picking fruits and vegetables.

Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School Dsitrict 9-R, said the garden space bolsters education, eco-stewardship, equity and economy.

People tour rows of garden beds, some reserved for education and others for community and rental use, in the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden on Saturday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the space. Phase 1 of the project is expected to be complete this year, with five more phases to go. Future amenities include a grow dome for year-round growing, a commercial kitchen and an amphitheater and pavilion. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

She said the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative brings together all nine school districts in the Southwest Colorado Region 9 and focuses on career paths for students.

The garden contributes to those efforts, she said.

“We’re a village. So why not provide the opportunity for all of our students in all of our school districts – from Ignacio to Montezuma, Cortez, to Dolores, to Pagosa Springs – to also enjoy and to add to the experiences that we have here,” she said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Rod Barker, who donated six figures to the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden project.

Darrin Parmenter, director and horticulture agent at the La Plata County Extension Office, speaks on Saturday during the ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the SOIL Lab and community garden. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Rod Barker, one of the first donors for the SOIL Lab and community garden, speaks to the crowd of about 50 people during the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday for the garden. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
One of the pieces of art displayed on the fence of the SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab and community garden on Saturday. About 30 student finalists from across all grade levels in Durango School District 9-R had their art featured at the ribbon-cutting. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)


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