Farm manager Fern Deininger (left) hands a beet harvest over the fence to teen apprentice Ellie Greene. (photo by Kirsten Boyer Photography)

Local teens learn valuable skills at micro-farms and tackle nutrition and climate issues at the same time with Boundless Landscapes

By Sara Bruskin
Photos by Kirsten Boyer Photography

“There’s a hypothesis that if ten percent of the homes in Boulder grew food, thirty percent of our produce could come from Boulder,” says Mara Rose, co-founder and CEO of Boundless Landscapes. She and her business partners dream of one day creating entire food forests on residential lots in Boulder, where fruit trees will shade mushroom logs, perennial plants will return year after year, and vegetables and herbs will sprout from seeds specifically adapted to Colorado’s ecosystems.

Teen apprentices Ellie Greene and Jasper Berry work with volunteer Brian De Corte to tend one of the micro-farms. This one was on Vassar Drive in the Table Mesa neighborhood. (photo by Kirsten Boyer Photography)

If that sounds like the kind of edible nirvana you want in your yard (but you don’t have time to do all that work), keep reading.

Boundless Landscapes is using Boulder as a testing ground for its “community-embedded agriculture” model by turning lawns into micro-farms across the city. Local homeowners who offer their landscapes for this project pay a small maintenance fee and receive a portion of the food grown in return. The produce is also donated to food-relief organizations and sold at farmstands and to local restaurants. Fresh veggies and less lawn mowing? Yes, please!

Teen apprentices, volunteers and farm manager Fern Deininger—affectionately known as “Farmer Fern”—after a morning of harvesting at Community United Church of Christ’s micro-farm. (photo by Kirsten Boyer Photography)

Teen apprentices and volunteers tend these micro-farms, where they learn about agriculture and land stewardship. Boundless Landscapes’ first growing season was summer 2019, and the community response has been inspiring. Nearly all of the teens who signed up for one-month sessions came back for more, and Rose receives emails almost daily from people offering the use of their lawns. For the pilot year, she kept it small—six micro-farms that were roughly 100 square feet each, and one larger plot at the Community United Church of Christ on Table Mesa Drive. Next year, she hopes to have hundreds of micro-farms across Boulder.

This expansion could potentially make a huge impact on the health of local residents. Nutrients in produce start to degrade as soon as the food is harvested, so spinach from California that spends a few days in transport and a few more on a grocery shelf isn’t as nutritious as you might think. Buying and eating local spinach harvested on the same day provides much greater health benefits.

Valuable Lessons

Broader access to nutrient-dense produce at affordable prices is a big goal of the Boundless Landscapes program. Farm manager Jennifer “Fern” Deininger says, “Food justice is an important topic right now. We’re looking at a systemic view of who has healthy food, who doesn’t, why is that, where is that and how do we grow enough food for everyone? Because, plain and simple, enough food is being grown. There are just allocation and land-degradation issues.”

Teen apprentice Ellie Greene weighs chard at the farmstand before washing and bundling it for customers. (photo by Kirsten Boyer Photography)

To combat land degradation (declining soil health), Boundless Landscapes’ micro-farms are organic and supplemented with natural amendments. The teen farmers also practice carbon-farming techniques that sequester carbon in the soil to help mitigate climate change (for more on carbon farming, see “Is Soil a Solution?”). Growing food where it’s consumed creates a very small carbon footprint, especially because the Boundless Landscapes’ teen apprentices travel from micro-farms to farmstands on bicycles.

Now, the real question: How on EARTH do you get teens excited about showing up at 7:30 a.m. to pull weeds and spread compost?

Deininger says it was surprisingly easy. “I always tell them, ‘Our ancestors, no matter where they lived, were growing their own food for 10,000 years.’” Buying mass-produced food from stores is a fairly recent innovation due to industrialization, she notes.

“That change has not only done something to the human psyche, it’s also been extremely awful for the earth, as we’re seeing in

Teen apprentice Lael Burgess with the morning’s carrot harvest. She’s at the largest 2019 Boundless Landscapes micro-farm at Community United Church of Christ on Table Mesa Drive. (photo by Kirsten Boyer Photography)

climate change—a huge portion of that is due to irresponsible agriculture. So, with the teens, there’s this inherent drive for them to better their futures and address climate change, and there’s also this drive to look back and remember a time when this was an absolutely natural process.”

In addition to farming proficiency, the teens also build leadership skills by training new volunteers and hone their people skills at the farmstand. “I really enjoyed learning from Fern because she has such a vast base of knowledge,” says teen apprentice Ellie Greene. “I also enjoyed starting the day off right by getting outdoors.”

Rose says teens sometimes get a bad rap that they often don’t deserve. “They are so capable, and they can play such an important role in building a community. To invite them in to be those community builders and informed citizens is exciting.”

If you’d like to offer your lawn as a potential micro-farm for the 2020 season, email Rose. The farmstand is closed for the season, but check boundlesslandscapes.com in spring and sign up for their newsletter for details.