In Deb Neeley’s backyard, almost everything is edible.
Raised garden beds are already full of leafy green kale and collards, radishes and beets, Brussels sprouts and onions.
In the greenhouse, fig trees soak up heat next to rosemary and rows of warm-weather starts – tomatoes and peppers and squash and cucumbers.
Apple trees, elderberry, serviceberry, pear, currant, and Nanking cherry line the yard’s paths. Her green grape vines – one of the first things Neeley planted after moving back to Denver in 2006 – gave 100 pounds of fruit last year.
“This is about as fresh as it gets,” Neeley said.
Lucky for her neighbors, she is willing to share the bounty.
Neeley was one of the first gardeners in Denver to take advantage of a new city program that allows residents to sell home-grown produce and certain homemade foods without ever leaving home.
Starting in May, Neeley will be selling her backyard produce from a stand set up in the front yard of her Sloan’s Lake home three times a week. She debuted the stand, Green Gate Urban Farm & Gardens, for one day last summer to promising results.
“Everybody should have access to nutritious, organic food, and it should be affordable,” Neeley said. “A lot of what I’m trying to do is set an example here to inspire people to grow their own food as well – I don’t want to be the only one doing this.”
So far, just 10 residents have pulled permits for front-yard produce stands, according to Denver Community Planning & Development. This is the first full growing season for the program, which was authorized by the Denver City Council last summer. Other cities, including Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, also allow produce stands.
The rules in Denver are fairly simple: You must get a home-occupation permit from the city and pay a one-time fee of $20.
Sales may be conducted anytime between 8 a.m. and dusk. Outdoor stands may use only portable furniture that’s taken inside every evening. As with any home occupation, signs cannot be larger than 100 square inches and must be attached to a wall or window.
Merchandise can fall into one of two categories: raw, uncut produce or home-made cottage foods.
Produce must be grown by the seller in a home garden or off-site at a community garden or urban farm. Homemade jams, jellies, certain baked goods, candy, teas, herbs, nuts and seeds, honey and fresh eggs – cottage foods as defined by state law – must be prepared in the seller’s home (and require additional food safety training),
Anyone who lives in Denver is eligible to apply for a permit – renters and owners – although residents of certain neighborhoods, including Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch, will have to go through additional steps due to the zoning regulations in those areas, said Sarah Showalter, a senior city planner.
Keeping it clean, safe
Once you’ve got a permit, using safe gardening and food-handling practices is equally important.
“Even though people may have been gardening for many years, it’s a new experience selling your produce to other people,” said Marisa Bunning, an associate professor and extension specialist in food safety at Colorado State University. “That population could easily include high-risk populations (for food-borne illness) – the very young or the very old.”
Start by thinking through your entire process, from planting to harvest to market. The goal, Bunning said, is to keep produce away from any source of potential contamination.
“Once fresh produce is contaminated, it can be very difficult – if not impossible – to decontaminate it,” Bunning said. “Prevention is definitely the way to go.”
A few questions to ask: Are you doing everything you can to keep animals (and their waste) out of your garden? Are you using potable water?
Did you wash your hands before harvesting?
How will you transport the produce from backyard to front? Is that container sanitary? Has it been cleaned between uses?
“It’s changing your way of thinking,” Bunning said.
This rule may seem obvious, but it bears voicing: Never use raw manure on vegetables, said Mary Small, coordinator of the state Master Gardener program.
“Hopefully, it’s not being done, but don’t do it,” Small said. “The potential for contamination is there, and you certainly don’t want to harm yourself or your neighbors or anyone who stops by and purchases your produce.”
If you’ve never had a vegetable garden before, getting the soil tested isn’t a bad idea, either, Small said.
The results of the test, administered by CSU’s soil lab, will help you get the most out of your vegetable plot. The test identifies organic material, nutrients and pH, as well as any undesirable heavy metals, such as lead.
Ultimately, it’s to your benefit as a business to grow the best produce possible, Small said.
“If the tomatoes taste like some of the tomatoes we get in the wintertime, why would you be encouraged to eat that?” Small said.
“Think about marketability. If it’s bruised or otherwise damaged, to me, that’s not a marketable product,” she said. “I would eat it after getting rid of the yucky stuff, but I wouldn’t market it.”
Determining what types of vegetables to plant comes down to a certain amount of trial and error, Neeley said.
She plans to open her stand, at 2646 Raleigh St., on May 9, with kale, collards, radishes, beets, herbs, fresh eggs and tomatoes to start for sale that day. Spring hours will be 3-7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.
“I’m learning, too,” Neeley said. “I’m going to be selling lots of different vegetables and finding out what’s popular.”
One thing she has already learned: She undercharged last summer.
This growing season, she is also doing everything she can to maximize her space, removing some garden boxes and planning ahead for succession planting. (Her lot is 6,400 square feet, with about 2,000-2,500 in cultivation.)
She can’t wait to show it off to neighbors when everything is lush and ripe.
“It’s absolutely as much about creating community and sharing with people what I do,” Neeley said. “This is what I love more than anything in the world.”
THE DENVER POST
By: Emilie Rusch
Emilie Rusch: 303-954-2457, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/emilierusch