A Short History of the Denver Botanic Gardens Community Garden Program

Written by Robert Schatz with assistance from Sue Burleigh, Margaret Purchatzke, and Lori Potter

The history of community gardens in Denver goes back to the World War II Victory Gardens.  Denver’s first Victory Garden, dedicated by Mayor Stapleton on March 28, 1943, was located just around the corner at East 8th Avenue and Elizabeth Street. However, because the Denver Botanic Gardens was not established until 1951, this victory garden is not the direct ancestor of our current-day community garden.  The forerunner of the DBG community gardens was established in the early 1960s as a children’s garden located between York and Josephine, north of the DBG parking lot and south of the present Morrison Center.  The children’s garden program continued through the mid-1970s.  As interest in the program began to wane, vacant plots were allocated to adults and families.  The garden expanded and evolved between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to become the Morrison Community Garden.  

In the early 1980s, two new community gardens, the Gaylord and Waring gardens, were established on the Botanic Gardens' grounds. These gardens were located on 11th avenue between York and Gaylord. Passersby were encouraged to stroll through the gardens and records show that visitors were welcomed from across the United States and around the world. In their heyday, the Gaylord, Waring, and Morrison gardens were cultivated by approximately 250 gardeners. The children’s garden program was revived in 1998 when a portion of the plots at a corner of the Morrison Garden were inaugurated as Mr. Mcgregor’s “pick and plant” garden.  

With the addition of the Gaylord and Waring gardens in the early 1980s, the community gardens flourished as never before.  However, plans to develop the main DBG facility in the 1990s left the community gardens to an uncertain fate.  DBG’s 1994-1995 Master Development Plan called for the construction of new buildings and parking lots that would jeopardize the existence of the community garden. In response to this plan, a group of gardeners headed by Dona Erickson formed the Informed and Concerned Community Gardeners (ICCG).  The ICCG obtained legal status as a registered neighborhood organization in 1995, and joined with five other neighborhood organizations, including Congress Park Neighbors, to form the Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC) to the Denver Botanic Gardens.  The NAC provided an important legitimate forum where community gardeners could present their concerns and rally support from allied neighborhood organizations. 

The Morrison, Gaylord, and Waring gardens continued to operate throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. However, the future of the community gardens was becoming increasingly uncertain due to plans to further develop the DBG main facility. In 2008 it was officially announced that the community gardens would be relocated. The Morrison Garden was the first to be closed, and its gardeners were given temporary residence at the Gaylord and Waring Gardens. All three community gardens were permanently closed at the end of the 2008 season. Behind the scenes, ICCG/NAC representatives worked with DBG and with local officials to ensure that the relocation would be completed in time for the 2009 gardening season. Plans were drafted for the new garden site, and upon final approval from Denver Water and the Congress Park Neighbors, initial work on the site began in March. The DBG Community Garden at Congress Park opened for its first season in April 2009.  

The DBG Community Garden at Congress Park got off to a rocky start.  As the soil had not been worked in the past, many plots were nothing more than rock hard clay.  It took several years to build the fertile soil that we have in the garden today.  In addition, heavy rains near the beginning of the season flooded several plots, eroded the soil, and left pools of standing water throughout the garden.  A drain system had to be installed to stave off flooding from future rains.  Other challenges emerged simply in learning how to plan and administer the normal day to day operations at the new site.  These growing pains led to high turnover during the first few years of the garden.  Things began to turn around during the 2011 season.  DBG staff and community garden members worked together to develop community spaces, spearhead garden committees and work teams, organize social events, establish a food donation program and cultivate positive relations with the neighbors.  As the garden flourished, gardeners became more connected to the land and to each other. There is now a thriving sense of community at the garden.  We have sunk roots into this place.