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An Interview With Allisa Linfield

While I spoke to Allisa Linfield in November, you cannot sense the time of year as we begin our video chat. Her office space is filled with warm Colorado sunshine and she has plants filling the space. There is a happy jade plant to her right, and pictures of native plants pinned to the back of her cubicle. Allisa greets me with a warm smile, and I immediately feel welcomed by her. 

Allisa’s journey as a plantswoman began in the backyard, gardening edibles. She started noticing that when she observed plants, she learned even more about the world around her. This included small variations in weather patterns from year to year. As she continued to garden, she met other plantspeople. With these new connections, she realized that “We all could have this shared experience where we remembered periods of time based on what happened to the plants and how the weather affected them, or if there was a particular insect that was of interest that year.” She eventually began the Master Gardener program, and after completing her volunteering component, Linfield realized this was what she wanted to do as a career. She eventually joined the staff at the CSU Extension Office for El Paso County. Her current role is the Horticulture Program Coordinator. Her primary responsibility lies with coordinating volunteers, especially those who work within the Master Gardener program. Her enthusiasm is evident, even when describing the Extension office’s role. “Through Extension, we are the outreach arm of the university (CSU), so we get to take research-based information to the people, and have conversations… I love coordinating our Master Gardener program.” She is quick to share gratitude for the ones who are around her, doing similar work, and those who have mentored her in this field. “I am really lucky to have a colleague and mentor, Irene Shonle, who also shares a love for native plants.” Irene works in the Extension office with Allisa. “She (Irene) has brought back the Colorado Native Plants Master Program in our county.” Irene and Allisa are a couple of the trainers at the extension office who are increasing the native plant courses that are offered in El Paso County. “These courses provide an opportunity for the community to learn field botany and plant identification. We talk about how to use botanical keys, and we talk about the impact of invasive plants and noxious weeds. And then we also talk about human uses and landscape uses of plants.”  

Allisa’s relationship with native plants began similarly to many, with little to no knowledge about native plants. “Like many people, I did not fully understand what a native plant was. Many people have an idea about what native plants are; that they are good for pollinators and that they may not require very much water. Frequently people will tell me that they love native plants and that their favorite flower is coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. It is a North American native plant but it is not native to Colorado. Or they’ll say that Russian sage is their favorite native. I always just smile. Everyone starts from this place, where there is this plant in the landscape and it is surviving somehow when everything else seems to not be doing well. And there are bees around it. What they are telling me, is they are noticing these things for the first time. They want to learn more and do more. Then they notice, ‘Oh yeah, Russian is in the name, Russian sage. Oh, that’s not native. These bees buzzing around this plant are European honeybees.’ But it’s a gateway. It gets them interested. And I think that similarly, I started out growing my food plants and I started noticing things like bees, and interaction with other insects. Then I started looking into plant identification. I do a lot of trail running through the mountains, and so I get to see these really cool alpine plants that aren’t around in the foothills and the plains.” When she first began to identify plants in the field, Linfield encountered frustrations. Gaps exist in guidebooks, either description-wise or image-wise. She was lucky enough to cross paths with Irene at the Extension office within her Master Gardener program at this time. Serendipitously, Irene was beginning to restart the Native Plant Master Gardener program again in El Paso County. Allisa jumped at the opportunity and completed three native plant courses. This led her to become a trainer in the program and instruct others in the program the following year. From there, her world has been “all about the native plants.” Allisa grows many from seeds, and she even has a fridge dedicated to stratifying these seeds! Her trail runs are now called “speed botanizing” because she spends just as much time running as she does documenting any of the native plant species she sees along her runs, through pictures and the popular citizen science app, iNaturalist.

