The hard-baked, treeless block at 48th and Julian may technically be Denver park land. But an urban oasis it decidedly is not.
Shorn off decades ago by Interstate 70, whose noise and exhaust fumes press through gaping holes in the deteriorating wooden sound barrier, the “park” lot at West 48th Avenue and Julian Street bears no resemblance to the thriving Rocky Mountain Lake Park to the south across eight lanes of relentless traffic.
A host of volunteers and full-time urban gardeners turn their backs to the Friday lunchtime road noise and dig in to start changing all that. Their goal: growing a “food forest,” with apple trees shading pear trees feeding hazelnuts sheltering plums, with neighbors wandering through to forage for their dinner as birds pluck serviceberries from branches waving in a breeze.
And it won’t be the first food forest. In fact, the volunteers enthusiastically getting grubby on a partly cloudy north Denver day are launching the 19th food forest led by Denver Urban Gardens and a host of partners in the past two years. They’ve gone up — or first in, then, eventually, up — across three metro counties.
The food forests are an extension of nonprofit DUG’s community gardens approach, where neglected empty lots are transformed into annual vegetable and flower gardens tended by neighbors and growing food for residents, local schools, food banks and other nonprofits.
The forest concept takes the community growing effort from ground-level annuals to a graduated canopy of edible perennials, and adds “tree keepers” to the volunteer titles DUG uses for neighborhood coordinators.
Food forest benefits for underused lots include:
- Shade to soften the “heat island” effect of warming temperatures on neighborhoods lacking a full tree canopy.
- Symbiotic relationships among the plants, with taller fruit trees shading nut trees, berry bushes and annuals, and the roots of certain plants providing nutrition to the roots of compatible plants.
- Supplemental, healthy food production for neighbors and local nonprofits.
- Carbon capture in growing roots, and the possibility of capturing and filtering stormwater that would otherwise run off empty lots. Fibrous tree roots and trunks eliminate contaminants before they reach any produce.
- Homes and food for key pollinators. A Barnum forest planted last year has stacks of honey bee hives whose workers forage out among the different levels of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees.
At the 48th and Julian planting last week, a DUG worker turned down the Taylor Swift on the speaker so that longtime DUG planting leader Creighton Hofeditz could set the tone for the day.
After acknowledging the use of lands formerly in possession of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute tribes, Hofeditz gave tips on how deep to dig and how much official Denver compost soil to throw in with the root ball.
“Let’s do this in the spirit of group and community ownership, rather than privatization,” Hofeditz said. Eyeing an enthusiastic volunteer, he then suggested diggers keep their pickax backswing below head level.
“I don’t want to see any hero moves today,” Hofeditz said, noting they often lead to pulled muscles or stitches.
Hofeditz and other DUG employees move from group to group, explaining the green goals for each type of plant going in the ground. The Siberian peashrub, for example, does produce edible pods and seeds, but is designed into the 48th and Julian forest more for its talent of grabbing nitrogen from the air and “fixing” it into the soil for other plants to benefit.
DUG encourages local volunteers to watch what does well in their spaces, and what doesn’t, and to bring in new plants over the years that they favor for their own reasons. “My biggest hope,” Hofeditz said, “is that these sites look very different from each other in 10 years, and take on the life of the neighborhood they are in.”
Watching all the digging and chattering with a benevolent grin was Scott Gilmore, Denver’s deputy director of Parks and Recreation. “We had no plans for this space,” Gilmore said. “Our concern is the large park over there,” Gilmore said, gesturing over the roaring traffic to Rocky Mountain Lake.
Denver has a handful of orphaned blocks owned by the parks department but cut off from useful parks, Gilmore said. The city can’t dispose of the land to sell to a home developer or other use without a vote of the public. Weeds and trash in the forlorn spaces are always a problem, he said.
“So when DUG came, this rose to the top,” he said. A community garden in Commons Park is “a huge success,” he noted. And the neighborhood north of Berkeley is short of grocery stores, so the fresh produce resulting from the food forest will be welcome.
The city can bring gifts, as well. Denver will supply about $500,000 to build sidewalks and better drainage on a block that had no walkways before. The city was also prepared to supply two water taps for the gardens, but Denver Water stepped in with an offer, Gilmore said.
The food forest fruit trees are even more welcome all across Denver, Gilmore said, because the city has stopped planting fruit trees in its own parks because of maintenance issues. The variety of more fruit-bearing plants and native species is good for all human life and wildlife, he said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Gilmore notices two ospreys flying north over the new garden from Rocky Mountain Lake. See that shimmy from each bird, Gilmore said, that’s shaking off water after a plunge in search of a fish.
Gilmore spreads his arms wide to take in the volunteer planters, the birds overhead and the pear trees going into the ground.
“Hopefully,” he said, “more people will see things like that.”