An Interview With Larry Stebbins
When asked the softball of a question, “Why do you garden?” Larry responds, “It is much more than that– I have to garden.” With this type of sentiment, you know that Larry Stebbins is committed to a life of gardening. The story of how he became passionate about gardening begins in his childhood. “I was five years old, and I was at my grandparent’s house in Detroit,” he recalls, “My grandpa gave me a fresh tomato straight from the vine. It was the most incredible flavor! I thought to myself, ‘I gotta have a garden.’ When I went home, I told my parents that I wanted a garden. They eventually allowed me to have a small portion of the yard, and said that I needed to ensure that weeds would not take over. I think that they were surprised that they never found one weed in my garden. Not one!” After that, it was a life of gardening for Larry, and often by creative means.
As Stebbins begins to relate the next story, his hands, which are tanned, become animated. “Our high school greenhouse was unused and barren of plants. So my good friend, Doug, and I skipped class to see if we could get some tropical plants from the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory in Detroit.” He chuckles as he relates, “Well, we anticipated the staff at the conservatory asking all sorts of questions, but when we arrived, we found it was our lucky day! The staff was thinning out the tropical plants in the conservatory, discarding plants as they went. When we asked if we could have some of the plants, they said we could take whatever we wanted
! We loaded up all sorts of plants, banana trees, vines, etc! Over the next two years in high school, you often would find the two of us tending to these plants.”
While you might assume that Larry pursued a career related to his green thumb, Stebbins chose the path to become a chemistry teacher for the majority of his career, as all the botany teaching jobs were taken. His teaching career led him to move from the midwest to the Denver area, where he worked at Aurora Central High School. For several of his initial years, he continued to experiment, making mistakes and growing lots of vegetables in his backyard. Eventually Larry began to grow outside of his own backyard garden– he wanted to create accessible gardens for others. He moved over to work at Picken Tech, a vocational school, as an administrator. An opportunity popped up where Larry was able to build a 100 ft by 50 ft greenhouse. He wrote grants and found sponsors for the funding of the project. He wanted to involve others in the greenhouse design, so he collaborated with instructors at the vocational school who taught masonry, HVAC, electrical and horticulture courses. The students involved, were eager to build this project. “We built an ADA compliance greenhouse that included a sunken classroom, bordered by a waterfall, winding brick pathways, and different microclimates for plants.” This indoor garden took a cumulative of three years to complete. Stebbins points to it as one of his significant experiences that led to his future community garden developments.
Stebbins capstoned his final years as an educator with an administrator role at Air Academy High School, in Colorado Springs. Despite being an administrator, Larry still found ways to bring gardens to students. “I enlisted a small group of students and a few teachers to build a greenhouse for the biology classes. It was never used, even though it had built-in heating and electricity. I collaborated with the Special Education department to allow students to grow salad greens and other vegetables and then harvest the produce. The students prepared the produce for salads that they sold in the lunch area. They learned how to utilize money and give back change. It was a full circle experience for them and empowering!” This administrative role was his last career before retirement and people continually asked him what he would do afterwards. His eyes crinkle behind his eyeglasses, in a smile of mirth. “Oh, if you ever want to make something happen, tell a bunch of people. That is what I did! I said I was going to do two things, ‘Build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and build community gardens around the city.’”
Staying true to his word, Stebbins began working with Habitat for Humanity, at the Restore, shortly after retirement. This is where he sustained an injury, which sidelined him. “During that period of time, I began to think, ‘Well, maybe it is time for me to start on the second thing I said I would do.’” Larry was not sure of how to really start community gardens, but he began poking around trying to make connections. He was able to begin working at Venetucci Farms (this was prior to its current use as a flower farm, and when it was formerly a pumpkin farm). During his time there, he educated individuals and several groups of school children on the basics of gardening, but it was not the right fit for Larry’s vision. Fate ultimately intervened. A Colorado College student was doing research on community gardens, and he reached out to Stebbins for further information. “It was kind of crazy, he knew more about community gardens than I did. That was when I decided to get serious about this community garden thing. With the student’s initial connections, I was able to link up with a lot of people who were doing community gardens in the Denver Metro area. I learned a lot from them.” From there, Larry created Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (abbreviated as PPUG) in 2008.
