A growing movement: Volunteers revitalize a community garden at Cortez’s Rec Center


Debra Sheldon, Read Brugger, Ben Mates and Kirbi Vaughn, volunteers at the Cortez Recreation Center’s community garden, worked during midsummer to thin the overgrown strawberry patch. The remaining plants thrived, producing a harvest of fruits while re-establishing a healthy strawberry patch for 2018. The left-over plants were nurtured in pots until they could be sold as a fundraiser. Photo by Sonja Horoshko.

This fall, arriving Canada geese cast shadows as they fly over a revived and thriving community garden that bloomed and bore fruit last summer just outside the Cortez Recreation Center. Mellowing grapevines turn crisp and red, spilling over two 7-foot fences enclosing the site. Raspberry canes and perennials stiffen beneath them. Stone benches provide a place for volunteer gardeners to contemplate the mellowing season now that the chores are done.

It was not always so. Recently, the garden had fallen into disrepair. Weeds prospered and plants withered. For residents and visitors to the rec center, the community garden was a mystery, a secret garden behind a locked gate, until late July, when a small group of volunteers began meeting there twice a week. In only three months they resurrected the garden into a city asset.

It was a bit of a miracle, according to organizers Kirbi Vaughn and Read Brugger, who hatched the plan to repair it following a Southwest Colorado Growing Partners workshop early in 2017.

The idea

After moving to Cortez two years ago, Brugger wanted to put into practice his past community-garden experience in Maine. “During the workshop we toured similar community-garden projects in Pagosa Springs, Bayfield and Durango. It was inspiring,” Brugger said.

Vaughn, an early-childhood educator and graphic designer, signed up for the workshop because she believes food scarcity is a top issue.

Vaughn and Brugger discovered they live two blocks from each other in Cortez. It was only a matter of time before they identified the nearby recreation center garden as a potential site for their community effort.

“Both of us are committed to making Cortez a more sustainable city,” said Brugger. “We see the garden as part of a larger vision for our area.”

The garden was one of many projects under the purview of the Montezuma School to Farm program. But the group’s capacity to maintain the rec-center garden was diminishing as its project list expanded.

With the aid of regional food maps and food-security strategies from the Growing Partners workshop, Vaughn and Brugger developed a proposal for the School to Farm program to relinquish its responsibility for the garden to the city.

By mid-summer the city had signed on to their plan. It was a little late to plant, but that didn’t stop Brugger and Vaughn. They began weeding and watering, taking inventory of what was worth saving, and reaching out to attract other volunteers who could help tackle the overgrown, unkempt plots.

“We are now devoting a great amount of personal time to transforming the garden,” said Brugger. “By next growing season it will be a showcase demonstration garden.

“Current, successful examples of public garden spaces in Cortez are confined to school grounds, where the public rarely interacts with the spaces. The garden at the rec center is very visible and is remedying that.”

The garden project belongs to the people, Vaughn said. “We want to integrate what we will be doing into that larger context – healthy, local food sources and gardening education for families. Numerous groups are already doing that work in our area and we’re reaching out to them to develop inspiring plans that support access to healthy food.”

A lot of people come to the city government with good concepts, said Cortez Parks and Recreation Director Dean Palmquist. But the supporting amenities they need, such as accessible water, bathrooms and supervision when no one is working in the garden, can be problematic.

In this project, Palmquist said, the community garden at the rec center is the perfect fit. “We have all the support amenities in place and it makes it easier for the volunteers, while lifting some of the work load from Kirbi and Read. They’re able to focus on essential gardening with others and enhance how volunteers can best be a part of it.”

Childhood roots

Ellen Foster lives in Montezuma County, but her love of gardening bloomed in Brooklyn. When she heard about the community garden, she wanted to help because as a child she was nourished by a program at the botanical gardens in her hometown, where family gardens were rare.

When she was 10, her parents enrolled her in the community project at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

“My mother put me on the city bus to the Botanic Gardens and the bus driver watched over me to make sure I got off and returned at the right places. It was so wonderful for a city kid who didn’t even have a back yard. They gave us seeds and tools and taught us how to grow our own food. I have never forgotten the lessons and my good fortune.”

Foster said by volunteering she hopes to encourage children to garden and to teach people about the significance of growing food. She saves seeds now to develop varieties of plants adapted to the specific climate characteristics of the local area. “I think it’s important for everybody to know how to grow their own food, even if it is in a tiny pot.”

The demonstration aspect of the garden will become even more important, she added, as the volunteers develop plans for creative workshops.

Sharing the larder

Produce from the garden is shared with involved youth and volunteers, but surplus goes to the Good Samaritan Food Pantry in Cortez.

People deserve good nutrition regardless of their income, said director Kristen Tworek. “This year we provided 677 people per month with a box of food. Annually we supply over 12 percent of Montezuma County.” In August the number spiked to nearly 800.