Her current native plant crush is hard for her to initially pick out. Allisa sits back in her chair with a happy and contemplative smile. “Ok. So, it’s really hard to pick. I was just thinking about this the other day…. I was organizing all of my seeds by plant family, and realizing that I have certain plant families that are my favorite and other plant families that are not…One plant family that I am very intrigued by right now is Polemoniaceae. And common plants in that family that people might know are Ipomopsis– a genus that they might knowOr Gilia. People may have heard of Fairy Trumpet or Skyrocket Gilia (there are a lot of common names for it). But that is one in the horticultural industry that they see, Ipomopsis aggregata. I would not say this plant is my crush but the family Polemoniaceae is. In addition to Ipomopsis, it has Polemonium, which is Jacob’s Ladder, and there are a lot of alpine Jacob’s Ladders, like Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum), is a common name for one that I love. I guess you could say Sky Pilot is my native plant crush! It has these really cool…feathery leaves and these beautiful blue flowers. It grows in the harshest areas… It is so cool. You will be going through alpine tundra where nothing will grow and you’ll see this pretty luscious plant growing out of nothing.” She shakes her head in wonder at this statement. Linfield creates space for awe in a niche field that has been underappreciated and unpopular in the past. 

 It was shortly after completing her Master Gardener certification that she decided to embark on a master’s degree in horticulture. When Linfield began to decide on her research focus for her graduate program, she felt the draw to native plants. “But within horticulture, it is such a small niche, within the green industry that there are not a lot of people researching native plants. Therefore it is hard to find mentors, or faculty who can support research in that area.” She was able to connect with Dr. Jennifer Bousselot, who had the perfect research project in mind. Her master’s thesis and research are exciting, especially for nursery production. Her research focused on the nursery container production of native plants, by “using different substrate amendments in containers, to see if there was any impact on plant growth response.” Finishing protocols for growers is an outcome of her research that will help growers be more educated about native plant production. One of Linfield’s main objectives is to bring “recommendations to growers, so plants look the best that they can, so they can compete at retail.” This is noteworthy research. In the industry, there is a continual conversation about the visual performance of native plants compared to non-native ornamental plants. 

The learning points of this extensive research indicate that native plants do not have significant growth results due to different substrate amendments when the main growing medium is a peat moss mixture. While not seemingly earth-shattering, this is groundbreaking and is guiding her future research. This conclusion opens a frontier of the vast capabilities of native plants’ resiliency and implicates more sustainable growing substrates for future research. This new research may allow Allisa “to be able to tell growers this (peat moss soil mixtures) is not going to have a significant impact on growth of the plant, and then you can market your native plants accordingly, and show people that you are producing these by using more sustainable practices…The people who are buying these plants are often doing this because they want to reduce their water usage and create habitat and forage for native wildlife.” Since native plants and kinder landscaping practices are a trend in gardening, this research may encourage growers to change to a different production medium for their plants.

Allisa Linfield appreciates the label, plantswoman. Her face lights up, and she smiles as she explains, “Partly because I think we so frequently hear ‘plantsmen,” and I think that women sometimes have a bit of imposter syndrome when using the term plantswoman to describe themselves. We should own it!” When she announced that she was graduating from her master’s program, in December 2023, and that she would be carrying on for a PhD (also in horticulture), we both celebrated. “One more plantswoman in academia, right?” The world of plants can be very isolating as a woman, and we discussed further the importance of women who had come before her. She seconds her appreciation for Irene, who continues to mentor her with their common roles at the Extension office. “Many think of her as a state-wide specialist in native plants.” They collaborate a lot together, and Linfield jokes that they are one full-time person combined, as they both fill part-time roles at the Extension office. “Someone else who has been doing the work in our community is Catherine Moravec. She works for Colorado Springs Utilities and has been the force that made the demonstration garden on Mesa happen and continues to be such a resource for the community.”

