Greeley’s Houston Gardens blossoming under new management

Story and photos by Brandon Wilken

An area of serenity is relatively hidden behind the Boys and Girls Club of Weld County and Madison Elementary School.

However, thanks to the West Greeley Conservation District, the Houston Gardens may soon become a well-known nature destination.

The gardens, at 515 23rd Ave., feature multiple trails for people to walk and see trees, plants, bushes, ponds and other life native to Colorado. It’s divided into multiple zones that were each meant to represent an aspect of nature in Colorado. However, maintaining multiple micro-ecosystems in one area is a challenge, so the district plans to do away with them and make one large ecosystem.

That effort is far down the road because the district has other projects in the garden to take care of first.

The property was first settled by George and Phylabe Houston in the late 1930s, according to the City of Greeley website. George was Greeley’s mayor from 1909-10 and was Weld County’s first public welfare director before moving on to serve as Weld’s state senator from 1935-39.

Joyce Kelly, the executive director for West Greeley Conservation District, said before Phylabe died, she brought in the district in the early 1980s to help design the concept of a community education program on their land.

After the design was complete in 1983, the Assistance League of Greeley took over management of the gardens, a responsibility it held until recently.

“The Assistance League didn’t have the manpower or resources to donate after 40-something odd years, so they told the Community Foundation — who actually has the endowment for the community gardens — they wanted to step out,” Kelly said. “The foundation came to us in the middle of last year and asked if we would be willing to undertake the gardens.”

The conservation district took control on Jan. 1 and hasn’t looked back since.

“When we’re done with this — and it already is now, but it’s a bit understated — it’s going to be an educational experience on xeriscaping, agriculture, sustainability and how food grows, really,” Kelly. “It’s a microclimate that people can come and learn from.”

So far, the district has primarily been focused on the removal of dead or diseased vegetation in an attempt to improve the quality of what’s already in the garden. From there, Kelly said, the district looks to implement its goal of following through on Phylabe’s dream — an educational and community outreach point.

Once the older plants and trees are removed, the district wants to bring in more native flora to better serve the community.

“People will be able to come here and say, ‘I want to have a garden here in Greeley. What works?’ And they’ll be able to see what does,” Kelly said. “It will help people see what they can do in their own homes.”

Part of that process of helping the community was in action Sunday, when the district hosted an open house at the Houton Gardens. Although a lot of work remains to make it a finished product, the district still wanted to give people an opportunity to learn about the history and vision of the gardens, which are as much a park as gardens, Kelly said.

Because the West Greeley Conservation District is so educationally focused, members are already dreaming of what they want the gardens to be.

“Hopefully in the future, we’re going to be able to bring children in here, classes in here, to let them grow their own gardens and teach them sustainability,” said Pam Wright, who handles community outreach and education for the district. “I truly believe that’s what it’s coming to — growing your own food. There’s a lot of things we want to do, it’s just a process.” One of the biggest things Houston Gardens has going for it is it’s size. It takes up 1.7 acres and features 31 10-inch by 50-inch gardens for residents to use.

Even though the plants are the main focus, Kelly didn’t rule out the possibility of bringing in native animals in the future.

“We need to revamp the pond area, and if we rework it to where it’s more sustainable, we could put some rocks around it, plant some zones in the water and then we can have fish survive in there,” she said.

Bringing in students, FFA chapters and 4-H clubs for educational visits are also among plans, as are hosting grazing demonstrations, birding and other tours for the public.

Because Greeley itself isn’t as rural as other areas in Weld County, Kelly said the district has to provide events outside of what they normally do with farmers and rural landowners.

But despite all that lies ahead and the countless months of work and care needed to make the garden what the district envisions, the ultimate goal is what’s keeping everyone going.

“The guys have worked really hard to get it back in good shape because it was really run down,” Wright said. “It’s gonna take some work, but it’s a really beautiful place.” ❖


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