Between the two of us Madison and I have visited a lot community gardens over the time zones. But none has captured our imaginations and enthusiasm quite as much as our favorite local Colorado garden. My best friend, Jillian Jackson MPH, happens to live at Mulberry Community Gardens in Fort Collins. She runs programs and harvests out of her backyard, which melds pretty perfectly with her career at the Medical Center of the Rockies with the Healthy Hearts program educating young people about nutrition. Her backyard is a smorgasbord of nutrition and an ideal space for public education.
We have enjoyed our fair share of parties there, too, and they always end in the glow of bonfire and whiskey and friendship. The title hopefully warned you about the vibe of this one.
Mulberry Community Gardens has grown a lot, from humble roots in late 2005 into a full tree of knowledge. When Erich Stroheim bought the property, included 1/18th of an irrigation share. Erich made the irrigation system himself out of PVC piping and small hoses. Lorraine Dunn and several others brainstormed, did the paperwork, and helped him get the garden off the ground. (Into the ground?) Mulberry Community Gardens has always been completely free to visit and use. Jilli estimates “current membership is 20ish people but there are many friends of the garden,” who visit the space intermittently.
Much of the garden is self-constructed, such as all the raised vegetable beds, built by volunteers, and the hoop house on the east end for flowers. The goat hotel (goat-tel) was assembled by Billy Goat moving & storage with a small grant from New Belgium brewing. Additionally, Mulberry Community Gardens members built the outdoor kitchen, the compost corner, and the pergola for the hops.
“Materials are freecycled, come from donations, and the junk pile tucked near the garage,” Jilli wrote me in January. She shares her home with two roommates, two cats, four rescued goats, and many chickens. The garden grows just about every vegetable you can think of, herbs, flowers, and hops for homebrewing. It also boasts a 25 tree orchard and bees for sacred honey. Jilli’s favorite thing about Mulberry Community Gardens: “Hanging outside drinking beer with friends of all ages and walks of life and getting excited about colorful cauliflowers.” She’s basically the Mulberry Fairy.
Events at the garden are educational or social, usually both. In the fall, many people of Fort Collins gather to celebrate Heinztoberfest, a homebrew and German potluck, which grows more popular every year. Also around the same time of year, Mulberry Community Gardens participates in the annual Make a Difference Day, a nationwide day of doing good that is celebrated for almost the entire month of October in Larimer County. This past year, more than 1800 citizens from the county completed 94 service projects. The garden also enjoys a close relationship with New Belgium brewing, hosting their employee team building volunteer day. Additionally, they put on occasional concerts every year. Recently they’ve showcased Free the Honey, a band from Crested Butte, and this approaching summer they’ll host a benefit concert with several artists. Also new in the summer: The Poudre School District Gardening in the Classroom workshop will move to its new Mulberry campus.
The crop cycle governs much of their activity, and planting, cultivating, and harvesting always draw people to the garden throughout the year. In the early spring, right around now, Jilli, Lorraine, and their friends are starting to plant and transplant. Later in the spring they’ll complete planting in the ground, and in the summer they’ll plant late season crops as well as launch weeding and weedwacking crusades. The work picks up and ample volunteers arrive to water the plants, clean the grounds, turn the compost, clean chicken coops, collect eggs, and enjoy a beer or four. The garden produces a magnificent plenty.
This urban idealism isn’t without its struggles, however. Jilli cites prey getting after the chickens, occasionally eating them, mostly raccoons and neighbor dogs. And sometimes people pull up crops mistaking them for weeds. At least, Jilli says, they have never been known to run out of beer.
Jilli started volunteering at the garden in 2012, and in late summer 2014 she moved in. She’s seen the garden grow as a community presence. “The garden is a lot cleaner and we are accomplishing the crazy goals we used to dream of. Now they’re a reality,” she wrote. “I started as a practicum student for the Colorado School of Public Health, and now I have my own practicum student!”
Jilli loves having a farm in her backyard where she can get fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs. “The space not only grows food but hosts great community events,” she wrote. Each person’s skills can be used. Plus, it’s relaxing and free. “Bring what you can, take what you need!”
All photos in this post are credited to Jillian Jackson, Mulberry Community Gardens, Heinzetoberfest 2015 and 2016, and Dave Seal.