The mission of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens focused on building gardens in low income neighborhoods and teaching gardening classes to all. Stebbins has many fond memories from his PPUG days. One of his favorites includes the building of the Relevant Word Church community garden. Larry’s entire face brightens and he laughs, “They showed up! Everyone, even those who were not particularly interested in gardening were there and one in a wheelchair. The community was invested in the garden.” Stebbins pauses, speaking with veneration, “The folks brought food and lots of it. We completed building the gardens, in about three hours and afterwards, we all enjoyed a community cooked meal. The food was spectacular.” Over the years, Larry led the creation of over a dozen community gardens across the city. Stebbins built these gardens to have the infrastructure to last. Many of these gardens are still in great shape and a few are still run by the community. Unfortunately, today, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens is not active. Larry retired again, and passed PPUG down to a new board and management. Haltingly, Stebbins discloses, “It breaks my heart that the new management could not make a go of it. This was my passion, and the organization was serving so many different communities across the Springs. I am grateful some groups were able to bond together to continue to keep their community garden going. When you are at the top of the hill, it is not the time to coast to the bottom. You need to begin pedaling so you can crest the next hill ahead.” He is adamant that Colorado Springs still has a need for community gardens. Since being retired twice, Stebbins hopes some new blood will enter and continue this endeavor. He says that as long as he is able, he will offer his advice and guidance, free of charge, to anyone wishing to fill the void.
“I have learned that anyone can benefit the community if they want to.” Stebbins is firm in his conviction that you do not need money to create change. His recent 100 Garden Challenge in 2019 is proof of this. This was another situation where Larry had to follow through with what he said to others. “It was at a gathering of minds about how to encourage further gardening. I showed up. Everyone was kind of pointing fingers at each other. ‘The City should do this. So and so should do this.’ Finally, I spoke up. I said, ‘I bet I can get 100 new gardens in the city by the end of the year.’ I asked for collaboration with the local garden centers, where if an individual participated, they could use coupons provided by the garden centers. I also got donation prizes for the top three new gardens. There were 40 new gardeners as a result! I did not use any of my own money, no grants, no funds from the government.” Larry continues to come up with creative ways for the Colorado Springs community to become a gardening society. In 2021, he collaborated with the Colorado State El Paso County Extension office for the Backyard Garden Project. This plan specifically allowed new gardeners that were identified as food insecure by local agencies, to grow their own food. These new gardeners grew tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, broccoli and carrots in 30 gallon garden felt pots. This setup was especially helpful for those without a yard or who were living in an apartment space. He encourages, “Anyone can do this. If you garden, just lean over your fence and encourage your neighbor.”
Stebbins is an avid educator even after years removed from the classroom. He regularly has classes open to the community concerning all aspects of organic gardening. Throughout the years he has taught over 9,000 eager gardeners. These classes have been located at Horace Mann Middle School, various garden centers or landscaping businesses. Larry is nondenominational about gardening practices. “There is more than one way of making spaghetti sauce and many are delicious. The same thing with gardening. If a technique works for you, run with it. If you want to try a new idea, experiment with it! I just share what has worked for me.”
If Larry is anything, he is ever humble. Stebbins was candid enough to share a “fail” that he experienced in the garden to share that he continues to learn and experiment! Larry had seen a French garden technique where you dig in “hot” or fresh horse manure into berms surrounding raised beds. This generates heat and will warm up your garden beds, allowing you to begin your season earlier in the spring. Larry’s experiment worked very well to start off with. All of his vegetable starts were able to go out earlier than usual, and grew very big. “But a severe winter storm came in and the tender young plants all perished. I do not push the season as much as I used to anymore. I no longer advocate any specific dates for early spring planting. I recommend looking at your phone. Every weather app has a 10-12 day forecast that you can plan by.” It is refreshing to hear of a giant in the gardening world being willing to admit to learning through mistakes and share his wisdom from them.
Stebbins’ work and passion for garden accessibility reminds me of Margret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Perhaps we too, can find the courage to do what Larry has done. “As an adult I learned it is OK to say no, but if I say yes then I am committed to doing my best to get it done.” Maybe it really is that simple.
You can learn more about how to vegetable garden with Stebbins’ guidance through the following resources:
Includes a frequent blog- https://thegardenfather.com/
This is where he drops future class dates. Sign up on his website.
Find all of the below books for sale on the website listed above. They are also available for free through the Pikes Peak Library system, or in a digital format through Kindle or Amazon for a nominal fee.
The Backyard Vegetable Gardening Guide
This monthly primer is over 200 pages, and 600 photos that lead the gardener through an entire year of gardening…month by month. The beginner or experienced gardener will find tips and suggestions on soil preparation, planting guides, and the what, hows and when to plant. This is a must have book if you have been challenged with growing in the Pikes Peak region and beyond.
No Strain Gardening
The eight important principles for a successful vegetable garden are covered in detail. This discusses the science behind gardening, including soil amending, compost building, hardiness zones, and so much more. Over 100 pages, with many diagrams and photos.
The Garden Father’s Year in the Garden
This 230 page book reads like a garden journal. The gardener is taken through a full year of experiences in the garden. Learn about the many tips and suggestions from a life-long gardener. Interspersed throughout are “Did You Know” sections with interesting vegetable facts and history.