Digging in the dirt

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Western Colorado, particularly the high elevations between Basalt and Aspen, can be a tough place to start a garden, thanks to a short growing season, dry climate and alkaline soils.
   
But there’s something about the plants that do make it here, according to Stephanie Syson, who looks after Basalt’s “seed library.”
   
“You get this strength in them that you don’t get in a warmer climate,” she said, reminiscing about a kale plant that came out darker and more nutrient rich than others.
   
“You have to stay stout and potent because life is not a tropical paradise,” she said.
   
The Basalt Seed Library, located in the actual library, is entering its second growing season. There are dozens of varieties of seeds available, marked with green circles, blue squares and black diamonds, denoting how hard they are to grow. Anyone with a library card can “check out” the seeds, although there is no late fee if you don’t bring them back. But the idea is to take the seeds, hopefully find success with a few varieties, and then save the seeds from the plants that thrive. Those seeds are then returned to the seed library so area gardeners can start next season with the offspring of plants that have proven to be up to the task of high-altitude growing.
   
Only about 10 people brought seeds back last fall, Syson said, so most of the seeds in the library have been donated from gardening organizations. But the program has proved popular overall, with about 3,000 packets checked out last year.

The other back-up at the 
entrance to Aspen
   
There’s a fenced off corner of the Marolt Open Space that looks lived in. Hammocks, tool sheds and picnic tables are clustered near the entrance. Inside, the individual plots range from weeds coming out of the ground to beautifully landscaped spaces that, even this early in the season, are showing growth thanks to some late fall and early spring planting.
   
The Aspen Community Garden has been around since the late 1970s and its popularity has come in waves, said Anna Scott, who helps administer the garden’s 50 plots.
   
This time around, people seem to be more aware of where their food is coming from. Sometimes the truth hurts, making people all the more willing to go digging in the dirt to grow their own.
   
Many a yard-lacking, condo-dwelling local has wandered past the garden, located along a trail connecting the downtown core with points west such as the school campus and the Tiehack side of Buttermilk, and sought a plot of their own. Assuming they can track down Scott — there is no signage at the garden informing the passerby who is in charge — they are likely to be disappointed.
   
“I do have a huge wait list right now,” Scott said. 
   
How huge? With just one plot coming available this year, the list has grown to more than 65.
   
“[The list] has been getting bigger and bigger every year because I think more and more people are interested in gardening,” she said, adding that when she joined the garden in 2003, it was a challenge just to fill all the plots.
   

 Brett Friel/Special to the Aspen Daily News
From left, Austin Weiss, Anna Scott and Dennis Murray discuss early-season maintenance logistics and prepare for the upcoming growing season.

To meet the demand, the garden is looking at expanding. Scott and Denis Murray, another community garden enthusiast, met with the city parks department’s Austin Weiss last week to discuss a plan to extend the back fence out to accommodate another 20 to 30 plots. The new plots would be smaller, since a smaller plot equals a smaller time commitment, and is easier to manage for newbies. Keeping people mindful of their duties to properly maintain their plots is one of the tasks that falls on Scott’s shoulders.
   
“I have to play the bad guy and I don’t enjoy it,” she said, referencing times when someone lets their plot slip into disarray, or they miss the June 15 planting deadline.    
   
Other gardeners are typically happy to help out their neighbor if someone is having a rough year, but if the trend continues for multiple years, Scott may have to get involved and find someone from the wait list who wants to maintain the plot.
   
Also, the list is first come, first served, she said.
   
“Everyone tells me how long they have lived in Aspen and why they should have a plot,” she said. 

Finding identity in the demonstration garden
   
In Basalt, the seed library concept is about to break out of its four walls. Syson has secured funding and approvals from the town of Basalt to convert Ponderosa Park, located between the roundabout and the Roaring Fork River, into a permaculture demonstration garden that she hopes will be supplying much of the locally tested seed for the library.
   
There’s not much to see there now, but plans are in the works for a community planting party on Saturday, May 24, which Syson hopes will include live music and a beer garden.
   
Preliminary work has seen the planting of fruit trees, while the town has been depositing tree clippings, as well as last fall’s decaying leaf piles, in areas around the park to transfer nutrients into the soil.
   
The trees were planted using a “modified irrigation basin” method, where harder soils around the trees give way to softer soils ringing the trees, so water can seep in.
   
When it’s finished, the area will be crisscrossed with paths through the trees, perennials and other plant life. A “brewer’s guild” is even in the works for a corner of the space, with hops vines and “old world brewing herbs,” Syson said.
   
In about two weeks, a few dedicated volunteers will put up the fencing, which is where most of the demonstration garden’s initial $15,000 in funding is going. The fence is critical to keep wildlife out.
   
The garden will serve as a place for workshops and other community events, which now take place in the library (come on Tuesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. to learn about medicinal and culinary herbs).
   
Perhaps most exciting about the demonstration garden and seed library is that the interaction can start between neighbors, and the sense of community it can support. Once it’s in the ground, the garden will hopefully attract kids from the surrounding neighborhoods and can be used as a resource for local schools, Syson said. It’s also empowering to take an under-used corner park and turn it into something more — and help Basalt establish the identity it is looking for, she said. 

curtis@aspendailynews.com