Within the Master Gardener program, there is a required volunteering component. This past year, Linfield recorded the highest number of applicants for this portion. This is exciting and speaks to how necessary the Extension’s programs are for our community. “We would like to be able to take everyone, but we are not always able to, because we only bring on so many apprentices each year.” She recognizes that the community probably does not see the substantial work that her volunteers and apprentices commit to. Many components of the Extension office are completely operated by volunteers. The Extension office’s help desk is staffed by these unpaid volunteers. They answer your questions on the phone, over email, or even in person. They are very informative; identifying insects, and plants, supplying gardening advice, etc. One of Allisa’s future benchmarks is to make the help desk more accessible to the community. “Not everyone can come in during business hours, and sometimes people want to have a real conversation, not send an email and wait a couple days for a response.” Coming in the future is a virtual help desk with designated “open office” hours that will fall outside of their normal business hours. You may have seen another venue for master gardeners’ volunteer hours; Rick’s and other garden centers around the city have welcomed these volunteers during the height of the gardening season to answer community members’ questions and concerns. Another main thing that these volunteers do is help facilitate and teach classes taught through the extension office. Some of these classes are taught online or at the extension office, but the vast majority are special requests by gardening groups, clubs, schools, or other interested parties. There are a myriad of other ways volunteers can get involved, and the breadth of support that the extension offers to the community, with these energized volunteers, is breathtaking.

As for the future of gardening in the El Paso County area, Allisa has enthusiastic aspirations! The Master Gardener program is growing by 30% this year. People who are applying are not just retired people, which has been the case historically. Linfield encourages people to look into and apply for the program, even if they work full-time since more volunteer opportunities are increasingly flexible. The learning portion can be completely online for the benefit of those who are busy. One possible reason why this growth is occurring is many young people want to give back to this community. Allisa has a vision for the Master Gardener program in the future. “I would love the Master Gardener program to be a reflection of our community. That means we have lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts. That we have people of all ages, that we have people of different races and ethnicities, genders, and different sexual orientations. I want to make sure that our volunteer group reflects our community so that we can serve the community to the best of our ability.” About the future of gardening in El Paso County, Linfield beams, “I love El Paso County; where we have so many different kinds of people who come to plants for different reasons, and with different motivations. I think we can be leaders in increasing gardening education, for youth, and having greater collaboration with all the little groups in our community.” She mentions there are new conversations, collaborations, and synergies between distinct groups of local farmers. This is an excellent start. “I think if we are all just open to collaboration, and that we are welcoming– that we can help serve the community better. And that gardening is the thing we have in common with each other” 

Allisa wraps up our interview with the importance of natives, and why planting natives is an important form of habitat conservation and climate activism. “We have the exciting opportunity to use our own yards and landscapes as corridors for pollinators and other native fauna. We have these open spaces in Colorado Springs. West Colorado Spring is really lucky to have lots of parks and open spaces, but these spaces can become islands. We have lots of urban areas that might separate the islands, so we can plant natives so that we can make a corridor for pollinators and other wildlife to have both habitat and food and forage.” She goes on to explain the second main reason natives are so important. “Another reason is just out of necessity because water is becoming scarcer and scarcer. Our climate is hard to grow in, even when we have plenty of irrigation.” Linfield approaches her work with natives with an incredible amount of hope, a contagious hope! “That’s the really beautiful thing about native plants! You as an individual can make an impact. Sometimes in this world, things happen and we are like ‘Well, what can I do about it?’ And this is one thing you can do!”


CSU Extension office for El Paso County: Native plants (this is an extensive resource- please check it out!): https://elpaso.extension.colostate.edu/native-plants-for-el-paso-county/

Master Gardener Program:https://cmg.extension.colostate.edu/

Native Plant Master Program: https://conativeplantmaster.colostate.edu/

Sign-up pages for Extension events: epcextension.eventbrite.com

Colorado Springs Utilities Demonstration Garden: https://www.csu.org/Pages/DemonstrationGarden.aspx

Plant Select: https://plantselect.org/

Resources through Dr. Doug Tallamy (a leader in the research being done on insects, birds and the nutrition/ habitat gained from native plants)

Book: Nature’s Best Hope (the Pikes Peak Library carries this in audio and book form)

Homegrown National Park: https://homegrownnationalpark.org/

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.