Brugger volunteers at the pantry. “If we can augment the provisions with fresh food from our community garden and some family recipes it may provide hope, not just nutrition,” he said.

The Good Samaritan helps any hungry person in Colorado. Clients receive food six times a year. “We get leftovers from the Cortez Farmers Market once a month in the summer,” Tworek said, “but in the other seasons we rely on grocer contributions, and national organizations such as Feeding America and Care and Share.”

Food drives such as the 25th annual Letter Carriers’ Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive last May and the annual KRTZ Stuff the Bus are a huge help, too, she said.

This year the community garden started late and so the harvest was thin, Brugger said, “but with the help of volunteers to prepare the garden this fall for an early planting next spring we’ll be able to amplify the harvest next year.”

Creative responses are coming from the local business community. Brandon Shubert, owner and chef at Stonefish Sushi & More in Cortez, has agreed to create a selection of plants for a plot in the chef ’s bed next year.

“We’ll probably select some herbs like mint and basil and some vegetables like those we use in our menu, maybe offer some recipes as an example of something people can learn to use at home,” Shubert said.

Gustavo Casillas, owner of Gustavo’s Mexican Restaurant, also in Cortez, is looking forward to growing some demonstration jalapeño peppers in the chef ’s plot. “It is a beautiful experience to eat something delicious that you learned to nurture from a seedling, especially for children.”

No task too small

Foster remembers how proud she felt to get on the bus after a day of gardening at the Brooklyn project, carrying a brown paper bag with produce and flowers from her garden efforts.

One Saturday her harvest was so great that she couldn’t carry it. Her father arrived on his bicycle to help get her home safely.

“He put my harvest bag on the back of the bike and me on the handlebars carrying the biggest cabbage I had ever seen,” Foster recalled. “I’ll never forget how it felt to ride home like that, knowing I had grown it myself. Kirbi and Read are providing an opportunity to create memories for the children in the garden.”

Vaughn hopes to offer classes soon. “The garden at the rec center could be a fabulous vehicle for teaching about kitchen gardens, small plantings of annual vegetables.”

Eleanor Kuhl of Cortez was using the rec center every morning to rehabilitate her knees after surgery. She noticed the activity in the garden and asked Vaughn how she could help. Vaughn showed her the strawberry bed – overgrown and not producing. If the runners were potted up they would need water every morning. If they survived, the strawberry plants could be passed on to others.

Kuhl began watering, and eventually the potted plants were distributed. The thinned strawberry bed began to recover from its overcrowding, increasing the possibility that the strawberries will be a bumper crop in 2018.

The changes in the garden in such a short time are remarkable, said Kuhl.

“The chard and broccoli were plentiful. To think that this produce recovered and was dispersed to help people at the food pantry is wonderful.”

City assistance

The city provided materials, though not financial resources, for the project, Vaughn explained. “We asked for woodchip ground cover for mulch and within a day they delivered it. It’s a very supportive relationship.”

Palmquist said the city tries to hold up its end. “This summer we provided compost and tools and we hope to create shade around the benches in the center.

“The garden is a reciprocal benefit to the city. The resurrection of the garden is an extension of what the rec center is to our community. It isn’t just about good exercise and health. It is also about connectivity. Linking healthy activities to people increases the quality of life in our city.”

Last month Vaughn announced that the city has connected the garden to the park’s irrigation system. “We’re off domestic water and saving the city that expense. The new system is fully filtered and we are able to continue using our current drip system. But, because the amenities at the rec center are nearby, the potable tap will still be available.”

Vaughn and Brugger are planning a wide variety of workshop offerings next year. Water conservation, food preparation, planting and harvesting techniques, permaculture theory, season extension, and organic methods are on their list. As an example, the immediate concern for recent frosts was turned into an opportunity to educate anyone willing to help extend the growing season. Lettuce was covered with a plastic row tunnel; squash and cucumbers with layers of fabric, and the tomatoes and peppers, too. After the frost, the garden thrived a few more weeks.

Palmquist, Vaughn and Brugger have proposed an additional 10-plot expansion on the south side of the existing garden. The projected raised beds are twice the size of the current beds.

“What I most want in the spring is the realization of all our preparations,” said Brugger. “We have been acting on the premise that people in Cortez want to have a space to grow some of their own food. We hope we’ve laid the groundwork for that to happen.”

If the garden expansion is approved, the spaces will be offered through a lottery system to five client families at the Food Pantry and five families in Cortez next year. The city will provide the water and the Food Pantry is writing grants it hopes can supply some tools and seeds.

The lottery winners are fully responsible for the work associated with their plots, but the harvest they produce is all theirs. “We have a great group of volunteers ready to help educate the gardeners if they need the support,” Brugger explained. “They won’t be alone here.”

Palmquist said the garden is fundamentally about community. “It’s been a lot of work for them all, but we are grateful for their vision. It’s a perfect fit for the city and a benefit to everyone. We all thrive as the garden does.”

From November 2017.