Urbavore's Dilemma: Grow Local Colorado brings back the Victory Garden

Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. His first piece appeared in print this week. Check out the full series here.

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Joel Warner
Ellen Rosenthal
What's so funny about a little peace, love and hard-core gardening?

That's the attitude of Ellen Rosenthal, who's quickly becoming Denver's unofficial garden czar with her Grow Local Colorado campaign. With a background in resolving conflicts between Israeli and Palestinian youth, Rosenthal recognized several years ago while living in Denver that her peacekeeping work would be for naught if she didn't first make sure people had enough to eat. "I realized that it doesn't matter how much peace we create when there is a water shortage and not enough food," she says. "All the peace agreements would fall by the wayside."

So last year she started the Living Earth Center, a local organization that teaches permaculture concepts -- ecological design methods that work hand in hand with nature. The Living Earth Center has been drawing crowds for its classes on "instant" herb gardens and worm-bin composting, and its success has inspired Rosenthal to think bigger.

Working with Dana Miller, founder of Transition Denver, an organization seeking sustainable solutions to climate change, dwindling energy resources and economic instability, Rosenthal decided it was time for lots of Coloradans to dig in to their very own vegetable gardens.

That was the idea behind Grow Local Colorado, a campaign recently co-founded by Rosenthal that's backed by prominent local outfits like the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Mile High Business Alliance and the ReDirect Guide. At first, Grow Local was going to aim small, maybe motivate a couple dozen locals to plant some seeds. But then Rosenthal and her colleagues decided to shoot for the moon.

They were going to inspire 2009 new Colorado gardens this year.

The goal may sound ambitious, but Denver has a history of taking up the garden hoe when called to action. In 1943, amid war-related food shortages, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a "Victory Garden" on the White House lawn and called for the nation to do likewise. The Mile High City took up the call and 41,500 city gardens were planted in one season.

Now, with Michelle Obama once again planting veggies by the presidential abode, Grow Local Colorado is ready to bring back the Victory Garden -- with a little high-tech help courtesy of its website.

The slick online operation lets people take the grow-local pledge, signing up their backyard veggie patch, windowsill herb garden or even under-the-bed mushroom box as one of the 2009 new gardens. To help people keep their pledge, the site features growing tips plus a "garden space exchange" page where people with underused yards can connect with wannabe farmers -- sort of a Craigslist-style "garden seeking gardener." There's even a Facebook-like "featured garden" area where people can post the results of their leafy endeavors.

Since the site started several weeks ago, about a hundred people have pledged new gardens, says Rosenthal, and she's confident the campaign will meet its goal -- and maybe get some local politicians tilling their yards in the process.

"It's in the air, the idea of recapturing our food system," says Rosenthal. "It's fun, it builds communities, it's great physical exercise and the results taste good."

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Joel Warner
Kelly Ronan

The campaign has even inspired artistic outpourings. Collaborating with the Grow Local Colorado campaign, the 910Arts events gallery, at 910 Santa Fe Drive, is hosting a multi-media exhibit all this month titled "Eat Here Now." The 25 artists in the show celebrate local and sustainable farming through paintings, sculptures, documentaries -- even a performance piece in which visitors can attempt to "adopt" a young tomato plant. "I think we are trying to use the arts to solve problems differently," says gallery arts and events director Kelly Ronan. "By having an environmental and social message, we are trying to inspire ideas from a different viewpoint."

The exhibit, which will hold its artist reception this Friday, May 8 from 6 to 9 p.m., doesn't need to inspire Rosenthal. She's already planted one of the 2009 hoped-for gardens at her new Boulder home. Don't expect her to post images of her tomato plants, strawberry patch and herb plot on Grow Local Colorado's "featured garden" page, however. As she admits, "I'm not a website-uploading-pictures kind of girl."

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