Basalt community garden takes root |

Basalt community garden takes root

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Nicholas Jacobson courtesy photo

A massive, new community garden is taking root in Basalt in only its second year.

About 80 percent of the plots in the half-acre garden at Grace-Shehi Park have been rented this spring. Last year, only about 50 percent were taken.

Grace-Shehi, named after a family of homesteaders, is located just west, or downvalley, of Basalt High School. The sprawling garden rests between the lower slopes of Light Hill and the Rio Grande Trail. There are big views for gardeners to enjoy when they need to quit pulling weeds and stretch their backs. Lake Christine State Wildlife Area and Basalt Mountain loom across the valley. There is an uncluttered sight line downvalley. A massive fence with heavy-gauge wire, designed to keep out deer, elk and possibly bears, rings the perimeter.

Roughly 50 people showed up for a work day May 4 to help spread mulch on hundreds of linear feet of common paths and garden edges, level a spot for a new tool shed and clear out old weeds.

“Wow — overwhelming a little bit,” Basalt resident Gerry Terwilliger said of the turnout.

Terwilliger is sort of the George Washington of the Basalt community garden effort. He has patiently but persistently led a group of gardeners who lobbied the town government to provide space for gardens. The town made a small space on Homestead Drive in Basalt’s Hill District available four years ago. Gardeners eager to try their luck with vegetables and flowers quickly snatched up the handfuls of plots at that garden.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program and town of Basalt purchased the Grace-Shehi property in 2011. As much as an acre of the site was set aside for the community garden. At that rate of growth, the second half-acre will be tilled in a year or two.

The site is fertile ground, in part because it’s caught the eroded dirt off Light Hill for untold years. It was a potato field years ago, when spuds were king in the midvalley and more recently used as a hay field by Billy Grange and his nephews for their nearby ranch.

“Billy Grange always remarked how much hay he got off there, even without irrigating it,” Terwilliger said.

Terwilliger learned firsthand how good the ground is with his veggies last year.

“Everything I planted I had good luck with,” he said, adding that potatoes, beans, corn and onions, in particular, flourished.

The site has excellent, full sun all day long. The wind usually blows through like a freight train in the afternoon, but that’s life in the valley. Terwilliger and other gardeners with plots near the perimeter lost a bit of their crop to Richardson’s ground squirrels, chipmunks and mice.

On the community workday, veterans from last year mixed with newcomers envisioning how to plant and arrange their plots, which range from 8-by-10 feet and 8-by-20 feet. The smallest plots can be leased by midvalley residents for $40 a year. (A handful of plots remain. Email for more information.) Everyone was eager to till their ground and start planting seeds of the more hearty varieties, such as potatoes, lettuce and carrots.

Nicholas Jacobson and Sarah Horn were hired to oversee the garden and coordinate activities such as the community workday. Both are professionals who work in Aspen and live in Basalt. After working their day jobs, they often commute back to Basalt and put in time in the garden. It makes for long days, but “it’s the most rewarding work we know,” Jacobson said.

Before moving to the Roaring Fork Valley, both were involved in efforts to promote urban gardens and support the concept of connecting people to the land. Horn was affiliated with an organization called Growing Power, which builds sustainable food systems.

The success of a community garden goes well beyond producing healthy food.

“It builds really strong ties to the community,” Jacobson said.

“It’s very empowering for people to grow their own food,” Horn said.

In the few opportunities they’ve had to meet their fellow gardeners, they have met people with all sorts of goals.

“Some people are there because it’s a family outing,” Jacobson said.

Those folks bring their kids to the garden and use it as an educational opportunity. Others tapped into the Grace-Shehi site to produce bountiful amounts of produce last year. Others simply want flower gardens. For some people, a community garden is a great way to meet new people. They provide one another tips and swap bounty. For others, it is a solitary pursuit.

Jacobson and Horn said they hope to see some creative uses of the small spaces this summer. They wouldn’t even mind seeing people use their 8-by-10-foot plot to display art. The ground is open to interpretation.

“It’s a way to express themselves,” Horn said.

Whatever happens must happen organically, of course.